In the excitement I blurt out occasional profanities in front of people I have just met. Certainly a terrible way to make an impression, but I find it difficult to shut my mouth when I see awesomeness unfolding before me. Not far from the boat, a few large pawikan glide effortlessly under the sparkling aquamarine waters. “Those are the green sea turtles. Here, you don’t have to snorkel to see them,” says Kap Andong, the gracious boatman and guide, who is obviously delighted with our reaction. The incredibly clear visibility of the waters surrounding Onuk Island extends as far as the eyes can see. Clambering over the outrigger’s slender bow, I am temporarily silenced by the spectacle beneath us. A profusion of coral reefs, brightly colored fishes and giant clams radiates from the pale seabed. On a lucky day, according to Kap Andong, one can even see dolphins and whale sharks in the underwater cliff wall nearby.
The privately owned Onuk Island is just one of the thirty-two beautiful islands in the municipality of Balabac, off the south-westernmost part of Palawan. Notable for its endemic plant and animal species like the Pilandok (Philippine mouse-deer), the Katala (Philippine Cockatoo) and Siete Colores (Nicobar Pigeon), the Balabac Group of Islands is a peaceful home to the Palaw-an, a Manobo-based linguistic group, and the Molbog, a Muslim ethno-linguistic group that is believed to be its earliest inhabitants. A five-hour van ride from Puerto Princesa to Rio Tuba in the town of Bataraza, followed by a queasy three-hour boat ride to mainland Balabac, takes me and two other hell-bent travellers, Jen and Aiu, to the tip of the last frontier. The exhausting discontinuous travel and the absence of resorts have prevented mass tourism, leaving the islands in its raw state.
We are breathless as our boat nears Onuk Island. “This is paradise!” says Aiu with a big smile on her face. The island beckons and we are hypnotically drawn to its glowing white sandbar despite the intense midday heat. We savor our lunch of fresh crabs and flying fish at the wooden cottage built on stilts, overlooking the rich luminous waters of Sulu Sea. Occasionally, we catch a glimpse of a few pawikan swimming from afar. A sanctuary for the endangered hawksbill and green sea turtles, Onuk Island has dedicated caretakers that keep the hatchlings safe from their natural enemies until they reach maturity. “Can we just spend the rest of the afternoon here?” I suggest. Also smitten by the island’s beauty, the girls agree, forgetting about the other islands on our list.
Endless White Sand
Mornings in Punta Sibaring in Bugsuk Island are truly breathtaking. When the tide is low, the sea reveals a seemingly infinite expanse of rippled and very fine white sand. Fringed with pine trees and mangroves on one side and coconut trees on the other, the privately owned Bugsuk Island is a 119 sq. km. stretch of powdery white sand.
Life here is simple. To bask in its magnificence means to pitch a tent near the shore, under the lush vegetation. Devoid of electricity, the island’s music comes from the coos and whistles of migratory birds. A good spectacle means a glimpse of the wildlife’s peculiar behavior. Mobile phone signal is sparse, so nights are best spent on meaningful conversations with fellow campers under the starlit skies.
A small fishing village thrives in one portion of the island. Walking along the shore, we see fishermen hanging their bountiful seaweed harvest on wooden poles. Some are arranging a variety of sliced and gutted fish on bamboo trays to dry. Further, a group of men’s hectic day involves scraping dry coconut meat out of the shell. Armed with their bolo, children can be seen scouring the shore for wakwak on a typical morning. Wakwak is a beach worm that feeds on sand. Cooked only in vinegar, it is considered a delicacy. Locals also use it as bait for fishing.
We have Patawan Island all to ourselves when we arrive. As I stroll down the beach, tiny pieces of red corals pinch my feet softly. Though small, the island is a standout because it doesn’t have white sand. It has pink! Its rare color comes from the naturally pulverized red organ pipe corals, which are abundant in the area, mixed with the white sand. Also privately owned, the gorgeous uninhabited island has a small forest of pandan trees, where birds entertain us with their songs as we bask in the scorching sun with abandon.
Patawan Island used to be a nesting area for sea turtles but the local poachers, who deal with illegal Chinese traders, have driven them away. Just last year, the Philippine Navy in Palawan recovered 140 chemically preserved sea turtles hidden in a village in Balabac, awaiting shipment into the black market trade.
Rolling up her colorful tent on our last day, Jen says she will come back next year. “Me too!” Aui and I blurt out in unison. Kap Andong says that there are still many islands to be explored, even more beautiful than the ones we have seen, which is quite difficult to imagine. Have you ever seen something so beautiful that you want to take it home with you? The Balabac Islands have that effect on me. I will definitely brave the rough waves of Sulu Sea again soon.
1.) Since most of the islands are privately owned, you have to coordinate properly with the owners if you wish to visit or camp in the islands. Sir Renato Principe owns Punta Sibaring in Bugsuk Island, which I believe has the widest shoreline and finest sand among the islands. You may contact him at 09291403125.
TRAVELYOUNG also has occasional tours to the islands. You may reach them at 09174106099, 09153030595, 09297716488, 032 5469009, firstname.lastname@example.org
2.) From Puerto Princesa City, go to San Jose Terminal and ride a van going to Rio Tuba. Travel time is 4-5 hours. Make sure you arrive in Rio Tuba before 10 am. Fare is Php 450 as of this writing.
3.) At the Rio Tuba Port, ride a boat to Balabac mainland. Travel time is 3 hours. The only boat to Balabac leaves at 12 nn, but could be earlier depending on the number of passengers. Fare is Php 250 as of this writing.
Airfare Manila to Puerto Princesa vv- Php 1,200 (piso fare)
3d2n Tour Package (inclusive of food, camping fee, boat, guide)- Php 3,500 * as of this writing
Boat fare Rio Tuba to Balabac vv- Php 500
Van Fare Puerto Princesa to Rio Tuba vv- Php 900
Total- Php 6,100
1.) It is not advisable to do a Do-It-Yourself tour. Again, most islands are privately owned. Proper coordination is needed.
2.) Bring powerbanks and extra batteries for your cameras. Trust me you’ll need them.
3.) Bring flashlight, insect repellant lotion, sunblock and just enough set of clothes.
4.) If you want to see the islands, you reaaally really have to want it, otherwise you’ll end up cranky. DO NOT go there if you don’t enjoy camping, long walks, basking in the sun, island hopping and the simple life. Also, the islands already have enough people who have so much disrespect for nature (poachers who deal with illegal Chinese traders, fishermen who are into blast fishing etc), so if you are one of them, just go to China instead. 🙂