The town of Port Barton (more of a village, really), is quietly nestled on the coast of Palawan and might be best described in terms of what it doesn’t have rather than what it does. It doesn’t have any banks or ATMs, it doesn’t have any medical facilities, it doesn’t have any electricity outside the hours of 5:30 pm to midnight, meaning it doesn’t really have internet, nor does it have much of a clubbing or nightlife scene. Perhaps not unsurprisingly then, it also doesn’t have many visitors.
This wasn’t always the case, mind you. No, just a handful of years ago, Port Barton was pretty much a mandatory pitstop on the multi-legged journey from Puerto Princesa up to El Nido. While it’s doubtful it was ever bustling, it certainly saw more traffic than it does today; with El Nido’s growing popularity came a paved road between it and Palwan’s capital city and now the trip can be done in about 6 hours and passes nowhere near Port Barton at all. For in truth, Port Barton itself is not really near anything, being at least 5 hours of driving on rough roads from Puerto Princesa, and while there is no direct transport option to El Nido by land, you can take a 12-hour boat ride if time is on your side.
Given all the things Port Barton doesn’t have, you might find yourself wondering why exactly you would make the effort to come and visit. El Nido isn’t exactly a frenetic, fast-passed locale, but if the prospect of sharing your island paradise with large groups of other tourists is a huge turn-off for you, Port Barton may be more your speed. It offers many of the similar attractions of El Nido, but on a smaller scale: where El Nido has more guesthouses, restaurants and dive shops than you could ever hope to tire of during a vacation, Port Barton only has about 15 hotels, all lined up along its white sand stretch of beach, you have less than a dozen restaurants to choose from, and if you want to go diving, you’re picking between two operators. Island hopping is organized by strolling along the beach past the handful of bangka boats: inevitably a boat captain will approach you and try to negotiate an outing. After 2 months in the Philippines, we were well-versed with sleepy towns, but there is somnolent and then there is Port Barton. Truly, if you are looking to unwind in a place that seems poised to be reclaimed by the barely tamed jungle from which it was originally carved, Port Barton may just be the place for you.
Variety might be the spice of life, but it’s almost as though Port Barton understands that sometimes as a traveler, the worst thing life can offer you is too many choices, inundating you with options and possibilities until your prefrontal cortex overloads and you just desperately want to let someone else drive while you take a time-out and passively gaze from the passenger seat out at your life. Not for eternity, but just for now. Port Barton may not have much on offer, but at least on this front, it delivers. Port Barton is the kind of place where, away from all possible distractions, it’s easy to believe that all that exists, all that matters, is this very moment.
Port Barton is a place that lends itself to not doing much of anything at all, certainly not work of any kind, so for three days we succumbed to its thrall and gave ourselves completely over to Port Barton’s lazy allure. We spent long days loafing about in hammocks, glutting ourselves on books, both good and bad, while also doing admirable impressions of people suffering from narcolepsy, so frequently did we drift off to sleep at random intervals throughout the day. Brief spurts of energy led to our only sources of exercise which took the form of casual cavorting in the ocean and meandering jaunts down the sole street that runs the village straight through, as though it’s been impaled, generally in search of meals and snacks. Three days was long enough for us to get into the habit of oscillating between two places, one that offers a decadent Red Velvet cake, the other a pumpkin & shrimp curry that is so cheap and so good that I ordered it every single time without any guilt.
Maybe this slothful, sleeping city sounds like paradise to you. I certainly won’t argue that it’s not, but there is a dark side to this idyllic hideaway that may not be initially obvious. Although you can venture to Port Barton and feel as though you’re in a quiet, chill city that has somehow managed to avoid tourism’s spotlight, with a little more time spent, you realize the relaxed vibe is perhaps less purposeful than one might hope. Port Barton is a lovely place, but it is also a hotspot in decline, a destination that is dying. As I toured the limited infrastructure of the town, I realized that many of the hotels, restaurants and local businesses were closed, perhaps because it was no longer high season, but some of them had an air that made me wonder whether high season would ever occur once more in Port Barton. These are vestiges from a time when tourism flourished and businesses were built to meet with a demand that clearly no longer exists. There is a certain brand of traveler that likes to scorn destinations for being overly touristy, but I can’t help but wonder whether there is anything sadder than visiting a place that was once popular and now sits in the shadow of its former glory, its halcyon days squarely behind it. In a country like the Philippines where poverty runs rampant and is an inescapable fact of every day life, visiting a place like Port Barton is not without its somber moments, despite the overall placid veneer. Seeing so many businesses shuttered and closed was sobering, and every time we ventured out onto the beach we were approached by one persistent young man offering island hopping tours. Alas, having come from El Nido where the scenery is better, we had no real desire to do another tour. Moreover, with no ATMs and our cash running low, we couldn’t really justify paying nearly double the price of the tours offered up in El Nido—demand is lower in Port Barton, so prices are higher as a result. For three days we would look up from our hammocks and see the man, hardly more than a boy, sitting out on the beach in front of our hotel, ever vigilant of our whereabouts as he simply could not afford to miss us should we decide to take a tour. One day he sat there for 8 hours straight. When Tony went out to tell him that as much as we would love to go on a tour with him, we simply couldn’t afford it, he smiled ruefully and said we were the only visitors so he would wait, just in case we changed our mind.
So there is a tranquility to Port Barton, yes, but there is also a sadness. Our time there made me think deeply about what our responsibilities are as travelers and whether it is possible to see the world without changing it. So many of us venture out on our trips hoping to come back changed, but how often do we stop to think of the symbiosis of travel, the fact that just as the places we visit can transform us, our being there changes those places as well? Back in Pingyao, we saw firsthand what happens when a place is transformed by tourism to the point where it is grotesque mockery of the thing that was initially worth visiting. In Port Barton, we saw another side to tourism left unchecked, witnessing the devastation that remains after the storm has rolled through and consumed nearly everything in its path.
There is no doubt in my mind that traveling in the Philippines and spending your money at local businesses is one of the best things a traveler can do—this is a country filled with kind, lovely hard-working people who would very much benefit from our money. And yet places that enslave themselves to the tourist dollar play a risky, and potentially short-sighted, game. When the money is flooding in, it’s easy to push self-reliance aside and enjoy the party, as fishermen give up their craft and focus instead on ferrying tourist around to beautiful islands, while general stores and cantinas close to make way for souvenir shops and yet another Italian resto-pub. But what happens when the winds change and tourists move on? Come to Port Barton and you will see the answer for yourself. It is the very reason why I try to keep certain places off the map—not because the locals wouldn’t benefit from your money, but because I don’t want to damage the delicate balance they have achieved, in which tourism makes up but a fraction of their livelihood. Perhaps if Port Barton had done the same, it would not be struggling as it does now.
Life slows to a crawl in Port Barton, and it’s almost as though the village is in hibernation, a Brigadoon made real, harnessing its reserves so it can burst back to life should the stars align. Time passes so slowly here that you sometimes wonder if it hasn’t just stopped but has actually started to go backwards. Perhaps in time El Nido’s growing popularity will prove to be its own downfall, sending intrepid travelers in search of something less touristy, something exactly like Port Barton.
But at least for now, the town continues to slumber and wait.