Part 8: Palawan

Palawan was not in our initial plans due to its relative remoteness to the rest of the Philippines.  However, having read about it rated “The Most Beautiful Island in the World” only 2 years ago, we decided that considering we were already in that neck of the woods, it had to be visited.  It was also the 5th biggest island of the country, so remote or not, we won’t be short of things to do and places to see, even if we were to stay put there till the end of our trip.  We only had one week left anyway…

With all necessary preparations made the day before, we woke up the next morning to the sound of rain – definitely high time to leave Bohol!  Another ferry starting with a prayer took us to Cebu in 2 hours without any incidents (maybe there was something to those prayers, after all…).  The rain in Cebu was pouring even harder, but we only had a quick taxi ride to the airport to catch our flight to Puerto Princesa on Palawan.  Just the name of the place promised adventures of royal proportions, and sounded amazingly grand!  One hour later, we were there.  The sun was shining, the temperatures were warm, and the surrounding looked temptingly promising.

We had only a rough plan for our stay on the island.  From what we could see on the map, Palawan was actually a long mountain range, sticking out of the Sulu Sea, and stretching from Southwest to Northeast for the impressive 425 km.  The capital, Puerto Princesa, was bang in the middle of it.  Online resources promised amazing places and great parties in El Nido, on the Northern-most tip of the island.  All of them unanimously agreed that getting either to the North or to the South of the island from Puerto Princesa was a bitch due to the length of the journey, mountainous terrain, and lack of easy public transportation options.  We were mentally bracing ourselves for an 8-hour bus-ride, but did not make any commitments just yet.

Palawan map – courtesy of www.palawanferry.com

Considering that our flight from Cebu arrived in the afternoon, and bus rides on unlit night roads through mountains on remote islands were not among the adventures we wanted to experience, we booked a night in a hotel in Puerto PrincesaFloral Villarosa looked nice online, was affordable, had a pool, and offered free airport transfers – what more could you want?!…  Our driver for the 15-min ride to the hotel was a cheerful and completely round guy, who introduced himself as Bobby.  Bobby may have had problems fitting in his own car, but was a superb driver and companion – within the first five minutes of the trip he told us where to eat and drink in Puerto Princesa, shared his opinion on various destinations on the island, and told us half his life story.  All this while expertly avoiding potholes, people and chickens on the road without even looking in the direction he was driving in.  He definitely would have told us much more, but the town was not that big, and the hotel was not that far from the airport.  We loved Bobby!

He delivered us to the door of our lovely digs covered with vines and flowers, but before letting him go, we secured his services for the trip to El Nido the following day.  Fuck the 8-hour bus-rides!…  We could afford to cough up 40 euros a head, and make the trip in 4 to 5 hours in an air-conditioned car in great company.  According to Bobby, he made such trips often, and the only thing he hated was driving at night.  We agreed with him on this point, and decided to leave at 8 the following morning, which would allow him to get back home before dark.

The refreshing pool at Floral Villarosa

We showered the day of travel off our tired bodies, thoroughly enjoyed the pool at Floral Villarosa and had dinner in Captain Ribs (recommended by Bobby – who else!?).  The place had great food, a lovely garden with candles and a giant ginger cat presiding in the middle of it.  Even when sleeping he looked like he owned the place. 

The aspiring boss of Captain Ribs

We had the ribs, the wine, and enjoyed the evening thoroughly.  Apart from a frog falling out from the tree on a couple sitting at the next table (it ran away too fast for me to take a photo, and seemed to be as shocked as the middle-aged Dutch lady and her husband whose table it landed on), the evening so far was peaceful and uneventful. 

Our only mistake was the decision to have a nightcap cocktail at the bar before leaving.  While sipping what we erroneously thought to be our last beverages for the night, we started chatting with three French guys at the bar.  Two of them happened to be the rightful owners of the place (no matter what the ginger cat thought), and after our compliment to their restaurant and the wine, they started opening bottles, generously inviting us to join in whatever it was they were celebrating.  Several hours later, we were stumbling back to the hotel rather drunk, only vaguely and painfully remembering that we had to get up early the following morning…

Puerto Princesa sunset

Alas, our last memories of Puerto Princesa were not the drunk haze, but the amazing Villarosa’s Best breakfast – hash browns with ham, cheese, eggs and bacon, that almost resuscitated us.  Thank you, the unknown breakfast cook – we thoroughly enjoyed your creations!

Bobby was on time, fresh as a daisy, and cheerful as ever.  He threw our bags in the car, squeezed himself behind the wheel (the fact that his driver’s seat was pushed all the way back almost into the boot did not help one bit), and we started off on our journey.  During the next 4 hours (this was exactly how long it took to make 260 km from Puerto Princesa to El Nido, we congratulated ourselves numerous times on making the smart decision the day before – 8 hours on a bus with hangover, through windy mountain roads would have been way too much for our delicate souls!…

Bobby continued entertaining us with a variety of stories, and even through our headaches we managed to enjoy his company.  An hour-long conversation about cocks was definitely the highlight of the trip.  Only in the Philippines!…

Cockfighting (of the bird- and not S&M variety) is a serious business and a national sport in the Philippines.  Before the squeamish-ones and the animal-rights activists spit in my direction for bringing the subject up, it is important to understand that cockfighting is a 6,000 year old tradition, and the gamecocks (I shit you not – this is the official name of the bird!) are not specially trained to be aggressive.  This breed of roosters possesses congenital aggression toward all males of the same species, and the breeders only try to increase their stamina and strength.  Tradition or not, it is still a blood sport, where the loser normally goes into the soup.  Considering the fact that most roosters do end up there anyway, at least the gamecocks go out fighting.  Everyone in the Philippines loves cockfighting, and big events are held regularly throughout the country.  “You have a beautiful cock!” is a perfectly acceptable compliment in polite society in the Philippines (considering the bird is present as well).

With only one pit-stop on the way (toilet for us, food for Bobby), we reached El Nido in record 4 hours, hugged Bobby good-bye, and looked around.  El Nido sure looked like a happening place, and was simultaneously buzzing and relaxed.  We felt right at home.  The Forever Blessed Inn booked online, however, needed all the blessings it could get, as it turned out to be quite a dump.  We thanked our lucky stars and foresightedness for having made the booking for only one night, and decided to apply the tried and tested way of looking for accommodation: walking around and knocking on doors of decent-looking places.  This had additional advantages of sightseeing and exploring the area.

Welcome to El Nido!

Feeling the end of vacation coming, and wishing to make the most of it, we wanted not just a decent-looking place, but a decent-looking place with a pool.  Of which, at the time of our visit, downtown El Nido had exactly two: Sea Cocoon and Cuna Hotel.  These were the 1st two doors we knocked at, and were lucky on second try: the newly-opened Cuna Hotel was happy to welcome us starting from tomorrow!  We happily paid up for the next 5 days (at the equivalent of €40 a night for a spacious, modern room with fantastic bathroom, air-conditioning and a rooftop pool it was a bargain!), and with the last week of our holiday sorted, we could now relax, have a drink and explore the area.

View of El Nido from the rooftop of Cuna Hotel

Upon closer acquaintance, El Nido did not disappoint – it was a crazy little town, sleepy and bustling with energy at the same time, with a wild assortment of little shops, bars and restaurants.  The latter were ranging from the surprising “Odessa Mama” with home-made Ukrainian pelmeni and home-brewed beer on the menu, to the Israeli-run “Happiness Beach Bar”, serving amazing hummus and offering swings and cocktails at the bar.  Throughout the following 5 days thoroughly enjoyed both, as well as “Trattoria Altrove” – a classy Italian with an authentic pizza oven, chucking out fantastic pizzas and attracting crowds of hungry diners every evening. 

Our go-to place for the evenings, though, was “Subasko” – a small music bar around the corner from Cuna Hotel, where we made friends with the bar staff and the owner (all of whom were jamming together and in turns every evening).  The place served drinks (wine as well!) and snacks, and was jam-packed every night, with singing and dancing (with audience participation) going on well into the early hours of the morning.  We loved El Nido!

Subasco – the best bar in El Nido!

Part 7. Behold, Bohol!

With the island’s official slogan calling for bewildered awe, Bohol sure had a lot to offer.  Known to the general public for its Chocolate Hills, it is also one of the habitats of tarsiers – the smallest living primates on Earth.  If you never heard of them – you can use the powers of Google to discover a teeny-tiny little creature with huge eyes, looking like it is permanently freaked out and glad to see you at the same time.  We chose a slightly more complicated way to get acquainted, and decided to visit the tarsiers at their natural home instead of a computer page.  Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary was the main item on our list of places to visit, and the Chocolate Hills were going to be thrown into the mix, if time allowed.  Turned out – it did.

Welcome to Bohol!

With all the island-hopping of the previous weeks we had only one day for Bohol, as spoilt with the choice of 7, 641 Philippine islands we had several other places on our agenda for this trip.  A quick jet boat trip from the Larena Pier of Siquijor took us to Tagbilaran on Bohol in less than 1.5 hours.  Even though the ride started with a collective prayer (with the captain and crew joining in by intercom), it was uneventful.  Maybe the prayer helped…

After our quite modest digs by the side of the road on Siquijor, the Kasagpan Resort booked online for 2 nights in Tagbilaran for a very decent price looked more than luxurious.  Far from your standard all-inclusive 5-star complex (our tastes and wallets make us stay away from those), it was a relatively small place with 2 lovely swimming pools, and several 2-storey buildings with guest rooms in a nice garden.  Our new place of residence was a quick tricycle ride from the pier and within walking distance to downtown Tagbilaran, which turned out to be as ugly as they come.  We weren’t planning on staying long anyway.

Our beautiful new digs in Tagbilaran

Exploring the island was on our agenda, though, and for this we needed a ride.  Our lovely hotel did not have any scooters for rent, and the staff’s level of English prevented us from making further inquiries.  We decided to chance it and walk into town centre in search of a mighty steed that will be taking us to tarsiers the following day.  The steed was found literally around the corner – we barely walked a 100 meters away from the hotel, when an energetic and entrepreneurial-looking local approached us and expressed desire to help with whatever we needed.  Our wishes did not stretch further than a scooter, which the guy readily agreed to source for us, and bring to the hotel in 15 minutes.  We agreed on the price, and happily walked back in anticipation.  Only half an hour later the guy showed up with a relatively decent moped and two helmets.  The latter looked like they have been through several crashes, and a number of people already died in them.  We expressed scepticism at the reliability of this method of protection, and our agreeable new friend repeated his “No problem!” mantra and took us to his cousin/brother/friend’s garage.  Several more helmets of varied states of decay were presented to our inspection and we managed to find two relatively workable. 

The next day we were all set up for our Bohol adventure.  The first on our list was the Tarsier Sanctuary, but before setting up on our way, we planned to make a quick stop at the pier and buy ferry tickets for tomorrow.  The pit stop set us back a good couple of hours, as the two ticket office windows at the pier were besieged by a crowd of maddening size.  People of all ages and creeds were raging in two humongous intertwined queues, babies screaming, people demanding tickets for the boat that just left, quite a few un-identifiable languages thrown into the mix, and the two cashiers in the windows scarily peering outside.  One pair of customers definitely stood out – a very tall Japanese guy, who spoke neither Tagalog, nor English, held up the queue for at least an hour, trying (unsuccessfully) to explain what he needed and where he needed to go with the language of gestures.  His tiny wife/girlfriend, who barely reached to his armpit, was standing next to him on tip-toes, all the way fanning him with her hat.  After a very painful hour (I am sure I heard quite a few expletives directed at the pair in various languages), they finally left – he with a regal look on his face, parting the crowd that eagerly got out of the way and closer to the ticket windows, and she tip-toeing behind him fanning him non-stop.  After the couple’s departure, things started moving considerably faster, and within an hour, we were proud owners of two ferry tickets to Cebu for the following morning.

Now – tarsiers!  It took us another hour to get out of Tagbilaran navigating its absolutely mad traffic, but after we made it out of town, the Tarsier Sanctuary was very easy to find and we got there before midday.  Located 15 km away from the city just off the Tagbilaran City-Corella-Sikatuna-Loboc Road, it was well sign-posted and much anticipated on our part.  The Sanctuary did not disappoint one bit!  For a handy price of 60 Philippine pesos (about €1.10), you get access to the semi-wild enclosure – a part of natural jungle forest cordoned off to keep any dangers away from its tiny inhabitants, the place provides tarsiers with a much needed peace and quiet, and the scientists with an opportunity to observe and study them in their natural habitat. 

Ladies & gentlemen – meet the tarsiers!

Tarsiers are nocturnal and extremely shy, so chances of spotting one in the wild are extremely low.  They are very sensitive to bright lights, loud noises, or physical contact up to the point of behaving suicidal when stressed or kept in captivity.  This behavior does not make them a likely center of attention, but the Philippine Tarsier Foundation running the sanctuary did a wonderful job to accommodate both, the visitors and the inhabitants.  In the morning, before the opening hours, the sanctuary scouts walk around the enclosure to spot tarsiers, who after their nocturnal adventures settle for the day and do not move until sundown.  The guides then stay put, and point out these unbelievably beautiful little primates to visitor, also making sure that the latter don’t do anything stupid.  Without the help of guides, it would have been absolutely impossible to spot the tarsiers, some of which were not bigger than a baby’s fist.  We saw 6 or 7, who decided to camp for the day near the foot paths, and could admire these freaked-out looking beauties quite close.  As all nocturnal animals, the tarsiers did not exhibit any energy during day hours, and just sat there, holding on to the tree branches with their tiny fingers and staring at the surrounding world with gigantic unblinking eyes.  I don’t know if it’s the eyes that contributed to this impression, but tarsiers did not look relaxed or chilling, they had a manic and haunted look in their huge eyes, and seemed to be very tense, trying to hold on for dear life.

We spent about an hour, walking down the narrow paths of the tiny enclosure, admiring the tarsiers, and learning more about them from the guides and informational posters.  What an absolutely wonderful way to spend time on vacation!

With still half a day ahead of us, we decided to give Chocolate Hills a go.  Located right in the middle of the island, and judging by the photos quite big and numerous (according to UNESCO, there are 1,7760 of them!), we figured they would be hard to miss.  There seemed to be more than one way to get to the hills, and obviously, we chose the wrong one.  Not the “wrong” wrong one, but just a longer and more scenic road, which in the end turned out to be a worthy detour to add to our collection of freaky places.  From the Tarsier Sanctuary we could have continued down the Tagbilaran City-Corella-Sikatuna-Loboc Road and then turn into Loay Interior Road, but we decided to make a circle around the island, and instead rode a little back, taking the Corella-Balilihan Provincial Road (read: no tarmac), connected to the Cortes-Balillihan-Catigbian-Macaas Road, and when into the woods on Catigbian-Sagbayan Road.  Bohol roads not only had impossible long names and were exceptionally dusty, making us ride in the vapors and sand clouds from the bigger vehicles sharing them with us, but were not signposted on crossroads.  Thank God (who does not exist) for Google Maps, that show ones location on the phone without WiFi or roaming – without them we would have been proper fucked!…  At every crossroads we had to pull over, take off our sweaty helmets and peer into the dusted over phone screen, trying to figure which next turn to take.  It was a tedious process, but it worked.

After about an hour travelling on dusty roads, we started seeing green grassy mounds that looked very much like the Chocolate Hills we were looking for.  The first road sign, inviting to enjoy the Hilltop 360° View Park followed, and happy with seemingly reaching our desired destination, we turned off the road.  A goad/hedgehog path leading to the spot quickly made us doubt that it was leading to the official Visitor’s Center, but we needed a break.

View from the Hilltop 360° View Park

The place turned out to be a private property, located on hilltop, and offering vast entrepreneurial possibilities, which the owners readily used.  For the entrance fee of 50 Pesos (less than 1 Euro), visitors could come onto the grounds to enjoy the breathtaking views of the area filled with green hills, and the experience the grounds themselves, which looked like an outdoor studio of some mad artist.  A huge freaked-out looking pigeon was perched on the side of the hill presenting a great photo opportunity to all the visiting idiots (we readily partook in the fun); the huge torsos of the inevitable Mary and Joseph were sticking out of the top of the hill, and made you wonder about the sanity and/or religious zeal of the artist. 

The ticket office also sold fresh coconuts, and after admiring the views and the art we happily sat in huge wooden chairs, drinking ice-cold coconut juice and musing over the place.  Not necessarily the Hilltop 360° View Park, but the Chocolate Hills in general.  Recognized by the UNESCO as a National Geological Monument, the hills are nature-made mounds, occurring due to the uplift of coral deposits washed out by rainwater and erosion.  The name kept bothering me – why on earth would these emerald-green tops be ever compared to chocolate?…  Turned out that we were on Bohol at the wrong time.  During the dry season, the grass on the hills turns chocolate brown in color, making them look like giant Hershey’s Kisses sticking out of the ground.  With a bit of imagination, we could see that, for the shapes were unmistakable.

Having re-charged our batteries with coconuts, we continued on our way, following our circular route direction Tagbilaran.  We were tired, dusty, and having checked all items on our agenda for the day were ready for a shower a swim, and a dinner.  Turned out, there was still more to come.  We turned from the Central Nautical Highway into the Loay Interior Road and in less then 5 minutes came onto the sign for the official Chocolate Hills Park viewpoint.  We fought a brief, but strong desire to continue on our way, and turned off the road for our tourist duty.  We were here, and were inclined to see it all!  The sacrifice was bigger than we initially thought, for though the entrance to the viewing point was free, it was located on top of a very steep hill with a very long and narrow staircase leading to it.  Huffing and puffing like two elderly hedgehogs, we fought the stairs, and were not disappointed – the view was spectacular!  You could see the hills up close and personal, much clearer than from the Hilltop 360° View Park.  There was none of the wackiness of the Hilltop, though – just crowds of equally hot and exhausted tourists braving the stairs.  In the end, luck was on our side – having been to both places, we definitely enjoyed the hills to the fullest!

Chocolate Hills forever!

Back on the Loay Interior Road we seriously missed our Harleys – the route was beautiful!  Nice, lazy curves, running under the thick canopy of the giant trees on both sides and coming out into the almost day-glow brightness of the green fields with Chocolate Hills in the background all called for admiration.  Bohol did not disappoint.

Next stop – Palawan!