Destination unknown: island hopping in the Philippines with Buhay Isla

There's so much amazing things to see in the Philippines, but the most gorgeous spots are hidden quite well.
Together with Buhay Isla I went island hopping in the Philippines for three days. Never before have I seen such beautiful islands with white beaches that are surrounded by water in hundreds of shades of blue.
Does such an adventurous expedition also sound like something for your bucket list? Then read on!

buhay isla philippines islands

On an uninhabited island

For three days I was on an expedition from El Nido to Coron, hopping from one island to another. The further away we sail from the inhabited world, the more beautiful the landscapes become.
The steep and pointy rock islands in the middle of the wild blue and gray waves quietly transform into landscapes that we normally only get to see in dreams.
Islands with pearly white beaches and swaying palm and coconut trees float between the transparent turquoise water.
From the gently rocking boat you get a fantastic view over these colorful sandbanks, but to reach these drifting pieces of heaven, you first have to make your way through the see-through waters. Once you jump into the salty and wild waves, they push you on land as if they no longer want to keep this earthly paradise for themselves alone.
And there is much to see under the wildly sloshing water surface too! Corals in all colors of the rainbow are inhabited by more species of fish than I can name and also a wide array of sea cucumbers, starfish and even shy sea snakes call these paradisiacal seas their home.

During this expedition you’ll travel to the unknown islands around Palawan which are located far beyond what you would see during the one-day island tours from El Nido or Coron. On the way you’ll hardly encounter any other tourist.

I spent three days on some of the most beautiful uninhabited islands in the Philippines. And damn it, I wish I was still there!

philippines destination unknown

What a paradise this is!!

island hopping philippines palawan

Is this heaven, or what?!

el nido to coron expedition

The landscapes I got to see during my El Nido to Coron expedition seem to be plucked away from a dream!

What should you expect?

Prepare for an adventurous excursion from El Nido or Coron. For three, four or five days you are taken aboard by the (excellent!) crew on a traditional Filipino boat with about fifteen other adventurous tourists.
After the briefing the night before you leave, you already know a bit more of what you can expect and where you are going. However, most of your island expedition still remains surrounded in a mysterious haze, and that’s a good thing too! Because that way it keeps being wonderfully exciting.

From the port, your large luggage is checked into a dry compartment of the boat. All the things you think you’ll need during your trip (think of your toiletry bag, sunscreen, powerbanks, camera and wallet) are best placed in a waterproof bag, because when they’re in a backpack they might get soaked. After an introduction to the rocky and razor-sharp islands around Coron and El Nido you end up on the open sea and the waves sometimes become quite wild!
The swirling sea paints beautiful landscape portraits as the hundreds of islands pass you by. If the constant moving up and down (and the endless attacks of the seawater) on the lower deck become too much, you can luckily shelter on the upper deck. Here you can also sunbathe, because believe me: you’ll need to create a bit of contrast if you want to take pictures on the pearly white beaches during this adventurous journey!

expedition el nido to coron

During my expedition from El Nido to Coron I saw some of the most beautiful places of the Philippines.

buhay isla island hopping philippines

Don’t just explore the islands from the water! The best views are often slightly higher up.

Spend the night on your own island

While you’re sailing to your base camp -and yes, you have that whole island to yourself- you’ll make a stopover regularly. That depends, of course, on how friendly the ocean is and how late you want to arrive. When your boat eventually drops its anchor, it takes a last swim over beautiful coral reefs before you reach your own island where you’ll spend the night. Your small baggage is expertly wrapped in large plastic bags and then brought on land with a canoe.
On day one, the ocean was rather turbulent during our expedition. Because of this we couldn’t dock at the originally planned base camp and so we arrived quite late at the next possible overnight stay. But to be honest… Swimming under a starry sky that is so clear that you can see the milky way isn’t wrong either!

You can actually compare your basecamp with scenes from Expedition Robinson (which was also filmed in the Philippines). A dozen small huts with a mattress and a mosquito net, a shelter where in the evening all bonding happens (and drinking games of course!) and of course a lot of sand and rustling palm trees.

You’ll not find luxury here!
During your expedition, electricity is limited to your power bank and the showers that you can take aren’t much more than a barrel of water and a cup to pour over yourself. The toilet is a miniature porcelain pot that you can flush with a scoop from a (different!) barrel of water.
Island hopping in the Philippines with this expedition is of course also the perfect digital detox. Trust me… A few days without internet works wonders for your social skills!

buhay isla philippines basecamp el nido

Don’t expect hotels, but simple huts. Amazing, right?!

buhay isla basecamp

In the evening and at night you get to know each other better under this shelter. But maybe that’s also (partly) because of the rum…

island expedition philippines buhay isla

This very basic shower is an adventure in itself!

Delicious and honest food

Although the expedition is quite adventurous, you don’t have to catch your own food. Well… You can of course always help to reel in some fishies, but it’s not a requirement.

Along the way you’ll be spoiled with breakfast, snacks, lunch and dinner. And expect a lot of choice along the way!

For breakfast you ‘re offered toast that you can coat with a layer of jam or butter. There’s also an egg and of course fresh fruit. Are you very hungry? Then try some garlic rice with your breakfast. Perhaps you’ll change into a real Filipino while doing so!

The lunch and dinner is very varied. Rice (Philippino power!), fish, shrimps, pork, vegetables and lots of fruits are put in a variety of different preparations for you twice a day. How can they cook such delicious food on a boat that constantly goes up and down? I still don’t understand it!

Along the way you’ll also be served some delicious snacks every now and then. Cookies are alternated with fried bananas (hm!!!), spring rolls or fried sweet potatoes.

Not bad, right ?!

All food comes from local markets (or is freshly caught) and so it tastes twice as delicious. Here you’ll not find meat that is injected with antibiotics or fruit that has been processed with all sorts of genetic modifications. The food here is delicious and honest.
Don’t wait too long to come to the table once dinner time is announced. Fill your plate with all the delicacies, because after a day of swimming, being lazy and sunbathing, you and your teammates will be quite hungry. Usually, nothing is left. Of course, you’ll never be left hungry, but a few extra scoops per person would’ve been most welcome.

island hopping philippines food

Fresh and delicious!

expedition unknown philippines el nido coron

There’s certainly no reason to complain about the food. There’s always a lot of choice and it always is delicious.

Boring? Not a second!

Because we’re used to constantly having an internet connection and being overwhelmed by notifications and messages, it may seem that island hopping in the Philippines is quite boring. Right?

Frankly, it didn’t get dull for one single second. The ever-changing landscapes, the discovery of the small islands, the fantastic snorkeling and of course your nice traveling companions ensure that your expedition flies by.
Every day is filled to the max because you spend a lot of time with sailing from one point to another and visiting the different islands. The day also starts early. You usually start sailing at eight o’clock in the morning.

Here you have no mobile data as a means of communication, but you can talk to your fellow passengers. And that’s really a good thing! Because otherwise you would miss out on a lot.
Everyone on board is of course adventurous, because otherwise they would never have booked such an expedition. It thus doesn’t take long before you start chatting with everyone.
It’s always interesting to get to know people from different nationalities and to exchange stories with. After dinner the rum is brought out and believe me: this certainly helps to be more social and to have fun at night.
The crew is also very nice! Admire their swimming talent (or how deep they can dive), watch their tricks with fire in the evenings or challenge them to a karaoke (This I guarantee you: you’ll lose). No, you don’t really get bored here!

During my expedition from El Nido to Coron, the age of my fellow passengers varied between 25 and 35 years old, but in Coron I met a Dutch couple of 40+ who were going to do the same tour. I don’t think it ever got physically exhausting or dangerous, so anyone of any age can participate. As long as you’re adventurous!

palawan expedition buhay isla

Just when you think it can’t get more beautiful, you get to see even more beautiful islands!

philippines islands buhay isla

The landscapes are constantly changing. It really never gets boring here!

Practical tips

  • Don’t forget to charge your camera. There’s no electricity on the island where you spend the nights. So if you want to make some great holiday snapshots (and believe me: your camera will get to work overtime here!) I recommend to bring enough batteries and a power bank.
  • Bring a stinger suit. In the ocean around these paradise islands, there’s a lot of jellyfish. Some jellyfish are more dangerous than the others. But in any case, you don’t want your expedition to end with a trip to the hospital, so it’s not a bad idea to cover yourself up with a synthetic layer so that jellyfish can’t sting you. You can also buy these in the Philippines for +/- 400-600 pesos. That would be about €6.5 to €10 or $7,50 to $12. Please note that larger sizes are often difficult to find here.
  • The same applies to water shoes. Often there are stones or hard corals close to the beaches and then sea shoes are a really good idea. In addition, there are some poisonous fish that you better not step on. You can also buy this footwear in the Philippines. Prices range from 200 pesos to 500 pesos. Also pay attention to limited sizes here. I had to put a lot of work into finding a shoe size 44 (UK: size 9,5 | US: size 10).
  • You don’t have to bring diving glasses and snorkels. You can borrow them from the boat. Would you like swim fins? Those you do have to provide for yourself.
  • Use sunscreen. The sun here is murderous! I was already pretty tanned before I started this expedition and yet I still burned.
  • Don’t leave your things lying around on the boat. Always put them back in your waterproof bag. Along the way the lower deck becomes soaking wet from all the seawater sloshing in. Clothing, electronic equipment or other stuff that you leave lying around might not really like too much moisture.
  • Take a refillable bottle with you. Plastic bottles are in fact banned and so it’s not a bad idea to bring a refillable one with you. There’s purified water on the boat (and at the base camp) so that you can always quench your thirst.
  • Feel free to bring drinks or snacks on board. During your expedition you stop in a fishing village once where you can also fill up on all the necessary stuff. I personally think that there’s plenty of rum, but you never know of course…

starfish philippines

Fortunately, you get snorkel gear and diving mask during your expedition. There’s much to see under water!

corals philippines island hopping tour

Coral reefs in thousands of colors, beautiful fish, gorgeous starfish and who knows what other treasures can still be found here!

Cost price

You can book excursions for three, four or five days. Three days with two nights and everything included costs PHP 15,500 (about € 260, $295 or £230), four days costs PHP 18,500 (about €310, $355 or £275) and for five days you’ll be charged €375, $430 or £335.
The exact prices and conditions of the expeditions can be found on the Buhay Isla website.

Don’t forget that this island hopping expedition in the Philippines is only in one direction. You thus don’t return to where you started from.
You can start the island hopping tour from El Nido and Coron (Palawan). Depending on your departure place you end up in the other.

buhay isla

This is undoubtedly one of the best experiences you can have in the Philippines.

Flights to the Philippines

If you want to start and finish your adventurous journey through the Philippines in comfort, then I recommend flying with Cathay Pacific. This award-winning airline offers a Premium Economy class on its planes where you are pampered to the max. You can read my own experience with this here.

From many places around the world you have a direct flights to Hong Kong and from there it’s only a two hour connecting flight to Cebu or Manilla. From there you can continue to the island of your preference by boat or plane. If you would like to book the island expeditions of Buhay Isla, then I recommend to fly to either Coron or to El Nido (Palawan).

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Hi, I'm Sam Van den Haute. The last three years I've been traveling the world almost constantly. Heading out for an adventure and visiting the most beautiful places are what I love to do! Let me inspire you with great stories, beautiful pictures and handy tips from my adventures and travels. On my facebook page and instagram account you'll get to see the latest updates and photos to inspire you for your next vacation.
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