Our expectations of backpacking Coron
After spending an amazing two months in Indonesia, it was time for us to move on. Indonesia exceeded our expectations and its fair to say that we didn’t really want to leave. However we were still excited about the prospect of backpacking Coron and El Nido. Palawan promised breathtaking scenery, good snorkelling and kayaking to remote tropical islands.
Coron had been on our travel bucket list for a long time. We very nearly booked a holiday a few years back, but chickened out as the distance was too far for a short break from London. Now we had a 60 days Visa and desire to explore Palawan!
As we boarded our Cebu Pacific flight from Manila to Coron, the crowd was not what we expected. They were mostly well-dressed selfie taking millennials from across the globe. In comparison, we were considerably crusty and disheveled after a month of living like vagabonds in West Papua.
Where were all the intrepid travellers, friendly backpackers and weather-worn divers? Scanning peoples luggage we hoped to spot a pair of fins, or anyone lugging around big bags of scuba gear, but there was none to be seen! Our first impressions left us quite intrigued…
A taste of Coron Town
When we arrived in Coron Town it was busy. There were plenty of amenities but also alot of noisy bars and restaurants which is not really our scene. We were staying in the main hub at the Coron Eco Lodge, so everything was in walking distance.
Wandering into town on the hunt for food we dodged cars, tricycles, bikes, people and dogs. For such a small and supposedly remote place it felt overly crowded. But perhaps it was more of a shock to the system for us after being away from civilisation for so long!
We knew the Philippines wasn’t renowned for its healthy cuisine but after spending the past month surviving on a very basic diet we were ready to indulge. There was definitely plenty of choice, but we struggled to find anywhere really catering towards hungry backpackers on a budget or what seemed to be good value for money. This left us dreaming about our simple fish and rice suppers back in Raja Ampat.
Trying to avoid touristy boat trips
A bit like Labuan Bajo in Indonesia, Coron Town is the jumping point to all main attractions. There are dozens of tour operators offering various island hopping trips to see the famous lakes plus snorkel and dive spots. Each traditional outrigger boat generally caters to around 20 guests. Perhaps we sound like the snobbiest backpackers ever but we aren’t all that keen on organised boat trips with lots of tourists.
We prefer setting our own itinerary avoiding hotspots, but the prices being quoted for private boat tours were way out of our budget. This took us by surprise as we’d imaged backpacking Coron to be a little more affordable! Despite our best efforts (using a combination of Western charm / Nick pulling out the Asian card 😂) there was no negotiation to be had. It seemed as though the operators weren’t all that bothered about our business.
Finding a budget private boat tour
Taking matters into our own hands we headed straight for the harbour, deciding that the best option was to speak to boat owners directly, like the time we chartered our own snorkelling liveaboard in Komodo.
But unlike Labuan Bajo, Coron harbour didn’t really seem like much of a working harbour. There were no friendly fishermen or boat captains around. We could tell right away that the outriggers here were catered towards tours organised by the operators in town.
We got chatting to a guy who spotted us looking longingly towards the limestone landscape in the distance. He could arrange a private tour for the following day that was slightly cheaper. It was still a bit pricey for our budget, but at least we could tailor our itinerary with three spots of choice and if we bought our own lunch it was doable at 3,000 php per person.
Snorkels at the ready!
At 7am the following morning we found ourselves running to the market to grab our lunch – fresh fish, rice and a bunch of bananas. We were back on the Raja Ampat diet again!
Our guide took us through some paperwork and explained that we had to pay a marine park fee for each individual stop on our itinerary. At 100 to 200 php per spot, our budget was all of a sudden spiralling out of control! It was a bit sneaky of the guide not to mention this when we arranged our trip with him the day prior, but there wasn’t much we could do about it now. We were already on the boat! The fees go towards local tribes who protect the area which of course we respect, but it did seem rather excessive.
Exploring Kayangan Lake
As the boat slowed into Coron Bay just outside of Kayangan Lake the scenery was breathtaking. Dramatic limestone shards loomed over us and the turquoise waters below. We were so excited to be here!
As we grabbed our gear, the guide explained that we had to wear life jackets in the lake. It seemed like an odd request. There would be no waves or current so why did we need such precautions? We tried explaining that we wouldn’t need the jackets, but he wasn’t having any of it. This rule was put in place because two tourists drowned in the lake not long ago! We understood, but admittedly it put a bit of a downer on our feelings of freedom and adventure.
The famous Coron Bay viewpoint
After a small hike we reached the famous viewpoint over the bay. We had to wait our turn, but once we got a chance to look it was simply beautiful. Our guide (slash personal photographer) was on hand to take our picture and ushered us into what he described as a ‘cave’ for another photo opportunity.
An underwater moonscape
On the other side of the cliff the scenery was equally as stunning. A small wooden jetty lead us around to the entry point of the lake. We somehow managed to convince our guide to let us get in without the jackets, and slipped into the pristine water. The sensation of swimming in freshwater was very different to the sea, it was so cool and very relaxing.
Under the water, the scenery was how you’d imagine the surface of the moon – A smooth grey rock bottom with outcrops of strange underwater stalactites. It was a completely different experience to snorkelling a reef. There wasn’t really any fish life except for a few fresh water shrimps, but we loved every minute of it!
Our first-ever wreck snorkel
Coron is famous for its Japanese shipwrecks. The majority are only really accessible as a diver, but some are shallower than others so we decided to add Skeleton Wreck to our itinerary for the day as it sounded pretty cool.
Although the water looked clear from the boat above, visibility was low and we struggled to make out the wreck without freediving down deep. The most impressive sight was an awesome ball of sardines swimming together in formation right next to it. Something we had yet to see on any of our other snorkel expeditions!
We discovered some nice corals and better vis further around the bay, but more and more tour boats kept arriving. We decided to cut our visit short after a huge outrigger turned up with pumping music and dive-bombing passengers.
Lunch at Coral Garden
The next stop was lunch. We envisioned tucking into our fish on a remote beach but instead, the boat dropped anchor right next to our final spot for the day. Coral Garden, an expansive reef in the middle of the channel between Coron Town and the entry to the lakes. Juggling plates on our laps as the waves hit the boat wasn’t quite what we’d in mind, but we were amused by the situation.
As our guide and captain slept on the deck, we exhausted the reef below. The snorkelling wasn’t all bad, but didn’t compare to the likes of Komodo, Bunaken or Raja Ampat in Indonesia and it certainly wasn’t a ‘garden of coral’. We left our final stop with a tinge of disappointment.
So, Coron isn’t off the beaten track after all?
By 2pm we were back in our hotel, reflecting on the day. There was no denying that we had seen some of the most breathtaking scenery in our lives. We felt guilty for not enjoying the day as much as we should have, but there was just something special missing. We’d had such high hopes for backpacking Coron. In our minds we had imagined it being a place for discerning travellers, somewhere undiscovered. We never expected it to be this touristy.
In many ways it reminded us of Thailand, but minus the food and backpackers budget. Coron was still untouched, but in our opinion it was no longer a hidden gem. Clearly the secret of Palawan was out. Maybe that’s why we couldn’t help feeling disappointed?
Giving Coron the benefit of the doubt
After spending a few days moping around and generally feeling a bit sorry for ourselves we decided to bite the bullet and give one of the group boat tours a go. On our strict budget, this was our only option if we wanted to see more of Coron. We chose the ‘Reefs and Wrecks’ tour and paid 650 php each including a stop off at Pass Island for lunch, on the beach this time!
It was mandatory for all passengers to wear life jackets for journey, or at least be seen wearing them as we left Coron harbour. You certainly couldn’t fault the Filipinos for their attention to safety!
Possibly the worst snorkel experience ever
The first wreck was quite possibly up there as one of the worst snorkel experiences of our lives (aside from that time at Pink Beach!) The wreck itself was really cool, but fighting our way through hoards of snorkellers flapping about in the water, was not. Guides with ropes were pulling people along who couldn’t swim and there were boats constantly moving in and out of the area.
Freediving down to check out the wreck between the chaos wasn’t easy, especially trying to avoid being kicked in the face on our way back to the surface. We couldn’t wait to get out of the water.
Finally some decent food at Pass Island
Lunch at Pass Island was lovely. Although the islands only purpose is a stop-off point for all the tour boats, it was still beautiful. The water surrounding the island was perfectly turquoise and we enjoyed sharing a delicious lunch under shady palm trees with our fellow tour mates. The boat crew laid out a big table with fresh fish and an amazing aubergine salad. It was quite possibly the best food we’d eaten all week!
On our way back to Coron Town, we caught the sunset. Although the days experiences had been mixed we met some really great people and felt satisfied after seeing more of the area. But in our hearts we knew that it was time to move on.
Onwards and upwards
Our broad plan had been to travel from Coron down to El Nido, but after discussing this with other travellers we decided against backpacking Palawan entirely. If we didn’t like the touristy vibes in Coron, there wasn’t much hope for El Nido.
We were disappointed that Coron hadn’t lived up to our expectations, but we still managed to enjoy our time despite the negative aspects. Coron is without a doubt, an area of outstanding natural beauty so of course we couldn’t blame people for wanting to come here. Looks like we were just too late!
If it weren’t for all the overpriced boat tours, hidden fees, food and tourists we probably would have enjoyed backpacking Coron a lot more than we actually did. And maybe if we hadn’t have been on such a strict budget we could have.
The beauty of being a backpacker is freedom and flexibility. If you don’t like a place, you can just move on! With no itinerary or real time constraints we were able to rethink our plans and opted to travel to the lesser known Padre Burgos instead. We wouldn’t let this experience tarnish our opinion of the Philippines, we just had to find somewhere that really was off the beaten track.
Have you ever travelled to Coron or El Nido? What was your experience? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!