On the morning of the 12th we caught a ferry to Tagbilaran on Bohol island. On arrival we intended to book a hostel (the only one with online booking on Panglao Island) that had been empty the night before… and found it fully booked. We scrambled and found a resort for $25 a night- more expensive than we wanted, but manageable. After a tasty lunch at Buzzz Café, a local owned organic café connected to a bee farm on the island, we went to our resort. The booking experience was frustrating, then add the fees tacked on to the price when we got there and bad attitudes. Needless to say we weren’t eager to go adventuring. Instead we spent the night in, hand washing our very smelly clothes, cleaning our dirty things and bodies, and trimming up Keenen’s beard. This took a long time, as he didn’t bring an electric trimmer. He assumed he’d be able to buy one here, forgetting that most Asian men don’t grow facial hair. The only trimmers we could find in the big malls in Cebu cost upwards of $40 for low quality, so a razor and shaving cream it was for his neck hair, and scissors for the beard. It was his first experience with a razor, and he was utterly terrified I’d accidentally slit his throat the whole time. I tried to tell him the blades weren’t long enough, but irrational fears are called such for a reason.
Feeling well rested the following morning we rented a motorbike to drive to Bohol island from where we were staying on Panglao (which has all the good diving). As we were driving our back tire popped, and we’re fairly certain the hotel gave it to us that way. So, we got to have the experience of stopping at a vulcanizing shop. Luckily there was one nearby. Instead of replacing every inner tube on bike tires when they pop, the Filipinos take them to vulcanizing shops to be repaired. It was a fascinating process to watch, and all the while the mechanics children were playing around us and brightening our day. Two hours of daylight lost later, we set back out to visit the tarsier “conservation” area in the national forest.
**Pro-tip: We’re not a big fan of the resort we stayed at, they haven’t treated us well at all. Never stay at the Panglao Chocolate Hills Resort!
The national forest looked very different from the other wooded areas we’ve seen on the islands, and gave us a nice look at the indigenous vegetation. Most of the islands are covered all over in palm trees, even in higher elevation areas where they shouldn’t grow. We’ve been told that this is because many years ago when coconuts became the number one export of the Philippines, coconut palms were planted everywhere possible. The indigenous trees are tall, spindly, and create wide canopies. They keep heat from reaching the ground; we noticed it was significantly colder in the areas they grew.
Once we reached the tarsier “conservation” area, or more accurately tarsier tourist amusement center, we were amazed by the tiny primates. In the small walkthrough we saw 8 or so tarsiers sleeping in different trees. They are about the size of my fist, with tails longer than their bodies and eyes that take up the majority of their face. And they are unbearably cute. We were annoyed with the other tourists though, as not many of them could seem to understand the “Silence Please” signs posted throughout the complex. Apparently, when there are loud noises near tarsiers, they get so completely terrified that they release their grip on the tree they’re in and fall to the forest floor, likely killing themselves! I shuddered to think at the tarsiers that have met this end while at the conservation area on busy days.
Afterwards we went to visit a viewpoint for the Chocolate Hills. These are a collection of bizarre, conical, almost symmetrical limestone karst hills. The land between is perfectly flat and covered in rice fields. They dot the entire center of the island and are covered in long grasses that flow in the wind, creating mesmerizing patterns. We watched the grasses flow for a long while. After the hills it was close to sundown, so it was time to make the long drive back to Panglao. We decided to explore Panglao city, but there wasn’t much to see and even less to eat. We finally found a locals barbecue spot for dinner, and we’re fairly certain we made their night. Then we turned in for a much needed evening of R&R.
On Valentine’s Day we set out to Alona Beach with intentions of diving. We found a shop to take us on a local beach dive with the goal of finding seahorses. During the deep dive, we unfortunately couldn’t any seahorses (the divemaster thinks they were scared away by a large group of inexperienced divers we saw ahead of us that destroyed our visibility by kicking up sand), but we did spot dragon sea moths doing a mating dance, more banded sea snakes, and more beautiful corals and fish. The dive was relaxing and we adored our friendly Spanish divemaster, Sara. I highly recommend the Bohol Diver’s Club in Alona Beach, Panglao!
**Pro-tip: If you are a diver, or ever plan to dive, BE CONSIDERATE OF THE OTHERS IN THE WATER! If you can’t control your buoyancy, at least stay well up enough off the bottom that you won’t kick up sediment! Sand in the water ruins visibility for everyone. Oh, and NEVER, EVER touch coral! Touching it kills it, and every coral is precious.
After the dive we rode across the island to visit Hinagdanan Cave, one of those tourist attractions that has been surrounded by people trying to get your money. We found it annoying and underwhelming, as it was far less beautiful than Bukilat Cave in the Camotes and five times the price. Afterwords we visited a much nicer spot listed on maps.me, a mini mangrove forest and path around a beach. There was no price to get in, the mangroves were expanding from conservation efforts, and there were zero tourists there! The beach was full of tide pools with little crabs, local fishing boats off the coast, and gorgeous greenery. We stayed until sundown, then got back on the bike to head towards town.
We had a delicious vegan meal at one of the very few restaurants we’ve seen in the Philippines that care for the environment. It’s easy to understand why care for the environment here is minimal, as most of the population here has more pressing concerns like providing clean water and food for their family. Nonetheless it’s frustrating, but when you see people even these conditions do their part, its impossible to understand why those with the privilege to care about it don’t. After dinner we met up with some friends from Moalboal for a night of Valentine’s partying. We started with three bottles of $3 Tanduay Rhum and coke shared amongst 8 of us during a tame round of Pim Pom Poom. The night ended dancing in a club in Alona beach with companions that were far more intoxicated than us. Our new Deutsch friends were enamored with our “cuteness” as a couple and we had a fantastic night.
The morning was less fantastic, though, as we had to be at the dive shop at 7:50 for a trip to Balicasag island. The boat ride was rough, but jumping in the water fixed everything. Balicasag is home to large and well managed marine protected area and sanctuary, so the diving was magnifique. In the course of three dives we saw 11 green sea turtles, the largest parrot and angel fish we’ve ever encountered, mantis shrimp, eels, and nudibranchs galore, a personal favorite of mine. There is no feeling quite so wonderful as being truly weightless and floating in the water. Our hangovers fully forgotten, we reveled in the extreme beauty of the relatively pristine reef. Between dives, we got the experience of a lifetime, and saw a large eagle ray jumping out of the water. This is something that we’ve only seen on documentaries; an extremely rare event that we’d be willing to pay for a special trip to witness. We feel incredibly lucky.
Our favorite moment of the dives? Along a wall, a half-bowl shaped out-carving in the rock created an arena. Every inch of the curved surface was covered in life: colorful, neon hard corals, anemones, sea cucumbers and shrimp, feather stars, many shades and shapes of algae, and most abundantly, soft corals. Pastel pink and lilac branches, swaying in the water, filtering out their food. Each coral colony branched into stalks. Atop each stalk, many combed arms, every one opening and closing like a blooming flower. Swimming amongst the corals were hundreds of tiny, brightly colored fish in every color of the rainbow, clownfish darting in and out of their anemones, and eels snapping in crevices. In the center of the arena, a large and docile green sea turtle, lazing carelessly around in the water. If only we had brought a camera, though no lens could do it justice.
After the dive we were very tired and even more hungry, so we had burgers for linner and rode our bikes to secret beach we found the day before. The beach, a hidden gem purposefully kept secret by the locals, is located behind a short walk through a young mangrove forest. We set up our hammocks between the palms and whiled away the remaining daylight hours reading. Once it got dark we went back to the hotel to rest.
On Wednesday we woke up to downpours outside, so decided to spend the day in relaxing at the hostel that we moved to that morning, Coco Farm. The liquid sunshine feels nice, but makes it a bit too dangerous to ride a scooter around. Fortunately, most of the other hostel guests chose to do the same, and with a fantastic kitchen and WiFi there was really no need to leave. We spent the day chatting with other travelers from around the world; South Africa and Australia, Britain and Scandinavia, even Morocco. When we got hungry we dined on coconut curry, tasty Filipino style tacos, fresh mango juice, and the delectable dessert known as mango float (graham crumbs, fresh mango slices, and sweetened, condensed milk in layers). As the night wore on the rhum came out, as it’s exceedingly cheap and surprisingly tasty, and so did the ukuleles. With a little liquid courage we had a group pow wow and jam session. It was great fun.
The following morning we set out early on a motorbike to see some of the more hidden sights of Bohol. We rode onto the main island of Bohol to attempt to find some caves listed on the map, but couldn’t find them. We zipped around the tiny island of Santander and relished in the views of the local beaches with distant mountains on the horizon half hiding in the fog over the water. Most of our time was spent cruising along the road and enjoying the lush greenery, spectacular mountaintop views, and more of the bizarre chocolate hills. We stopped in the middle of nowhere at Lake Pilar, surrounded by rice terraces and carabao (water buffalo). On our way back towards town we stopped at Habitat Bohol, a butterfly sanctuary, and went through a silly and ridiculous tour with a surprisingly funny tour guide. We enjoyed the brazen jokes and wacky photos he had us pose for nearly as much as the beautiful butterflies.
After a quick bite of barbecue pork we met up with some new Australian friends, Lauren and Harry, for a firefly tour on the Loboc river. Our guides took us out in narrow canoes with support struts on either side and paddled us down the serene river. By daylight, it’s emerald waters and bountiful foliage make it a sight to behold, but at night the trees come alive. Thousands of fireflies buzz up and down the banks, each a little glow of starlight. These fireflies, unlike all the ones I’ve ever seen in the states (which tend to be yellowish) had a stark greenish-white glow that made them look like stars. When we finally reached the firefly tree, we were amazed at the colony living inside. On every limb rested a firefly. Those stationary on the tree slowly pulsed their lights, while the ones flying around continuously flashed. Rain cut our journey short, but I’ll never forget the beauty.
The following morning we woke up before the sun for a long day of travel to Malapascua. A cancellation debacle at the port and dishonest portage workers made for a stressful morning. So many Filipinos are nice and friendly, but many others in the tourist towns only want to take advantage of you. With the new administration in power, though, corruption is slowly and loudly dying and reporting services are effective.
**Pro-tip: When you feel like you’re being swindled in the Philippines (a taxi refuses to use the meter, a porter charges you more than the sign says, etc.) the magic words are “I will report you.” And if it doesn’t work, ACTUALLY DO IT. I talked to a lot of tourists who felt they’d been cheated, but none of them did anything about it. I called the reporting agency, and they were furious and sorry for what had happened. Help be the change you want to see in the world!
Two ferries and long bus ride later we arrived on the tiny island where we would have an experience we’d only ever dreamed about: diving with thresher sharks.