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BORDERLINE: BALABAC, PALAWAN

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There is mutual exclusivity in the worlds of cheap travels and flight scavenging. So I settle with the next best thing: seat sales, which, if you have practiced long enough, come aplenty. There will come a point, however, that because you’re an adult and a member of the working class, you’ll have to juggle schedules. And if you’re unfortunate enough, flights will conflict with work, and you’ll have no choice but to miss the vacation. These conflicts taught me not to strictly rely on itineraries; this time, I didn’t plan at all.

I only started thinking about my trip to Palawan three days before the flight. Accommodations, tight budget, and an imaginary itinerary were all temporary up to the last of the 5-day trip. And in the end, I survived through the signature kindness of Palawan folks, and the joy of meeting fellow travelers.

MISSION: get to the southernmost group of islands in Palawan: Balabac.

It all started with crowdsourcing. I have been to Palawan a few times, but this time I didn’t want to waste my time by repeating the same experiences – take Tours A, B, and C, and then probably walk around and take the same photos here and there. I told myself, no!

So I asked people online for ideas, and it went down to two options: go to the north in San Vicente, which, they say, has the longest white-sanded shoreline in the country vs. the south in Balabac which I probably have heard of in passing from Nth degree friends, some photos online, and maybe a few blogs. But an adventure down south sounded more exciting especially with the ideas of turtles and possible dolphin sightings. So it was definite: Balabac it was.

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HOW TO GET THERE:

  • Fly MNL-PPS (1 hour)
  • Overnight stay in Puerto Princesa City (PPC) (because you’ll have to)
  • Leave early in the morning to get to Rio Tuba via van (4 hours). The only schedule for a pump boat transfer from Rio Tuba to Balabac is at 10AM (always an approximate time, depending on the coast guard, and the volume of passengers). But to make sure you don’t run out of seats, which happens sometimes, get there early.
  • Take the pump boat to Balabac (4 hours)
  • Total travel time: 9 hours
  • Total waiting hours: ∞ indefinite
  • Actual travel time experienced, one way: 12 hours (less overnight stay in PPC)

Perhaps the biggest challenge in reaching Balabac is that information about the place is scarce – where to stay, what else to do besides beaching, food choices, and other details meticulous travelers always look for aren’t easy to find. So once and for all I’m setting things straight here: Balabac is not for the faint-hearted. The travel time is too long, there are no parties at night, no fancy restaurants, accommodations are basic, no dramatic landscapes and majestic limestone mountains, and Internet is next to null.

The turnaround, however, starts once you get in touch with the right people – locals, and in my case, was Helen Kuan of Kina Kuan Balabac Island Tours. Helen took charge of everything I needed: from roundtrip van transfer from PPC, to boat transfers from Rio Tuba, island hopping itineraries and transfers, accommodation, daily meals, and everything else I thought I needed during the trip.

TIPS:

  • Kina Kuan Balabac Island Tours has its own page on Facebook.
  • Helen Kuan also has her personal page. She and her husband have their own pump boats and they operate island tours in Balabac.
  • Helen Kuan’s contact number: +63.928.627.9421
  • Bring snacks to keep you sane while traveling. If you’re traveling early from PPC, there might not be a food stop anymore, and you’re probably asleep the whole time, too. The next stop is at a small eatery in Rio Tuba which only has few options.
  • Unless you are brand-specific, bringing your own toiletries is optional because there are plenty of stores in the Poblacion, Balabac mainland.

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The boat ride from Rio tuba should at least have one stop before reaching Balabac. To save time, Helen was clever enough to recommend an unusual itinerary: on our arrival date, she asked us (by this time, I’ve met my fellow travelers who I joined throughout the three-day island hopping – two couples: Dex and Kets, and Wil and Jae) to get off Bancalaan, only halfway to Balabac where a private pump boat picked us up. From there, we began the adventure, en route to Balabac.

We passed by an island with pine trees which I thought was a strange but beautiful sight in Palawan. By this time, I got acquainted with a couple of revelations: 1) beautiful, pure and fine white sand, the best I have seen in my years of beaching around the Philippines; and 2) crystal clear waters – no algae (probably because of the time of the year), no froth, no trash, not even fallen leaves from nearby trees. Day one and we’ve already seen beautiful, to which the pump boat captain responded, that isn’t the best yet.

TIP: The only downside was that the pine island had sandflies around (locally known as niknik). I’ve learned my lesson about sandflies in El Nido, so remember: insect repellant.

By this time, I also found out that Balabac has plenty of sandbars. Unfortunately, however, February isn’t the friendliest time for low tides, although we still stopped over at a few of them. You would, too, if you see how clean and loud its waters screamed turquoise.

Clock ticked and a few hours passed, we found our way to the final stop. The waves creeped stronger, the view dimmed to gray, and our energies subsided as our hunger rose to eleven. We landed in Balabac at late 6PM, showered, had dinner, few chitchats (by this time, we met a solo German traveler, Jakob, who joined us during our second day), and our day was a wrap.

The next day I had another realization: beach hopping in Balabac takes time because with small pumpboats, the islands are too far from one another. Maybe it’s just the time of the year. But from mainland Balabac, it took us almost two hours to get to the first stop – another sandbar under shallow, turquoise waters occasionally dotted with starfishes, again, too beautiful to say no to.

It was another picture perfect sunny day. By lunch time, we were in Candaraman island. It had trees and shrubs, and some fragment clues from previous campers who probably had lunch a few days before. Visitors can circle the island in minutes, but because the sun stood 90 degrees above, I knew there’s only one thing to do: finally dip myself into the water. And it felt divine! Candaraman’s sand quality was consistent with the rest of the beaches in Balabac, but it had one surprise: some parts of the beach glimmered pink sand. It was beautiful!

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In the afternoon, we stopped by another sandbar. Up to now, I still can’t say if it was going low or high tide, but this one is more or less a functional sandbar. A strip of white land was exposed, maybe 20 meters long, and according to the captain, the vast brilliant turquoise area would have exposed white sand connecting to a bigger mainland if our timing was better.

TIP: Because there are no artificial structures in most beach islands in Balabac, and because hanging out in the boat isn’t fun, sunblock and after-sun lotion are your friend.

The highlight of the trip was on our (third) final full day – a trip to the famous Onok Island. Because I barely researched about Balabac, my expectations were both so-so and over the roof, equally because my four travel mates raved about it for the past couple of days. I overheard about turtles, stilt houses, a shifting sandbar, giant clams, and lobster for lunch. They were rumors of Maldives, basically. So automatically, I knew it had to be the peak of everything Balabac. And this journey, deceptively, had to start by cheating death.

We had to traverse the open rough waters for more than an hour on a speed boat, locally known as papet. The wooden vessel was around 1×3 square meters in area, and the vessel rim was barely a foot above the water surface. Four new friends and I, plus two boatmen – the seven of us tried / struggled / fought for our lives to get to the Onok. Unlimited splashes of saltwater on our faces. Our own silent prayers. Curses against the ocean. And my endless worry about which things to save in case our speedboat sink.

But everything was all apparent ten minutes before we hit sand. The vibrant turquoise was everything there was, as far as our eyes can see, plus two house structures standing over what looked like paradise. It was paradise. And I’m not saying this because the experience is still fresh.  But easily, Onok Island is the best beach island I have been to since I started traveling.

Onok is a privately-owned island sprawled in the cleanest, finest white sand you can ever imagine, and the only way to get to the island and stay there long (even possible to stay overnight) is by getting permission from the owner/care taker of the island. You’ll also have to shed some cash which will cover your boat transfer, lunch and snack – a reasonable price for a day in this glorious majesty. And because our tour organizer is a friend of the care taker / owner, we got a discount.

Now, you may be the kind of traveler who looks for the cheapest tour organizers. But you’ll have to take my word for it: Kina Kuan Balabac Island Tours has the widest connections. Others will promise you access to Onok Island for a cheaper rate, but the real story is that these organizers only sneak you into the unattended part of Onok Island. They give the guests a few minutes to take pictures, and sneak out right away. There are stories of tourists being caught and tour operators being banned from the island – not the best way to enjoy your vacation.

The legit entry, however, will let you stay for an entire day and will give you access to the sandbar and the wooden stilts where you can relax, will let you play with the turtles, boat drive you to snorkel to the giant clams farm, and prep you the freshest, perfect island meal. And even then, a whole day in Onok isn’t enough to get over how stunning the island is.

After Balabac, I’d say my standards for beaching have reached its peak. And with this newly-tested planless vacation, the combination of the kindest locals, the beautiful seclusion from life as I know it, and the happiness from meeting fellow travelers will forever inspire me to step out of my comfort zone, and remind me that the Philippines is a beautiful country.

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FINAL TIPS:

  • Sadly, the Balabac touring system isn’t as organized as Coron’s or El Nido’s yet. But I heard that the Department of Tourism is meeting with local organizers to reshape this.
  • Balabac is almost neighbor to Malaysian Islands. Some pasalubong will include Malaysian food items. In fact, bottled waters in Balabac are imported from Malaysia. Apollo cake bars are good.
  • Balabac is a combination of Christian and Muslim communities (including Onok Island). Be mindful of the cultural differences.
  • There are no banks in any of the islands. Locals rely on wire cash transfers.
  • The best time to visit is during the summer. Locals say that sand bars are all accessible during this time of the year. And it all makes sense. Summer + beach = best!
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