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The mild drone of an unseen engine swelled over the murmuring waters of El Rio Y Mar. Much like the night before—when the music from a far-off yacht silenced the shoreline—there was an illusion of sonic singularity, a perception that only one absolute layer of sound lied between the ears and utter silence.
The longer we stayed at the resort located in Busuanga, Palawan, the more it became apparent that there is an aural mandate governing the area. The sounds of the bay, it seemed, can and will give way to nearly any intermittent resonance clamoring from a distance. To the locals and regulars of El Rio Y Mar, this is called “peace.” To Gem Jordan, the head of the resort’s guest services department, this is also the reason as to why most people come here.
“Most of our guests are Europeans, balikbayans and honeymooners who enjoy the quietness of the environment and the calmness of the waters,” said Jordan, “It’s like this even when we are fully booked.”
Along with photographer and writer, Nana Arellano-Aoyong, I first saw El Rio Y Mar on April 12 while riding a speedboat heading toward its much older sister resort, Club Paradise.
From a distance, the place looked like an underwhelming strip of white land lined with cottages concluding the rolling green of two towering land formations. At the center of the property was a lengthy dock that stretched from the coastline to a structure that initially looked like a cabana stilted over distinctly turquoise waters. We returned to it on the late morning of April 14. As our speed boat moored toward the dock, we were met by a vivacious musical greeting sung by the staff of the resort. When the song ended, we were introduced to the quietness of the bay.
El Rio Y Mar was founded 13 years ago by Jorgen Wranke. It was developed in order to serve as a quieter alternative to Club Paradise. Because of this intent, it was placed on a shoreline facing a bay in Busuanga. During the time of our visit, there were twenty-seven cottages providing accommodations to the resort’s guests. They were sandwiched between the shore and a wall of mangroves. They were also categorized in three kinds: the Casa, the Cedar Cabana and the Native Cabana.
The shelter at the end of the dock that welcomed us was actually the Port Caltom’s Reef Bar which is open as long as there are guests. Apart from this, the resort had other facilities including an outdoor, indoor and floating spa. The latter was placed on the bay itself. It also had a souvenir shop, a dive center, a library, an information booth, an indoor gaming facility, a pool and a frequented restaurant named Al Fresco.
But of all the things we learned about the resort, the most important, perhaps, was the golden rule: keep it down. “Whenever I orient guests, I always make it a point to tell them that we do not allow noise or loud music in the public areas of the resort,” said Jordan.
Rules aside, the peacefulness of El Rio Y Mar is mostly due to the quietness of the bay. Its waters have been long tamed within spines of mountainous land enclosing the area. Jordan stated that the calmness of the waters is such that it even attracts a number of unusual guests. More than a refuge for man, the bay has also been a haven for yachts, seacows and other unusual aquatic life forms that visit the resort whenever the nearby South China Sea becomes far too testy.
Testing the Waters
El Rio Y Mar: it is a Spanish phrase that roughly translates to the “river and sea.” Fittingly, a number of activities offered by the resort would allow guests to get to know the waters better. Snorkeling, for one, can introduce a more deceptive side of the timid-looking bay.
Standing on the deck of Port Caltom’s on the second day of our stay, I prepared to go for a swim with a pair of goggles, a mouthpiece and the figures given to me by the bartenders. Around 15 to 20 feet: that, according to them, is the depth of the water below the bar. The double-digits did not seem intimidating until I actually dove in to discover what those numbers meant.
The expanse of the world below was vast and ominous. The stilts holding up the dock form a grand though narrow corridor populated by surgeonfishes, spotted scat fishes and other species of aquatic life unknown to me. In an attempt to further explore the suddenly electric blue underworld, I took a deep breath from my mouthpiece, and paddled deeper. But the bay would not have such foolishness from me. The waters of El Rio Y Mar may be timid, but they are not to be challenged imprudently. A jutting pain began to prick my eardrums and the whole of my body began to acknowledge the foreboding undertone of the water’s weight. This is the bay’s manner of scolding me—an imposing, all-consuming admonishment that forced me to seek the surface.
Because of the calmness of the bay, the resort can accommodate a wide variety of water sporting activities. The list includes diving, wakeboarding, kneeboarding, banana boating, and of course, waterskiing. Other exploits also include island tours that will allow visitors to experience Diatoy, the arresting bareness of Isla Walang Lang-aw and the remarkably jagged grandeur of the Rock Island.
But out of all the activities offered by El Rio Y Mar, kayaking around the Gozie land formation best demonstrates the difference between being in resort and being somewhere else in Palawan.
Accompanied by Andrew Maglala, a member of the resort’s staff, I kayaked across the bay to reach a far off mangrove tunnel barely visible from the coastline of the resort. The passageway was a tame maze walled by the inconsistently sinewy trees ubiquitous in the borders of the Busuanga bay. Emerging through the tunnel, we passed beneath the shadow of the Gozie and headed for a larger water body leading toward the South China Sea.
Soon enough waves began rocking our kayak. The waters began drenching our clothes with a sinister, though still manageable, force. This was when I realized that we have already paddled far from El Rio Y Mar. When the heavy swaying ceased, when my hands were already visibly blood shot, and when the tides no longer leaped into our kayak, I knew that we have successfully traced the circular path around Gozie and returned to the embracing calm of El Rio Y Mar’s bay.
On Higher Ground
The offerings of El Rio Y Mar are not solely confined to “the river and sea.” Exploits on dry land are also within its list of activities. The most popular among these is an early morning hike up Hunter’s Peak—a massive land formation looming at the back of the resort.
One can ideally begin climbing Hunter’s Peak at 5 in the morning, when its silhouette no longer has the capacity to blur the difference between its shape and the dark of the sky. Along with our guide, Anthony Coloquingan, my photographer and I began the hike at around 5:30. It was a steep upward path initially made of makeshift steps and stable, through shabby, wooden railings. At the higher half of the trail, once the railings end, the path became less vertical but the steps of wood and soil were also replaced by an erratic staircase made jagged by marble-like rocks.
It was a challenging hike to complete within 10 minutes. The reward for the hike, however, was worth it. A few minutes after we reached the peak, Coloquingan, gasped excitedly. “There!” he said, pointing to the East.
The sunrise, as seen from the crest of Hunter’s Peak, is a slow dramatic burst of orange spreading over the islands of the South China Sea. Its shape was precise and its brightness was still bearable enough for anyone who would wish stare. And we did. No talking. At that time, it was El Rio Y Mar’s turn to silence us.
Keepers of the peace
There are those who come to El Rio Y Mar for the experiences and memories taken from the view, the bay and the calmness of the resort. But there are those who leave with more than that. Trace the coastline of the resort from end to end and chances are you would be greeted at least once by a member of its staff. This is the culture within the sparsely populated community—a contagious way of life often inherited even by those who are merely visitors of the bay.
“One of the things that I like about El Rio is the fact that people here are so friendly,” said Amelia Leesch, a 16 year old German girl visiting the resort with her family. “Everyone always greets you and asks you how you’re doing. That’s not very common from where I came from.”
But according to Jordan, it takes more than visible cordiality for one to be considered a member of El Rio Y Mar’s staff.
“You see that marker over there,” Jordan told me while we stood at the dock. She was pointing at a bouy floating far-off in the bay. “To be a member of the staff, you have to be able to swim to that marker and swim back without flippers, goggles or a snorkel mouthpiece. It’s necessary to ensure that you would be able to save guests from drowning if needed.”
A look, however, at the guests of El Rio Y Mar, and a look at its cleanliness would tell you it takes more than superb swimming skills to be considered a member of the staff.
“We take the initiative to familiarize ourselves with other languages so that we can serve guests well regardless of their English skills,” said Jordan. “We also take the initiative to clean whatever we can of the bay and the surrounding areas because even nearby locations that are not really part of the property can be associated to us. It really is added work on our part but we do it because we want to preserve the resort.”
Compromise: for the sake of peace, it is something often seen in this part of Palawan—from the waters that do not sonically challenge other sounds to the hard work of the staff. In our three-day stay however, we learned that the preservation of the El Rio Y Mar experience is a twoway process between the resort and its guests. For instance, if you want to see one of the best sunrises in Palawan, you have to wake up early for a steep hike. If you want to know the waters of the bay, you have to brave it.
“A lot of hard work goes into producing the best experience possible in this resort,” Jordan said. “But this is worth it.”
After she said this, the aural landscape at the wake of her voice took its place between the ears and utter silence. This is the sound of the bay, the soothing murmur of waters so timid that it can only be heard clearly when you’re willing to stop talking—when you’re willing to give peace in order to find peace.