When we made the decision to visit the Philippines, the first recommendation we received was to visit the Chocolate Hills in Bohol. With so many options we decided that this geological wonder was as good a place as any to start our own adventure through the land of the Pinoys!
Bohol is a beautifully clean and green island southeast of Cebu. Like Cebu, it is another one of a group of islands known as the Visayas. The 'Chocolate Hills' are a collection of unique natural geological formations, scattered over most of the island. These magnificent landforms are huge, almost perfectly round domes of peat-covered limestone. When in season they are a brown colour and resemble chocolate drops. The official explanation for this phenomenon was generally attributed to an uplift of coral deposits followed by extensive rain and weathering, however was not very clear. It seems that the formation of this natural miracle remains a bit of a mystery, which makes the 'chocolate hills' even more admirable.
We rented a motorbike to visit the chocolate hills tourist centre, which features a lookout over a particularly dense cluster. The chocolate hills were actually green due to recent rains, but still amazing to witness. It was also a great birds eye view of all the surrounding agricultural fields and rice paddies.
The roads around Bohol were smooth, wide and mostly clear of traffic. So, to see a bit more of this amazingly unique island we kept hold of the motorbike for a whole day, and cruised past jungles full of butterflies, vast rice fields and small agricultural villages.
We stopped at a butterfly sanctuary, where hundreds of rare and endemic local species were kept and bred under a huge walk-through garden enclosure. There were all sorts of colours, shapes and sizes of butterflies posing for our camera, and our enthusiastic guide kept us entertained with a whole string of bad jokes about the relative size of a butterfly's genitalia and their sexual stamina.
Another thing that Bohol is famous for is the Tarsier. Tarsiers are tiny little primates that only grow as big as your hand, although compared to body size, they have some of the largest eyes of any mammal. There are only three known species, one of which is endemic to Bohol and the Phillipines. These guys are unbelievably cute so, to satisfy the busloads of package trip tourists, many local entrepreneurs have set up small display cages and even offer the chance to cuddle one for a photo. The problem is that, although their eyes are cute, it is a feature that makes them shy, nocturnal animals. They don't cope well with captivity and apparently some captive Tarsier have even committed suicide due to stress. Thankfully, there is a more humane alternative for tourists hoping for catch a glimpse. The Tarsier Visitors Centre near the town of Corella was set up in the 90's by a local conservationist. The educational centre was built on the edge of a 10 hectare sanctuary, and the staff have managed to locate the daytime resting place of at least ten territorial Tarsier! We tiptoed through a section of forest, and our guide pointed out six napping adults, one baby, and even a bright yellow curled up tree snake! All peacefully living in the wild, free to come and go, hunt insects and sleep all day.
It was actually quite impressive to see the strong environmental awareness in Bohol, especially compared to the rest of Asia. The towns are much cleaner, recycling much more widespread and national parks and sanctuaries really well managed and enforced. We even found a huge government funded biodiversity centre dedicated to reforestation, organic fertilizer production and public education. Perhaps the noticeable Spanish/American influence on the country has made the difference, or maybe the government is just quicker to realise that, like most of Asia, the best and most sustainable way to keep the economy afloat is tourism, and preserving their beautiful natural environment is the key.
Our accommodation in Bohol made us appreciate this beauty even more. We stayed in a place called Nuts Huts, run by a Belgian. Our wooden bungalow was set in a forested valley, right on a beautifully clear river complete with a small waterfall. The place was absolutely wild, remote and peaceful. The challenge was getting there. With our heavy packs, we had to hike almost a kilometer from the closest road, and then faced at least 100 (we never counted) steep stone stairs leading down into the valley!
The alternative was to take a boat there from the town of Loboc, although we skipped this one to save our pennies. From Nuts Huts it was a half hour walk along the river into Loboc. The track passed right through the middle of rice fields, and gave us a really good close look into the unbelievable irrigation systems that support them. It was also really fun to sit on the riverbank and watch all the boatloads of tourists float past, with live bands pumping out renditions of 'What a Wonderful World' and 'All You Need Is Love'.
After a bit of research, we eventually settled on the relatively nearby island of Siargao to spend the rest of our time in the Philippines. After clambering up and out of the Loboc River valley for the last time, we are now waiting for a bus to take us a bit closer to Siargao, the home of Cloud 9 - the internationally recognised, prime surf break of the Philippines!