Located at the southwestern tip of the archipelago, the island’s remote province does not disappoint.
From El Nido’s famous Bacuit Bay to dive sites off Coron Island, travelers will find spectacular limestone cliffs, WWII shipwrecks, underground rivers, age-old rainforests, caves and mysterious lagoons.
Although the Philippines is currently closed to international tourism due to the coronavirus pandemic, those looking to explore this beautiful area have a variety of options when resuming their journey safely.
While most choose to stay in a rustic beach hut or a remote luxury hotel, there is another way to experience the islands: a maritime adventure.
“Half the fun is just getting involved and learning how to cook with the chef, grind coconut, fish from the back of the boat. It’s an adventure.”
A brilliant idea
Originally from the mountains of the northern Philippines, Aga Mos first visited Palawan in 1999.
Fascinated by the coastal landscape and the way of life, he returned several times to explore the outlying islands, where he stayed in fishing villages and learned about their nomadic heritage.
Aga Mos moved permanently in 2005, before El Nido had paved roads, electricity or ports, and soon spotted an opportunity.
At the time, it says El Nido had several day boat trips, but nothing that immersed travelers in the island’s culture.
Tao Philippines offers training and employment opportunities to locals.
Additionally, most of the hikes followed the exact same routes, which resulted in traffic jams at major attractions.
“The idea was how to get the raw and real experience for travelers – it takes a long time to get to El Nido and even longer to Coron, but we wanted to show the culture of the islands,” he says.
“It’s so beautiful. If you count it, they are like over 700 islands in this region.”
That same year, he founded Tao Philippines, which prides itself on offering no-frills island expeditions with a sociable crew of “Lost Boys” – so-called because many lacked an education or job opportunities.
“People were really struggling because the big fishing industry was collapsing, so we hired young fishermen and trained them to work on our boats as crews, cooks and tour guides,” says Aga Mos.
“Over the past 15 years we have trained around 150-200 young people – probably more – from these different islands … some work on boats, others work on our farm (taking care of) livestock, carpentry, construction or the kitchen.”
As the business grew, it hired more people from local villages, including women who often work as cooks, masseuses, kitchen helpers, housekeepers, seamstresses, gardeners, farmers, and field managers.
“Our camps are run by women. We are slowly recruiting more women; right now we employ about 60 from the villages around Tao Farm,” says Aga Mos.
“The operation is now 10 times bigger than it was (15 years ago), so we have been able to support the ecosystem, the economy and see it develop, which is part of our tourism philosophy.”
Revive the historic paraw fishing boat
Tao offers several route options, but one of the most popular is the five-day Paraw Voyage.
The island hopping journey takes place on a traditional wooden paraw sailboat, which took two years to build.
Tao expeditions take place aboard a traditional wooden paraw sailboat.
“We wanted it to be as traditional as possible, so it took a long time to find craftsmen who still knew the techniques and materials,” says Aga Mos.
Eventually, they made some changes, such as adding artistic tribal sculptures and installing two engines.
Since the boat is so big, he says, they needed the engines to be able to get to the islands before dark and to sail when there is no wind.
Known for their shallow U-shaped hulls, huge sails, double stabilizers, and pirogues, paraws are a type of bangka boat – fishing vessels that were once common in Palawan waters.
But when the engines became available, old sailboats fell out of fashion in the 1960s.
Edi Aga Mos, Tao Philippines
“It’s our kind of contribution to this tradition – as it was before the engines. This is how many of the villagers’ parents or grandparents most likely came to Palawan as nomadic fishermen,” he adds.
The ship, called Balatik, debuted in 2014 and quickly became famous among the islanders who immediately recognized the ancient style of the boat.
At 74 feet in length, the Balatik is the largest bangka sailboat in the Philippines, as far as Aga Mos is aware, and can accommodate up to 25 guests and 10 crew at a time.
An island hopping adventure
During the Paraw Voyage from El Nido to Coron, or vice versa, travelers typically cruise the Balatik for most of the day, then head to an island to arrive before sunset.
Along the way, the boat stops at scenic bays so guests can snorkel around coral reefs, jump off the reef, hang out on the beach, swim, fish, or spot sea turtles.
Tao’s Paraw Voyage tour includes stops at scenic bays and coral reefs.
While snorkeling or relaxing on the boat decks, travelers will likely see various fish and marine life, such as whale sharks and sea cows, says Aga Mos.
“Lately, we’ve been seeing more whale sharks – there are a lot more sightings now than in the early 2000s. And we also see more turtles coming to the beaches to lay their eggs.”
Each night, the boat stops at a different island campground en route, where travelers have the chance to interact with local villagers.
“Sometimes we go to the villages to buy provisions and experience village life, but we don’t want to intrude and make their lifestyle a spectacle: we are careful with this notion of ‘tourism’,” adds Aga Mos.
After three days of island hopping, the boat stops for two days at one of Tao’s two main camps: Tao Farm on the northeastern tip of Palawan or Camp Ngey! Ngey! on Mangenguey Island, closest to Coron.
Both camps were designed and built by Tao Philippines and feature a number of unique bamboo buildings, dining areas, hammocks, massage huts, colorful bars and rustic “Tuka” beach cottages.
Of the two, Tao Farm is more developed as it also serves as the company’s headquarters.
Here, travelers can learn more about Tao’s bamboo architecture, visit training and education centers, pick up indigenous products (such as a saba, a cross between a banana and a plantain), or learn to cook.
“We decided that our cuisine should be made primarily with ingredients that grow on the islands,” says Aga Mos.
“So when travelers stop at our base camp, they can see the farm and what we grow, then try it all in a seven-course meal. Our food is truly one of the highlights.”
Ambitious new players
Big Dream Boatman is another experiential boat travel company in Palawan.
Jota Marin / Flymaniacs.com
Tao isn’t the only company offering experiential boat tours in Palawan.
The two partners come from different backgrounds – Masong was born and raised on Culion Island, near Coron, while Canavan hails from the UK – but they are linked by a common passion for adventure.
On a trip through Palawan in 2016, Canavan visited Coron and hired a boat to see the islands without the crowds.
In Masong his guide was walking, eager to introduce Canavan to all the remote islands and local villages.
“We just clicked. A few hours after we met, Krish told me about his big dream of starting his own business,” Canavan tells CNN Travel.
The idea? Masong hoped to start a tourism business that would showcase Coron and Palawan, “as you would have experienced it 20 years ago before the tourists, before it got so busy,” Masong says.
“I also wanted to change my life. I come from a poor family and I wanted to have my business, my home, hire locals so we can all have a better life.”
The day trip turned into a multi-day adventure and, in the end, the two drew up a business plan together.
Big Dream Boatman wants to show the hidden gems of Palawan to travelers.
Jackson Groves / www.journeyera.com
“Places like Bacuit Bay and Kayangan Lake (in Coron) are so crowded because all day trips follow the same route and schedule,” says Canavan.
“Many people don’t realize, if you go 45 minutes, one hour, two hours from these places you will find magical islands, coral reefs, cliffs to jump off and incredible landscapes and islands, seas and cliffs.”
Big Dream Boatman also pays tribute to the fishing traditions of the Philippines.
They operate two modern white bangka boats, named Yzzabelle & Gavrielle 1 and Yzzabelle & Gavrielle 2, in honor of Masong’s twin daughters.
The boat also has a large upper deck, stabilizer nets for relaxing and soft mattresses for swimmers.
“Before tourism, these boats were usually used for fishing,” Masong says. “They have two large stabilizers, which are actually for safety. They help keep the boat stable and balanced in bad weather.”
“In Palawan, life has always revolved around the sea. We fish, we sail, we are all connected by water.”
Corals and sea cows
Big Dream Boatman offers three different routes – from El Nido to Coron, Coron to El Nido or around Coron – and each lasts three to four days.
Big Dream Boatman offers three different routes in Palawan.
Jackson Groves / www.journeyera.com
By day, travelers can go spearfishing, snorkeling, learning about indigenous traditions, exploring fishing villages, and getting to know the crew.
One of the main natural highlights, Masong says, is the Coral Garden.
“We have this beautiful and famous island called Coral Garden, which has a huge coral reef – about 1,500 meters long. It has beautiful colorful corals and lots of fish to see.”
It says travelers often see sea cows near Busuanga Island and play basketball with villagers on Panlaitan, Pass, or Bualuang Islands.
“It’s those real interactions that stay with you,” adds Caravan. “It can be a smile from a person you never forget – and that’s how you think of an entire country.”
In the evening, travelers stay in bamboo beach cottages or set up tents and camp in the sand on a remote island, where they often have a bonfire, share a few stories, gaze at the stars, and then fall asleep to the rhythm of the sea.
“You are the only people on many of these islands and you cannot imagine how beautiful it is,” says Canavan. “The sand is so white, the sea is so blue, the sunset is just perfect.”