When in the Philippines, try asking a local how many islands compose the country. Don’t be surprised if they would answer, “High tide or low tide?” It’s a popular reference to the witty response of a Filipina beauty queen who was asked the same question at the Miss Universe 1994.
So, what’s the answer then? As recently as 2017, there are over 7,600 islands (during low tide) in the archipelago but only about 2,000 are inhabited and 5,000 others have not been named yet! And many of the islands are still in pristine condition.
I recently went back to my home country and checked out three of the many destinations that make the country Asia’s center of fun. We begin our (Island) Hop Till You Drop series with Bohol Island.
Overall fun rating: ★★★★☆
The Chocolate Hills tops the list of natural parks that you can visit in Bohol, one of the island provinces in central Philippines. From a viewing deck atop one of these limestone hills in the town of Carmen, you can see about a hundred more peaks – but there are about 1,000 others spread over an area of 50 sqkm.
Rush in the Lush
The grass covering the hills turns to brown during summer, which gives it a chocolatey look. There’s nothing much to do after you arrive atop the viewing deck (PHP 50 entrance fee), but a few minutes’ drive via a habal-habal (passenger motorcycle) or a tuk-tuk will bring you to several tourist hubs that offer quadbike rides (pictured above, PHP 900 per hour). The ride can be done by kids as young as 8, and comes in with safety gear and a guide who can take a video of your adventure a la Lara Croft or Super Mario with the Chocolate Hills in the backdrop.
All Eyes Are Open for the Wide-Eyed Tarsier
A mere 1.5hr-drive from Carmen brings you to the town of Bilar, home of the world’s smallest primate, the tarsier. These wide-eyed tiny mammals are nocturnal, so you will see them sleeping when you visit the Tarsier Conservation Area in the town. Although it’s a little bit touristy, it’s nice to know that the proceeds from the entrance fee (PHP 10) go to conservation and breeding projects for these endangered species.
Old Spanish-style Catholic churches used to dot the island, but sadly many of them were damaged or destroyed during a strong earthquake in 2013. Five years on and reconstruction of the many surviving churches is still underway, including the nearly three-century-old Baclayon Church, mostly made up of coral stones. The church’s convent has been converted into an ecclesiastical museum (PHP 50 entrance fee) which exhibits centuries-old images, vestments, and other religious items. You can do a Visita Iglesia (church visit) tour, though the churches in the towns of Loboc and Loon collapsed after the earthquake.
Beauty and the Beach
The beach island of Panglao is Bohol’s answer to Boracay. Once you exhausted your body swimming along the stretch of Alona Beach, take a light boat to equally gorgeous nearby Balicasag Island where you can swim with sea turtles and snorkel above a marine sanctuary full of vibrant sea life. A 30-min boat ride brings you to the Virgin Beach sandbar that appears in low tide. There, you can indulge in seafood and grilled delights during lunch.
Suggested itinerary: After arriving at Tagbilaran City, take a taxi and go to Panglao island (1.5 hours away). Make the island your base for island hopping trips during your first few days. Before leaving the province from Tagbilaran, take countryside trips to Carmen and Bilar (and Danao town where you can try extreme activities like a zip line on an incline cliff, and bungee jumping).
Where to stay
Amorita Resort (Panglao Island)
From PHP 9,000 per night (deluxe room for two adults) or PHP 26,000 per night (sea view pool villa). www.amoritaresort.com (+632 856 1443, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Henann Resort Alona Beach (Panglao Island)
From PHP 9,600 per night (deluxe room for two adults) or PHP 13,500 per night (family room for four). www.henann.com/bohol/henannalonabeach (+6338 502 9141-44, email@example.com)
Rosa’s Cottage (Balicasag Island)
From PHP 1,000 per night (breakfast included), with a restaurant serving a variety of food prepared to visitors’ request. Owner Rose Mijares can also arrange a boat from Panglao Island to Balicasag Island (PHP 1,500 for a 5-person boat, PHP 1,800 for a 10-person boat). A package deal for 2 or more people is available and including meals, a private room, a guided scuba diving at the marine reserve, and a guided snorkeling trip is worth PHP 5,000. (+63 908 175 3687)
Recommended tour agents
U-Go Travel Services (Manager Charlot Pinat offers tour information and car rental services and ferry bookings. +63923 468 5049, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Graham ATV and Bug Car Rental (Paterno Maisa, marketing manager: +63998 576 3704, email@example.com)
Maimai Tour Services (Mai Mai, tour organizer: +63919 940 3114, +63926 796 1588)
*PHP 8.16 = RMB 1.00 (as of May 2018)
With additional reporting from Greg of Young Adventure Photography.
This is an edited version of an article that appeared on p20-23 of beijingkids June 2018 issue
Photos: Andy Penafuerte III; Kullez, Jaya via Flickr; courtesy of Young Adventure Photography (featured photo)