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!

Part 6: Around & About the Witch Island

Siqujor was so much more than just party, though.  Even though we happened to be on the island in the peak of the “party” season with every village and island district having their own Christmas and New Year “fiestas”, over the 4.5 days we stayed on the Witch Island, we did have a chance to experience a lot of other things it had to offer.

I have to say a couple of words here about the Philippines in general, which were well represented and well-observable on Siquijor in particular.  When getting ready for the trip, and reading up on all the places we were thinking of visiting, a sentiment from Jody of Legal Nomads got stuck in my head: “Philippines is a Latin American country, that by accident got plopped up in the middle of South East Asia”.  Having visited it now, I can only second this opinion.  There are way too many Latin American, or Hispanic (if you wish) things there, for it to be considered “true Asia”.

Starting with the Catholic religion, brought in by the Spanish invaders in the 16th century.  It sprouted serious and deep roots in the country, and today Philippines are probably more Catholic than the “old world” Catholics themselves.  Churches are everywhere.  They are grand, richly adorned, and revered.  God is even more ubiquitous – Bible quotes decorate every tricycle and jeepney all over the country; Jesus, Mary and the saints are looking at you from buses, buildings, and street food carts.  Catholic holidays paralyze the cities and villages, and turn into a frenzy of celebrations, commonly called “fiestas”.  The signs with “Happy Fiesta!” were all over Siquijor during the time of our visit, and each island district appointed a dedicated day for celebrations, so that the islanders and visitors could party all over the island every day over a period of several weeks.  Each fiesta started with a big prayer, followed by an even bigger feast (with food, chairs and tables brought in by the neighbors), and then a huge party/disco/mayhem of hard-to-believe proportions.

Christmas decorations were another thing worth mentioning – simply because they were in you face literary everywhere.  Imagine all the glitter and bling-bling you have ever seen anywhere, and double it.  Philippine Christmas decorations, just like celebrations were over the top.  Humongous Christmas trees were all over Manila, and it seemed that hotels and official buildings were competing with one another for the biggest, brightest, and shiniest Christmas tree.  On the islands, the decorations were not so grand, but no less shiny, and much more imaginative: we’ve seen Christmas trees made out of old polished CD disks, color-coordinated plastic bottles, coconuts, washed and shiny glass bottles, and everything you can imagine.  Philippines do take their Christmas seriously, and so far beat every other country we’ve ever visited in the scale of decorations and celebrations.

Cemeteries in the Philippines also have a very Latin American look and feel – they are stacked up, with vaults sitting on top of one another.  There was a very picturesque one not far from Sunny Side on the main road of Siquijor, and though much smaller in size and much more modest in look, it definitely brought up the memories of the famous Recoletta Cemetery in Buenos Aires we spent hours exploring several years earlier.

I don’t know if love of pork can be attributed to Catholicism or not (there are definitely parallels with Catholic Bavaria here, but I won’t stretch my imagination that far), but this was another big thing on the Philippines.  Pork was everywhere – every menu, every dish, every local delicacy screamed “pork!”  The food wasn’t particularly imaginative, and compared to other cuisines in the region would lose every time.  Not because of pork per se, but because of absence of spices, or any elaborate art of preparation – it was hearty, heavy, and dropped into your stomach like a brick to sit there for hours to come.

In the Philippines, pigs are kings! That is, untill they are eaten…

Another definitely Latino thing was children.  They were worshipped, and like in Spain or Italy could do nothing wrong.  Unlike Spain or Italy, though, Philippine children did not really abuse their status, and were very well behaved.  Kids were everywhere – curious, exceptionally smiley and friendly, they would wave you off from the side of the road, would gladly engage in conversation, and give you the warmest and heartiest smile you can imagine, that would melt your heart on the spot.  During our trip around the island we saw numerous school and family parties with dozens of children screaming their lungs out at karaoke, and adoring parents gushing at them from the sides.  Schools were everywhere – every island district had at least one, and judging by the school parties they were all full.  Absence of TV entertainment paired up with Catholic beliefs works miracles!…

What definitely made Siquijor stand out from Manila, and many other places we visited on this trip, was its cleanness.  There was no garbage on the side of the roads, and on more than one occasion we even saw locals sweeping the streets in front of their houses or shops.  This did not look like the “holiday special”, and definitely made the island look neat, tidy, and festive.

By the New Year’s Eve we were all partied out.  The “fiesta” that day was happening somewhere else, far from Sunny Side, and in the morning of December 31st our part of the island seemed unusually quiet.  We started the day by a long and lazy brunch with Chris in Marco Polo.  Sun, prosecco, good company, great ocean views – what else does one need for a happy morning?…

Morning view from Marco Polo
Prozecco breakfast!

It turned out that on the island menu a waterfall was an essential ingredient of happiness, and we were ready to throw that into the mix!  Lugnazon Falls were only a quick scooter ride away, and after parking our mighty steeds and trekking through the jungle for just 10 minutes or so we had them all to ourselves!  Being there all alone, just us with no other people had a surreal feeling about it.  All we could hear was the water, the birds, crickets, and the lazy wind ruffling the tree leaves.  The boys took a dip and splashed around in the turquoise waters of the falls.  I was not quite ready for the swim just yet, and consoled myself with taking photos.  When we were ready to leave, a bunch of local kids showed up, and immediately started making crazy jumps from the top of the falls, and from the rope swing on one of the nearby palm-trees.  The boys were looking jealously at these acrobatics, but were quite a bit smarter (and heavier) than the skinny Philippine teenagers, and wisely stayed away from the jumps.

After the waterfall swim Chris went back to Sunny Side following the call of duty, cold beer, Lyka, or all of the above.  We decided to continue with the tourist program, and went to see the Century Old Balete Tree, also known among the locals as The Tree Where The Witch Lives.  The balete tree belongs to the fig tree family that includes about 800 species.  It is a type of ficus, also known as the banyan in other parts of the world, and has prominent air roots that makes it easily recognizable all over the world.

The Tree Where The Witch Lives

In addition to The Witch (which was nowhere to be seen), the tree had a fish spa pond, organized by the enterpreneurial locals from the spring originating from the tree’s base and stocked with garra rufa, or Doctor Fish who happily nibble at the dead skin on visitors’ feet.  This sounds gross, but together with the cooling sensations of the spring water is, in fact, is a pleasant experience.  Entrance to the tiny grounds of the tree used to be free, but now visitors are required to pay a nominal sum of a couple of cents for maintenance of the pool.  When we arrived, about a dozen tired travellers were already splashing their feet in the pool, to the joy of the doctor fishes, hungrily circling around.  I experienced the “fish massage” a couple of years earlier in Cambodia, and while not totally unpleasant, it was definitely a weird and quite ticklish sensation. 

The water was cool, and sitting on the side of the pool was a good opportunity to relax and admire the Witch Tree.  One had to be careful, though – some of the garras in the pond were quite huge, and looked like they could swallow a human toe whole.  We spent a relaxing half hour by the pool, watching the tree, giggling from the little fishes’ nibbles, and shushing the really big fuckers away from our feet.

The New Year celebrations were relatively tame, compared to the mayhem of the two previous days.  Lyka fished out two vuvuzela from the depths of the kitchen, and together with one of the neighbors set everybody within the 500-meter radius in the mood with the mental squeaks of these horrible devices.  

Vuvuzela madness

There was the obligatory end of the year fireworks, which I believe happen everywhere around the world, regardless of the culture, religion or general energy levels of the local population.  There is something about the New Year that seriously affects people’s pyrotechnical inclinations, and makes even the most peaceful representatives of our species want to blow shit up.  I’ve observed this phenomenon in the US, Russia, Cambodia, Germany, and was yet to find an exception to this rule.  Philippines happily followed suit – Chris stocked up on cheap Chinese fireworks and petards a week ago, yet with every day closing in on New Year’s Eve he got progressively more worried that what he had would not be enough, and would buy up additional pyrotechnics.  They weren’t especially safe or reliable, and I am to this day amazed that nobody managed to blow up a hand or a head when the time for the fireworks came. 

We are gonna blow these babies up!

Some were more skillful in operating the pyrotechnics than the others, though…  One of Chris’ tenants, a tall Dutch guy, who just arrived on the island that morning, managed to shoot a firework into one of the tents in back, and set fire to it, to the horror and joy of the two English girls who happened to be the unfortunate owners of said tent.  The fire was extinguished quickly, the tent survived, and the girls continued giggling throughout the evening, at the same time trying to stay as far away from the Dutch guy as possible.  The hit of the evening was not the burning tent, though – Chris won the “most memorable firework of the night” competition with a huge firework garland he hung on the big palm tree in front of the Sunny Side.  When he set it off a couple of minutes before midnight, the garland spewed fire around for a bit, after which dis-attached from the palm tree, and fell on top of Chris’ motorbike (with a full tank of gas), continuing to burn and ready to explode.  The Dutch guy redeemed himself by jumping up to the bike, picking the garland up and throwing it into the nearby bushes, where it happily exploded, setting a minor fire to the bushes.

Happy New Year!

The New Year was officially in!  The pyrotechnics stopped (we simply ran out of shit to blow up), Chris and Lyka danced a slow Viennese Waltz on the deck of Sunny Side in celebration of the new 365 days, friends and neighbors joined in with songs and dances.  The New Year definitely started on a positive note – one of the bayots who left without saying good-bye the night before, came back, and offered tearful apologies and hugs to his former employer.  Chris was generous and soon the staff of Sunny Side was complete, and re-united, and everybody joined in on the celebrations.  We did not go mental, and were back at Stella’z in bed about an hour into the New Year.

The next day, we continued with the tourist program, and went around the island, to experience everything it had to offer.  The main drag, the Siquijor Circumferential Road, had tarmac, and was relatively good to ride.  We saw nice beaches (deserted due to low tide), numerous kiddies’ karaoke parties all around the island, a couple of big-ass churches, and bright green rice fields on the East side of the island. 

Somewhere on Siquijor

The best experience of the day was another waterfall – the three-tiered Cambugahay Falls were nowhere near as deserted or remote as Lugnazon, but the waters were so clear, so blue and refreshing, that even I ventured a dip.  It was amazing!  Every New Year should start with waking up on the beach, and after enjoying picturesque islands, taking a refreshing swim in the clearest waters of a waterfall!  The place was packed – families with little kids, groups of teenagers, young and old couples were all there, and all shared my newly-found belief about the proper start for the year.  The waterfalls were big, and nobody seemed to mind others – people were enjoying the fresh water, each other’s company, and were just having fun.  Siquijor was definitely good for that!

Cambugahay Falls – the upper level

What the island was not too good with, was ATMs.  Our round the island trip was partially driven by a desire to get some cash.  Honourable plan, which failed miserably.  The only ATM that was not disgusted with our Maestro cards was in the town of Siquijor, and was out of cash.  We found two more ATMs on the island, but they wanted nothing to do with our cards, and just spit them out without offering any other options.  We did know that getting cash would be a problem on the island, and came prepared.  Local prices were low even by Philippine standards, and we still had enough left to buy us two ferry tickets to Bohol for the next day, and even for another nice dinner at Marco Polo.

Las dinner at Marco Polo with Maestro Giulio!

We came back to Chris’ and to our horror realized that January 1st was a dedicated day for the local fiesta in the San Juan province, and the party was being set up right opposite the Sunny Side. Fuck!…. More party… Well, looked like it was inevitable, so we decided to just relax and enjoy. Chris also donated some food and drinks to the party, so we joined in as almost celebrities. We skipped the starting prayer and the meal, and walked in when the disco part of the fiesta was kicking in. It was absolutely mental – the music was blasting from the speakers, everybody was singing and dancing at the same time, blowing up remaining fireworks and drinking. We joined in, dancing our assess off, and singing our hearts out (luckily nobody could hear us in the cacophony of music and noise around!), and in the end of the evening had to partake in some un-identifiable shots of local palm moonshine. This was the end of it – the next thing I knew was waiking up the next morning. Luckily at Stella’z, and with Nic snoring by my side.

Every celebration comes to an end, and so did our never-ending Siquijor party.  We did not meet any witches or sorcerers on Witch Island, but reunited with a good friend, made some new ones, partied our asses out, and were not ready to see more of this beautiful country and continue with our trip.

Next stop – tiny little monkeys and the Chocolate Hills of Bohol!

New Year sunset on Siquijor