Once a safe harbour for Spanish galleons, this beautiful area is now a fascinating tropical wonderland for divers, sailors and holiday makers alike. There really is something for everyone...
Puerto Galera, Philippines
Puerto Galera is a busy town on the beautiful Muelle harbour located at the northern tip of a large Filipino island called Mindoro. Surrounded by tiny islands and pristine beaches, the waters teem with marine life and coral. It is still considered one of the safest and most convenient natural harbours in the world and is often used as shelter for large oceangoing vessels in typhoons.
The ‘Port of Galleons' first became popular among seafarers in the prosperous years of trading during the 10th century. Chinese records show frequent trading with the indigenous Mangyan people. The beautiful rivers cascading through the mountains were rich in gold, which the Chinese traded for delicate glazed porcelain. The islands were abundant with other bounties such as jade, coral, shells, birds, rattan and many other treasures that attracted an abundance of foreign traders.
Puerto Galera became a regular stopover for merchant vessels sailing along the important trade routes of the Near East, Indian coast, Indochinese coast, China, Philippines, Sumatra, and Java.
In 1983 an Australian diver by the name of Brian Holman, discovered a 15th Century 'balanghai', a Malayan sailing vessel containing hundreds of pieces of blue and white Ming Dynasty pottery in the Manila Channel approach to the harbour. Puerto Galera became massively popular within the dive community as a result of this and after salvaging operations, directed by the National Museum, several dive resorts were opened along the coast adjacent to the town.
“Surrounded by tiny islands and pristine beaches, the waters teem with marine life and coral.”
You can still view examples of the blue and white Ming Dynasty porcelain in the Museum located in the church compound.
Puerto Galera was discovered by the Spanish during one of the explorations made by Martin de Goiti and Juan de Salcedo on their way to Manila in 1570. The Spanish referred to it as 'mina de oro' (meaning “gold mine”) from where the island got its current name, Mindoro.
Augustinian missionaries settled Puerto Galera in 1574 as the original capital of Mindoro. Galleons coming from Mexico and Spain used the presence of an excellent port to take refuge during stormy weather before proceeding to Manila.
It's said that once sailors set foot on the island,
they never wanted to leave without a promise to come back. The surrounding mountains and the good harbour served the Spaniards well as shields from the Moro pirates and other marauders.
The coasts of Puerto Galera were guarded by a Spanish warship named Cañonero Mariveles. However, on November 18, 1879, the ill-fated battleship was hit by a powerful storm, which caused it to sink off the west coast. As a tribute to the lost ship and its crew, a wooden cross was erected right at the centre of Muelle.
The Catholic missionaries established their religion in the area in 1574 and the modern day community is still predominately Catholic. So much so, they have built a colossal replica of the Virgin Mary just outside Batangas and overlooking the Verde Island Passage. At 96 metres tall the Montemaria (or Mother of Asia) can be seen all the way along the north coast of Mindoro. She is dedicated to the unity and peace of all nations and stands in a pose of blessing to all across sea and land.
Puerto Galera has been on my bucket list for a long time, with stories from family and friends fascinating me through the years. Of course there are many ways to see this natural wonderland: you can sail here (more about that later), you can fly in and out on a seaplane from Manila or you can catch a ferry from the port of Batangas. The 'banca' is a fantastic way to get around the islands, basically an outrigger with an engine, they come in big and small sizes and are plentiful and cheap.
If sailing is your passion, but you can't handle the drama of open seas and customs, there is a terrific option in Puerto. Once here, you can rent a house owned by a local Australian yacht club member Allen Burrell, which comes complete with a yacht at your disposal. Pluso two very noisy and angry looking white guard-geese!
We arrive on a banca from Batangas, scooting across the Verde Island Passage until we reach long white sandy beaches, lined with coconut palms. Fortunately we have a friend who has a very nice house perched atop Bocqette Island, with an awesome view - our digs for two weeks.
The only setback of being perched atop anything is the climb up and this was no exception, with hundreds of dry stone steps to conquer many times a day!
Mornings are magical, with monkeys swinging through the treetops, weird and wonderful tropical birds calling to each other, the kissing sound of the gecko and the putt-putt of the bancas busily making their way about the
harbour. It would be hot, except for a consistent cooling breeze that repels keeps sweat and mozzies at bay. That's a good thing because there are no windows or flyscreens.
Just a short banca, (or if you're lucky like us, our friend's brand new rigid inflatable) ride across the Muelle Bay is the bustling little town of Puerto Galera. The arrival jetty is crowded with people waiting to board ferries and locals trying to sell pearls and trinkets – it's a noisy, jumbled mess with no real order but plenty of character. The beach-front is in a state of disrepair with many buildings half finished, but rest assured, I am told it will soon be a new frontage of restaurants and bars – with a water park, no less!
The best way to explore the town is in a tricycle. This is basically a motor bike with a covered side car, mostly stainless steel and very colourful. The potholed roads are full of tricycles and the ride was both hilarious and little bit scary. There are stray dogs everywhere who, miraculously, manage to get out of the way just at the last moment.
The town has a wonderful market – a good place to start – with vendors selling fresh colourful vegetables and every cut of pork and chicken imaginable, including the heads and offal. There's no refrigeration, but I have to say everything smelled fantastically fresh. The fish section was full of buckets, running over with water, and all kinds of shiny eyed, glistening creatures from the deep waiting to be purchased for your dinner. Again, all I could smell here was fresh ocean. Just outside the market was a vendor with rows of shiny, lidded tin pots. Inside, all the favourite Filipino dishes were bubbling away, ready to fill up takeaway containers.
There is another form of transport here (and the main mode in Manila) called a Jeepney. A post World War II innovation, they are basically the Jeeps left by the US army, lengthened to accommodate more passengers and then covered to protect them from the heat. They are now made in Manila, almost always stainless steel and decorated in riotous colours with kitsch decorations.
From the town of Puerto you can head on a 20 minute trip to the mountain top Ponderosa Golf Club, a nine hole par three course, with breathtaking views of the harbour. Even if you're not a golfer, it is a beautiful spot to have a snack or meal with a drink while sitting on the deck and enjoying the view.
Another day trip option is Tukuran Falls, just one hour's travel from Puerto. These falls are one of three in the area, the other two being Aninuan Falls and Tamaraw Falls. Before you go to Tukuran Falls, make sure you have everything you need for the day: drinks, snacks, swimming costumes and insect repellent. There is no store at the falls and some very hungry mozzies lying in wait!
It'ss approximately a 30 minute walk through dense jungle and across a couple of streams to reach the falls, so you need to be in reasonably fit condition and wear appropriate footwear to tackle the walk. Once there, you will find a series of gentle cascades into crystal-blue swimming holes, perfect for a refreshing dip, a picnic and some great photos.
If it's people, nightlife and beach you are hankering for head to White Beach, about 15 minutes tricycle ride east of Puerto. There you will find lots of hotels and restaurants with plenty of action during the day, in the form of a large collection of strange looking, huge inflatable toys that the locals tow along behind jet skis for your fun and amusement. At night you can watch the fire dancers on the beach or sexy floor shows performed by the beautiful ‘lady boys', while sipping on a Mindoro Sling or a San Miguel beer.
Alternatively, you can go island hopping in a banca, zipping in and out of the beautiful pristine beaches. Stop for a swim or snorkel at a turquoise bay, have a BBQ on the beach like a local (take your own meat) or visit the resorts for a drink or snack. Close to town is the beautiful, tranquil resort and bar, Fridays. A little further down the coast of Mindoro is the Italian bar and restaurant Luca, where you can satisfy your craving for pizza or salt and pepper calamari. At Sabang Beach is the Australian-owned restaurant El Galleon, where you can order from a range of international dishes or sample the local cuisine.
Outside El Galleon you can purchase a beautiful hand woven basket from local ladies, made by the indigenous Magnyan people from a plant called the nito vine. Just make sure you declare it on your entry home.
DIVE RIGHT IN
Puerto Galera is famous for its numerous diving sites. The area was designated a Man and Biosphere Reserve of UNESCO in 1973 and has some of the most diverse coral reef diving in Asia.
Underwater Puerto offers vibrant corals that are bursting with colour and teeming with marine life. It is estimated there are over 3000 species of fish and marine animals thriving here and these can be seen in many different dive sites, including wrecks, caves, deep diving, walls, sloping reefs and thrilling drift diving.
As well as corals, fish and (sometimes bizarre) sea creatures, sea turtles are common and often spotted close to shore. There is a family of rare giant clams very close to town, in quite shallow water, so it is relatively easy to view them while snorkelling. Just grab a banca and head out early before the crowds, it gets busy!
The area has approximately 40 top dive sites, these vary between five and 40 metres in depth. The best diving conditions are between April to September when the seas are at their calmest and the visibility is highest. Sabang Beach (west of Puerto) is the place to go for dive shops. Here you will find a plethora of very good operators, with PADI dive courses, day trips, night dives and and array of guided excursions on offer. It is also home to the area's sleazy side, but you can avoid it if it's not your thing.
Loaded with garlic, chilli, pepper, vinegar and fragrant herbs, Filipino food is a fascinating mixture of cultures and flavours. Having been occupied by the Spanish, American and indigenous Mayo-polynesians – whose influences come from Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese and Arab traders as well as Japanese – Filipino food is often referred to as the ‘original fusion cuisine’. One would think it might be confused and complicated, but it is the epitome of balance, with sweet, salty and sour flavours all in perfect harmony.
Pork is the favourite option for protein and dishes like crispy pata (deep fried pork knuckle) and spit roasted baby lechon (yes, suckling pig) are absolutely delicious. Chicken adobo is a heady
mix of garlic, vinegar, soy, pepper and bay leaf that will have you coming back for more.
Then there's a crispy form of spring roll called lumpia, that can be filled with whatever takes your fancy, including chicken, pork, seafood and even plantain, which is a cooking banana, wrapped in a thin rice crepe and fried in a sweet sticky sauce – addictive!
The Chinese influence is obvious with a dish called pancit canton which is basically a wheat noodle stir fried, loaded with chicken, pork, shrimp and all kinds of vegetables and a tasty sauce. It is a meal in itself.
Nestled in the safe and protected anchorage of Muelle Bay lies the hospitable Puerto Galera Yacht Club. The club is the organiser of many yachting events during the year and provides essential weather information, including typhoon warnings and seven day weather forecasts. Friday nights are locals' nights at the club, a good way to meet like-minded sailors and share a few yarns, I hear the barbecue baby back ribs are okay too!
If you are planning to sail to the Philippines from Australia, you should avoid the areas around Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, as there are still pirate and terrorist groups active there. You will need to contact the relevant authorities to plan visas, customs and immigration clearances and quarantine if applicable.
There are several internet sites with good advice and handy contacts. Make sure you do all the research you can before planning an international sailing trip and keep in mind the Philippines comprises 7641 islands.
HOME SWEET HOME
After all the excitement of exploring, boating, diving and eating it is lovely to come ‘home' to our private abode. Equipped with a private swimming pool, a wonderful open balcony (with an awesome view) and our own lovely housekeeper/cook, Jane, this house is just the ticket for a totally relaxing, tropical getaway.
The house sleeps up to 18 people and has a media room and large dining room, but the best bit is that you can rent it through Airbnb.
Our trip back to Manila is on the sea plane out of the Sand Bar. It is a wonderfully scenic flight back over all the glittery, aqua blue bays I have come to know.
Just before we land, we cross over the Taal lake and inside the lake is the Taal volcano, who's crater is filled with water and contains a small island. The locals like to tell you it's an island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island…yep, it made my head hurt too!
All too soon we are skidding over Manila Bay to come to rest at the jetty and the bucket list holiday is over. Not forever though, because I know I will return to this beautiful paradise one day, just like the Spanish sailors promised to.
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE 'Bancas' are used for fishing and transport; But new RIBS make the journeys much easier! Game-fishing is a popular pursuit among expats; Short trips around town are available in the sidecar-equipped 'tricycles'.
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT Abundant islands beg exploration by water; Pork features largely on the Filipino menu; Just another perfectly located villa; Jeepneys are the local version of the public bus; Market stalls offer a welath of tropical produce.
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE Emerald waters protecting secluded coves hide around every corner of the Philippines; Seaplanes represent a terrific way to see the region from the air.