Welcome to the Philippines! The land of 7107 islands, one more beautiful than the other. The land of pork adobo, jeepneys and the friendliest people this side of Iran. Let’s start our Filipino chronicles with a very special island – follow us as we show you our 5 favourite things to do in Bohol – eco adventures, what else?
The Philippines are not just about the beaches. I mean, beaches in the Philippines are gobsmackingly (does that word even exist?) amazing, and the sunsets are by far and away the best I’ve ever seen, but the Philippines offer a lot more than swimming, sunbathing and sunset-gazing.
There are jungles, mountains, crazy-looking wildlife, a peculiar cuisine, stunning sunken gardens, the craziest vehicles you’ll ever see (jeepneys, tricycles anyone?) and – that’s what made the trip for me – incredible people.
To all Filipinos… Thank you!
We visited Iran last year, and we were blown away by the friendliness and hospitality of locals. We can’t possibly meet people as nice as the Iranians, we thought. Guess what? The Filipinos are a very close contender. Everywhere we went we encountered smiles, kindness and genuine hospitality.
We had heard stories of scams, robberies and people treated like walking ATMs – we didn’t experience any of that.
The Filipinos struck us as friendly, honest and truly generous people. If we had an amazing time in the country, it was largely thanks to the people we met – the ones that took their time to guide us through confusing bus stations, hail us a taxi or help us with luggage on a jeepney.
To all of you, from the bottom of our heart before I start… Salamat!
5 Things to do in Bohol
Now, let’s get to the point. Bohol.
Pull out a map of the Visayas – you’ll notice a round-looking island, right between long Cebu and funny-shaped Leyte. Zoom in, and you’ll see that Bohol is in fact two islands in one – there’s also tiny Panglao, joined to larger Bohol island by two bridges just off Tagbilaran City, Bohol’s main city.
Out of the five Philippine islands we visited, Bohol was the largest by far, and the one that offered the greatest variety of landscapes, adventures and activities. Panglao has stunning beaches, but the Bohol is more about the ‘countryside’.
Away from the coast, the island has a lot to offer. Think of the cute-looking tarsiers with their big googly eyes. Bohol is the best (perhaps the only?) place to see them.
And how about the Chocolate Hills? Yep, they’re in Bohol too. Do you want to go kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding, or learn about the history of the Philippines? Yep, head for Bohol.
Let’s have a close look at our favourite five adventures in Bohol – that’s what we could uncover after a week in the island. Five eco-friendly adventures, all different from one another, and all (but one) away from the beach.
1) Learn about the cute tarsiers
The tarsiers are the unofficial symbol of Bohol. You’ll see them everywhere around the island. On ‘welcome to Bohol’ signs, on t-shirts, fridge-magnets and any type of souvenir under the sun.
Nothing wrong with that – they are indeed one of the cutest animals on the planet, and Bohol is the place to go if you want to see and learn about them.
Tarsiers are not monkeys. They’re prosimians, like lemurs, slow lorises and bush babies. They are small and very fragile – fully-grown adults are only about 10-15 cm long, the size of a human fist. They’re also nocturnal animals – tarsiers have the largest eye to body ratio of all mammals, and have excellent night vision.
Sadly, they are endangered. The main threat to their survival is loss of habitat. They thrive in the rainforest, which is dwindling year after year. Once upon a time they were widespread around all of Southeast Asia; now they only survive in the Philippines, some Indonesian islands and Borneo.
Tarsiers are shy, solitary animals, who often commit suicide when kept captive. To give you an idea, they live up to 25 years in the wild, and only between 2 and 12 in captivity. They’re also prey to several animals, including domestic cats and dogs.
If you want to learn about tarsiers and do your bit to protect them, the best you can do is head to the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary foundation near Corella. This sanctuary was created by Carlito Pizarras, who is basically the Dian Fossey of tarsiers – so much so that the tarsier genus is named after him.
The sanctuary offers visitors the opportunity to see tarsiers in a large enclosure that houses eight animals. Within the enclosure, the tarsiers are able to move around and every morning the volunteers have to go and search them out – they usually manage to find just three or four, as there’s plenty of space for them to hide.
During your visit, you’re guided by a volunteer. Flash photography, selfie sticks and talking loudly are severely prohibited.
Just a quick warning!
Every other hotel and travel agency will offer you a ‘countryside tour’ including a visit to the tarsiers. Make sure you ask to be taken to the Corella sanctuary, not to one of the for-profit places near Loboc, where tarsiers snatched from the wild are kept in inhuman conditions and tourists are allowed to do as they please around them.
2) Explore the Chocolate Hills
After the tarsiers, the Chocolate Hills are Bohol’s second ‘signature sight’ – a seemingly-endless expanse of dome-shaped hills, surrounded by forest and rice paddies. The moniker ‘chocolate’ comes from the fact that after the dry season the grass covering the hills dries out, making them resemble row upon row of Hershey’s kisses.
The Chocolate Hills of Bohol cover an area of about 50 square km near the town of Carmen, in the central part of the island. They’re limestone karst hills and formerly laid on the bottom of the ocean, before being raised by tectonic uplift.
There are several local legends that explain the origin of the Chocolate Hills. My favourite is that of an immortal giant named Arogo, who fell in love with a mortal woman. He was so stricken by grief at the death of his lover that he cried and cried, flooding the plain. When his tears dried, the Chocolate Hills were formed.
The best place to view the Chocolate Hills is near Carmen, on top of one of the hills themselves. Don’t miss driving or riding a motorbike around the Chocolate Hills area to see the hills from ground level – you’ll see locals at work in the rice paddies with buffalo-powered ploughs and trees creeping over the hillsides.
3) Stand-up paddle boarding on the Loboc River
Number three in the things to do in Bohol list is a lunch cruise on the Loboc River, a beautiful turquoise-coloured river running across the island with rainforest all around.
Hundreds of tourists head to the town of Loboc every day at lunchtime to board open restaurant barges, with a buffet of Filipino specialties, bottomless iced tea and an easy-listening band carousing diners enroute.
We did the lunch cruise and loved it, but we also wanted to experience the river in a slower way. So, a few days later we travelled back to the Loboc area for an experience with Tinggly, a company offering vouchers for all kinds of experiences around the world. One of the activities on the Tinggly menu was a stand-up paddle boarding tour on the river, and after having experienced paddle boarding in Levanto last summer (and loving it) we thought that’s it, let’s have a go.
As soon as we jumped on the boards, we realized that paddle boarding on a river is much, much easier than doing so on the ocean. Everything just feels so much smoother, there are no waves so there are less chances to fall over and consequently, you don’t have to work as hard.
We started paddling around 2 pm, when most of the lunch boats were already on their way back. We passed children playing on the riverbanks, throwing themselves into the river from makeshift Tarzan ropes and flying foxes.
Our guide pointed out the ruined church of Loboc, a 17th century limestone church destroyed by the 2013 Bohol earthquake, that was followed by typhoon Yolanda two weeks later.
We paddled upriver for a couple of hours – enough to make it worthwhile, not too long so we didn’t get tired. On the way back the sun was setting – a tropical sunset, brief but intense. The sky lit up pink and purple and before we knew it, it was night.
We were still paddling on the river, while the fireflies danced in the trees, lighting our way.
4) Exploring an underground lake
This was an unexpected sight for us. On our last day in Bohol, we had planned to relax and do some work – but we felt it was a shame not to enjoy such a pretty natural paradise. So we rented some bicycles and decided to explore Panglao.
The bikes were kind of hard on our behinds, so we couldn’t do the full 30 km loop we had planned, and we just got as far as Hinagdanan Cave, little more than a hole in the ground concealing a large cave chamber and an underground lake, where swimming is allowed.
The cave was deserted. All we could hear was the flutter of wings (was it swiftlets, or bats? We’ll never know). Every sound was echoed – the whoosh of the water onto the rocks, our footsteps.
I almost didn’t jump into the lake – it was too spooky.
Eventually, I did muster my courage and took a dip. The water was chilly – a good break from the steamy heat of the island. But it just felt odd. The pool was rather deep, and the whole place just has some kind of otherworldly aura, as if it was a portal into another world. So I just swam around for about ten minutes or so, and then I got out.
As we left, we were caught in a massive downpour, so we had a chat with a shop owner to pass the time. One of them told us that years ago, the cave was used as a freshwater well – but ‘little people’ lived in there too, and they weren’t too pleased. They started stealing cooking utensils from locals, until they understood that the little people didn’t want to be bothered, and the cave was sealed.
A shiver ran down my spine, and as soon as it stopped raining, I rode away as fast as I could.
5) Diving in Bohol
Talking about things to do in Bohol, I just couldn’t NOT mention something beach related. Bohol is also a great place for dives – perhaps not as well known as nearby Apo Island, Malapascua or Moalboal, but the island (or let’s say, Panglao and nearby islands) still offer a variety of dive sites and excellent reef life.
The star in the diving crown in the Bohol area is Balicasag Island, a tiny island off the shore of Panglao that is generally visited as a day trip with two or three dives. We didn’t get to visit Balicasag, but we hard rave reports – one diver sighted 28 turtles on a single dive.
Our Bohol dives were off the house reef at Bohol Beach Club, the hotel of our dreams, a stunning luxury resort located on the most beautiful beach in Panglao. But more on this later. We did two morning dives and explored the reef wall, with some small caves that we could swim through, and saw a variety of reef fish, including the ubiquitous lion fish, clownfish swimming in and out of anemones, moray eels and colorful nudibranch.
Snorkeling in the shallows was also fun, and we got to see three different types of starfish. A turquoise one, with long, twisty limbs, a chunky red and black one and a tiny one that moved around.
Where to stay in Bohol
I’ve always dreamed to stay in a luxury beach resort – you know, those places with a long, white beach, stunning sunsets and palm trees all around. Bohol Beach Club was exactly the place of my dreams. The Philippines have plenty of amazing beaches – the beach at Bohol Beach Club (locally known as BBC) was the one we liked best during our month-long jaunt in the country.
Service was faultless. We were welcomed at Tagbilaran Pier and driven straight to the resort. After a quick check-in, we were offered a delicious welcome drink – pandan flavoured iced tea, just what we needed after a long and sweaty day in and out of tricyles and ferries.
Our room and the facilities at BBC were top-notch. We had a huge double room with two queen-sized beds and a lovely view over the garden. The resort has a restaurant with Filipino and Western food – the first night we had burgers and the second night we tried two Filipino favourites, kare-kare (a peanut-flavoured beef stew) and sinigang (a tamarind-scented prawn soup). And let’s not even start talking about breakfast, I still dream of it every morning!
We also appreciated the fact that we were offered different entertainment each night during dinner – during our two night stay we enjoyed a Filipino dance show and a pop music concert.
The only issue we had during our stay is that it rained during our second afternoon in the resort. I had planned to spend the day sunbathing and lazying on the beachside hammock but alas, it wasn’t to be.
However, storms do have one benefit… amazing sunsets. Just check this out.
What to eat in Bohol
If you’re staying at the Bohol Beach Club, look no further than their restaurant! It’s delicious and costs are not sky-high, despite the luxurious feel of the resort.
Not far from BBC there’s also an excellent Italian restaurant, Villa Formosa. The chef and manager is actually Italian, so excellent quality is 100% guaranteed. After spending most of the last 6 months away from Italy, I almost cried when I tasted the homemade pasta with porcini mushrooms and pizza with Italian sausage!
Another place that is worth a visit is Bohol Coco Farm, an organic vegetable farm set back from the beach, offering backpacker style accommodation and freshly-cooked food at affordable prices. We especially enjoyed the pancit noodles, made with coconut flesh instead of actual noodles, laden with veggies and a delicious peppery sauce.
Another place that is often touted to have excellent food is the Bee Farm, still in Panglao. It’s a restaurant/beach/souvenir shop, a place where you can walk around pretty gardens, see vegetables be processed into spreads and banana and cassava turned into chips. You can also rent some paddle boards and paddle around the pretty bay. It’s a lovely place to spend an afternoon – but to be honest, we didn’t think the food was all that good.
We would like to thank Bohol Beach Club for welcoming us for two nights, and Tinggly for having provided with a free voucher.