Life is never fair, a theme we all find everywhere we look in life. When it comes to natural beauty of a place, for instance, the Higher Being must have played favorites when it showered abundant beauty on this chain of islands we call Palawan, found at the western part of the Philippines, the last frontier facing West Philippine Sea. Even if we pick a random island, one just a [giant's] throw from Coron, we’ll find nature’s beauty that we all ought to see and [wait, there's more] experience — where the Kayangan Lake is found.
The trip to Kayangan Lake is like watching a good movie, we suppose. The trip, just like a movie, naturally starts with the build-up, goes through various stages of conflict, arrives at certain points that feed into a finale. The trip to Kayangan Lake starts with a 20-minute leisurely boat trip from the town of Coron, Palawan.
The view from Coron is typical of a beautiful island destination: blue-green waters, punctuated by white waves, hugged by green mountains at the horizon. Nothing special at first glance. It would be just like any lake, one would be tempted to think. But, just like the movies, there are interesting twists in the plot or a change in a character’s personality that make the story more interesting and compelling.
As the boat gets nearer to land, what appeared as a solid mass of green mountain turned out to be a cluster of rock formations. And just like any jaw-dropping movie scene, the beauty of the karst landscape — wrapped by white sand/stone and propped up by gorgeously clear waters — slowly comes into view as the boat does a soft turn around the rock towers.
We often hear people admire the beautiful rock formations, technically called a karst landscape, surrounding Kayangan Lake. Of course, we didn’t know what “karst” means. We were even unsure how to spell it. Only much later did we learn that a karst is formed when water eats into soluble rocks through the years. Seeing the landscape with your own eyes is entirely different. For us mainland dwellers, the view is so alien it’s hard to believe that we’re still in the Philippines. Still, this vista, no matter how beautiful, is just the appetizer.
Boats converge on a hidden cove where the narrow path to Kayangan Lake is found. At the start of the climb to Kayangan Lake, at the foot of the hill, stands a summary of reminders for guests. The basic rules are contained in the short list. Down the list is a reminder that Kayangan Lake, as well as its surrounding waters, is an ancestral domain of the indigenous Tagbanua people. What does that mean, you ask? Well, if we want to complicate our lives, that relates to ownership rights over this piece of property. If we want to stick to what is connected with the trip to Kayangan Lake, that means Tagbanua watchmen are empowered to enforce rules meant to protect this natural wonder.
Near the bottom of the list is a reminder that travelers often read and hopefully take to heart: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, keep nothing but memories, kill nothing but time.” In this article, we’re sharing the photos we took, retracing the footprints we made and recording a tiny portion our memories.
Swimming in the lake is allowed, but, the rules say, “diving and kayaking at Kayangan is prohibited.” These rules make absolute sense once you’ve been to Kayangan Lake. There’s really no need to expressly prohibit kayaking because no sane person would carry a kayak up the steep climb, a physically demanding task that we’re going to describe down this post. And diving? Don’t even think about it. The karst formations are naturally made up of rough rocks, razor-sharp in certain areas. The water is so clear it’s hard to distinguish whether the rock at the bottom is near or far from the surface.
When swimming in the lake or enjoying the surrounding area, guests are reminded to “keep noise…to a minimum.” And that’s not the only thing that should be kept to a minimum. Guests are reminded to use chemical solutions (sunblock, mosquito repellants, etc.) to a bare minimum. Heavy use of chemicals by guests who come in constant stream would definitely affect the delicate balance of the lake. “Visitors are required to bring their garbage and refuse outside the domain for proper disposal.” No wonder Kayangan Lake is generally regarded as one of the cleanest lake, if not THE Cleanest Lake, water in the Philippines and Asia.
Guests are reminded that “bringing of food and beverage is prohibited,” most probably to maintain cleanliness. Eating, which is restricted to the boat that ferry guests to the island, is not a problem. The tour guide and the boat crew cook fresh food while the boat is moving, such that guests enjoy a hot meal as soon as they get to the destination. The transportation and food, as well as the entrance fee to Kayangan Lake, is included in the standard tour package.
Besides, bringing food and beverage to Kayangan Lake is not a good idea. You don’t want unnecessary baggage, trust us. By “unnecessary baggage” we mean anything other than what you’re wearing. You can bring bags and what-not, but would you really want to do that? Getting to the lake involves a 300-step steep climb and descent. You have to do that all over again when going back to the boat.
The challenging trek is about 15 minutes, some say. Others say it takes around 30 minutes. There’s really no safe estimate. It depends on one’s level of fitness (and how many photos one would like to snap up there). An athlete would probably need only 5 minutes to complete the trek. Even so, at the top of the climb is a ledge that provides a perfect spot to take one’s photo with the gorgeous rock formations as background.
Jagged rocks surround the uneven steps. One wrong step and you’re likely taking a speedy, and extremely painful, shortcut to the bottom. Along the entire path, there are rickety wooden rails that trekkers could use to stabilize themselves. At certain points are wide resting areas, proof of how well people here know their guests — most are probably out-of-shape tourists like us.
Getting to the top of the hill is only half of the trek because you have to go down the other side. Come to think of it, it’s more of a quarter of the entire trek because you have to do the entire walk upon going home. At the top of the climb, through the sweat and exhaustion, is a clear view of limestone cliffs or karst towers protruding in the middle of sea. Breathtaking. Postcard-perfect. Arguably one of the most beautiful vistas in the Philippines. Yet, this is another appetizer. The main draw waits below.
At the other side of the sheer limestone wall is the beautiful Kayangan Lake, said to be a mixture of 70% fresh water and 30% seawater. A wooden platform is built at the edge of the lake, allowing tourists to better navigate the otherwise challenging rocky outskirts.
The water is serene and clear, the bottom of the lake edge can be seen. Perfect for a cool dip. And snorkeling. Life vests are standard (and free) but snorkels must be specially requested (and rented). We highly recommend bringing your own snorkel, if you have one, because it would come very handy at Kayangan Lake, at the nearby Twin Lagoons, the Coral Garden, the shipwrecks and just about anywhere the Coron island-hopping takes you.
The Kayangan Lake is a symbol of a lot of things. It slaps home the point that we have to stay fit to fully enjoy travel and life in general. It showcases the inherent beauty of the Philippines and the wide diversity offered by the country’s 7,101 islands. It shows why it’s more fun in the Philippines. It illustrates the sustainability of tourism when the local community works hand in hand to protect the environment. It represents a common theme in life, that success is sweeter after conquering challenges. Be sure to include Kayangan Lake in your bucket list.