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The Beauty of Bohol: 2006 First Impressions

After the big earthquake that devastated much of Bohol, I regretted not ever having written anything about this beautiful place. Maybe because it was one of my favourite hide-aways that I refused to divulge its secrets to others. But now, I am sad that I never spoke about the many reasons why people should visit Bohol at least once in their lifetime. They will never see it as I saw it then, as it was evolving as a prime tourist destination and must-see vacation spot.

Bohol first captured my heart during a visit in 2006. I was still recovering from the end of a long-term relationship, and travelling was my only consolation. I did not know what the island had to offer in terms of tourism then, and I would’ve been happy to simply have an airconditioned room, with a bathtub, cable TV and room service during my entire stay there. But the rental car guy I contacted was too enterprising a businessman, that not only did he find me great and affordable hotel, he also doubled as a “tour guide” of sorts. And that was also the beginning of a lasting friendship with my “suki”, Rod. Over the years, I would keep recommending his services  to both family and friends visiting Bohol. So there it is: one of Bohol’s great treasures is its wonderful people.

First travel tip I learned in going to Bohol – you can double it with a side trip to Cebu. The plane fare is much cheaper to Cebu from Manila than going to Tagbilaran City directly. So take a day-tour or stay a few days in Cebu, before crossing over to Bohol via ferry boat from the port. One can have an itinerary much like a trip to Northern Mindanao’s Camiguin Island, where you can fly-in from Manila to Cagayan de Oro City, enjoy CDO’s sites or maybe drive over to Bukidnon for a day, before sailing off to have some beach fun at the island.

And so it is that Bohol is famous for its nice beaches in Panglao island in particular. But for my first visit, I went to see its caves and hills, its various flora and fauna, just as its own kind of “eco-tourism” was being advertised then. Rod’s services includes airport or pier pick-ups, before dropping off your stuff at your lodgings. Travel tip No.2, if you aren’t there to enjoy the beach anyway and will just be spending most of your time checking out the different tourist spots all day, accommodations in Tagbilaran City proper area would suffice. There are a lot of bed and breakfasts, pension houses and motels you can choose from with clean, spacious and airconditioned rooms at a much cheaper price range. City-based hotels also abound and some of them have swimming pools which more than compensates for the lack of a beachfront view. 

Preliminaries over and done with, Rod whisked us off on a 7-spot tour right away. Our first stop was the Hinagdanan Cave in Dauis, Panglao Island. This underground tourist attraction boasts of a freshwater pool where people can take a quick dip. Be warned though that the stairs going down are quite steep and sometimes slippery. Hence, if you are with elderly companions or people afflicted with arthritic or weak knees, you can skip this tourist site. An underground cave, it has a few electric lights but having your own flashlight can still be useful if you wish to have a clearer view of its limestone stalactites and stalagmites.    

Next up is the Blood Compact memorial which features life-size bronze statues depicting the historic meeting between the island’s chief, Datu Sikatuna and the Spaniard Miguel Lopez de Legaspi. Here they performed the ancient ritual of “sandugo” to forge peaceful and diplomatic ties. They say blood is drawn, not from the arm, but from the chest – just above the heart, and the blood is then collected and mixed with water or wine and equally divided to be drunk by the primary parties. Residents here believe the actual site of the blood compact is nearer one of the rivers, probably Loay, where Sikatuna and his party personally met Legaspi and his men. So this marker, for all its historic significance and appropriateness for photo-ops because of its great view, may not be that accurate after all.

Next stop is Baclayon Church or what is actually the Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception parish. Admittedly one of the oldest churches in the Philippines, it was originally established in the 1500s and was used by the Jesuits. The Augustinians eventually took over and its reconstruction into the classic coralstone building is now their most valuable contribution.

Like most churches, it was constructed utilizing forced labor of the locals. Boholanos were made to cut the coral straight from the sea and haul them inland to be mixed with eggs and molasses to bind them together. These carefully selected materials made for a strong structure that could endure the ravages of time. Till now, you can see corals and seashells imbedded in the limestone flooring near the façade of the church.      

Further on is another old church, Loboc’s the Church of San Pedro. This is where the Spanish friars moved their parish after realizing that Baclayon church’s location near the coastline exposed it to Moro marauders or pirates. The length of the Church of San Pedro spans a portion of the Loboc river and provides an awesome view of the waterway from the main road. However, the overflowing waters have flooded the church many times.

Near Loboc Church’s distant belltower, an unusual structure stands; an eye-sore of an unfinished bridge mars the landscape because of some government officials’ lack of respect for their Boholano heritage. Had the construction project pushed through, it would have entailed the demolition of one of their most popular parishes.

By the river are boats that can be rented to give you a few minutes ride to the small waterfalls, or to the other end where the brackish water of the river meets the saltwater of the sea. The “Floating” Restaurant meals are “a-must” though, and most tourists take advantage of the midday break to enjoy the spot. Besides a relaxing boatride on the river and a buffet meal, there is likewise on-board singing to entertain you, so the reasonable fee they charge is well worth it.      

After taking in lunch at Loboc, we soon left to see the famous Chocolate Hills located in the distant town of Carmen. On the way, we passed by an area planted to numerous mahogany trees. A tree-planting project in the 1970s by the local Boy Scouts, it has now grown into a splendid forest known as the Man-made Forest of Bilar. Perfect for some outdoor picture-taking, it actually gives one a feeling of being in Europe or in North America. More than three decades since that seemingly irrelevant outdoor activity, the Bilar forest now seems a worthy natural investment. 

Still far from the actual look-out point of the Chocolate Hills, approaching the town of Carmen from the long winding road already gives one a glimpse of the curious mounds rising out of the plains. Several hills dot the landscape which in summer look like giant chocolates, but which in the rainy season appear verdant like avocado ice cream scoops.

Travel tip No. 3, one must be physically fit or healthy enough for much of the walking and climbing to be done. Once again, one’s knees must be in tip-top shape to climb the hundred-or-so stairs to the look-out ridge. You can get about the same scenery at several rest-stops before the top if you’re not up to climbing all the way. The only difference is besides a “panoramic” view of the Chocolate Hills, there is also a bell and wishing well at the top which adds material to your photo album/scrapbook.

On the way back, I told Rod I had to see Bohol’s unique marsupial, the tarsier. The Philippine Tarsier is such a rare animal and it is believed to be found only in the province of Bohol. Fortunately, the souvenir shop where we went also had a Tarsier Reserve of sorts. The cute creatures were no bigger than one’s hand and clung to tree branches, peacefully sleeping the day away. Once it gets dark, that’s when they move around and scavenge for their food in the forests. Since they are so sensitive, tourists can’t touch or pet them. We had to content ourselves with photos taken from our cellphones or cameras with flashes turned off.  

Since there was still some daylight left or because he likewise enjoyed touring me around, Rod took me to two other “tourist” spots worth visiting, but not really known to the other tour guides.

The Hanging Bridge souvenir shop is where also the “buko-eating superman” lived. This middle-aged local man was already featured on Filipino television with his ability to crush open and shred a whole coconut with his bare teeth and hands only. For a small “donation”, he will show you his unique talent.  A few kilometres away was also Prony, the over-sized pet of a Bohol resident. Caught from the wild as a young snake, this reticulated python grew so fast in size and was now a several inches thick and several meters long…unusual for its age.

I was asking Rod so many questions about Bohol’s tourist spots and he gamely answered all my queries. Clearly, not only was he proficient in his home province’s unique features, he truly loved the places and things he grew up with and was proud to share them with visitors.

I would be back in Bohol many times over with family and loved ones, for leisure and for business. And each time, Bohol would have something new for me to see.