I arrived in Tagbilaran City, the capital of the central Philippine province of Bohol on a gloomy morning just before a signal #2 typhoon was about to hit the island. Not the coming storm nor the fact that a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck the island only some 3.5 months back seemed to deter the throngs of people, mostly holiday-goers from coming. Prior to my trip, I had wondered myself whether I could still get a decent experience traveling around Bohol given the pictures I had previously seen of churches lying in rubble, impassable roads and landslides on the famed Chocolate Hills.
Bohol is very much open for business
The short answer is that yes – you can still pretty much get a hassle-free and uninterrupted trip around Bohol and still cover the overwhelming majority of the sights. On a clear day, the verdant or parched mounds that are the Chocolate Hills continue to enchant. This being said, not everything is hunky dory. Many of Bohol’s heritage churches still lay in ruins and will probably take years to rebuild.
2 Days in Post-Quake Bohol
My trip to Bohol lasted through the lunar new year long weekend, which meant that flights and lodgings were more packed than usual. I split my time between Panglao and the main island of Bohol. Both were great and seemed to complement each other – Panglao for its white sand beaches and Bohol itself for the green countryside, rice paddies and of course, the Chocolate Hills.
Day 1 – Panglao
my beachfront resort at panglao
I had arrived from Manila at mid-day which meant I only had the afternoon to see Panglao. Most people who come here make a stop at Alona Beach, but as it was raining and I was staying in a beachfront resort anyway, I decided to skip this. However, I was still afforded a glimpse of the main street which has sort of become like a traveler’s haven in Bohol not too different from Bali’s Kuta.
interiors of the st. agustin church in panglao
Also, while many of Bohol’s churches have been destroyed, the St. Agustin Church in Panglao still stands marvelously on a wide expanse. The interiors are quite impressive, with painted murals on the ceiling and brown, moorish tiles on the floor.
We also made a stop at the Hinagdanan Caves which is located not too far from the church. The cavern is lit only by the sunlight piercing through a few holes at the top of the cave, and is complemented by a deep pool. Entrance here was something like 20 or 25 pesos. The stalactite and stalagmite formations in the cave are quite stunning though I found it too dark to see much.
awe-inspiring sunrise at panglao
Panglao is also notable for its many (tourist-centered) restaurants. A vast majority are found in the vicinity of Alona Beach though one frequented by travelers here is Bohol Bee Farm which prides itself on serving organic food. We availed of the buffet which was around 550 pesos per pax and included specialties such as honey-glazed chicken, seafood lasagna, pork ribs and organic salad. Overall, I thought it was okay but for the price, I thought some restaurants over in Tagbilaran City offered better value.
Day 2 – Bohol Island
slippery walk down the falls
Our second day was really jampacked, as we crammed our trip around the Bohol mainland in one day. It was an early start in the morning for the Mag-aso Falls over at the town of Antequera around 20 kilometers from Tagbilaran. It had poured heavily the night before and the otherwise turquoise pools were brown, with the waterfalls making a bigger splash than usual. The entrance fee of around 20 pesos came with a guide, who explained to us that the earthquake actually changed the water flow.
twin mag-aso falls
We then ventured to see one of Bohol’s iconic attractions – the tarsier. The government has become a lot stricter when it comes to these little creatures. Previously, it was possible to hold and even cuddle these extremely shy animals in other tourist attractions such as in Loboc. Nowadays, one’s best bet to encounter the tarsier is in the Tarsier Sanctuary in Corella. Unfortunately, the same downpour that dampened our experience in the falls manifested itself again in the sanctuary as we couldn’t find any low-hanging tarsier to view. Every single one we saw were perched high up in the tree branches, drying themselves up.
rollin’ in the loboc river
I proceeded to my next destination, a bit disappointed that I didn’t manage to get a decent view of these primates. What followed was perhaps the biggest tourist trap of the trip, but strangely enough it was appealing in a kitschy kind of way. Never mind that the buffet lunch was nothing to write home about. Having the boat cross the Loboc River in slow motion and being surrounded by thick vegetation felt like a scene out of some film set in the Amazon. Having a guitar-strumming guy singing Rollin’ in the River felt cheesy at first but served to add to the atmosphere in some strange way. I have to admit though, I enjoyed the cruise.
taking the slow boat down the loboc
I was expecting the boat to stop for a traditional musical performance but instead got into a fake Ati tribe village complete with supposed tribes people wearing outrageous headgear and underwear made of grass. Many of the foreign tourists on the cruise went to snap lots of photos. They probably thought it was the real deal.
the man-made forest of bilar
Next up was the part I was most waiting for – the Chocolate Hills. From Loay where the cruise stopped, it was an hour or so journey to Carmen where the more than 1,200 mounds that turn brown during the dry season are found. But before that, we stopped by the man-made mahogany forest in Bilar. From here, it was a quick 20 minute or so drive to reach the hills.
there they are – the chocolate hills of bohol!
Soon enough, the landscape changed with random mounds jutting out in the middle of the rice fields. As we drove further, these seemingly random hillocks got higher and more cone-shaped. Before long, we reached the famed viewing deck of the Chocolate Hills. I climbed up the 200 or so steps and got one of the most scenic views I’d ever seen in the Philippines. There they were – dozens of limestone hillocks stretching as far as the eye could see. What stood before me is the result of hundreds if not thousands of years of erosion and shifts in tectonic plates. The sky was a deep blue – a surprise considering a typhoon had just passed over the island earlier that morning. I was so thankful I got what I came to Bohol for.
loboc church in ruins
baclayon church in ruins
blood compact monument in tagbilaran
The destruction of many of Bohol’s churches meant that I could no longer go for the architectural tour that I had earlier aspired. Nevertheless, we did stop by two of Bohol’s most famous churches – Loboc Church and Baclayon Church – with their facades having fallen off. On the way back to Tagbilaran, we stopped by the Sanduguan or Blood Compact Monument. Our driver was quick to point out that unlike in neighboring Cebu, the Spaniards actually received a warm welcome upon their arrival in the Philippines nearly 500 years ago.
That same hospitality still rang true during my trip. The Boholanos were some of the friendliest people I’ve met, even by Philippine standards. It’s just a shame I hadn’t stayed longer.
Sample Bohol Itinerary
Day 1 – Panglao Island (half-day)
Bohol Bee Farm
Bayoyoy the dwarf man (one of the smallest men in Asia)
Dauis Church – in ruins
Day 2 – Bohol Countryside Tour
Corella Tarsier Sanctuary
Loboc River Cruise
Man-made Mahogany Forest
Butterfly Conservation Center*
* Those marked with an asterisk can be skipped in my opinion if you’re pressed for time