The Bohol countryside was like the landscapes I drew as a child. Skies were a soothing powder blue, with olive-green hills rolling in the background, framing swaying fields of lime-green grass. Colourful flowers and thatched rural homes lined the roads, and cattle grazed leisurely further behind. The colours were straight out of a box of crayons—uncomplicated and comforting. After the chaos of Manila, exploring Bohol was like hitting the reset button in my brain.
Manila has its pros. Big city lovers will enjoy the Filipino capital’s thriving food scene and nightlife, while history buffs can spend hours walking the narrow cobbled streets of Intramuros, the city’s oldest and most historic district. The malls are big enough to log all 10,000 Fitbit steps we are said to need to maintain peak health. But a true taste of the Philippines comes from getting out of the city. And with over 7,000 islands, spread out just north of Indonesia, there’s plenty of choice.
About an hour’s flight south of Manila we landed in Tagbilaran, a small city and gateway to the Bohol islands. It was a nondescript place and all I remember about it is that all the autorickshaws and tricycles had spiritual messages painted behind them. Our guide said this was in accordance with an official city directive to prevent inappropriate content on public streets. From Tagbilaran, we drove about 45 minutes further southwest to our hotel. Most resorts in Bohol province are located on the sandy beaches of Panglao, one of the smaller islands in the cluster, connected to Bohol Island by a bridge. The surrounding islands of Mahanay and Banacon are a nature lover’s dream. Visitors can hang out with Yoda-like tarsiers, dive in the clear waters, gaze at fireflies on a river cruise, and get an adrenaline rush at the Chocolate Hills Adventure Park.
“3 o’clock!” “11 o’clock!” “7 o’clock!” “Under our boat!” My head couldn’t turn fast enough to keep up with the calls. Everywhere I looked, grey spinner dolphins bounded over the waves, shining in the morning sun. They somersaulted through the air, swam by our boat, and disappeared into the incredibly blue depths only to reappear as ghostly shadows when they came up for air. “Cheer them on,” our guide Cecile said, “they love an audience.”
The hour or so that we spent following dolphins in the Bohol Sea more than made up for the unearthly wake-up call we had received at 4.15 that morning. Dolphins are most active between 5.30 a.m. and 8.30 a.m., so by 5.30 we were on a boat, enjoying a beautiful sunrise and scanning the seas for hints of grey. For about two hours, we motored around from one potential sighting spot to the next, without any luck. We napped while we waited, lulled by the warm morning sun, endless blue waters, salty sea breeze, and complete lack of dolphins. Finally, Cecile got the news—that there were dolphins up ahead. Suddenly everyone was awake, cameras at the ready. Once we got closer, our boatman let us clamber out to the bow, and hang our feet along the edge to get a better view. And what a view it was. (Cecile V. Remolador, +63-9237272143; PHP1,895/₹2,680 per person. Rides usually last 3.5 hours. Carry a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen, as it can get hot, but you won’t need a swimsuit or change of clothes. The seas are gentle, but those prone to seasickness should pop a prophylactic before boarding the boat.)
It was looking right at me. The pint-sized, furry creature, a cross between Yoda from Star Wars and E.T., stared at me with its massive, milk-chocolate eyes. The tarsier’s twig-like appendages clung to a tree trunk, guardedly moving a millimetre or so up and down, as it eyed the towering humans around it, giving us a bit of a stink eye. We’d arrived at midday, right in the middle of the nocturnal animal’s sleep cycle, which perhaps explains the less than enthusiastic welcome we got.
Tarsiers are prosimians, a primitive primate group that includes lemurs and lorises. Found in only a handful of Asian countries, including Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia, tarsiers are the focus of the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary enclosure in Corella, on Bohol Island, which I was visiting.
Its unique physical characteristics and spunky (some might say aggressive) personality make the tarsier one of the most interesting creatures I’ve ever seen.
No bigger than the palm of an adult human male, with huge eyes and ears that resemble satellite dishes, tarsiers are fascinating animals. Cute as they look, they are not very sociable, and each tarsier requires about a hectare of forest space, which it roams at night. They detest confined spaces so much that if placed in cages, they are known to kill themselves by banging their heads against the rods. Tarsiers are threatened by depleting natural habitats and hunters, both human and animal, and are difficult to spot in the wild. Groups like the Philippine Tarsier Foundation are working to protect this animal, and the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary offers a great opportunity to catch a glimpse of these unique creatures. (www.tarsierfoundation.org; open 8.30 a.m.-4.30 p.m.; entry PHP50/₹71.)
Fireflies are an enchanting sight at any time. But when you’re on a boat cruise, under a cloudless night sky with stars stretching as far as you can see, they’re utterly magical. We spent an evening on the Abatan River awed by the trees lit up with colonies of fireflies, and at the heavens speckled with thousands of stars. The bugs were only about the size of rice grains, but together they created a massive, glow-in-the-dark organism that took over entire trees. The buzzing of the insects was the only sound we heard besides our boat’s motor in the otherwise quiet night. It left me feeling a great sense of calm. (Abatan River Life Tour, www.riverlife.ph; daily 7.30 p.m.; PHP1,905/₹2,713 per boat, which accommodates up to five people. The ride lasts about an hour. Visitors are provided a life vest—nothing else is needed. Those wanting to get closer to the fireflies can hire kayaks and paddle down the river. Don’t bother with a camera as it’s hard to capture the fireflies unless you’ve got some professional equipment. Instead, just open your eyes and take in the glittering sights around you.)
Before I visited the Chocolate Hills, I’d seen pictures of the brown mounds that wouldn’t look out of place in a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk ad. When I was there, however, they were lush and green. Clouds sailing across the sky cast shadows, creating patches of light and dark green as far as I could see. Roughly 1,776 limestone hills are spread out over 50 square kilometres, and interspersed with thick forests; they live up to their name only during the dry summer season.
The Chocolate Hills Adventure Park has a lovely observation deck that affords great panoramas of the landscape in any season. The bike zip gives visitors stunning 360-degree views that are spectacular, after you’ve got over the initial nerves. You don’t need to know how to cycle to pedal your way along a zip line strung 150 feet above the ground. At the outset I had more than a few butterflies. It was a windy day and the line was swinging a bit. I forced myself not to look down, focussing instead on the landing bay at the other end of the line. But somewhere in the middle, I caught sight of the spectacular rolling hills stretching around me and stopped for a moment to take in the view. I could have kept staring, but the safety instructor called out to me to keep pedalling. (Chocolate Hills Adventure Park; www.chocolatehillsadventurepark.com; bike zip approximately PHP450-500/₹637-707.)
Bohol province is located in the Central Visayas region of the Philippines, southeast of Manila. The province includes Bohol Island and over 70 smaller islands around it.
To reach Bohol Island, travellers from India must first fly to Manila via a Southeast Asian hub like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. From Manila, flights are available to the city of Tagbilaran, gateway to the island cluster.
Cars and motorcycles are available on rent in Bohol and there are tricycles (local taxi-scooters) for those who don’t want to drive. Taxis can also be arranged through your accommodation.
Temperatures in the Philippines usually hover in the range of 25-32°C. June-Oct is the rainy season with frequent, heavy showers while March-May are the hotter and drier months. The weather is most pleasant between November and February, though prices are higher as it is peak season.
Henann Resort has a prime spot on Panglao Island’s pristine Alona Beach. It’s hard to choose between spending the day soaking in one of the resort’s exquisite pools or the cerulean seas by the beach (+63-380502-9141; henann.com/bohol/henannalonabeach; doubles from PHP5,475/₹7,875).
Eskaya Resort is known for its luxurious Handuraw Spa where guests can sign up for traditional Asian treatments while enjoying views of the Bohol Sea (+632-5763051/82; www.eskayaresort.com; doubles from PHP16,384/₹23,306).
Harmony Hotel, a short walk from Alona Beach, has family rooms and apartments that are great for larger groups (+63 38 502 82 89; www.harmonyhotelsite.com; doubles from PHP2,637/₹3,751).
Alona Kew White Beach has clean rooms and suites that are a pocket-friendly base to enjoy Alona’s white sandy beaches(+63-47-252-9978; www.alona-kew.com; doubles from PHP4,495/₹6,395).
Citadel Alona Inn has clean, functional rooms, some with self-catering facilities that will appeal to those on lower budgets (+63 38 502 9424; www.citadelalona.com; doubles from PHP798/₹1,136).
Indian passport holders with valid American, Japanese, Australian, Canadian, Schengen, Singaporean, or UK visas can gain visa-free entry to the Philippines. Others must apply for a visa in person or through a representative at the Philippines Embassy in New Delhi (011-26110152; newdelhipe.dfa.gov.ph) or consular centres in Chennai, Mumbai, or Kolkata. Visa application forms and a list of required paperwork is available on the website. A 14-day tourist visa costs ₹2,840 and applications must be submitted two weeks before the date of travel though it is usually issued much sooner.
Appeared in the March 2016 issue as “It’s a Wonderful World”.
is Features Writer on National Geographic Traveller India's web team. She's partial to places by the sea and desserts in all forms. When she isn't raving about food, she's usually rambling on about the latest cosmic mysteries. She tweets as @kamakshi138.
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