Organized tours and cruises are by definition the worst enemy of the independent traveler on a tight budget (and yes, that’s what we are).

We heard about a company called TAO Philippines still when in Israel and then again when climbing down the Anapurna circuit in Nepal, you seldome hear people so engaged in recommending anything at all, so decided to give it a try and make our biggest single purchase since we started our trip 9 months ago: 500 USD for each of us for five days in a fishing boat, that would have been enough to travel a whole month in Myanmar, but hey, you only live once. They offered a 5 day expedition on an island hopping path in Palawan, Philippines.

From the beginning we were cautious, we haven’t had a commitment for such a trip swith such long time in advance, we were still to plan our itinerary to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and our first two weeks in the Philippines even before embarking, a logistic nightmare. But once we booked, we had the cruise as an anchor and everything would fit in, right? NO!!

The first mistake was to book the trip in the opposite direction and dealing with their customer service trying to avoid punitives to change it, the second was transferring money calculating the commissions of the bank, you’d think it’d be an easy task for an engineer, you’re wrong. And only then try to find the cheapest flights to get us there in time.

Finally, we left Bohol, our own paradise for two whole weeks (see Trapped in the Philippines post) to fly to Palawan, the long and less developed island in the western Philippines. We landed in Puerto Princesa, only to be disgusted by the city and catch the first bus away we could find, to Port Barton, a secluded and not yet fully developed fishing village turned tourist attraction, a must if you are in the area, but this post is about TAO, so just go there and you’ll see.

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Princess Narissa, our boat.

Embarking: El Nido

El Nido is exactly what you imagine a little town that exploded with tourism, guesthouses over tourist agents in between restaurants, piles over dusty and crowded streets. Not the postcard paradise usually depicted, for that you need to get out on a boat.

The night before embarking we gathered, 24 travelers and 8 crewmen for briefing and our first drink. We were explained about safety, food, and logistics. Short and to the point, we also got a sheet with all the regulations written with nasty cynicism that I can appreciate, while finding it not necessary (ex: “Don’t ask us for WiFi, we’ll tell you to climb to the highest tree to check, just for the fun of it.”) I guess that all the nasty instructions were inspired by actual stupid questions people asked.

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Leaving El Nido: The adventure starts!

The Crew

These are the real lost boys, guys from fishermen villages scattered around the hundreds of islands between El Nido to Coron. These guys (and girl) were recruited and trained for months and even years to become part of the crew. They are taught English and trained in a strict hierarchy, tasks and development process: cook helper, cook, kayak rower, mechanic and team leader. All working for such time, until they make it to the next level.

They all had great spirits and loved their job, and the most amazing thing, they felt family. The company family provides them with a better income than they could ever get staying in the villages, trained them and opened a wide horizon for future development and employment. But most important, a sense of security and belonging. We were told some were lured into changing to other operators, but they came back to the family late on.

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Aneil and Bal: Our hosts and friends

The Cruise Exploration

I won’t give a detailed itinerary since it’s all blurred in my mind now, days, nights, corals, beaches and drinks.

The days are quite simple:

  • Wake up in the morning to the smell of a delicious breakfast cooked by Bal: frittata, coconut porridge, fruits, omelets… you name it. Fold your sheets and go down to eat. By the time breakfast is done, the kayaks are ready to take you back to the boat.
  • The captain would decide to which beach/coral reef/island to navigate according to winds and tides. But you’ll never be disappointed with the result, just see the pics.
  • During the navigation, there’s nothing much to do except chatting with the crew and fellow travelers, reading or absorbing the sun by the constant humming of the engines. Suddenly some snacks would pass around.
  • The fishing lines are out for most of the time while in movement, waiting for some nice catch to enrich a meal. When Tere (from Chile) felt the line tighten, a big tuna fish came out of the water. 20 minutes later we had the freshest sashimi ever!
  • Lunch would be on the boat, delicious and varied, always supported by Filipino Power, namely “rice”.
  • Snorkeling around the ship proved to be better than many scuba immersions I’ve done in the past, neverending underwater forests of colorful corals, mostly unspoiled.
  • Twice we landed in the villages where our crew members came from, we were introduced to their families and treated with sweets for our Team Leader’s birthday. A unique chance to see the real life of the local villagers.
  • Just before sunset, we would swim (yes, swim) to the chosen island to spend the night, one of the 13 camps TAO has built in the region, equipped with huts, kitchen and a dining area. Also, a small amount of cold fresh water to shower using a small bucket, local style.
  • A whole jerrycan of “Jungle Juice”, Filipino Rhum and pineapple juice, would be waiting to kickstart the night.
  • Repeat for next five days.

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Basecamp

On our fourth night, we slept in the main base camp of TAO, the most successful social entrepreneurship project I’ve seen in a long while, if not the best.

This camp’s task is to support the locals to achieve a livelihood within sustainable practices: organic farming, permaculture, livestock concessions, women empowerment through micro-industries training in making beauty products out of coconuts and much more.

An artwork of social empowerment, and also the training ground for the crew. And we loved it.

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Huts at the base camp. Here is where we slept.

The extended family

This amazing experience could never have been so incredible without the gorgeous variety of people who joined the expedition. 24 people from all around the globe: Lawyers from Chile, Teachers from the Netherlands, a recruiter from HK, a British DJ, three of the funniest girls from Paradise Ireland, an Apple employee and the list goes on. Thanks for the amazing memories.

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The team

If you’re in the Philippines, or up to an adventure, don’t miss the chance to meet great people and learn about their life while you scout some pristine white-beach islands and discover the marvelous underwater world of the Philippines

Enter here, www.taophilippines.com