Picture Perfect Palawan

After a turbulent flight from Cebu to Puerto Princesa, we made our way from the airport to the bus terminal where we boarded a bus to El Nido. What was supposed to be a six hour journey took seven and a half hours so it was getting dark by the time we reached El Nido. We settled into some cheap digs outside of town and moved to an ocean front guesthouse on the main beach the next morning.IMG_3137 (1024x768)El Nido is on the northern tip of the island of Palawan and is known for its beautiful karst limestone scenery. The views are great but the main beach is full of boats and isn’t the greatest for swimming. We had previously talked to other travelers who recommended nearby Las Cabanas Beach so we hired a tricycle to take us there for the day. The beach was stunning with only a handful of other people around.IMG_2837 (1024x768) IMG_2845 (1024x768) IMG_2868 (1024x768) IMG_2855 (1024x768) IMG_2899 (1024x768)That evening, we ran into a Polish couple we met diving on Apo Island. They were with a group of people organizing a boat for an island hopping trip the next day so we decided to join them. The boat stopped at five different islands and our first stop was more than an hour away giving us time to snap some photos of the gorgeous scenery along the way.IMG_3000 (1024x768) IMG_2938 (1024x768) IMG_2941 (1024x768)Each of the five islands offered something a little different but almost all of the islands offered decent snorkeling.IMG_2948 (1024x768) IMG_2952 (1024x768) IMG_2961 (1024x768)One island was called Secret Beach because you had to swim through a small opening in the rocks. We stopped at another island for lunch which had a scenic lookout to view the surrounding area.IMG_2998 (1024x768) IMG_2996 (1024x768) IMG_3013 (1024x768)Hidden Beach was completely camouflaged by its surrounding rock formations and we got caught in a pretty good thunderstorm which added to the adventure. Luckily it was short lived so it wasn’t long until we were back in business visiting Helicopter Island, named for its shape, for some more swimming and snorkeling.IMG_3047 (1024x768) IMG_3053 (1024x768)The island hopping tour was nearly eight hours and quite exhausting so we decided to go back to Las Cabanas Beach the next day. It was even prettier the second time around.IMG_3126 (1024x768) IMG_3131 (1024x768) IMG_3092 (1024x768) IMG_3088 (1024x768)By our fifth day in El Nido, it was time to move on. Turns out the Polish couple, Patricia and Robert, were headed the same way so we negotiated four tickets on one of the daily ferries from El Nido to Coron. We were dreading the seven hour ride in such a small boat but it turned out to be pretty relaxing and incredibly scenic as we passed island after island and beach after beach. I think the boat ride really put into perspective just how many islands comprise the Philippines and most of them are untouched and uninhabited.IMG_3153 (1024x768) IMG_3141 (1024x768) IMG_3145 (1024x768) IMG_3147 (1024x768)It was early evening when we finally arrived in Coron. We found a pretty sweet guesthouse and then went to work talking to the numerous dive shops in town. We signed up for two dives for the next day and then found a local restaurant for dinner where Chris feasted on a plate of sizzling ‘sisig’ or pig face. It’s a bit fatty but pretty tasty!IMG_3489 (1024x768)Coron is known as the “Shipwreck Capital of the Philippines” because of its vicinity to about a dozen sunken Japanese war ships from WWII. Our dive boat took us about an hour offshore for two different wrecks. Olympia Maru and East Tangat were both Japanese auxiliary cargo ships sunk by U.S. air raids on September 24, 1944. Olympia Maru (our favorite of the two dives) sits 80 feet below the surface of the ocean while East Tangat rests at 60 feet below the surface. Between the two dives, we were able to swim through a propeller room, boiler room, kitchen and several cargo holds (one of which held stockpiles of explosives). The visibility was pretty bad ,which is normal for the area, but it just added to the spookiness of the experience.  It was surreal seeing evidence of former life on the sunken ships…valves and ladders were overgrown with  coral and reef life…definitely an awesome experience!IMG_3154 (1024x768)Between our two dives, we ate lunch and our dive leader showed us the local dive equipment. The handmade goggles were carved out of fish bone and held together by fishing line while one fin was made of fiberglass and the other from old wood scraps. The goggles must have been a custom fit because they immediately filled with water when Chris swam with them. Although they were pretty heavy, the fins worked surprisingly well!IMG_3162 (1024x768) IMG_3166 (1024x768) IMG_3167 (1024x768)After dinner that evening, we walked around the public food market where we bought Chris a balut. Often ranked among the top “nastiest foods in the world to eat,” balut is a developing duck embryo. Filipino locals boil the egg and serve it to you in its shell. When we opened it up, I could barely look at it. Chris dug in and said the first bite tasted like a normal egg but that it had a bit of “structure” to it. The other bites weren’t as bad as the first, which we think included the head of the unborn baby duck.DSC02359 (1024x681) DSC02361 (1024x681) DSC02364 (1024x681)The next morning, we went on a chaotic island hopping trip that was jam packed with people and planned stops. Our first stop was to a reef for some snorkeling…we weren’t expecting to see much but was pleasantly surprised to spot a few new things and even a spotted eel.IMG_3203 (1024x768)Our next two stops were to lakes set within the limestone formations. Both lakes were incredibly clean with good visibility and underwater rock outcroppings. The remaining stops included another reef, a secluded beach and a shipwreck. We spent nearly the entire day in the water and were thoroughly exhausted from the day’s activities.IMG_3250 (1024x768) IMG_3264 (1024x768) IMG_3266 (1024x768)While we were enjoying one of Coron’s many amazing sunsets with a few people from our snorkel tour, we ran into an American girl, Kim, from our dive trip in Apo Island. That evening, our group of seven (two other Americans, the Polish couple, and a Spaniard) made arrangements to hire a private boat to take us to some farther islands the next day.????????We met the next morning at the public market and split up to buy provisions for the day. Chris and I were on fish detail and bought nearly nine pounds of fresh fish – a four pound parrotfish and two tunas.  The others came back with fruit, vegetables, rice, beer, ice and charcoal. We loaded the boat and headed off to Malcapuya Island, our first stop for the day about 90 minutes away.IMG_3359 (1024x768)About half way there, we came across a large fishing boat pulling in their tuna net. A huge pod of dolphins was swarming the boat so we asked the captain to stop, grabbed our snorkels and jumped in the water. They were everywhere….swimming around us and jumping out of the water like crazy. The whole experience was awesome and totally unplanned.IMG_3369 (1024x768) IMG_3372 (1024x768)Malcapuya Island is known for its white sandy beaches and it did not disappoint. The white sand against the turquoise water was gorgeous…one of the most picturesque beaches we’ve seen. IMG_3441 (1024x768) IMG_3377 (1024x768) IMG_3455 (1024x768) IMG_3457 (1024x768)And what are the chances that a boat would be sitting on the sand that says “Chris 2013 Malcapuya” on it?!IMG_3436 (1024x768)The island is also known for its giant clams  located a couple hundred meters offshore. We swam for what seemed like forever until we reached them and they were huge!IMG_3385 (1024x768) IMG_3398 (1024x768)While we were swimming and snorkeling, the boat crew was busy preparing and cooking all of the food we had purchased. We climbed back onboard for fresh fish and ice cold beers and made our way to the next stop, Bulog Island.IMG_3447 (1024x768) IMG_3448 (1024x768)The beach wasn’t as nice as Malcapuya but the snorkeling was really good. There weren’t giant clams but there were thousands of smaller clams embedded all over the coral. IMG_3412 (1024x768)I’ve never seen so many clams. It looked as though the rocks had lips and some clams were so incredibly vibrant and colorful.IMG_3471 (1024x768) IMG_3478 (1024x768)The private boat turned out to be cheaper than if we had gone on an island hopping tour and we had more flexibility, could choose our own itinerary, had lunch cooked for us and had cold beer at our disposal! Such an amazing day spent with a great group of people.IMG_3487 (1024x768)We had one more day in Coron and given where we were, I decided to sign up for two more wreck dives. Unfortunately, on our first pair of wreck dives Chris tried to equalize his ears a little too hard on our descent and busted a capillary which caused him to spit up some blood for the next few days. To be on the safe side and not to risk anything, he stayed home while I went diving with Kim from Oregon. I hate to say it, but these dives were by far the best dives I’ve ever done and don’t even compare to the wrecks we saw a few days before. These ships were a lot deeper (115 feet) and were a lot larger. You could easily get lost swimming around the bowels of the ship. One of the ships, Akitsushima, is the only warship in the area and you could still see its artillery and explosives. The other ship, Kogyo Maru, had a bulldozer, cement mixer, bombs and huge boiler rooms. Both were absolutely incredible but I was bummed I couldn’t share the experience with Chris. He would have loved it.

That night, Kim, Chris and I went out for dinner and drinks with a few Germans from our dive boat. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves at a karaoke bar. Karaoke is a favorite Filipino pastime. They love it so much, you can easily find a place at 10AM to go karaoke. We (and by “we” I mean Chris and Kim) sang well into the night…a great way to end our time in Coron!

The next morning we boarded an all-day ferry to take us to Puerto Princesa. We arrived late at night and headed straight to our hotel to crash. Our hotel was located right next to a brand new mall so after three amazing weeks in the Philippines, we spent our last day shopping, eating and preparing for our last and final country…such a bittersweet feeling.

The Philippines is the last country that Chris and I will travel alone because my mom and brother Dave are meeting us in Korea for the final leg of our trip! We’re so excited to see them and to explore the country and culture of my homeland!????????

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Philippines: Island Hopping in the Visayas

After taking three flights and a trike (Filipino version of a tuk tuk), we finally made to the Philippines! The Philippines is made of 7,107 different islands and our first stop was to a group of centrally located islands called the Visayas. It was 7 AM so we checked into our guesthouse in the city of Dumaguete where we enjoyed the complimentary rooftop breakfast of sticky rice with melted chocolate drizzled on top and then promptly passed out for the next few hours.

We booked three dives to nearby Apo Island through our guesthouse for the next morning. We woke up, got fitted for equipment and made our way to the small island off the coast of Dumaguete with our dive boat.IMG_2353 (1024x768) IMG_2358 (1024x768) IMG_2395 (1024x768)All three of the dives were amazing. The most memorable was a drift dive where the current was so strong I had to hold the regulator in my mouth because it felt like it was going to be ripped out. At one point, we all clung on to a few rocks to watch a huge school of jackfish but the current was so strong I could barely hold on, even with both hands. The other two dives had beautiful trenches covered with coral and reef fish. Throughout the day we saw turtles, puffer fish, lionfish, starfish, sea cucumbers, schools of jackfish, sea snakes, scorpion fish, leaf fish, and my new favorite…nudibranchs and tip worms!

The dive boat dropped us off on the shores of Apo Island before heading back to Dumaguete. We found a place to stay, rented snorkel gear and promptly hit up the beach with just a few hours of daylight remaining. IMG_2534 (1024x768)The main section of beach in front of Apo Island is known to be teeming with turtles that come to feed off the coral and sea grass. We entered the water and before we knew it, everywhere we looked, there were turtles. We couldn’t count them all if we tried and had to pick and choose which ones to swim with and watch. We’ve swam with turtles in Hawaii but never with so many in one place…it was awesome!IMG_2458 (1024x768) IMG_2460 (1024x768) IMG_2475 (1024x768) IMG_2520 (1024x768) IMG_2567 (1024x768) IMG_2571 (1024x768) IMG_2548 (1024x768) IMG_2600 (1024x768)After a couple of hours snorkeling with the turtles, we snapped a few photos of the setting sun, found dinner and called it a night.IMG_2536 (1024x768)The next morning, we woke up early and hit the beach for another snorkeling session. The reef was so nice and the turtles were so active that we came back to shore, ate lunch, and went back again in the afternoon. Aside from turtles, the reef was filled with beautiful coral, sea cucumbers, starfish, sea urchins, puffer fish and clown fish (who were so incredibly curious!) swimming around their colorful anemones.IMG_2668 (1024x768) IMG_2684 (1024x768) IMG_2614 (1024x768) IMG_2578 (1024x768) IMG_2637 (1024x768)Unfortunately, for about every five turtles we saw, we’d come across a black and white banded sea snake, meaning we saw a lot of sea snakes (definitely not my favorite). They breathe air so they would slither their way to the surface and then back down to the sandy shore. Even the photos give me the heebie jeebies!IMG_2504 (1024x768) IMG_2609 (1024x768) IMG_2650 (1024x768) IMG_2625 (1024x768)The dive boat picked us back up in the afternoon to take us back to Dumaguete. That evening, we went out to dinner and then hung out on the guesthouse rooftop for free oysters. Chris and I easily killed at least four dozen oysters and had our first Filipino beer, Red Horse. We sat with the people we had gone diving with and got the low-down on our next stop in the Philippines…Panglao Island. Transportation can become a nightmare when you are trying to jump from island to island and fellow travelers have proven to be the best resource for transport info!

We woke up pretty early the next morning to make our way to the ferry terminal for our fast boat to Bohol Island. We crammed into a tricycle with another traveler and made our way to Alona Beach on Panglao Island.IMG_2717 (1024x768)After searching and searching for a decent guesthouse, we were finally successful and headed to the beach for the rest of the day for swimming and sun. The beach was beautiful and the sand was so fine and soft it felt like mud!IMG_2719 (1024x768) IMG_2724 (1024x768) IMG_2722 (1024x768) IMG_2735 (1024x768)We found a great barbecue joint close to our guesthouse offering different combo meals of grilled meats and fresh seafood. Barbeque pork and barbeque chicken served with rice and iced tea has been our go-to meal for the past three nights.????????The next day we rented a motorbike for an all-day adventure to the neighboring island of Bohol (connected to Panglao Island by bridge). Our first stop was the Chocolate Hills which were formed by the uplifting of coral deposits mixed with time, rains and erosion – definitely pretty scenery we’ve never seen before!SONY DSC ???????? ???????? ????????We left the Chocolate Hills, made a few stops for snacks and were driving through rural unpaved roads when dark clouds started to roll in. We made it about 15 minutes before a downpour ensued. Luckily, we had pulled over next to a locals’ home and the family waved us over to take shelter in their hut. We spent the next hour and a half watching the rain, chatting with the family and the watching the father shuck a pile of coconuts. I can’t believe I didn’t snap a photo of the nice family before we left, but I did take a photo of their crazy pet monkey named “Monkey.”???????? DSC02258 (1024x681)The rains subsided but we were following the tail end of the storm so we were pretty wet when we rolled up to the Tarsier Conservation Park. We weren’t overly enthusiastic about this stop so Chris dried himself in the waiting room while I went into the park. For $1.50 I was able to see about a half dozen tarsiers – small primates with giant eyeballs and very long tails. They were cute in an ugly way and were definitely worth a quick look.DSC02261 (1024x681) DSC02270 (1024x681) DSC02273 (1024x681)We hopped back on the bike, made our way past town after town, crossed the bridge and were finally back in Panglao. We rented the motorbike for eight hours and I doubted we’d use it for that long but sure enough, we rolled in with only two minutes to spare and right before it started to get dark.

The folks we dove with on Apo Island told us that even though Apo was awesome, Panglao was even better. We didn’t really plan on diving while we were on Panglao but dives in the Philippines are cheap(!) so we booked two dives to the neighboring island of Balicasag. The boat ride out to the island was beautiful and the dives were amazing.IMG_2743 (1024x768)I think we can say that they were our favorite dives so far because we saw so many things we’ve never seen before and such a wide variety of sea life – frog fish, schools of angelfish (hundreds and hundreds!), schools of jackfish, stonefish, floating flatworms, tons of nudibranchs, lionfish, gigantic fan coral (larger than a person), tuna, grouper, etc. One of the dives was along a rock cliff that dropped 50 meters to the ocean floor and the different types of fish and coral were just unreal.  I wish we had photos of the things we saw but at the same time, it’s so nice to fully enjoy the experience without having to try to capture everything by camera!

We loved Panglao…the beach, reefs and food were all awesome, but it was time to move on. The next morning, we took a jeepney, tricycle, ferry, and two more jeepneys to the neighboring island of Cebu (told you transportation is complicated here). Jeepneys are old military jeeps from WWII that are now the most popular (and colorful) means of public transport in the Philippines.

Chris found us an awesome guesthouse to stay in so we relaxed for the remainder of the day. We awoke very early the next morning to make our way to Oslob, a small town on the southern tip of Cebu Island, to swim with whale sharks! Once we finally reached Oslob, we were given a short briefing, snorkel gear and hopped into a boat that took us to where about eight different whale sharks were swimming. IMG_2813 (1024x768) IMG_2786 (1024x768)Although whale sharks can grow to be up to 40 feet long, they are harmless and incredibly gentle giants. Chris guesstimates that the largest one we saw was 30 feet. They were so big and we were swimming so close that it was hard to photograph their entire body in one shot. IMG_2778 (1024x768) IMG_2802 (1024x768) IMG_2775 (1024x768) IMG_2794 (1024x768)Despite their name, whale sharks are classified as fish, not whales or sharks. They mainly feed off plankton and when they eat, they look like giant vacuum cleaners!  IMG_2806 (1024x768) IMG_2801 (1024x768)Swimming with whale sharks was such a great way to end our trip to the Visayas! We’ve been in the Visayas for eight days and have already visited seven different islands, logged five dives and five snorkel trips. It’s been a jam packed first week and we are looking forward to chilling out on the beach for awhile. From Cebu, we fly to the island of Palawan, the largest and most western province in the Philippines!