Story and Photographs by
In the near-decade since I first visited Busuanga and its surrounding islands, I went from perennially short-of-breath studio photographer to a tanned, outdoorsy bike nerd who couldn’t get enough of riding.
When I got bit by the bicycle bug years ago, I believed that riding bicycles was the best way to explore the world: fast enough to get me from point A to point B, but slow enough that I could savor the view. That was years ago, though—while I still think riding bikes is the best way to travel, any notion of actually taking off from adult responsibilities and finding a way through the mountain passes of Central Asia has been replaced with the modest effort of sneaking in a weekend ride with my high school buddies. Dreams of adventure have been tempered, and have taken a back seat to the realities of life.
Enter Beyond Outdoor Adventures, a travel outfit that specializes in customizing adventure tours around the country. They’ve just launched their mountain bike tours out of Busuanga and offered a way for me to marry work and leisure: a custom four-day tour that included three days of riding around the Calamian Islands, a kayak trip, and an island-hopping tour on the final day.
The only hitch was that I was going to go on this bike tour without preparation—without the proper “legs,” as we would say. I had taken on a coffee table book project that had me frequently traveling through different parts of the country, and this Palawan bike tour had to happen in the one week I wasn’t traveling for that project, the same week I was planning to use to decompress and catch up on other obligations.
There’s an aspect of cycling culture that fetishizes pain, and while I am partial to the “cycling is fun” ethos, I rationalized that a bad day on the bike is still a good day spent in the great outdoors. Allan, BOA’s tour manager, designed the three-day bike tour to travel an average of 50 kilometers per day, on what he reassuringly described to be “mild” terrain. Even as an older weekend warrior, I had done longer distances in what I considered were more arduous conditions. This was going to be tough, but very doable.
In hindsight, my optimism might have led to my undoing.
Dreams of adventure have been tempered, and have taken a back seat to the realities of life.
Straight out of the plane, on Busuanga Airport's driveway, we met with Allan, Julius, our Coron-based guide, and Chris, our SAG vehicle’s driver. SAG stands for “support and gear,” and is the traditional term for the vehicle that tails the group on the road. The SAG vehicle carried refreshments, our cameras and gear, and our luggage. And while it’s a point of pride to bike the whole distance of the tour, one can opt to get off the bike and get into the SAG vehicle when they find themselves overmatched.
While it is possible to ride your own bicycle on these bike tours, BOA provided us with mountain bikes for easier logistics. For people traveling from abroad to take these tours, renting bicycles from BOA’s fleet is also advisable. Getting the right bike size can spell the difference between an enjoyable ride and an uncomfortable, difficult day. Unfortunately, due to a miscommunication, Mike (our art director, and the only other cyclist in the office) and I were supplied with bicycles that were each a size smaller. We shrugged it off, adjusted the height of the seat posts to mitigate the mistake, and set off.
Despite the smaller size, I was supplied with the Rocky Mountain Vertex, a carbon hardtail mountain bike with excellent components. Hardtail mountain bikes, bikes equipped only with front suspension, were ideal for the mixed terrain we were going to be riding on. I’ve never ridden a carbon bike before—my own bike had a steel frame, so the carbon proved to be a lighter, stronger, and more efficient material. The high-end Shimano components on the bike were fine-tuned, making sure I could shift gears effortlessly, and brake when I needed to.
Our trusty SAG vehicle; En-route to Calauit, about 20 kilometers into the trip.
The first day entailed traversing the 50-kilometer route from the airport to Calauit, where we were going to spend the night at the Calauit Safari Park, a wildlife sanctuary. Except for a couple of tough paved climbs over some hills surrounding the airport, it was a gentle romp through the beautiful Busuanga countryside. The scenery was classic, rural Philippines: pastoral lands with a bahay kubo in the middle of the field, a carabao drinking from a stream, and the Busuanga hills in the background. “Ganitong ganito yung mga drino-drawing ko nung bata ako,” Allan joked. I laughed because I knew exactly what he was talking about.
This first day of the tour turned out to be easiest day on the bike. It was all going to go downhill from there—or uphill, to borrow cycling imagery. But that was still ahead. For that day, the weather was relatively cool, and the route was a mix of new paved roads and wide unpaved country roads. Even without much preparation, I was able to do about 40 of the projected 50-kilometer route. By mid-afternoon, we had hit the coast. As we crested a small hill, I could see the road ahead going almost vertical. Beyond that steep climb was the jetty, the jump-off point to the wildlife sanctuary side of Calauit Island. Mike and I decided that this was as good a time as any to get into the SAG vehicle so we could make it to our Calauit accommodations with daylight to spare.
Sleeping in a wildlife reserve turned out to be more pleasant than I imagined. Our beds were in a gazebo that was open on three sides, and we were supplied with mosquito nets, though we didn’t really need them—the strong northern winds in the month of February was cool, and it also kept the bugs away. The gazebo had a short fence around it, and at dawn the next day, as Julius set about preparing breakfast, zebras made their way past us en route to their watering hole. In Calauit, the people are in the enclosure, and the animals roam freely.
After spending the early morning taking pictures of the giraffes, zebras, and Calamian deer while they had breakfast in the grasslands, the second day of the bike tour started with an eight-kilometer ride that led us out of the reserve, through the Calauit farmlands, and into the main town where we would get on another bangka to bring us back to Busuanga for the rest of the ride.
The route was an enjoyable mix of dirt roads and single tracks, though we arrived to a chilly welcome at the main community. The group of men by the jetty received us in stony-faced silence, except for one guy who suddenly accused us of being gold prospectors.
“Baka may tinatago kayong pang detect ng gold sa mga bag nyo. Maganda siguro iwan niyo mga bike niyo dito, at pumunta tayo sa PNP para malaman natin kung talagang mabuti kayong tao na walang balak dito,” said the man.
I thought he was kidding. How could anyone mistake anyone in colorful bike outfits for gold prospectors? I laughed nervously, glanced around at the other unsmiling faces, and realized this guy was serious. We stood down, took off our helmets, and smiled to the crowd while explaining the obvious: We were just tourists. Julius, a Coron native himself, de-escalated the situation with light banter. A village elder took our word for it, became friendly, and finally arranged for us to rent a boat to get us back to Busuanga.
Land rights is a big issue in the Calamian islands, and people can be edgy about it. Especially in Calauit, where in the late ’70s, original settlers were mandatorily relocated to make way for Ferdinand Marcos’ order to turn it into a game preserve (and, it is widely believed, private hunting grounds). More than 200 families were relocated to Halsey Island, 40 kilometers away. During the Cory Aquino administration, the indigenous people of Calauit were finally allowed back on their own land, but they had to share it with animals that would sometimes wander into their farmlands to eat and damage their crops.
There is an uneasy coexistence in Calauit, between the original settlers who got their ancestral lands back, and the provincial government in charge of taking care of the wildlife reserve lands and animals. The Calauit settlers now make a living organizing eco-friendly dugong sighting tours, while the provincial government runs the wildlife sanctuary as an ecotourism attraction. Hopefully, sustainable ecotourism is the common ground for both the IPs and the provincial government.
I believed that riding bicycles was the best way to explore the world: fast enough to get me from point A to point B, but slow enough that I could savor the view.
From Calauit, we made the short bangka hop to Busuanga by mid-morning, where Chris was waiting for us with the SAG. Our route hugged the northeast coastline of Busuanga, and while it was scenic, we decided to cut the ride short after about six kilometers, still a little psyched out by the morning’s events in Calauit. We hopped on the SAG and drove the remaining 30 kilometers directly to our destination: Panggawaran Farm in the town of Decalachao, the jump-off point for the afternoon’s kayak ride down to the mangroves.
Being on the peaceful water, using different muscle groups to move forward through mangroves was relaxing. It was a great way to break from the intensity of pedaling up and down hills. Julius proved not only handy as a tour guide, but was proficient as a kayak instructor as well. He was knowledgeable about the mangrove ecosystem, explaining how mangroves functioned as a natural buffer between the sea and the shore, providing an ecosystem that allowed for fish and crabs to thrive, giving communities a means for sustainable livelihood.
We wrapped up the kayak tour by late afternoon and drove down to Coron in the SAG. Coron’s town would be our base for the remaining days of the tour. We were booked in a hostel that was within walking distance from the town center. I think I enjoyed our first dinner at Fika, a restaurant in town, so much that I completely missed out on Allan saying that the third day of the bike tour, a 50-plus kilometer route of the Culion countryside, was going to be the toughest part of the trip.
The next morning, one of BOA's local partners provided us with a speedboat to take us from Coron to the main town in Culion Island. After a morning of touring the Culion Museum and Archives with our guide, Hermie Villanueva, a descendant of a leprosy survivor, it was time to start the actual bike tour. This leg had a caveat: Since we were on a separate island, we wouldn’t have the SAG vehicle tailing us. This was going to be unsupported.
The first 15 kilometers of the route was fine: it was a steady uphill climb that led to a nice overlook. It was a such nice view that Mike and I decided it was a good spot to take some portraits and action shots. It was also at this spot where Allan mentioned, in passing, “Ah, ’eto pala yung point of no return natin.”
He meant that if we wanted to turn back, now was the only chance. If we chose to keep riding, we’d have to do our best to close the remaining 35 kilometers before sundown. So far, the riding had been good, and I knew from experience that I could do the remaining 35 kilometers in about four hours. That gave us enough time to make it back to town before dark. As soon as we left the overlook though, the ride quickly devolved into what I can only look back on as a struggle for survival.
The route narrowed into a path that at times was so rocky and loose, I wondered if only hooved animals could pass through. For the next two hours, I spent more time pushing and carrying the bike than actually riding it. I quickly ran out of water and was in danger of overheating. I was so overmatched in every way.
I was having an existential crisis: this guy who wanted to ride his bike around the world was beginning to wonder if he should take up another outdoor sport. Something easier on the mind and body and less exhausting. While resting under some rare shade, I started to compute how much I could sell my bike for.
Of our party of four, I was obviously having the hardest time. I didn’t even notice when Mike had fallen off his bike after a particularly steep and slippery slope. Everyone was suffering but moving ahead. I was physically drained and mentally checked out. I finally made it to where Allan was waiting and said, “Hanap na tayo ng exit plan.”
Allan, to his credit, calmly gave it some thought. He said that if there were motorcycles in the next community we encountered, we’d ask them to carry us out to civilization one by one. By the time we regrouped in the next community that showed signs of life, it was late in the afternoon and I began wondering if we’d have to rely on the kindness of the community and spend the night at a stranger’s home. I checked my GPS. It had already been a couple of hours since we left the lookout point but we had only progressed a couple kilometers. I’ve never traveled so slow on a bike.
Julius found a sari-sari store, and the cold Coke was the best-tasting soda I’ve ever had in my life, or will ever have. As we cooled down and regained our wits, Allen asked around and found out that while we couldn’t see the water, we were actually in a seaside town. The local kagawad had a boat we could hire to take us back to Culion. One moment we were desperate, in the next, we were saved.
I was having an existential crisis—this guy who wanted to ride his bike around the world was beginning to wonder if he should take up another outdoor sport.
After securing the bikes on the pump boat’s outriggers, we settled down for a long, quiet sunset ride back to the port in Culion’s town proper, where our speedboat was waiting to take us back to Coron. Mike, who was nursing a bruised wrist, sat on the bow, probably wondering about the job hazards that came with being an art director for a travel magazine. Finally, sure that we were going to make it home, I realized I stopped taking photos throughout that ordeal. I had photos from our shoot at the overlook, and of the moment we broke open the cold 1.5-liter bottle of Coke. Inadvertently, and in the struggle to survive, there was no evidence of our suffering.
I asked Allan what was in store for us for the fourth and last day of the tour. He cheerfully replied that we were done riding bikes. He said the next day was going to be the island-hopping tour. And that’s what happened. I got to revisit the Twin Lagoons and Kayangan Lake. They were still the majestic formations I remembered from nine years ago—just a bit more crowded, and slightly too tourist-friendly. We would have an amazing seafood lunch on Calachuchi Island, and would get to swim around the coral formations in Siete Pecados. I would bask in the natural beauty of this part of the country and would wish that everything would stay the same. We capped the last day soaking our tired bodies in the hot springs of Maquinit. Despite the trials of the previous day, Allan put together a well-designed tour. We were on the first flight out of Busuanga the next morning.
I’ve since finished my work on the coffee table book project, but not after going through a bout of dengue and spending three days in the hospital. Before and after the Palawan bike tour, I was shooting mangroves in Zamboanga and Mindoro, so who knows where I got bit. As I’ve been recovering and haven’t ridden my bike since Palawan, I’ve wondered if my relationship with this favorite outdoor activity of mine has forever changed.
I’m also taking advantage of my mandatory recovery time to reintegrate into my daily routine. I was gone for work so often and for so long, but life kept moving so fast. While I am glad to be finally seeing family and friends, I am now catching up with things like invoices, car maintenance, and client emails. It’s both sad and amazing how much work can get done from a laptop. I am beginning to feel the need for another trip. I am wondering about the next adventure.
Maybe, once again, it can be on two wheels.
This story was originally published in GRID Volume 05.