Buhay Isla: Why You Should Do A 4-Day Island Expedition of The Philippines

We walk the beautiful line
Between primitive and homely

Sleeping in thatched huts
Delighting in manual showers
Walking by firelit lantern
And waking to the rising sun

We are not the masters here – nature is.
We are merely visitors passing through.

This is Buhay Isla.

After the time I have spent exploring Palawan Island in The Philippines, if I could give you one recommendation only, it would be this: skip the single-day island hopping tours and invest in an expedition instead.

You Should Know This First

I’m the type of traveller who likes to get my hands dirty. I can camp for days without a shower in sight or happily bathe in a lake. I don’t like to plan very much and tend to go with the flow. I love to be surrounded by nature, stars, animals, and the sea. Having said that, we were provided with showers (which I used daily, for the record!) – they were manual (aka a bucket of water) with cold-to-lukewarm water. We slept in beautiful little beach huts that, in my opinion, were much more exciting than any fancy resort.

Because we were at the hands of the ocean and Mother Nature, things didn’t always go perfectly to plan. One island visit was shifted by a day but the crew was always extremely accommodating and worked hard to stick to the plan. Given all of that – if you’re happy to go with the flow and get down and (just a little) dirty with Mother Nature, this trip belongs on your bucket list.

So, now I’ve gotten that out of the way, here are some of the many things you’ll love about this trip:

Pristine Islands, All To Yourself

While day tours can take you to the local sights around El Nido or Coron, they have become so popular that you’ll be sharing the islands, reefs and yes, your photos, with at least a dozen other people on a good day – and closer to 50 on a busy day. The expedition took us beyond the tourist trail – to islands surrounded by vibrant blue water, elaborately topped with coconut trees and white sand that confirmed what we already knew: we were in paradise. And it was all ours.

A Whole New Family

As cheesy as it sounds, the friends I made on the trip started to feel like family after 4 days of living together. The banter got wilder as the days went on, and the laughter got louder. We all swapped contact details on the last day and some of us met up again in the next town we visited. The best part is that we came from all over the world –now I have friends to visit in The Netherlands, Demark, Romania and The Philippines (my wonderful crew buddies).

Disconnection (If You Want It)

Personally, I love to do a wee bit of soul searching, journaling, and deep thinking on trips like these. Although we technically did find phone reception on many of the islands (enough to keep up my Duolingo streak), I had warned my friends, work colleagues, and family that I wouldn’t be in touch for 4 days, and that was exactly what I did.  I was enjoying being present too much to be anywhere else. Disconnecting gave me a chance to think without all the outside noise. It allowed me to slow down and enjoy the simple pleasures nature can offer, and to do a lot of reading.

Delicious, Fresh and Healthy Food

The food was well beyond my expectations, and some of the best food I’ve had in The Philippines. We were served plates upon plates of rice, delicious vegetables, tofu, pork belly, crispy chicken, and fresh fish, with an abundance of tropical fruit for every meal – buffet style so you can take what you like. The chefs catered very attentively to specific dietary requirements (vegan, vegetarian, diabetes, and any other request you may have), and even if you’re just a picky eater (ahem, me), you will have no trouble finding dishes you love. We were served pancakes, fresh fruit, eggs, and different meat each breakfast, and mealtimes were always a shared gathering. Morning and afternoon tea were also provided, with biscuits, fruit juices, and homemade fruit snacks in abundance.

The Crew

In any great business, it is often the staff who bring it to life. This is absolutely the case for Buhay Isla, and I will never forget the way the staff treated me and became like friends. There was the fateful evening of the briefing… where I proceeded to throw up in their office thanks to food poisoning (yep – that really happened). They warmly sent me home in a tricycle and rebooked me for a trip later in the week without a question. When I returned 3 days later, fully recovered, they greeted me like an old friend. We were all welcomed like family and that infectious comradery spread through the entire group like wildfire.

The guides were equally kind, helping me with my enormous suitcase (I don’t think I carried it once), taking extra care to protect my precious camera gear from the water, and diligently checking on everyone’s needs. As the days went by, the crew joined in on the banter and the activities and as a solo traveller, I spent much of my time diving, walking and lounging on the beach with my favourite guides. They had local knowledge and a zest for life that was infectious.

Cliff Diving, If You Dare

7 metres (approx. 23ft) might not sound like far, but when you’re staring down it, it certainly feels like it. If you love an adrenaline rush or just want to face your fears, this is a must for you. I’m proud of myself for leaping off that cliff and grateful, once again, to the wonderful crew who literally held my hand through it. This was a big highlight for me because it sent the fear of day into me, but man it feels good afterward. There are higher spots if you’re feeling particularly daring, or you can always opt for jumping off the boat if you want something a little more chilled.

Oh, The Stars

As you might expect on a remote island completely free of light pollution, the night sky is remarkable. Whether you’re up for lying on the sand and naming all the stars in the Milky Way, or simply a romantic moonlit stroll to the bathroom at midnight – there is something truly magical about the island at night.

Under The Sea

I’ve never grinned so hard with a snorkel in my mouth. The marine life on this trip was essentially untouched by man or pollution, with coral so bright and colourful that it almost seemed impossible. There were more fish than I could name – my personal favourites being a real-life swordfish, a baby manta ray, Nemo in the flesh, and a gorgeous rainbow-coloured fish that glittered in the light. I’m not usually much of a diver, but this felt a little like heaven.

Glamping On Islands

The mornings were magical. From the moment I woke up, to gentle pink sunlight leaking into my A-frame thatched hut. I would step outside, barefoot, onto soft white sand, and wander down to the water to watch the sun rising. I had the beach all to myself while the rest of our camp slept their hangovers off. This is the kind of stuff of my dreams and on this trip, it became my reality.

Arriving

Staring at El Nido as we sail towards it – our final stop – I felt bittersweet. This town looked beautiful and lively, but a huge chunk of my heart (in fact, maybe all of it) longed to stay on the boat. Just for another day, or maybe a week or a month. I didn’t miss warm, running showers or the luxury of hotel beds and fresh linen. I missed the stars, the untouched ocean, the coral, and the sand. I missed beaches to ourselves and the simplicity and freedom of life on a boat. I missed my new family. We all squeeze each other goodbye, the crew and the travellers.

When I arrive at my hostel, I look in the mirror for the first time in 4 days. I’ve spent so much time in the sun that my lips have grown lighter, hardened in places. My skin is a patchwork of sunburn and tan and small bruised spots where I’ve slipped on the boat (and off it). My hair is lighter at the ends, bleached in the sun, with loose sandy curls. There is a new sprinkling of freckles across my nose, and when I look in the mirror, my eyes sparkle. I’m alive.

How To Book

Head to www.buhayisla.com to book your trip online – you can book two different options:

  • 3 Day, 2 nights – 15,500php (approx. $300 US).
  • 4 day, 3 nights – 18,500php (approx. $360 US).

Trust me – it’s worth spending a little extra to enjoy one more day exploring.

What To Pack

Clothes

  • Swimmers – you’ll live in them.
  • Enough clothes for 4 days (shorts win here, or a wraparound skirt is useful too). Try and pick clothes that dry easily.
  • Water shoes or old running shoes – so you don’t hurt your feet on the coral or sea urchins.
  • Flip flops.
  • A light jacket.
  • A rash shirt – to protect you from jellyfish and plankton.
  • Towel (or two if you want a separate beach towel).

Entertainment

  • Camera gear, GoPro, drone, etc.
  • Phone – a waterproof case is handy too.
  • A good book or Kindle.
  • Earphones or earplugs if you’re a light sleeper.
  • Beer or any daytime drinks you’re after – Rum and Coke is served in the evenings in abundance.

Essentials

  • A headlamp.
  • A dry bag (big enough to fit everything you need for one night on an island) – 20L should be good.
  • Snorkeling gear (if you prefer your own – but it is provided too).
  • Sunscreen (LOTS of sunscreen) – choose something reef-friendly like Sun Bum.
  • Mosquito repellent (containing citronella for the sandflies).
  • Seasickness medication (if you need it).

Toiletries

  • Shampoo, conditioner & body wash (or Dr. Bronner’s for all 3).
  • Tampons, pads or a menstrual cup (highly recommend a menstrual cup for this trip, both for environmental and longevity reasons).
  • Hairbrush (I barely used mine but I’m a grub).

I’m extremely humbled and privileged to say that this post is sponsored by Buhay Isla. However, my words and recommendations are as sincere as it gets, and I couldn’t recommend this trip more. It is truly one of the best experiences I’ve ever had (alongside The Ski Week), and a unique and remarkable way to see the Philippines. I’ve said it many times and will say it again, thank you Buhay Isla, it was an honour to work with you and your incredible team!

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