Story and photographs by Lester V. Ledesma
Jul 22, 2021
YOU CAN STOP SEARCHING NOW. With more than 100 picturesque islands of all shapes and sizes, your chances of finding that perfect holiday hideout in this mini-archipelago are all but assured. The Calamian group of islands isn’t as polished or popular as the Philippines’ world-renown destinations, but a mere glimpse of its natural charm should be enough to send sightseers flocking this way.
That view from the air, of karst mountains ringed with pearly white shores over turquoise water, is an impressive enough introduction to this locale. Seen at sea level, though, the raw, primeval character of the Calamian Islands becomes truly evident. At some areas, these massive rock walls offer passage to a hidden lake, viewpoint or lagoon (a bit of climbing is often required), while other spots might reveal hot spring pools, rustic fishing villages or even a subterranean cavern. One particular island even boasts a nature reserve brimming with both endemic and African wildlife.
Together these landmasses comprise more than a thousand kilometers of coastline. The sands are fine and the waters are crystal-clear, of course—and if the pristine corals aren’t enough reason to explore the seabed, there’s also a dozen WWII Japanese shipwrecks down there. The region is hiding in plain sight, right in between Luzon Island, home to Manila, and the lengthy finger that is Palawan Island, crowned by El Nido’s world-famous karsts.
Much of the Calamianes is the ancestral domain of the native Tagbanua ethnic group—a fact that helps ensure this picturesque corner of the Philippines will not succumb to mass-tourism. Indeed, from the port town of Coron (where most hotels are located), it’s easy take to the sea and find an undisturbed, sun-kissed patch of shore where the wind, the waves and the view are just right. And while you lose the shoes and kick back, you’ll probably ask yourself again and again: “Why did I not know about this place?”
Well, now you know.
01: There’s more where this came from. Pristine beaches are plentiful throughout the Calamian group of islands. Despite the sheer beauty of this region, only a small percentage of visitors to the Philippines ever make it to these parts.
02: Craggy cliffs and jagged rock faces are a defining feature of many islands in the Calamian archipelago. The largest of these karst formations is Coron, a picturesque 71-square-kilometer landmass that hosts countless lagoons, dive sites and a number of inland lakes.
03: A pair of giraffes appear in the morning mist at Calauit Island National Park, where African and endemic Philippine wildlife share a tropical savannah habitat. Established in the 1970s to help conservation efforts in Kenya, this island is a piece of Africa in the Far East.
04: Calauit’s giraffes aren’t bashful about plucking malwandit (a type of native mangrove) leaves right off visitors’ hands. “I’ve been on safari in Africa before, but never have I gone this close to a giraffe!” says a delighted guest.
05: Many of the Calamian Islands are the ancestral grounds of the Tagbanua—an ethnic group that has nurtured its own distinct society for more than 2,000 years. Though some of these natives work as guides or boatmen, many prefer to continue the traditional and very dangerous trade of gathering birds’ nests—an expensive food item—from the surrounding cliffs.
06: Mats of freshly caught fish are salted and sun-dried outside a Tagbanua home on the island of Coron. Despite the tourism activity in their native land, most of these locals keep to themselves. In fact, special permission is needed to visit the villages of these island folk.
07: A bountiful harvest from land and sea is laid out on banana leaves. This is a “boodle fight”—a traditional fiesta meal reserved for the best of occasions. Consider yourself blessed if you find yourself facing one of these: the grilled seafood, slow-cooked adobo meats and boiled rice are best devoured using bare hands.
08: A staff member keeps the lounge area in order at La Estancia, one of a handful of exclusive boutique resorts that have sprung up on the main island of Busuanga.
09: The water is clear, the waves are calm and the corals are healthy in this sun-kissed corner of the Philippines. The Calamian Islands are accessible via the region’s only airport at Busuanga Island.
10: Jagged cliffs and emerald waters welcome visitors to Calachuchi Beach on Coron Island, just a 10-minute boat ride from the main town of Coron. Unless you own a boat and know these parts, it’s next to impossible to DIY a meaningful island-hopping expedition in the Calamianes.
11: The day ends with yet another blaze of hues in the sky over Isla Bulungan, one of the countless landmasses that make up the Calamian archipelago. With more than 1,000 square kilometers of sea to cover, this region requires many visits to fully explore.
Calamianes Expeditions and Ecotours is a local community-based, sustainable tourism outfit that offers custom treks, diving and island-hopping trips throughout the Calamian Islands.