The Reality of Traveling to a Disaster Zone – Coron, Philippines

As I mentioned before, my trip to the Philippines was ill-timed.  A week before my arrival Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) ripped through the country.  It just so happened to stop off at many of the same destinations on my itinerary, including the city of Coron, Palawan.  Coron is known for having some of the most stunning scenery in all of the Philippines.   It’s best known for its wreck diving, amazing island hopping and secluded beaches.  Storm or no storm, I wasn’t about to skip out on Coron.  My blissful 10 days in Boracay had functioned to quell a lot of the anxieties that went along with my decision to travel to the Philippines one week after such a brutal natural disaster.  But while Boracay was more or less unscathed by Haiyan, Coron was not so lucky.

A stunning cove at Coron Island, Palawan
A stunning cove at Coron Island, Palawan.

For anyone who’s ever traveled to the Philippines before you know that this is not a country where it’s easy to get information.  But this quirk of the country was taken to a whole new level after Haiyan ravaged Coron’s power supply and cell phone towers.  Residents were left communicationless for days after the typhoon and my attempts to gauge the extent of the damage there were fruitless.  All I knew was that the eye of the storm had passed directly over the island of Basuanga, where Coron is located.  There were dire reports that 90% of the island’s structures (including homes, hotels and businesses) had been damaged.  I knew for a fact that the airport had been so badly damaged that it remained closed for days after the storm.  On the other hand I found this article in which the mayor stated encouragingly that everything was “business as usual” in Coron.  In a nutshell, this was the information Aaron and I had to go on.  The second we caught wind that the airport had reopened we decided to give it a go and we booked a flight to Coron.

The morning of our flight neither of us felt well.  We were feeling the beginnings of what would prove to be a nasty cold.  At the airport we found two empty seats in the crowded and overwhelmingly hot airport.  As we waited for our plane we watched aid workers load an enormous military aircraft set to deliver goods to various disaster zones around the Philippines.

Our scheduled departure time came and went.  It turns out that only a certain amount of airplanes are allowed to be on the ground at the airport at a time.  And because of Haiyan things were a little more chaotic than usual, which was more than understandable.  We waited and waited and after seven hours our flight was canceled.  We were told that we would be rerouted to Manila where we would spend the night and take an alternate flight to Coron the following day.   It was frustrating but considering the mayhem that the rest of the country was experiencing it was impossible to get too upset.

plane

The next morning both of us were feeling infinitely worse.  With running noses and slight fevers we boarded the plane.  The prospect of spending a few days in Coron, recovering from our illness was sounding mighty good.  As the plane approached the island of Basuanga I pressed my face against the window and stared in awe at a series of uninhabited islands below me.  Each was encircled by a ribbon of white sand and perfect turquoise water.  From above, this place was unimaginably beautiful.

But the moment we landed at the airport I had an unsettled feeling.  As I stepped off of the plane all I saw was the wide-open countryside with nothing but rolling hills in the distance.  When I turned around I saw just how badly the airport had been damaged and I knew that things were serious.

Basuanga airport was badly damaged after Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda)
Basuanga airport looked like it had been hit by a wrecking ball. The airport was still without power when we landed, more than two weeks after the storm.

The drive to Coron Town was somber.  The roofs had been ripped off of each and every home that I saw.  Some residents were busy constructing new roofs for their modest cinderblock houses with scraps of metal.  Many other structures were simply beyond repair.  It seemed like every tree had been broken in half, the foliage had been stripped from every plant and there were piles of debris everywhere.  We definitely weren’t in Boracay anymore.

View of Coron Town - Basuanga, Palawan
Overlooking Coron Town.

When we got to the hotel we realized that the entire island was still without power.  We knew this was a possibility so we had made sure to book a hotel with a generator.  But when we got there we were informed that, in an effort to save fuel, it would only be available from 6pm until 5am.  Already feeling like crap, Aaron and I were sweating bullets in the 31 degree heat.  We walked into our room to find that it was so small it could only fit the bed; there was no space to move or to even put our backpacks.  And to top it off it had the uncanny ability not to receive any airflow.  Since we had a few hours before we could bask in the flow of our room’s AC unit we decided to survey the town.

Coron Town was lively but for being one of the biggest tourist draws in the Philippines it was immediately apparent that it was not business as usual as the mayor had suggested.  And the fact that we only saw a handful of other tourists that day was a little eerie.  We stopped at a pharmacy to buy some cold medicine and struck up a conversation with the proprietress.  She was in surprisingly good spirits considering everything her community had experienced during the past few weeks.  But despite her optimistic attitude, what she told us seemed dire.  She told us that the majority of the town’s residents depend on tourism for their income and because the city was without power tourists were canceling their trips in droves.  To make matters worse the government had just issued a statement that power would not be restored to the island for 30 more days – and that was a best case scenario.  The situation was incomprehensible to me.

When we got back to our hotel we were sweating profusely and after inquiring why the AC unit didn’t work we were told that since we were powered by generator that we couldn’t use the AC.  That night was the hottest night of my life.  I tossed and turned in what might have been the world’s most stifling hotel room.  We opened the window but the air was so stagnant it probably did more harm than good.

PicMonkey Collage - boats

We woke up feeling terrible.  The prospect of exploring the island or doing anything active didn’t appeal to us at all.  But since there would be no electricity until 6pm what choice did we have?  So despite the ominous looking rain clouds we booked an island hopping tour.  Along with four other tourists we set out on a day-long excursion to check out what some say is the most beautiful scenery in the Philippines.  Our first stop was to a supposedly postcard-perfect beach.  Not only was it drizzling but the typhoon had really done a number on the beach.

I have to admit, I left feeling a little dejected.  But as the sun started poking through the clouds things started looking up.  Once I looked past the tattered hillsides and debris-littered waters it was easy to see the beauty in this roughed-up landscape.  During every stop we made it was painfully apparent that this once flawless place had been hit ridiculously hard by Haiyan.  Regardless, it was still incredibly beautiful.  We swam in a hidden lagoon that was the most magical shade of jade.  We snorkeled with colorful sea creatures and peered into the ocean’s deep blue abyss.

Hidden Lagoon - Coron Island, Palawan
The mixture of fresh and salt water creates an icy cold layer on top of bathtub warm water. Such a weird sensation!

We hiked up a steep hillside in order to reach the secluded Lake Kayangan, one of my favorite places in the Philippines.  Its water was so brilliantly blue and perfectly clear that it acted as a mirror for the surrounding craggy formations that keep it hidden from the outside world.  Aaron and I jumped into the water and swam to the center of the lake.  We floated there for awhile looking up at the sky and admiring the surrounding mountains.  And the moment was so perfect we forgot all about the storm and our sickness.

Kayangan Lake, Coron Island, Palawan
Also known as the cleanest lake in Asia, Kayangan Lake is so clear that you can see anywhere from 10 to 24 meters!
Kayangan Lake - Coron Island, Palawan
We don’t really look that sick, do we? We really were but as I was floating in that lake I forgot all about being sick!

Traveling to a disaster zone was frustrating, eye-opening and it’s something I don’t regret in the least.  Despite the downsides, Coron was still one of the most amazing places I’ve ever traveled to.  I was not only taken with its natural beauty, but with the amazing people I met along the way.

Have you ever been to Coron?  Does it seem like the type of place you’d like to visit?

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

12 thoughts on “The Reality of Traveling to a Disaster Zone – Coron, Philippines

  1. Wow, I had no idea Coron was so badly affected by Typhoon Haiyan. I visited Coron in December 2012 and loved it so much, it breaks my heart to see the devastation the typhoon has caused since. I hope that by now it has become somewhat back to normal for them and tourism has picked back up again – it is such a beautiful place! We were in El Nido in when Typhoon Bopha came through in Dec 2012 and was on course for El Nido but fortunately its path veered and it mostly missed us, we just got a lot of rain. It was scary though!

    1. It was really sad. I loved it there so much too. I know I would have stayed so much longer had it not been for the lack of electricity. And it’s definitely one of the places I really want to go back to. I’m assuming that things are back to normal now. I think that not having electricity for months just really hurt all of the businesses. Oh no, that’s crazy that you went through a typhoon while you were in El Nido. It is scary. I went through one when I was traveling in Cuba and it was crazy! It always amazes me that people have to endure these storms every year.

    1. Yeah, it was a little intense. I’m mean the situation there wasn’t as awful as in Tacloban but it was still one of the hardest hit places in the Philippines. Being sick while traveling is the worst. It was definitely the wrong time to travel in rural parts of the Philippines where electricity is scant! But, despite all that I’m so glad I went and I would really love to go back and explore more 🙂

  2. Being sick while travelling is hard, especially when the travel conditions are not up to expectations. It’s a shame and I can understand the disappointment that comes when things don’t go according to expectation but it’ll give you an opportunity to return next time…:) I find that Philippines is a beautiful country, especially for a beach lover like me, but they are also most frequently hit by natural disaster because of their location. It’s a good thing that their people are pretty resilient but it’s never easy to hear of such things happening in other countries, especially those dependent on tourism.
    sha recently posted…Sunset Walk to Banpo Bridge (Rainbow Bridge) in Seoul

    1. Being sick on the road is definitely no fun. Given the fact that I didn’t feel well and there was no electricity I left Coron much sooner than anticipated. I would really like to go back. From the little bit that I saw it is such an amazing place and I know there is so much left to see! I’m a beach lover too and I just fell in love with the Philippines 🙂 But it is really sad how susceptible the country is to natural disasters. Right before Haiyan, Bohol and Cebu were hit by a huge earthquake. Traveling to Bohol was super sad because of all the damage. Some of the oldest churches in the Philippines were completely destroyed. It was so heartbreaking that the Philippines was already coping with the earthquake damage and then had to deal with Haiyan. They are a resilient people for sure!

    1. It was sad. But I’m so glad that I went not only because Coron truly is a spectacular place but because I learned how much heart Filipinos have. Traveling around the country after Haiyan really was an eyeopening experience for me.

    1. The Philippines is so beautiful Nita! Being sick was really frustrating and I can’t say that I kept a super positive attitude 100% of the time 😉 But despite the damage, the Philippines turned out to be my favorite destination in Southeast Asia. I really loved it!

  3. I can’t imagine how you survived without ac – I had a breakdown in Athens one night due to lack of ac (of course, it was 44 degrees or something crazy), but then at the same time, it’s hard to feel truly bad about these comforts when you’re witnessing so much heartbreaking devastation around you. Good on you for heading there and supporting them with your tourist dollars at such a difficult time…
    Shelley recently posted…The Breakdown: Stockholm

    1. Ha, being without AC in that room sucked! I could not stop sweating!! But the temperature was nowhere near 44 degrees. I can’t even imagine being in a climate that hot! Yeah, it’s definitely hard to feel sorry for yourself when other people are dealing with real problems. Not to mention I was only there for a few days but the entire island was without power for months, which is insane.

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