Bohol – the Chocolate Island

Destination 2 – BOHOL – small drops of Chocolate Hills, a huge python, Loboc river and adorable tarsiers – one of the world’s smallest primates. There is much more to see on the Philippines’ 10th largest island but this is what we could squeeze in on a one day stay.

A small sketch of what awaits you further on in this coast

Cebu -> Tagbilaran -> Loboc -> Carmen


View Larger Map

So guess it is now time to leave the little island of Malapascua behind and head a bit south to the land of wonders – Bohol. To get here we travelled from Malapascua to Maya to Cebu the same way we came and took what was originally supposed to be a short detour to SM City Mall to recharge. Shy to confess it stretched a bit longer :) So with a small delay we taxied to the Cebu Pier to catch a fast ferry (Oceanjet, EUR 9) for a 1,5 hour journey to Tagbilaran, the capital of Bohol. While on board we enjoyed an interesting presentation of a very ordinary movie. It was in Chinese, and whoever made the subtitles sure did a huge job. At least a good laugh is guaranteed :)

Look forward to 1,5 hours of hilarious subtitles

We arrived in Tagbilaran at around 9pm and naturally there were no more buses to take us to the middle of the island to watch the sunrise over the Chocolate Hills. We had only one day on the island and were not about to abolish our sunrise plan. From Tagbilaran to Carmen where the hills start is about 60 km so walking was no option. When there is no bus there is always a taxi, but knowing that they are your last resort taxi drivers have a strange tendency to bump up the prices. Well they didn’t get to drive us (bye-bye easy money) as we got a very VIP ride to our destination. On the boat we met with a Philippine couple and the husband turned out to be the Vice Mayor of Alburquerque (later to become Mayor of the same small city on Bohol). In Tagbilaran the Vice Mayor’s family was already lined up by the arrival terminal waiting to greet the happy parents and drive them home. After some introductions we were very kindly offered a lift to the Chocolate Hills in a VIP van. It was an offer we couldn’t and would by no means refuse! So on we went for an hour of sightseeing ride. And to clear any doubts here is the proof 😉

Our VIP ride on Bohol

The family was so friendly and welcoming that they even stopped and pointed to all the major sights on our way, including a very cutie creature, that resides proudly near Alburquerque in Salibay family’s garden and is 7 metres long and 300 kg heavy. Any idea what that can be? If the answer is yes and you are weak-hearted skip the picture below. If you have no clue and are curious then look below and admire :)

Little python had a cute name too – Prony, in the honour of his captor

Sorry for the lack of more revealing shots, the charming creature was already asleep and very immovable when we dared to disturb him in the late evening hours.

An hour of fun ride brought us to the Chocolate Hills Complex, a beautiful hotel built on top of a chocolate hill (got a room for around EUR 20). At around 10 pm the hotel was very quiet and unpopulated. You could even think we were the only guests of the day. Cool! After a vain attempt to find some dinner in the just-for-us unlocked restaurant all we managed to get was juicy mangos, bananas and peañato – a sugar-coated peanut cake. Yummy dinner! So full and glad to finally reach our special place we started the countdown for the sunrise. In the hotel grounds there is a staircase leading to the observation deck from where you can enjoy the wonder of nature. That is where we headed in the absolute dark at 4:30 am for the promised sunrise. A little spooky but well worth it. After an hour of wait the dawn finally broke at 5:30 am (I have no idea what time zone the hotel management was on when they told us the sunrise will be at 4:30 am) and with the first rays of the sun a mysterious sight unveiled for us. Imagine hundreds of hills emerging with the sun and spreading in front you in all their glory. It was a truly magical experience despite the slightly cloudy sky…

(Photos © Andreas Eriksen)

The Chocolate Hills or as I dubbed them the Truffle Drops :)

They are 1.776 hills on average between 30 and 50m high scattered around a 50 square km area that bear striking resemblance to my favourite truffles. Why Chocolate Hills? Simply because the hills are covered in grass that turns brown in the dry season.

We waited so long, now it’s time to have some fun :)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chocolate Hills Legends

As with anything mysterious and beautiful, there are always legends told around it. The Chocolate Hills are no exception. One such legend glorifies a fight between two giants who were engaged in a stone throwing fight, the stones being the hills.

For a more scientific explanation refer to the info plaque at the viewing deck, where it is stated that “the unique land form known as the Chocolate Hills of Bohol was formed ages ago by the uplift of coral deposits and the action of rain water and erosion”.

It was close to 7 am when we finally descended to walk back to the hotel and there was  already some activity going on. Lonely tourists were showing up to enjoy the sight only a little later to be followed by a group of buses and hundreds of visitors. Back in our room we drew the curtains away to discover that we have an awesome view to our very own chocolate hill!

After a delicious breakfast that looked like this…

… we rented a motorbike to take us around the hills. There will be a group of them waiting by the entrance to the hotel (EUR 7). It was an exciting ride, a bit scary for me, being my first ever ride I was in a constant fear of falling off and was repeating “Slow please” every single minute, although I don’t think the poor guy could go any slower :) We drove around in the forests and fields and even got to hike one of the Chocolate Hills – that was totally cool!

Three Sisters

Later those same motorbikes gave our heavy bags a lift down to the bus stop. Good idea as the hotel is atop the hill and is about 1 km away from the main highway where the bus stops.

So much for the wonder hills and an exciting morning. We had to rush to our next adventures. An advanced bus ride to Barrio Cancatac, near Corella town brought us to a small zoo run by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to pay a visit this time to a very tiny yet adorable creature. Meet the tarsier – an endangered primate and a nocturnal hunter. Make sure to inform the bus driver that you are headed to see the tarsiers, as the place is not easy to find.

Isn’t it adorable :) Totally!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is really tiny, can fit in your hand and looks so vulnerable and sweet. When around them you shouldn’t make noise or especially use your flash when doing photos. But come and tell that to insensitive visitors.

See see I can almost touch it…

By the tarsier place for EUR 8 hire an outrigger for a cool Loboc river cruise to a small waterfall, where you can also enjoy a quick splash. Of course we couldn’t pass on such an opportunity :) If you are not up to swimming you can enjoy a lunch at one of the floating restaurants.

The heavy rain made it feel like we were in a jungle, but the waterfall jump and shower was fun :)

Chocolate Hills – check
Tarsier – check
Loboc River Cruise – check

Time to brace ourselves for an exciting jeepney ride (for full description of this latest cry in the auto industry check my Philippines post) to Tagbilaran where we had to catch an Oceanjet back to Cebu. This time there were no funny subtitles, it was a bigger ferry and they were showing Troy. Ahh on a sidenote make sure you strongly insist on taking your luggage with you, otherwise they will put it in a common room and you never know in what condition or if you will get it back.

Bus rides are exciting! You get to enjoy fun sights on the way.

When you arrive at the ferry terminal and it is evening taxis will be like predators. Avoid them, don’t stop, don’t look confused, just walk quickly a few hundred metres until you come away from their convergence area and can breath again. Now you can flag down a metered taxi. We had to stay overnight in crazy Cebu to catch a flight to our next destination early in the morning. We chose a budget hotel called Pacific Tourist Inn and omg it was NASTY and very expensive for such an awful hotel. We dined at Sinugba Bay restaurant on top of Holiday Plaza Hotel (F Ramos Street) with an amazing view over the Cebu City and so wished we had chosen that hotel. For a special offer of EUR 30 you would be very nicely accommodated in a much nicer district of Cebu. On a brighter side at least the nasty experience is now remembered with fun :) In the restaurant there was also a well-into-his-middle-ages American dining with two Filipinas, his very young wife-to-be and her friend. A common sight in the Philippines.

Very early in the morning we ran away from the awful Inn and on the way to the airport stopped by the City Hall to check out the Magellan’s Cross, marking the beginning of Christianity in the Philippines. The original cross is believed to be inside the present cross.

Magellan’s Cross

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bye-bye amazing Bohol. We are off to Palawan – a paradise on earth!

Malapascua – the Bounty Island

Destination 1 – MALAPASCUA – white sand beach, crystal clear water, diving and snorkelling paradise, yummy food and complete relaxation – if you are in for all of these then head there before it gets too popular and overcrowded.

Manila -> Cebu -> Maya -> Malapascua (you will spend pretty much the entire day in the air, on the road, and in a boat)

This tiny island (2,5 km long and a km wide) was our first pin on the Philippine map. How did we choose this place? Well, good question. There is a very famous and extremely touristy island, called Boracay, which has a white sand beach. And that’s what we wanted – white beach – but with no Boracay crowds. After some research I found this tiny island, which turned out to be a paradise for diving and snorkelling, none of which I did certainly because of my lack of swimming skills, but that’s a completely other topic and besides we are working on that 😉 So the blindingly white sand beach or bounty beach as they call it was one of the reasons. The other decider was more romantic. Malapascua sounded very cute. It actually means “bad Christmas” in Cebuano as according to the local legend the Spanish conquerors first landed on the island on a stormy Christmas day.

To get there we flew from Manila to Cebu, took a taxi to Northern Bus Terminal, which is located near the SM City Mall, a huge mall, offering many of the western brands combined with cheap local prices. Note: There are no ATMs on Malapascua so remember to take out cash at the mall, alternatively the second-last bus stop before Maya also has an ATM. From here we changed to yet another form of transportation – a Ceres Liner bus heading for Maya the northernmost point of the Cebu island. The journey took 4 hours and was quite memorable – besides the nice landscape you had the occasional pleasure of hosting very friendly chickens and other creatures. Another thing we learned quickly was the custom of stopping the bus. In Armenia we are used to small indulgences like a stop button in the end or front of the bus, which mostly doesn’t work, so you have to test your vocals and let the driver know that he has got to let you out at the next stop. In Berlin or in Denmark this small indulgence is taken to a degree of utmost luxury – in all the buses you have stop buttons by all the seats, which do work, so you can refrain from socializing and comfortably let yourself out. In the Philippine buses you quickly forget about buttons and concentrate on metal objects, especially a ring (if you are married that will come very handy). People use their rings to knock very loudly on anything metal in the bus and announce that they would like to make an exit. Creativity has no boundaries across the globe…

So off the bus and on you jump aboard a small boat, operated by Malapascua locals, taking you to the bounty island. The journey took less than 30 minutes, but the negotiation process of getting the last boat to take its course took more than that. Being the last one the owners were very tough of course, but our haggling skills have largely improved in China and besides nothing could beat the stubbornness of two Dutch divers who were refusing to pay just 2 EUR more for the journey (usual fare is 1-3 EUR). Nevertheless a mutual price was set finally, considering that the alternative would be to spend a night in Maya. One thing you should know is that even if the boat is calculated for 6 passengers, there will be at least 4 other island locals waiting quietly to make the journey with you, paid by your overcharged fare of course.

After an entire day in the air, on the road and on the water by the dusk the Robinsons finally discovered the shore. And our real adventures began right there. We were naive enough not to book a hotel in advance as the island has more than 30 resorts of varying levels of luxury. So burdened with our luggage we walked back and forth the southern shore looking for a hotel. Alas, the tiny island was completely overbooked. Were it not for one kind villager helping us with the search, we would probably end up sleeping under the starlit sky. The hard search paid off – we found a wonderful room overlooking the water at Slams Garden Resort for PHP 1500. It was for one night only, so next morning we found another more modest accommodation for the rest of our stay (Borggren Resort, bamboo bungalows for PHP 1000).

Despite the overbooked hotels, the island was not crowded at all, probably all the visitors were out diving. Taking care of our hunger was much easier. Almost always we went to this famous diner,  Ging Ging’s Eatery, which served absolutely delicious and amazingly cheap Filipino and some Western food. For breakfast go for mango pancakes, for lunch some sandwich combo, and for dinner try the chicken adobo! Of course don’t forget the calamansi juice and San Miguel beer.

If you are into diving and snorkelling many resorts and locals offer tours. We went with our local friend on a snorkelling tour and drive around the island, including a trip to a lighthouse in the north, a coral reef and an old shipwreck. Of course you can walk around the island, then you will come across many villages and secluded bays. For a complete relaxation we couldn’t forgo a Thai massage for less than 5 EUR.

After 2 full days on the paradise island we had to move on to our next adventures which would take us to Bohol and the Chocolate Hills. But more about this later. Now enjoy the scenery :)

(Photos © Andreas Eriksen)

Malapascua sketched from great memories. 1: Borggren Resort. 2: Ging Ging's Eatery. 3: Slams Garden Resort

Approaching the beautiful island of Malapascua


Our local restaurant for all occasions

A big fish :)

Drying fish

A birthday roast for the village

A boat for fishing, diving and touring the island

Funny locals performing a dance

Sunsets were really amazing in the Philippines

Mabuhay Tropical Paradise!

Mabuhay Philippines! Hello translates into mabuhay in Filipino and it is also my favourite word in that language. Not that I know many mind I just love the sound of it.

As Europe is getting colder my thoughts run back to warmer climates and to our tropical adventures in the land of 7107 islands. To sum it up in one word would be to say it is fascinating, but you cannot stick to one word when describing the Philippines. The country is as diverse as the islands it encompasses, true it is absolutely beautiful and full of wonderful discoveries in whichever direction you end up doing your island hopping, although at times and in certain places it can be a bit overwhelming, but you can avoid that if you stay away from big cities like Manila and Cebu City. The people are generally very friendly, especially in Palawan. Sometimes they will try to rip you off but that’s one of the “perks” of a tourist. Travelling in the Philippines is very cheap, cheaper than in China.

We went there for the Chinese New Year, an untraditional choice I know but when you have got -15 – 20C on a fine February day in Beijing and the bitter cold makes you literally run from place to place, just admiring the crazy New Year fireworks is celebration enough.  So off we went to the country of sun, crystal clear water and paradise islands.

Practical Stuff
First of all about the visa. Most of the “Western world” enjoys visa-free access for 21 days. We coming from the “black list” countries need to acquire a visa. But don’t worry it usually goes very easy.

Now about the travel guide. The best researched book on the Philippines is the “Philippines Travel Guide by Jens Peters“. He has been travelling to the Philippines more than 60 times in the course of 10 years. The book is very comprehensive.

How we acquired this book has a funny story attached to itself. In China it is not easy to buy foreign-language books, they have a limited assortment. Of course there is the wonderful invention of the 20th century – Amazon. But even they didn’t carry this book. So I found Jens Peters’ e-mail and wrote him. And he replied very promptly and gave the contact of a distributor in the Asia and through them we got the book delivered to our first hotel in Manila on the day of our arrival. It involved some coordination but in the end everything worked out fine.

Before you embark on your adventures don’t forget to stock up on sunscreen, sunburn cream (if it gets to it) and mosquito repellent. All of these you can purchase in the Philippines, usually big shopping malls have everything you need, although for sunscreen the choice was limited and we were left with the only option of SPF 50 – which might explain our lack of golden holiday tan. For the sunburn cream I can recommend a local Philippine made aloe and herbal treatment. It comes in plastic tubes and the liquidish gel is brown.

When to Go
Having a tropical climate, the Philippines enjoys an average temperature of 25C throughout the year and two well-expressed seasons – dry (January to June) and wet (July to December). We were there in February and the weather was perfect.

Where to Go
Oh, this is a tough question, with 7107 islands to choose it is not easy. However only about 2000 islands are inhabited, in addition only about 500 are larger than 1 square kilometer. So that should ease up your choice a bit. We did 4 islands in 12 days and that was pretty tight-packed but amazing nonetheless. Later I will blog about the specific islands we visited to reveal the wonderful secrets hidden in each of them.

If you check country-issued travel warnings you will hear frequently about Mindanao and Sulu regions in the south. They keep having recurring violent outbreaks so if you plan to go there check the timing.

Travelling in the Philippines involves a bit of coordination. It is not exactly hassle-free to navigate between the huge network of buses, ships and planes. Flying is cheap, given that you book in a good time of course, and the cabin crew is super cheerful, sometimes they will even sing for you and organize different games. If you choose to fly don’t forget that in addition to your flight ticket you need to purchase a travel tax coupon (in 2010 it costed PHP 200 for local flights and PHP 750 for international).

What to Eat
Filipino food is absolutely delicious. It varies from region to region so make sure you taste the local dishes wherever you travel. One main dish is a national standard – Adobo and it tastes heavenly with meat and veggies cooked in vinegar, pepper and garlic. This was sure our favourite along with fresh supply of exotic fruits. The mangos… oh I can still taste them!

For a juice try kalamansi! Kalamansi are local tiny lemons and the juice made from them is super refreshing and tasty!!! For beer lovers San Miguel is the best local offer.

Local Currency
It is called Philippine Peso (PHP). EUR 1 = PHP 60. You can pay with international credit cards in many big cities, however if you intend to travel to smaller islands it is a good idea to carry cash.

Language
The official language is Filipino, which carries some Spanish influence. The majority of people speak English. Here is a selection of words that might come handy while you travel:

Mabuhay – hello
Paalam, bye – goodbye
Kumusta – how are you?
Mabuti – well
Salamat – thank you
Oo – yes
Hindi – no
Magkano – how much?
Saan – where?
Mura – cheap
Mahal – expensive

Local Attractions
Another word that will quickly enter your local dictionary is jeepney (pictured in the above left corner). Once inherited from the US military after WWII, this is a peculiar form of transport, very colourful, very loud and very omnipresent. One would even talk about a certain jeepney fashion, when the hundreds of noisy vehicles hit the streets of Manila’s catwalk, each trying to outbeat the other with colours, designs, insignia and the number of passengers they manage to cram all over the vehicle. Some will consider a ride in a jeepney an absolute adventure if you are not falling out of course, others a complete nerve-wrecking experience. Whatever the case is, jeepneys are an inseparable part of Filipino daily life. When riding a jeepney it is generally advised to try to keep your belongings as close to you as possible. The best seat is in the front next to the driver where you get some kind of safety and privacy.

Taxis provide yet another spur of adrenalin – besides the crazy and chaotic traffic, it is a matter of choosing the right taxis and not getting ripped off as a result. All the taxis are said to have A/C and meters, now make sure that you have the meter turned on, otherwise you will end up paying multiple times the price. The going rate in 2010 was PHP 30 as a fixed charge and PHP 2.50 for every 300 m thereafter. When you land in Manila’s Ninoy Acquino International Airport make sure you get to the departure hall and take a metered taxi (white ones) from there as it will be much cheaper than going with the airport couponed taxis (yellow ones). We didn’t know this of course and ended up paying EUR 12 for a ride (the taxi meter was running like on a horse track) that otherwise should have been max EUR 3.

Another thing you will notice quickly in Manila and other big cities is the presence of police, safety guards etc. heavily armed everywhere – airport, big shopping malls, hotels, restaurants.

So much for the general intro, now the islands are waiting for us :)