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What is the Tao Experience?
Tao Philippines is an organization based in Palawan, a western province of the Philippines that offers various tours and expeditions in this jaw-droppingly beautiful archipelago. Now, Tao isn’t to be mistaken with just any other tour company or travel agency. Tao is a significant part of the Filipino community and a trip with them is something special to behold.
We decided to embark on Tao’s 5-day, 4-night boat tour from Coron, in the northern region of Palawan, to El Nido, which sits toward the middle of the province. (In December, Tao offers a 3-day tour as well). I felt that the beauty of the islands grew as we ventured further southward toward El Nido and would recommend this route for that reason (though Tao offers many to choose from). Traveling in the Philippines in December was also special as the Filipinos are positively obsessed with Christmas–you will hear carols being sung around the clock throughout this season.
After spending 12 days in the Philippines, this tour was hands down the best thing we did in the entire country (note – the Philippines is made up of over 7000 islands, so that’s saying something!) This post will answer all the questions you’re wondering about the Tao tour.
What is the Crew like on the Tao Experience?
25 explorers from all over the world, 10 Tao crew members, and 1 seadog.
These 10 crew members have proclaimed themselves ‘The Lost Boys.’ This arises only half-jokingly from the fact that the crew are all young ex-fisherman who grew up amongst some of Palawan’s most remote islands, and know the lay of the land (and water) like the back of their hands. These boys make up one of the most gracious, handy, fun-loving collectives of humans I have ever met. From the boat mechanic to the lead chef, each Lost Boy bears a responsibility to assure that each Tao guest has a safe, fun, and successful trip. From cooking the meals, to setting up campsites and bonfires, to sea navigation, you will feel grateful to have a crew that manages all the hard stuff so you can dive into a state of peace and relaxation.
What is the Tao Boat like?
The Tao boat was just over 30 feet long–the ideal size to fit the crew without us feeling like we were on top of one another. There is plenty of space to sit along the bottom of the boat, as well as a top deck that’s covered where you can hang your clothes to dry, read a book, or drink tea and get to know fellow explorers. The boat is functional for long days at sea, equipped with a kitchen, dry storage compartments, sound equipment, and–you guessed it–toilet. And if you’re worried about where your luggage goes, the center of the boat has a large locker area removed from the splashes of the main deck that has plenty of space to fit everyone’s bags. You will head to the center of the boat once you arrive to the campsite each night to pack a dry bag with you to the island with overnight items and a swimsuit for the next day.
What are the Campsites like?
Each evening we would arrive at a campsite we knew nothing about, on a new island we had also never seen before. You’ll realize in your own Tao Experience that the crew doesn’t share too much about what’s to come. Each campsite was unique and had it’s own charm to it. Most nights we were in a hut made of organic materials in a traditional style–but that was impressively water tight and allowed for just the right amount of shelter for the tropical setting. The Lost Boys provided mosquito nets to give you that thin layer of protection from the elements, and the rest was history:
The crew will set up your bed (a mattress, with pillow, sheets, and mosquito net) inside these beach huts. You will sleep hearing the waves crash all night! I went on the Tao tour in December where temperatures are “cooler” (read: around 70 degrees) in the evenings. Regardless, personally I had some issues sleeping from being hot and paranoid about mosquitoes who, regardless of the net, found someway to get to me! Not everyone had this same experience–my boyfriend and others ended up sleeping like a baby every night and came out of the tour without any bites! But I share this to confide in you the various opinions of sleeping at night. Either way, mosquito repellent is a must for this expedition. I have a few items I recommend to bring to those that need a cool space when sleeping. Check them out here.
You will find yourself showering outside every night with fresh water. Make sure to pack your shampoos and body wash. You will want to soap down good after being out in the ocean all day!
There are basic western toilets at each campsite. The Lost Boys will make sure you’re stocked with toilet paper and that the restrooms are kept clean. You’ll want to make sure that the toilet paper is thrown in a trash can as there isn’t modern plumbing on the islands and a bucket flush is used.
Only one of the four nights did we have electricity to charge up. I highly recommend that you bring a few extra portable battery packs to charge your devices, especially if you’re looking to get a lot of video footage. You will want to capture the beauty of these islands so it’s important to have your phone/camera/drone juiced up!
No electricity means no Wi-Fi. TBH, you will hardly check your phone on this trip. Really the only thing you use it for is to snap (gorgeous) photos. I did find that I had signal for a call on some of the campsites, and even at times while we were out on the boat. Every evening involved sitting around the basecamp with the crew and the group and chit chatting–talking about the similarities and differences of our lives in different parts of the world, debating politics, and swapping travel itineraries.
What do you do everyday on the Tao Excursion?
Everyday was an adventure! The beauty of Palawan does not get old. You’ll experience moments of pure gratitude as you view onto the edged mountains out in the sea, completely disconnected.
We did not have an itinerary that was given to us on the trip. We really didn’t know what to expect each day. It was fun to embrace the unknown and you’ll realize that the Lost Boys are (intentionally) quite vague about what to expect. Embracing the unknown is what the Tao Experience is all about. Entangled within our excitement, there was a curiosity and eagerness about not knowing what the day held, what items were on the menu, and what our campsite would look like. Tao in many ways is a perfect digital detox, and all about living in the moment.
What I can tell you is that every day will give you multiple opportunities to dive into the ocean and snorkel. And on may days, you’ll see glamorous coral and brilliant underwater wildlife. You’ll get to hang out on bare islands, as well as some islands with locals on them. You’ll bathe in the sun and you’ll chat with people from around the world. You’ll get time to finish a book or two and truly ‘get away’ from your daily realities. To give you a brief idea without spoiling too much–this is what our days looked like:
- Coral Garden for snorkeling & lunch
- Ngey Island for snorkeling and beach
- Pukay Camp
- Cliff jumping & lunch
- Kulay for snorkeling and beach Alavor villages to buy fish
- Toboggan Camp
- Cogdanao Island for snorkeling and beach
- Cobra Island for snorkeling, beach and lunch
- Takling Island for snorkeling and beach
- Tao Center Camp
- Daracutun island for snorkeling and beach
- Nacpan beach for lunch and beach
- Cadlao Camp
- Tapluta island for snorking and lunch
- Inbablala island for snorkling
What about the Jellyfish in the Philippines?!
Anyone else worried about jellyfish?! We saw some jellyfish during our snorkel adventures. A few of us got stung a couple times, but they were mostly painless stings. It felt like someone pinched you for a second. We didn’t develop any bumps or rashes either. But it’s always good to be prepared and bring some jellyfish guard (you can find a complete list of what to pack here).
The food on this tour is worth the price of the tour itself! Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks are served daily by the crew. And let’s just say that when it lunch time came around, our entire group would go silent as the Lost Boys would come out one after another to set up the afternoon’s ensemble. Food on this excursion is the definition of farm to table. The Lost Boys were busy catching fresh fish off the boat, or preparing fresh fish purchased from an island town en route to El Nido. All of the fruits and vegetables are organic and the chefs are trained by Tao to cook some of the most incredible meals you’ll experience in the Philippines. Bold statement, but you will believe me once you experience it.
Our favorite night was the 3rd night of the trip. That night our basecamp was at the Tao Center Camp, where a lot of the crew members had received their training to become a ‘Lost Boy.’ I found this to be the most beautiful campsite. There are locals and Tao employees living on the Center Camp island, farming and raising cattle. This evening, the crew served us a special 7-course dinner replete with various meats and dessert that was SPECTACULAR. Seriously, it was all anyone could talk about the rest of night. What was so special about this dinner aside from the courses? Well, if I tell you then I wouldn’t be doing the Tao way any justice. You will just have to experience it yourself! 😉
Speaking of farm to table: let’s just say the 4th day that became quite literal. The crew took a pig from the previous night’s basecamp so we would have pork for dinner that coming evening. We had the option to see how to kill a pig or go snorkel. The brave stuck around to watch. The Lost Boys showed us not only how it’s done but how to clean, cut, and shave the pig properly for roasting. And we ended our last night with a slow, fire-roasted pig that was delicious!
The Drank Drank
The Lost Boys are quite proud of their Jungle Juice. This is the drink of choice throughout the trip. Made from Filipino Rum and pineapple juice, this drink is meant to be enjoyed after a day of being at sea! Not into rum? The boys will also serve beer, ginger tea, coffee, and have mineral water available all day long.
What are the people on the tour like?
While the composition of every tour group will be slightly different, our particular tour group contained 25 people from all around the world–Morocco, Australia, the Netherlands, China, the UK, Austria, and the US! This isn’t necessarily a “young people tour” or a “millennial tour.” We had people of all ages represented! It was lovely connecting with folks from all over the world and comparing notes on our experiences–of travel and of life!
My favorite moment with our group was on our last day, after our last dive when we started to arrive in El Nido, the Lost Boys finally turned up some music on the boat (music is usually kept on in the back where they’re cooking to respect everyone’s taste/comfort) and we all ended up standing up and dancing around on the boat celebrating a trip well done!
Our group ended up having such great chemistry that even when the tour was over, we got a WhatsApp group going and grabbed dinner together in El Nido!
How much does the Tao Experience cost?
Upfront cost: ~$545 per person
The Tao Experience is cashless; upon arriving to your briefing on night one, you will be given a bracelet, similar to one you may receive at a music festival that you can “load up” with cash-equivalent credits. I loved the convenience and innovation behind this idea. It’s better to just have your wrist scanned than search for cash to buy a beer or item on the island.
Tao recommended us to deposit 3000 – 5000 ($35-$95) pesos for the trip. As someone that doesn’t drink much, I barely used 1000 pesos on the duration of this trip. Whatever money is not spent is given back to you upon your arrival in El Nido. Even in the case you spend your allotted money, Tao gives you flexibility to ‘top on’ more cash to your deposit.
How to pick between a 3 day tour or 5 day Tao Tour?
10/10 I would recommend the 5 day tour. My only caveat would be that if you are on the more bourgie/high-maintenance side (you know who you are), do the 3-day tour.
Why does supporting Tao feel so GOOD?!
Tao is an organization that not only gives travelers like us an opportunity to understand and see a bit of the Filipino island lifestyle and explore the beauty of the country, but also empowers and gives back to rural various communities in the Philippines. You must see it to believe it yourself.
You may also like to read: Absolute Must Items to Pack | Tao Experience | Philippines