Escape to Paradise


Welcome to Coron Island, the ancestral domain of the Tagbanua, and where photographer Terence Angsioco made his escape from Metro Manila.

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I came to Coron way back in March, when President Duterte announced the lockdown. I remember it was a Thursday; I was with my friends, and we were waiting for the announcement together. Covid-19 was just starting to blow up in certain countries, and when the announcement came for the Philippines I felt—well, I guess everyone felt—scared. I knew right away that it was a big deal: they started closing shipping ports and airports, and opening up checkpoints.

Although I live in Makati Poblacion, and I love the city life, I knew then that I needed to go to a place where I could be around nature. I can’t spend the lockdown in my apartment, I thought. 

Fortunately, I’ve traveled a lot because my work as a freelance creative always takes me places. I asked a friend of mine, who runs Red Carabao in Coron, if I could stay with them. I had been there last November and I was able to spend some time with the Tagbanua community. Now, I’ve been in Coron for about six months. I’ve basically moved here.

In total, I probably spent two months on Coron island. I knew so little about the Tagbanua before this—for me, at the time, it was a very mystical idea. The first time I visited Coron was in 2009, and just looking at the island itself was nothing like I’d ever seen. The island, the tall mountains... we would just be passing through, and I would always see, from the mountains, this little patch of white sand and a little bahay kubo, the secret lake. “Who lives there? Why can’t we go there?” I asked.

That’s when I was told: That’s where the Tagbanua live.

  • Who are the Tagbanua?
    Believed to be descendants of the Tabon Man, the Tagbanua are one of the oldest ethnic groups in the Philippines. They live within north and central Palawan, and are classified into two main groups: Central and Calamian Tagbanua. In 1998, the Calamian Tagbanua were recognized as the ancestral owners of Coron island, giving them the right to manage and preserve over 22,000 hectares of its rich natural resources. To this day, they remain in charge of implementing ecotourism efforts in the area, and continue to uphold their own indigenous customs and beliefs.

The more I learned about the Tagbanua, the more I saw that we were very different, yet very similar at the same time. I couldn’t fully grasp it, because prior to this trip I would only stay with them for a few days at most.

As a social enterprise, Red Carabao has partnered with a Tagbanua family. The Tagbanua are also employed as staff members; they prepare the beds, they cook, they manage everything.

A lot of us watch National Geographic or Discovery Channel, right? We watch the indigenous tribes—how they go on with their everyday lives, how they hunt, where they live, and what food they eat. I was always interested in those things, and fascinated by all the photographs from the magazine and from the show. Actually being here, it’s a weird feeling. It’s like I’m watching the show, but I’m actually there. Like a little kid—just mesmerized with everything that's going on.

Tagbanua boy from Coron Palawan, photograph by Terence Angsioco
Tagbanua man from Coron Palawan, photograph by Terence Angsioco

I think when we say “paradise,” at least for me, I always have this picture of pristine waters, white sand, maybe a piña colada. But during my stay here, I felt something. It’s magical, yes—the stars are brighter, the sunset is more beautiful, the coral reef is so healthy. I guess it’s still what I was thinking of when I thought of “paradise.” But it’s different, because when we think of paradise, we think of ourselves, right? But this is paradise with people, with the Tagbanua.

I saw them living peacefully with nature. It’s hard to explain. But they were the ones that formed this paradise.

Aerial view of the beaches of Coron, Palawan

  • Getting to Coron Island
    When flying to Coron, tourists first land in Busuanga Airport, located on the larger, adjacent island of Busuanga. From there, it’s a one hour ride to Busuanga port, where smaller boats directly ferry you to Coron island—the ancestral domain of the Tagbanua. Coron is renowned for its secret lakes, which are considered to be sacred cultural areas by the local Tagbanua. Of the twelve sacred lakes, two are open to the public: Kayangan and Barracuda Lakes.
  • Coron has been open to tourists since 2001
    The income generated is used to fund the Tagbanua’s community development projects. To make sure that their place is well taken care of, the Tagbanua established a tribal council that works with the local government to initiate and maintain ecotourism rules and regulations around the area.
    Cleanliness and respect for nature are rules strictly enforced by the Tagbanua. Tourists caught littering are heavily fined, while boats illegally fishing in the Tagbanua’s domain are apprehended with help from the LGU. Spots like the Kayangan and Barracuda Lakes are also only open to tourists during the day.
    Thanks to the leadership of the Tagbanua, Kayangan Lake has been recognized as one of the cleanest lakes in the country.

Tagbanua children sorting shells on the beach

Freedom and paradise, they are kind of correlated to me now. When the Tagbanua need food, they swim. They spearfish and get the freshest produce possible. It’s freedom—the freedom to co-live with nature without harming nature. The Tagbanua don’t have a fridge, so they don’t overfish. When they need to eat, they fish and then they cook. Maybe they’ll get an extra two to salt for the next day. But that’s it. They take what they need.

Freedom and paradise, they are kind of correlated to me now. When the Tagbanua need food, they swim.

It’s fascinating to me because it’s so different from how I lived in the city. I had all the comforts, all the entertainment, but I never asked myself if I really needed all these things.

It’s not all paradise either. They have to work. Spearfishing, diving for sea cucumbers, that’s work. They leave at 6 o’clock in the morning, and they get back as late as 1 o’clock in the afternoon. But that’s their life.

Tagbanua fisherman from Coron Palawan

When one family isn’t able to catch as much fish, another family shares. They’re confident that when they need it, nature will provide. They know that maybe today there isn’t a lot of fish, so they’ll paddle to the next cove and ask for papaya. They really depend on each other. They harvest together. They still keep their own, but they do it as a unit. I didn’t understand this just by watching the indigenous groups on television.

Sure, a lot about it is marvelous and maybe that’s what we look for in the images. They’re almost like superheroes: how deep they dive, how long they can hold their breath. But it’s just a spectacle. I guess most of the time, that’s what we look for, right? Still, at the end of the day, the thing that really stuck to me is the strength of their community.

Enjoyed this feature? Listen to the full podcast episode, Escape to Coron: