When I originally developed my itinerary for the Philippines, a friend recommended seeing it by boat as it’s a country of islands. Traveling by boat is one of my favorite methods for seeing a water centric country – Croatia, British Virgin Islands and now the Philippines. The islands on my trip were so small and remote you can really only get to them by boat anyway.
My friend recommended TAO Philippines as the best operator for my type of travel. For those who are new to the blog, I prefer hostels to hotels, adventure to relaxation and don’t mind getting a little dirty!
Boat Booking and Trip Prep
TAO requires you to fill out an application after reading through their “Know Before You Go” section of their website. I found out later this isn’t just to avoid princesses coming on the trip, but also to ensure a range of ages, lifestyles, nationalities, and genders. They ticked all the boxes with men and women from Germany, The Netherlands, USA, UK, Hong Kong, South Africa, France, etc. It was the most diverse group I’ve ever encountered.
There are three different boat options. I wanted the authentic wooden sailboat but it had been booked for months so I settled for the “regular” motorboat since it was about the experience and people not the boat. Plus you sleep on the islands in base camps so it matters less.
It took three days to receive my confirmation. I’d selected the boat from El Nido to Coron. As I’ve mentioned in my previous post, it can take 3 days to get to El Nido and Coron is mostly for divers to you’ll have to decide for yourself at which port you want to start/end.
I did have some frustrations with TAO leading up to my arrival in the Philippines, which I now realize the reasoning but with the knowledge I had at the time, it was a struggle. I had some questions about what to bring with me versus what I could buy/rent there. They provide a simplified list on the website but give you a more comprehensive packing list at the boat check-in the day before – I wish I’d had that in advance! Also, having never been to El Nido and Coron, I asked for addresses to the TAO office and didn’t receive a lot of help. I understand now that the towns are so small everyone knows where it is and can direct you.
Personally, I thought the check-in was unnecessary from an informational perspective as, again, I’d rather have had that information far in advance so I could’ve planned a bit better. But, I anticipate part of its purpose is to make sure you are in town the night before departure and so you can meet the crew. Oh, and to collect the second half of your boat payment, which again would’ve been easier via Paypal then traveling to a foreign country alone with that much money on you (do NOT rely on ATMs). Make sure you bring 200 extra pesos for the tourist fee. I didn’t realize you pay this at check-in and if you forget it causes problems the next day.
Other fun things to know is that a case of beer and island massage are included in your boat fee (AWESOME). They recommend you buy another liter of liquor and liter of mixer per person additional. And if you love beer maybe another case. We had PLENTY of alcohol left at the end of the trip and tried to drink all of it on Christmas … you can imagine how that evening turned out. I went with a bottle of rum and pineapple since they would still taste okay lukewarm. Rum was 100 pesos and so was pineapple juice which seemed so backwards to me. I shopped around and that’s about what you are gonna get.
I recommend staying in El Nido town instead of near the TAO office since as I had to go back into town for dinner and to buy the final supplies for the trip (you won’t have time in the morning). For anything you are buying for your TAO trip in El Nido go to one of the open air shops farther from the beach that has ALL the items you want so that you can barter for a bulk discount of items. You can check out my packing list here.
The following account is from the boat!
Day One - Friday 23 Dec 2016
Woke up early and triked into town. I accidentally had them take me all the way over to the boat dock instead of into the main town area and I still needed breakfast so I had to lug all my shit back into town. Won’t make that mistake again. You will have A LOT of stuff particularly if traveling alone!
Back at the dock, it came to the attention of the captain that I still needed a tourist visa (remember I’d forgotten my pesos the night before). This caused some confusion which seems silly to me since I never had to reproduce this piece of paper again.
We boarded the boat and sailed to our first snorkeling location near a cliff. Following the current along the cliff, the reef is super close to the surface and brilliantly colored. Fair number of fish and all small which was fine by me! VERY salty though. This was the best snorkeling of the trip. Realizing I probably should’ve brought my own snorkel and mask because mine was subpar and you are stuck with it the whole trip. Also flippers would come in handy… I forgot how much effort it is to swim.
We took a break on a beautiful secluded beach on Tapiutan Island with very shallow crystal clear water. It’s fairly enclosed from the ocean so you can walk from one side to the other through the water. Drank some beers and got to know some of my fellow travelers.
Back on the boat, I’d already sussed out that the upper deck was the place to be. Started to get to know some of the people on the boat - Great group!
I’m all about learning and trying new things… Today I gutted my first fish and learned how to tell if it’s fresh. As Coach Taylor would say, “Clear eyes, Red gills, Can’t lose.”
We arrived at our first base camp, Cadbo, which would prove to be my favorite of the trip. There were little sleeping huts lining the cliff overlooking the ocean and a row of picnic tables for family dinner. The crew set up your “room” which consists of a sleeping pad, a sheet, a pillow and a mosquito net. Like I said, no princesses. There was an outdoor shower with a bucket of cold water to rinse and a row of massage tables. Remember how I mentioned free massages?! Note: you can only get them at the first two base camps so don’t miss out!
It was here that I realized I wish I had a light long sleeve shirt and pants to ward off mosquitoes. Instead I took a shower and had to re-spray myself with bug juice – yuck.
Back to trying new things – for dinner I ate fish eye, liver and egg sac for dinner. The eye was crunchy at first with a burst of liquid (kinda gross), the liver tasted like duck pate and the egg sac tasted almost exactly like scrambled eggs.
The evening ended as I’d find most of them would… with games and rum.
Day Two - Saturday 24 Dec 2016
Woke up feeling a liiitttle dusty and immediately combatted it with a morning massage. Only problem, I was starving by the time it was over and almost missed breakfast! The coffee was DELICIOUS by the way. I’m usually afraid of the dark (I know I’m a wimp) and was impressed that I slept through the jungley night like a baby.
We packed up and jumped back on the boat. Time to teach you how to use those 3 different bags I mentioned in my packing list. It is MUCH easier to have all items you will use on the island for the five days in your dry bag. This prevents you from having to go under the boat to get your big bag and repack a fresh pair of clothes and swimsuit. You then have your “boat bag” that contains anything you want during the day on the boat (like your boat towel, flippers, etc).
I’m glad I’d been taking seasickness pills because multiple people had a bad day at sea. We arrived at Tao Farm, the main basecamp, with a couple unhappy travelers. The Farm was awesome although I was starting to get that familiar headache right before you get a sinus infection…uh oh.
The Farm is a self-sustaining village that grows the plants (and animals) that support the TAO boats and surrounding villages. They use a lot of this money to put back into education for the village children, improve the lives of their locals and prepare for future typhoons. Very admirable.
The tour around the island started with 3 day old piglets who were adorable and then sadly ended with the slaughter of a momma pig who would be Christmas dinner…for us. Yes, even after this harrowing event, I still love bacon. There was also a baby puppy (don’t worry we didn’t eat it) who loved chasing the ball as people challenged each other to ping pong. I’d been watching too much television because the leader of the camp, Eddy, reminded me of Bellamy from The 100. Our visit ending with caramelized, fried plantains – one of my favorite desserts!
We sailed a little way to Daracuton Island, our next camp. It felt much less remote than Cadbo. We slept in a barn-like structure with two floors, on the beach. We also learned that a typhoon was about to hit the Philippines which could affect our trip…This location also featured on outdoor shower, without walls, which was a little tricky when it came to putting new clothes on. Butts out!
Dinner was delicious and cozy in a big wooden mess hall and degraded once again into drinking games. The favorite of the night was Kings with the holders of the Snake eyes and Question master cards taking down multiple victims. The best rule was after every drink you had to make a “brrrr” noise and say “I sh-t myself.” Yes, we are children.
Next up was horse-racing which many of the Europeans in the group hadn’t played before, but boy did the Dutch love it. When minutes, everyone was standing on the dining benches yelling as the “horses” moved down the table.
Finished the night chasing sand crabs the color of sand. Time for bed.
Sunday 25 Dec 2016
Merry Christmas! Ugh I woke up feeling awful (sick, not hungover!) but at least it meant I was accidentally up for the sunrise, which was stunning. I got to enjoy it all to myself as the rest of the drunks slept it off. I watched a massive storm cloud swallow the sunrise and pass off into the distance leaving a little rain in its wake.
I tried to get back to sleep and managed a few more hours before breakfast which was “hash browns” made from garlic and banana leaves??
Was proud of myself; I went snorkeling at the shipwreck near the island. It wasn’t super impressive but I did see Nemo! I’m slowly getting better at this ocean business.
It was a huge sail day because we needed to cross a large channel of water in case the typhoon hit our area. Spent it up on top of the boat playing 2 Truths and a Lie and the “Rules” game. One of the girls had never played before and told the most elaborate stories about her boyfriend instead of just one-liners. Made the game so much better. He had done such cool shit it was hard to tell which was the lie!
Lunch on the boat was the best yet – fresh caught tuna in soy sauce and garlic and Spanish mackerel ceviche with lime. We ate while parked at San Miguel (yup like the beer) on Linapocan. You could snorkel around there but I’d recommend against it… smelled and looked like poo.
Spent the rest of the boat trip napping and then chatting to two crew members who has traveled the world for 3 years doing modeling with only two suitcases to their names. Impressive.
As we reached the Bulwang base camp, we were greeted by the most beautiful sunset. It was very red though, sailors beware! You could see the white caps picking up in the distance. We’d picked this basecamp to post up because it’s very sheltered in case the typhoon came through. It had a little house for us with four walls, a porch, a POOL and karaoke!
The pool was sooo nice. Chubby, the boat dog, kept running around chasing her reflection. We had actual showers with a shower head this time, but I missed dumping a bucket on my head. Dinner was curry with fish and rice, easily my favorite dinner of the trip. More card games ensued – tonight’s game of choice was “Bullshit.” My partner and I just tried to be invisible to the bullshitters and we took the game with “2 eights.”
We couldn’t end the night without Christmas Karaoke. The local boat boys stole the show with their dance moves and voices, but our crew put up a good fight. I couldn’t have the night end without some Boot, Scoot and Boogie and some good ole fashion American line dancing.
Monday 26 Dec 2016
Thanks to the typhoon we spent another day in Bulwang. The good news was breakfast was hot porridge served in a coconut with honey and fresh fruit on top. Need to recreate that one at home.
Still feeling pretty under the weather so didn’t mind spending the day napping in the hammock and swimming in the pool. Have REALLY enjoyed this trip but am about ready for some AC and a soft bed. Some people decided to take a 3 hour 4WD trip to Culion Town Proper but I stayed to watch the Dutch v. French play card games. The French girls kept speaking in French so the Dutch called them out for collusion. Hell, I couldn’t even figure out how to play the game much less cheat!
After dinner things started to “heat up”… with a massive bonfire that is! We realized it was our last night and we still had tons of booze so Papa Jay and I bartended the bonfire. Any time someone’s cup wasn’t completely full we’d pour more rum’n’pineapple in. Next thing you know tribal dancing ensued, multiple people decided to jump over the bonfire and one crew member lost a leg of his disco trousers. Some people made it to their actual beds… some passed out on the beach. The final few of us sat on the beach and threw rocks for Chubbs to chase.
Tuesday 27 Dec 2016
The sickness officially took over. I felt awful. My sinuses were pounding and I desperately wanted to lie in bed all day. But Suzanne knew me too well and excitedly woke me up because breakfast was pancakes! They were very delicious even though my head was pounding so hard I couldn’t concentrate on them. I must’ve looked like hell because I got patted on the back a few times.
We boarded the boat for the final trip to Coron. I slept alone on the top deck the whole way. Bummed I couldn’t spend my final hours with these lovely people, but I just felt so bad. We stopped at the East Tangat Gunboat Wreck where a couple people snorkeled but apparently it wasn’t great because the typhoon had stirred up the water so you couldn’t see much.
We finally arrived in Coron and all said our goodbyes to a good portion of the crew. The rest of us decided to meet at a restaurant for a final family dinner before parting ways.
TAO has over 300 base camps so they can change the itinerary based on weather and crew interest. Here's a picture of the overall trip we took.
I would highly recommend both sailing The Philippines AND TAO as a company. I loved the diversity and the energy and engagement of the crew. I say “crew” because TAO treated us like part of the family, teaching us how to cook, clean fish, and most importantly, KARAOKE! It’s nice to know I’ve added to my international travel family and look forward to visiting them in the future. For those of you who were on the boat and reading this post, it was so great to meet you and if you ever find yourself in Sydney you best say “hey!”