The Philippines – Sidetracked in Donsol & Beaches of Coron
We finally arrived in the Philippines! After spending two amazing weeks with my folks chilling at the pool in Cha’am our travel adventure continues! Known for its impressive beaches, amazing wildlife and stunning islands, the Philippines have been on our radar for years. We couldn’t wait to get our feet on the ground here! We started exploring Donsol first, unsuccessfully trying to find some whale-sharks but seeing dancing fireflies. We then continued to Coron for some island hopping!
Wildlife of Donsol, here we come!
We hopped on a plane after a short night in Bangkok to arrive in Manila in the afternoon. Unlike we hoped, it was pouring rain all day, making us retreat to our hotel room. The next morning we got up late and went straight to the Pasay bus-station, hoping they still had tickets to Donsol. They did! We took a bus from Manila to Donsol which lasted the whole day and we only arrived the next day in the early morning. A grand total of 15 hours! Unable to sleep I stared through the rainy glass for most of the night. We were so happy when we finally arrived. It was still raining, but anything better than the can on wheels we sat in for so long!
We were a bit on our toes as we were faced with another volcano eruption warning! You’d think we had enough of that in Bali… but Nope! Mount Mayon is a beautiful cone-shaped volcano that looks very intimidating. Luckily Donsol is at a safe distance of 60 kilometers, but the bus-ride made us pass it by less than five kilometers, which was more than close enough for us! (Crater pic credits to Gleb)
The Whale-sharks of Donsol
Donsol itself is a sleepy town with a small town centre with some basic shops and restaurants. The town is known for its responsible Butanding (whale-shark) interactions, Fireflies and laid back atmosphere. Unlike elsewhere, the whale sharks are properly protected around Donsol and visitors are limited. You aren’t allowed to get too close to them, nor touch them or you will be banned from participating ever again. On all boats a BIO (Butanding Interaction Officer) will escort you and keep an eye out that all guidelines are followed. It all seemed pretty slickly arranged.
We slept through most of our arrival day but as it was raining anyway, we didn’t miss much. We got up early to be picked up at 7am in the morning by Albert and his trusted tricycle. Albert became a reliable go-to guy that was always on time and charged us fair prices for rides around town.
This morning he took us to the tiny tourist centre where we were arranged to join three other happy tourist to look for whale-sharks. We were so excited but with caution. After all, nobody had seen any whale-sharks all week. We looked at the horizon in search of any sign of the gentle giants. Unfortunately we did not see any on our three-hour excursion… nor on the next day and the day after… unfortunately, we can’t always be lucky and take it as it comes. After all, we did see Khanom’s rare pink dolphins on the first time around, turtles on Ko Tao, more turtles on Gili Meno,
Although somewhat disappointed by the no-show of the illusive giants we were happy to be out in the sunshine and the frequent dolphin sightings made it well worth our while.
To unwind, we hung out at our little guesthouse, sheltering from a passing raincloud. In the afternoon we got back on Albert’s tricycle. He took us to the bridge about twenty minutes from town to do firefly watching on a nearby river. On the side of the road we were awaited by guide and Ogod firefly president Anto. We spoke for the better part of an hour about the ecological system, the volcano and climate change. He was very friendly and passionate about protecting the fireflies. His efforts bore fruit as the area is now officially recognized by the government as a Firefly Sanctuary.
We have seen fireflies before in Malaysia, but that did not compare to the amazing experience we had this evening! Normally a dozen boats head out, but mainly due to the volcanic eruptions that closed down the airport, we were the only ones. We slowly made our way down river accompanied by a near full moon. The dimly lit river stream was illuminated from time to time by thousands of fireflies dancing through the mangrove forest. Anto explained us all about the life-cycle and behavior of these magical animals. At times we felt like we were in an Avatar movie, simply incredible. An experience we will not forget any time soon.
We met Gleb and Val, a nice Ukrainian/Russian couple traveling the Philippines on our second try. Although no whale-sharks appeared, we did make a stop at a wonderful spot to do some snorkeling and to enjoy the sunshine! When we got back from the boat-trip we had lunch together and exchanged travel stories. Always nice to meet like-minded people! Thanks to them (and their awesome drone) we got some nice shots of our outrigger boat!
At night Anna-Lena had quite a fright from a tarantula-sized spider who claimed the door as his own and was in no mood to move! Hero that I am, we asked our host to get rid of it. Unimpressed, he used his bare hands to “shoo” it away.
As we were pretty worn, we decided to have a dinner close to home. Our host Victoria recommended the place next door. As we approached we realized that it is a Videoke (karaoke with a tv screen) & diner. Amused by people trying their singing skills we had a quick dinner before quietly heading to the exit.
By our third try, on our last day, for whale-sharks, we knew the boat crew and people at the tourism office, who always had a smile on their face and wished us luck. Such lovely people. As it is quite expensive to search for whale-sharks, our local tour-agent Willcy arranged us to join others, keeping our costs down. In the evening we invited Albert for dinner at a local place he recommended.
We had a very pleasant stay in Donsol, with its laid back atmosphere, fun activities and amazing people. We might be back in main season to retry our luck with the whale-sharks.
Island Hopping in Coron
We took the long bus ride back to Manila to catch the 2GO ferry to Coron. It is a long journey and it took us close to two days to get to our destination. The ferry itself however was excellent. We had a nice cabin that we shared with a Spanish couple living on a boat in Coron (how cool is that?!). Cabin-class was well worth the extra bucks, as with tourist class and supersaver class you’re sharing the room with 200 people or so and would not be able to get any night-rest. We also met two well-travelled friendly Filipinos in the rooftop bar. After a short talk they were happy to invite us to visit the south islands or drive north to the rice-fields with them. During our trip, people we meet never miss a moment to surprise us with their exceptional friendliness.
The following day we took the Ultimate Island Tour, basically a combination of standardized tours A&B. We were put on a boat with about twenty other happy tourists, and were guided by Reggie nicknamed “Jing” as in Jinglebells, as his name is impossible to pronounce by chinese tourists.
Our tour started off at the crowded Twin Lagoon. A lagoon among stunning limestone cliffs with breathtaking blue waters. We swam under a natural bridge to the second lagoon. A very nice place that would have been even nicer without so many tourists. We hopped back on the boat and continued to the small CYC beach. As it was just as crowded as Twin Lagoon, we stayed on board and relaxed in the sunshine with a couple of coconuts instead. Our third stop of the day was the famed Skeleton Wreck. This Japanese ship was sunk in WW2 and has since been decaying on the bottom of the sea. Luckily only five meter below the surface, so easy to spot!
We stopped for lunch at Atwayan beach and enjoyed an elaborate lunch the crew prepared for us. The fresh grilled fish, rice, grilled meats and vegetables were all delicious.
With our tummies filled, we made our way to Kayangan Lake known for its amazing limestone rock-formations and half salt, half fresh water! We floated around in our hideous mandatory life jackets and found a small cave that made the visit well worth while. The last stop of the day was Siete Pecados, and they certainly kept the best for last! Some of the most stunning and abundant coral, in all shapes and colors of the rainbow, filled with marine life. I could have stayed here for many more hours!
We were dropped off in the harbor and said goodbye to our tour-mates and Jing. We met him later that evening for a couple of drinks in a Reggae bar next to our hotel. Great music and fun people!
The next morning we were planned to go on the Wreck and Reef tour, but the coastguard cancelled all tours that direction due to gale-winds. Instead we found some like-minded people and hired a private boat with Jing to visit Banol Beach for a day.
The pristine beach has gorgeously white sand, light turquoise water and steep cliffs with amazing rock formations. A great place to unwind, snorkel and catch some sunshine. While sitting on the beach we were visited by a curious lone monkey and a shy monitor lizard.
Jing prepped us a delicious lunch with grilled tuna, fresh fruit, mussels and vegetables. While snorkeling the nearby reef, I came across a huge color-changing cuttlefish! I followed it for several minutes and saw it change color several times as he was blending in with his surrounding while hunting around the coral. Absolutely epic animal encounter! We spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing at the beach before going back to town.
In the evening and the following day we arranged some things for the TAO expedition we will join tomorrow. Five days of snorkeling and island hopping, we can’t wait!