Friday, May 30, 2014

Culion: Off the Beaten Path Palawan (A teeny weeny guide)

Palawan is currently blowing up as the top vacation destination within the Philippines. Like just about everywhere else in the nation, it's a long stretch of disjointed islands. If your time is limited, you've got to pick your spots.  Coron and El Nido rise up to the top of recommendations.  Asking around people seemed to consider these destinations comparable.  A couple folks gave a small edge to Coron so I pulled the trigger and flew down.

Here is the lowdown on Coron:  The surrounding islands are beautiful.  The hidden lakes, the coral, the Japanese shipwrecks are all top notch sights.  Worth the tour prices to go visit (for as cheap as 17$ a head including lunch).  The rub is that Coron itself is a shabby town where a constant stream of motorcycles sputter loudly though the shack lined, sun-baked streets.  Day trips aside, you'll be spending the majority of time in and around your hotel, and the vibe of the place is far from relaxing.

Coron town
Subtly acknowledging the inelegance, several resorts (including the reasonably priced Discovery) have moved a short boat ride away to neighboring micro-islands.  Some others have set up deeper down the road leading to the airport (but off the water).  I stayed on one of the islands, but the price you pay for the serenity is isolation.  There is no exploring you can do on your own two feet.  It's chilling at the resorts (with no beaches), or taking boat trips.  You're basically locked into the tourist paradigm: Any exploration you'll do will be arranged for you.  The seasoned traveler can't help but feel the restraints of the setup and get antsy pantsy.  It took me two days.  And then I found Palawan's Road Less Traveled destination.

For decades the island of Culion was one giant sanitarium.  Beginning in 1906 the first boats arrived from Cebu containing societies most undesirable:  Lepers.  The irony is the outcasts were sent to a place that had a better foundation in place than most Filipino cities.  Unlike Coron, someone, at some point, paid attention to things like architecture and design, including proper streets, pedestrian walkways and staircases, and spacious courtyards. Perhaps credit goes to the Spanish, who built a magnificent church and a looming fort, setting the bar high for all future construction and giving the town its centerpiece. Or maybe it was the Americans, fresh of their later defeat of Spain (and subsequent acquisition of the P.I.), who scouted the island in 1901 as a suitable location for a colony and allotted 50,000$ for its construction.
The cure for the leprosy has since wiped the bacterium off the face of the island (retreating, it would seem to its last stronghold inside India), but the noticeable lack in tourism might lead you to believe there is still an issue*.  I'm writing this in high season, but if there are travelers here I'm having difficulty spotting them.  Two different walks up to the church and fort found me there by my lonesome, able to savor the view and a reverie of firing those old cannons at invading man-of-wars.  The great Sauron-like eye of tourism has not yet set its gaze firmly on the island.  You should get here before it does.

Ready to blast

The main deterrent for casual tourists is transportation. Some brochures floating around Coron advertise day trips for about 3,000 pesos, but this option is listed far down the pamphlet below trips to lagoons, lakes, beaches, and reefs at half the price. Tommy the tourist came for fun and sun, not to tour sanitariums and think about history.

There is a public ferry going to Culion so under the radar your hotel staff might not know about it.  Certainly there will be a lot more incentive to sell you on the 75$ day trip. The boat leaves from the town's main pier.  Not the place you grab all those tourist day-tour rides.  You'll need to jump on a tricycle to take you down there.  A 10 peso per head 5 minute ride.  Those who do know about this public ferry seem confused about the time of departure.  12pm and 1pm are popular ideas.  As of the date of this article there were two boats at 1:30 and 2pm, however they fill up fast. Get there early, pay your port fee of 20 pesos head, and put your name on the manifest.  I wouldn't recommend sitting in the port's waiting room.  Instead take a cheap tricycle ride back to Coron center.  You can sip a beverage with decent WiFi (rare in the islands) and good A/C at Coffee Kong. Or drink mediocre coffee with slow WiFi, but a much better view, at SeaDive. Return to the pier at least 30 minutes before departure time.  Don't wait in that big room with the crowd.  Go out the back and walk towards the water's edge of the pier and find the boat.
The coastguard runs a check before the ferry departs and while the officer is on board the ship's crew will make a big show about getting everyone to don a lifejacket.  As soon as the officer departs and the boat is on the open sea they walk around and collect them back from the passengers.  I can only assume to place them in some container so that none are stolen.  This is one of those frequent travel moments where you will have to make a stand for your own safety in the face of social pressure.  Remember you are going out into open sea.  Boats do go down now and then in the Philippines (including the Jezebel right out of Coron).  It could be a long swim.

Where to stay:
Top choice is the historic Hotel Maya, clutching onto the same hilltop as the cathedral and Spanish fort.  Rooms for about 1,200-1,500. The best room is in the NE corner with sea views out both windows.  Menu is limited but the food is tasty.  There are a couple other options in town, including the Safari (near the port) but the lodging is significantly more backpacker-ish.  I did find Safari a nice place to eat however, with friendly staff.

What to do:
Here is the real joy of staying in Culion.  The main town is a treat to walk around.  There are friendly locals everywhere, lots of access to the water for an impromptu dip, places to jump in on a local game of basketball or badminton, and a competitive volleyball match occurring in the afternoons with rapt audience attention.  Small alleys and overgrown staircases can be found here and there leading to either abandoned ruins of the old sanitarium structure or to neighborhoods never visited by tourists.  You can't, and shouldn't, miss the cathedral or the fort. Pass by the church once after sundown and listen to the creepy sound of bats echoing around inside.  Here are a few other tips around town:
1.  Climb Mt. Aguila all the way to the top.  300 some cross adorned steps lead up to a big-handed Jesus on the side of the hill pushing up from the back of town.  Walk just past the statue and you'll see a rough trail leading further up to the SMART cellphone tower at the peak.  The view opens up just a little more.  From there you should be able to spot another rough trail leading down to the southeast (towards the small bay).  A local told me this trail is used to carry fuel up the tower's generators in times of blackout.  Descending this trail can be a bit perilous as the ground is steep and loose, but it affords an interesting view of the less visited side of the municipality.  Notice the long neighborhoods stretching out into the water along tiny piers.  On the other side of the bay you'll see two ragtag shipyards where boats have been either shelved or are under repair.
2.  Those long neighborhoods you saw stretching out into the bay are worth a visit.  Tiny communities of homes and shops tied together by shoestring thin boardwalks.  Most residents make their living in construction of developing resorts, taking a boat out every morning from a small pier south of the cathedral/fort/hotel maya hill. I didn't have time to do it, but it would be a nice little adventure to show up at this pier at 6am with the workers and try to go to the construction site (Chinese owned Sunlight Resort). Could be some fun snorkeling and island exploring to be had before you return with the work crews.
3.  Down a set of steps to the north of Hotel Maya you'll find a Kamilah Ayesha's store with a balcony overlooking the sea.  The owner, Onie (child of a former patient), will gladly bring down some mugs and hot water from his house to mix with a pack of instant coffee or hot chocolate.  Right below his shop is a small pier with a set of steps leading into the water (careful there are a couple urchins stuck to the side).  I can't think of a better way to end the day than to take a swim and then head up to his porch to watch the sunset with a hot drink.  Occasional storms will flash in the distance over the big mountain on Sangat island to the north.  Look for Rilakkuma sitting among the goods in the shop.

Descending Aguila on rough path.  Notice neighborhoods stretching into the bay.
Path leads you to abandoned school.  Slide out.
More ruins hiding in Culion.  Choose your path.
Making buddies in the shoestring neighborhoods stretching into the bay
Several of the hotspot boat trips out of Coron are actually much closer to Culion, including the famous Malcapulya island.  Unfortunately, the lack of tourist infrastructure also means a lack of competition and higher prices.  It may actually be cheaper, yet more time consuming to visit these spots out of Coron.  But unlike Coron, where boatmen seem to have unionized a bit and adhere to firm pricing structures, a little bit of bargaining can be had on Culion. It's a buyers market if you have some patience and time to waste.  A half trip to Bugur and a sunken Japanese gunboat was originally quoted to me at 3,500 pesos (!) including snorkeling gear.  I told the receptionist at the Maya I was looking for someone who could do it for two and the next day I had an offer for 2,500.
In the end I opted to do something a little less known.  On the NW side of the island a Swiss man named Urs runs the small and rustic Safari Resort, where he resides with his Filipino wife (a former member of the National Bureau of Investigation), three dogs, chickens, geese, ducks, monkeys, and a python. The spot is remote and peaceful (once you move away from the cacophony that animal kingdom makes in the morning).  There are no provisions, but they can provide basic meals at reasonable rates; there is some beer and rum on hand; and a freshwater spring will fill up your canteen and shower bucket.  You can hike three kilometers down the beach to the north to the small village of Canimango (turn towards the interior on the trail when you hit flatland dominated by coconut trees (a few boats will be parked there)). At the "resort" you can slap on a snorkel and take advantage of one of the largest, most pristine reefs on the island.  Just straight out from the cabins is an amazing variety of coral occupied by a variety of tropical fish, eels, lobster, and the occasional black tip reef shark.  Inquire about trips at the affiliated Safari Lodge in town.  If you're an experienced rider, the roads are dry, and you plan to stay briefly I'd recommend heading there on a rented motorcycle.  Otherwise a boat can be sent to fetch you, but it is loud (bring earplugs or improvise with napkin) and the fare started off extremely high before a little negotiation.

Ban Ban, Culion at sunset in front of the Safari
Overall the real charm of Culion is wandering around town on your two feet. Look for alternatives to the main road. There are at least 4 staircases snaking out of the Hotel Maya going to the sea, the fort, and the street. There are abandoned structures everywhere and neighborhoods where you might just arrive as the first representative of your homeland. Be a good one.


* There is a juicy, but unsubstantiated, theory that tourism is being suppressed rather than promoted by Culion's local government which is still raking in federal subsidies over its yet-to-be-adjusted classification as a leper colony.  The word is there are a few old-timer former patients who, for lack of a better plan at this late stage in life, are still taking hospice.  On official visits and during photo-ops these guys are trotted out, visibly worn from both age and their former battle with the disease.