Port Barton, where young men hold strings attached to boats as if they were walking the family dog. Yet here in Port Barton the boat holds far more importance than the family dog, it holds a great deal more importance than pretty much anything else, save for maybe prize-fighting roosters.
Fish are obviously the stock and trade that form the lifeblood of these small coastal towns. Picturesque bays harbor collages of floating murals and bundles of sticks that make for typical Filipino rigs. In recent years the maritime trade has shifted from fish to a more lucrative catch: tourists. They are bigger, more plentiful, easier to find and carry a higher reward. This is a refrain heard multiple times throughout the Palawan archipelago.
Fishermen and their children have quickly adapted in the span of half of a generation to cater astutely to international tourists and the prey that they hold most dear: snorkling, mineral water, brightly colored sarongs, recognizable food made to order at all hours and, above all else, beer.
It’s startling to see the influx of tourism at work. Where pristine coast exists one wonders if there is also an accompanying expiration date. How long until resort developers and hotel chains “discover” these paradisal wonderlands..? For El Nido the assault began about a dozen years ago and the traffic of tricycles on its central streets and crowded beach fronts of ocean-facing bars are evidence of having reached a cultural and economic tipping point. The local industry has slide irreversibly into dependence upon foreign money and tourism; I doubt there is any way back now. Also evidence of this anxious transition are the counter-balancing handpainted signs: “Land Not For Sale: NO TRESPASSING” and “Lot Available, Tourism ONLY.”
There is a sense that a goldrush has come to ruin the charms that pass as a venerable attraction in this place: genuine slices of lazy tropical paradise. It is gorgeous. Sharp limestone karsts burst out of azure seas and sumptuous creamy beaches. The tall rock faces and fascinating formations are framed by tufts of mango and coconut trees below, smatterings of lush green canopies and stark white tree trunk silhouettes atop. Actual monkeys reside in the forests and most beaches really are accessible only by boat.
This is heaven.
The color of the water is beyond difficult to describe, I have spent the last two weeks contemplating its qualities and aquamarine of supernatural origin is the best I can muster. The tint of the seas honestly does seem otherworldly, rich teals, lush and welcoming chartreuse, soulful royal blue. Sporadically but with mystifying frequency the water is so crisp and clear that the tint of the water permeates to the ocean floor some twenty feel below. It teams with ocean life and there is no end to the fascinating and curious life forms cohabiting there. Bright purple-yellow blobs (coral?), blue-grey starfish with meaty fingers like hotdogs, sharp black anemones, orange and white striped clown fish, nearly two dimensional flashes of rainbow with radiant red in the middle, massive schools of tri-sized fish (minuscule, tiny, and small) appear as undulating silver flashes that surround me as I bob at the surface taking it all in.
No wonder people come from far and near to experience this bliss of vibrancy. No surprise that those with means would have the will to capitalize on the inexplicable beauty. Ah! but therein lies the cruel flipside of any beautiful place and it accompanying tourism: it creates a curse and leaves a wake of despoiling behind. The pristine beauty of a place attracts ownership and commodification in the form of predictable package tours. The presence of tourism demands an economy geared towards suiting the travelers needs: predictable services, accessible points of interest, cheap souvenirs, bedding options in abundance and designed for multiple budgets. Often this economy is highly seasonal and mercurial.
Port Barton feels like even more of a paradise than El Nido, hardly comparable in my esteem. I cringe even to write about the mystique of PB for fear of adding to the din of contaminating attention this lesser-known ocean-front town inevitably will attract.
El Nido is hardly sophisticated but it nearly seems so in as much as it is adept at catering to daily surges of tourists. Compare that with Port Barton: serene, no tricycles to be found, calm people, doleful dogs lounging about and a cadre of boats tucked up right next to coconut trees that shade the narrow beach. By nightfall the only sound is the lapping, sometimes crashing sound of the waves.
The only things to dislike in PB would be the void of modern convenience (electricity from 6pm to 11pm only), over-friendly locals (broad smiles and unobtrusive, enthusiastic conversation), absence of Internet (non-existent wifi or otherwise difficult to locate), and stunningly slow pace of life. (If you’re really in the spirit of what this place is, none of those things really count as bothers.) The only thing distasteful is the cockfighting and noise it’s patrons generate. Otherwise, give me difficult to access, even more difficult to leave Port Barton over the bustle of convenient El Nido anyday, thanks.