Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Amigos' Coron Camino Part 4. Turning up the heat at Maquinit Hot Springs

Hot springs are my thing -- growing up, my folks often brought me to Los BaƱos, Laguna where
the hot springs of Pansol were said to be  medicinal and therapeutic.
Much much later on, as I travelled often to Japan, I fell in love with the Japanese tradition of
hot spring baths or onsen .   One of my most magical memories is sitting in deliciously hot water
in a rotenburo or outdoor bath,  in the middle of winter,  with snowflakes falling all around me --
an experience I shall not soon forget.
When I learned that one of Busuanga's top attractions is a natural saltwater hot spring resort,
I just had to take the Amigos to go and see it.
We visited Maquinit Hot Springs  right after our island tour -- "chartering" 3 tricycles to ferry us all.   The hot springs are a 20-minute ride from the centre of town, with the last kilometre or two
on rough and bumpy roads. 

Maquinit has one giant pool with smaller pools supposedly of varying temperatures around it.
The caretakers said that the "coolest" temperature is 40C.  This certainly qualifies it as a  "hot" spring.  Onsens in Japan start at a pleasant 34C and can go up to 42+C  for those who like scalding hot water. 

The water in the pool is shallow,  just reaching up to the thighs.  But you're not here to swim, you're here to sink into the spring waters and fall into a fuzzy, heat induced stupor.

The saltwater flows in from the sea to an underground spring before it bubbles back up to the surface.  Maquinit Hot Springs are naturally flowing from the source to the pools -- this means the water is never circulated but is always fresh. I think these waters are also rich in minerals as the stones in 
the pool have been discoloured  with an orangey-rusty tint.
Japanese often talk about the quality of water of an onsen -- how the water feels against the skin, 
is it soft, is it soothing, what minerals does it contain, etc etc.    
 Here's an onsen tip --  to get a real feel of the quality of water, scoop the spring water with your hands and softly rub onto your shoulders and arms.  Maquinit's waters felt  luxurious and silky against my skin. 

When bathing in hot springs, it's best to stay in the water for not more than ten minutes, specially 
if you're a "beginner".   Come up to cool yourself and wait awhile before you dip yourself in the 
pool again.  Do this  frequently while you are there.  
Never stay too long in the hot water as you may get dizzy.  Those with heart issues or high blood pressure should also be very careful as the heat may trigger problems. 

The pool is impressively large and seems to blend right into the mangroves which grow all around.  The bottom of the pool is completely natural  and has been left as is -- you walk on stones, sand 
and rocks -- which can be quite painful if you step on a sharp edged stone.  Otherwise, it also feels like a natural foot massage. 

The mangroves all around the pool have been preserved and remain relatively undisturbed.  
The pool's edges seem to extend out to sea -- it's all very organic and unaffected.   There is a 
bamboo walk that allows visitors to stroll through the mangroves and have an unobstructed view 
of the islands across the way. 
Maquinit Hot Springs is a completely captivating place and one of Busuanga's must see spots.

I think the hot spring waters eased out the Amigos' muscle kinks and knots from two days of island hopping.    I know mine washed away -- straight out into the sea.

One last group photo before we take our soft, spring-soaked selves out of Maquinit --  now we're all relaxed and ready for dinner!

Tip : The best time to visit Maquinit is just before sunset.  The light will be gorgeous.   Never go in the morning up to 
mid afternoon -- it will be unbearably hot.  The place is open up to 9 pm and I hear evenings are also popular with visitors who like a  nice soak before going straight to bed!

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Amigos' Coron Camino Part 3. Beach Bumming in Malcapuya Island

We had only two full days for our Coron Camino so we had to make the most of it.  The helpful front desk staff at our hotel, The Funny Lion Inn, suggested that for day 2  we take another island hopping tour to more of Coron's white sand beaches.

We were so pleased with our guide Niel,  Captain Morris and first mate Aris, that we requested for the same crew for today's journey.  They were ready and waiting for us at the pier when we arrived.  

Niel said that we would be sailing much farther today to reach our first destination -- a good hour and a half away.  On the way out, we passed by this cruise ship -- it may seem small by today's behemoth standards but it certainly loomed large docked in Coron's pier.

There was quite a stiff breeze blowing  --  while the photo above may not show it, the waters 
were much choppier than yesterday.  Our boat had quite a bumpy time riding through the waves.
Thankfully no one got seasick.

From the deep blue depths, we finally reached calmer, shallower, tourmaline green waters.  
Niel said that seaweed or agar agar was being cultivated in this area.

I was so mesmerised by the glassy transparent waters -- I wanted to stop the boat and dive right in.

I would have to wait but not for too long.  The boat slowly approached this stretch of beach where we would dock.  This was not the swimming area though as Niel said the real beach was just beyond that small hill.

We all let out delighted whoops when we saw this wide expanse of fine white sand and waters 
of varying hues of blue and green.  This is Malcapuya Island, one of the top white sand beaches in Coron.  Small picnic huts were set well away from the sea under coconut trees that provided much needed relief from the hot summer sun. 

There were hammocks strung by each picnic hut.  What bliss!  

One thing we missed out on yesterday's tour was a stash of alcohol.  Today we were better prepared. Rum cokes for all to celebrate the island life!

Malcapuya Island is a sparkling, dazzling gem among Coron's many jewels.  

The white sand beach is wide, clean and slopes down gently to the multi-hued sea.  Perfection.
One of the best beaches I have been fortunate to see.

The sand may not have been as fine as Boracay but it was infinitely cleaner -- the only debris I
came upon were these shells arranged like a still life on the sands.

How delightfully cool to just stay in the impossibly clean and clear waters of Malcapuya Island.  
I could see my toes through the green waters -- and even saw some fish swimming around me.

As in yesterday's tour,  our boat crew again cooked and served up mouthwatering grilled delights -- two kinds of fish, barbecued chicken and a native ensalada -- grilled eggplants, salted eggs and tomatoes.  A heaping platter of rice and we were all set for our picnic fiesta!

Everything was just so yummy -- right down to the bones!

For dessert, what could be better than ripe, golden sweet Palawan mangoes.

I made sure that a few morsels were left behind to share with my new friends -- the island dogs 
were well behaved and more importantly looked well taken cared of and adequately fed.

The tide had gone out by early afternoon and the waters looked calmer and even more tempting.  
We decided to just stay put  in Malcapuya and passed up on visiting the two other beaches on our itinerary.   After all, when you have achieved nirvana -- you are content.

Malcapuya is an inhabited island and the few locals who stay there make their living by selling
fresh coconuts and snack items to the visitors, renting out the picnic huts and conducting banca 
tours to an area they call the "Aquarium" where  live corals, giant sea clams and colourful fish abound.

It was mid afternoon before we finally packed our things and returned to  our boat.  
Sadly, our guide Niel mentioned that the island has been sold to a foreign hotel conglomerate 
and it may not be long before they start to restrict access to Malcapuya.  
What a shame!
While I am grateful that I was able to enjoy Malcapuya's remarkable beauty -- I have to ask 
the question ... do we really need another ultra-luxury premium resort -- exclusive and unattainable except for a privileged few?
I think it's wrong to keep ordinary Filipinos from seeing and experiencing the many riches that our country has to offer. 

Jay and I decide to pose for posterity -- who knows if we can ever come  back to this  
blue green heaven again? In case this is the first and last time I will see Malcapuya Island, 
I have memorised her singular charms and burned them in my mind's eye.  


A huge thank you to our very efficient, hardworking and caring boat crew of Calamianes Expeditions and Ecotours.  Here they are with Onel on the way home from Malcapuya.  First mate Aris on the far left, guide Niel third from left and Captain Morris at the controls.  Maraming salamat and see you next time we visit Coron!

The Amigos' Coron Camino Part 2. Island hopping -- Kayangan Lake and the Twin Lagoon

Our island hopping tour guide Niel promised to bring us to five destinations.  We had gone to 3 places the whole morning -- Siete Pecados Marine Park, Coral Gardens and Kalachuchi Beach.  We would spend the afternoon visiting two more.

My inner beach bum and I almost didn't want to leave the peaceful, crystal clear waters of Kalachuchi Beach but soon, the crew was calling out "all aboard" .   Time to sail off into the blue, blue yonder.

Our boat took us through narrow waterways lined with the limestone cliffs that are part of Coron's landscape. 

We made our way carefully through coral strewn channels and rocky islets where every turn yielded more stunning views.

Our destination was Kayangan Lake -- one of the must-visit places in Coron.  Hidden inside a mountain,  this body of water has been designated as the "cleanest lake in Asia".  I was not at all surprised to hear this as what I had seen so far had been pristine and very encouraging. Responsible, sustainable eco tourism is alive and thriving in Coron!

One major reason why Coron has thus far escaped crass commercialism and over development is perhaps because the islands are under the ownership of the ancient tribe, the Tagbanuas.  
The islands are part of their ancestral domain and I think they have thus far done a pretty good job of protecting and preserving their heritage and birthright.  
Most of the areas of Coron are not even open to non Tagbanuas.  Thankfully,  tribe elders also understand the benefits of eco-tourism and have granted access to certain attractions -- one of which is Kayangan Lake.

Before we disembark from our boat, our guide issues a caveat -- the lake is indeed gorgeous, 
a must see -- but to reach it, you have to climb up and go down 150 steps hewn into the mountainside.  We were told to bring our life vests as Kayangan Lake is very deep and has no shallow portions at all.
I set out with a bit of trepidation -- since I twisted my left knee more than a year ago, it has not gone back to 100% of its stability and strength.  I knew I could  tackle the climb up but going down would be another matter altogether.

True enough, the steps up the mountain were rough, uneven and irregularly spaced.  While there were wooden handrails on each side, there were also places where there were none, where the stairway narrowed just enough to let only one person through and places where some of the steps had become eroded and washed out.  

I made my way to the top without a mishap and was rewarded with this awesome view of cliffs, placid blue waters and bancas parked by the wooden pier.  If I knew how to photoshop I would have erased this unruly tree that obstructs this stunning view.

The steps going down to the lake seemed more uneven and rough than the steps going up.   From where I stood,  I could see the blue lake waters and right then and there,  I made the decision that this was it for me -- the rest of the Amigos went down,  went swimming and snorkelling in Kayangan Lake BUT  my gimpy knee and I -- we stayed put, right here at the top.

Jay did go down and it is thanks to him that I have these photos of Kayangan Lake.   A rustic wooden boardwalk allows visitors to walk around and take a dip from different parts of the lake.

Jay said that the lake was indeed quite deep -- perhaps ten meters or so but the water was so clear that you could see right down to the bottom.  He said he had never seen anything quite like it -- it looked quite surreal and other-worldly. Do you see that strange, eerie face made by the reflection of light on the lake water?  Do you think Jay unknowingly snapped a photo of some spirits of Kayangan Lake?

While waiting for everyone -- and I could hear their delighted laughter --  I almost wished my bum knee and I had thrown caution to the winds and gone down to Kayangan Lake . 
But when Jay showed me these precarious looking steps,  I knew I had made  the right decision. I would have been a heavy burden to carry down and off the mountain.

From Kayangan Lake, our boat tootled over to Twin Lagoons -- again another of Coron's top attractions and a highlight of any island hopping tour.  

There were several other boats parked and waiting for their passengers in the first or the outer part of the Twin Lagoons.  The water was a bit cold as the lagoon was nestled in the middle of several sheer limestone cliffs.  There was hardly any current so swimming was relaxed and easy.  

Can you see that little opening through the rocks,  right underneath the wooden ladder.  
You swim through that small space to get into the other, inner lagoon which is completely enclosed by cliff walls.    The ladder is used during high tide when the small opening is 
submerged under water. You climb up and go down on the other side.

Here is a short video that I took of the inner lagoon.  It was such a unique and memorable experience to swim through and see this hidden portion of the Twin Lagoons.

All too soon we were back on the boat and headed "home" towards Busuanga.  It had been a 
day of breathtaking scenery and incredible experiences.  Ang ganda talaga ng Pilipinas!  
The Philippines is truly a beautiful place.  I can only hope that we have the farsightedness to take care of these gifts of nature, these blessings that have been bestowed on us.  

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Amigos' Coron Camino Part 1. Island Hopping through Siete Pecados, Coral Gardens and Kalachuchi Beach

The Amigos are always up for any excuse to do a "camino".  This time, Amigo Ross was home from Dubai so we planned a quick getaway ... to Coron, Palawan.  

Palawan contributes about 1,000 islands to the Philippines' total of 7,107 so it seemed just right that island hopping was first on our itinerary.    A good friend had recommended that we get a private tour which guaranteed that we would have the boat and the schedule all to ourselves.  

First stop was a popular coral reef called Siete Pecados Marine Park, a small area teeming with live corals and colourful fish..  There was big sign that asked visitors to please help preserve this natural habitat so ... no stepping on corals, no fishing, no feeding the fish.  Look but don't touch!

While we were busy gawking under water, our boat captain-cum-cook Morris was starting to grill up our lunch.  Hey, the sign didn't say anything about No Cooking!

After enjoying Siete Pecados,  the boat took us further out to sea to another snorkelling area called Coral Gardens.  

The current was a bit stronger and the waters deeper but everything was so clear and blue and green ... such a paradise!  More corals, more lovely underwater scenery.  Coron is indeed our national treasure.  I'm happy that the locals try their best to preserve this unique and beautiful environment and encourage tourists and visitors to do the same.

We were all delighted by the stretch of white sand and almost glass like  waters that we could see just beyond Coral Gardens.  This would be our lunch stop for the day.  This enchanting little cove is called Kalachuchi Beach for the many flowering plumeria trees that line the beachfront, drooping their blossom laden branches over  the small bamboo picnic huts. 

Because we got to the island ahead of the other boats that soon followed, we were able to pick the best spot for our lunch -- this little hut was set well apart from the rest.  It was like we were in our own little private cove within a cove.  

Our very efficient crew told us to relax annd enjoy the clear shallow waters while they prepared our lunch on the boat.  This gave me time to make a new friend on the beach.

  When we were finally called to eat, we were more than hungry, we were ravenous -- something about inhaling all that fresh sea air always brings out the appetites!  This salad of lato (seaweed) tasted so fresh,  I could have sworn our guide must have  harvested them while we were snorkelling.  The little globules popped in my mouth -- spreading the deep briny taste of the sea.

Grilled besugo or sea bream was cooked perfectly -- it amazed me that everything was prepared on top of a makeshift stove on an open grill at the back of the boat.  
The flesh was sweetish, soft and just about melted in the mouth.  Fish always tastes best when cooked at its utmost freshness and this besugo was so delectable, I am sure that it was freshly caught
just this morning.

The brochure for this tour promised a "sumptuous seafood feast" and lunch certainly lived up to that claim.  We were also served a tray of fat and fleshy spider crabs -- steamed to perfection.  
Our boat cum kitchen crew had also thoughtfully cracked the shells open so we wouldn't have to.  

For the carnivorous ones (present company included)  there was an abundance of grilled pork chops,  tender, and cooked to just the right degree of doneness.  Perhaps Captain Morris moonlights as a chef or cook somewhere, when he's not out at sea?  

Our crew had thoughtfully provided for everything including an ice chest full of cold bottled water and cans of soda.  Here's the whole glorious feast spread out on the bamboo table  -- before we demolished everything in sight.  


What could possibly follow that  filling and very delicious lunch?  How about a nap?
Sitting on the white sands, watching this canoe gently rocking on the shallow clear waters nearly lulled me to sleep.

But the cool blue sea was more inviting than sleep.  After a refreshing dip, the Amigos were ready to move on to the next stop of our island hopping tour!

NB  We booked this tour with Calamianes Expeditions and Eco-Tours.  Our crew was excellent!  Request for guide Niel, Captain Morris and crew Aris and J.R.  Ask your hotel concierge to contact them for a booking.