Bohol Ecotourism: Chocolate Hills, Tarsier Research, Balicasag Island, Pamilacan Island

By Henrylito D. Tacio

Davao City, 23 July 2010. “Revisiting this calm, quiet and clean city is always a pleasure,” multi-awarded journalist Juan Mercado wrote recently in his widely-read column. “This is the birthplace of President Carlos P. Garcia.” The fourth Philippine president is very popular that countless streets, buildings, and even basketball courts are named after him.

San Isidro Labrador stands tall.

San Isidro Labrador stands tall.

If you are still in a quandary what place is being described above, it’s Bohol, an oval-shaped island province in Central Visayas bounded on the north by the Camotes Sea, on the west by the Cebu Strait, and on the South by the Bohol Sea. One of the more than 7,000 islands, it is considered an anchor tourist destination. 

An author wrote: “Bohol is like a jade brooch set on a velvet-blue sea. Its fertile land has hills that roll gently around lush forests and grassy meadows. Marine life – from schools of tiny reef fish to bigger pods of dolphins and whales – teem in the surrounding waters.” 

The province got its present name from the early village of Bool near what is now known as Tagbilaran. “After (Ferdinand) Magellan was killed by Lapu-Lapu ion Mactan in 1521, his ships sailed across from Cebu to Bohol,” wrote Condrado M. Lancion in his book, Fast Facts About Philippine Provinces.  “In 1565, (Miguel Lopez de) Legaspi entered into a blood compact with Datu Sikatuna, bringing Bohol under Spanish rule, administered from Cebu.”

A floating restaurant along the river

A floating restaurant along the river

For trivia fanatics: In barrio Bohol, three kilometers from Tagbilaran, is a marker on the site of the Sikatuna-Legaspi blood compact. Every June, Boholanos re-enact the signing of the treaty in the Philippines during the Sandugo (meaning “one blood”) Festival. 

There are other colorful history records from Bohol. During the 333 years that the Philippines under Spain, the island of Bohol declared its independence – in a period known as Dagohoy’s Revolt (1744 to 1829, making it the longest in Philippine history) – and maintained that freedom over 86 years! 

In 1917, Bohol became a province under Act No. 2711. Today, Bohol is one of the country’s tourist top destinations. A travel writer notes: “Beneath the rustic charms of Bohol lies a thousand and one adventures just waiting to unfold.”

That was what we were expecting when we visited the province. Actually, we were there to attend the wedding of one of our friends. I went along with four American missionaries (Ben Wolf and his wife, Pam, Steve Musen, and Twyla Eivens) and Dr. Warlito A. Laquihon.

The Chocolate Hills

The Chocolate Hills

Our first stop-over was (yes, you’re right!) the world-famous Chocolate Hills. It is a series of 1,268 perfectly symmetrical, haycock-shaped hills (each hill rises 30 to 120 meters above the surrounding plateau). A national geologic monument, the hills which are spread out in the towns of Carmen, Batuan and Sagbayan never fails to amaze visitors.

Legend has it that the hills came into existence when two giants threw stones and sand at each other in a fight that lasted for days. When they were finally exhausted, they made friends and left the island, but left behind the mess they made. More romantic is the tale of Arogo, a young and very strong giant who fell in love with an ordinary mortal girl called Aloya. After she died, the giant Arogo cried bitterly. His tears then turned into hills, as a lasting proof of his grief.

The hills are so-called because they resemble chocolate bonbons when their grass cover turns to brown at the onset of summer. “The Chocolate Hills are best observed at dawn or dusk,” maintains Jun Binamira, who has written an extensive tour guide on Bohol. 

“At these times, the sun is low and throws dramatic highlights and shadows onto the hills, making them leap out of the background in bold relief. Dawn is especially breathtaking. Usually, there is a thick white mist which lingers around the base of each hill. This magical moment lasts only seconds,” Binamira writes. 

The Baclayon Church, 1585

The Baclayon Church, 1585

Boholanos are a deeply religious people, and the island has eight fine churches, including Baclayon, seven kilometers southeast of the capital Tagbilaran. Baclayon Church is the best preserved Jesuit-built church in the region, although its facade and most of the stone structures surrounding it were built by the Augustininan Recollects in the late 19th century. In 1995, the National Historical Institute declared the church as a historical landmark.

Other mission churches of architectural distinction include Dauis Church with its beautiful frescoes, Loboc Church with its three-story convent, Panglao Church with its ornate antiquities and ceiling murals, Loon Church, the most stunning church built by the Recollect Friars, and the 19th century Maribojoc Church. 

Perhaps not too many knew that Steven Spielberg used tarsier as the inspiration for the Oscar-winning E.T. Although found also in Mindanao, the Philippine Tarsier was a common sight in the southern part of Bohol until the 1960’s. Once protected by the humid rainforests and mist-shrouded hills, these mysterious primates struggle to survive as their home is cleared for crop growing and poaching.

The adorable Tarsier

To see tarsier in their natural habitat, visit the Tarsier Research and Development Center in New Corella, where a spacious net enclosure keeps a number of tarsiers for feeding, captive breeding and display. Here, you can watch the tiny animal, measuring about 85 to 160 millimeters in height. The small size makes it difficult to spot. The average adult is about the size of a human fist and will fit very comfortably in the human hand.

There are four main rivers that run through Bohol with Loboc River being the most famous for its river cruises, running from the center of the island to the southeastern coast. The largest, Inabanga River, runs in the northwestern part of the province. The two other rivers are Abatan in the southwest and Ipil in the north. 

Bohol is touted to be a cave country. Hinagdanan, the most well-known cave, is only two and a half kilometers fro Dauis on the island of Panglao. The cavern got its name from a wooden stairway (hagdanan), which was built at the entrance leading to the underground pool. The cave is lighted by two openings at the ceiling. 

Like most islands in the Philippines, Bohol is also noted for its fine beaches. Some of the more well-known beaches are found on Panglao Island. The Alona Beach, named after the popular film star of the 1970s (Alona Alegre), has the greatest variety of beach front accommodations anywhere in the province.

You can escape from the madding crowd if you head towards the clean white sands of Virgin Island. Technically speaking, Virgin Island is only a sandbar. Even during low tide, the center part of this crescent moon shaped islet is submerged under 6 inches of water.

Bohol may not be as famous Boracay, but is well-known locally as a paradise for divers. The dive sites are noted for their deep, steep walls – the creation of continental shifts during prehistoric times. Just over the causeway from Tagbilaran is Panglao Island with its spectacular drop-offs. 

The crab-shaped Balicasag Island has long established itself as a dive resort. Pamilacan Island is yet another popular diving destination. Pamilacan, which means “resting place of the mantas,” is also noted for its big whales called balilan. Pantudlan in Cabilao Island is frequented by many foreign diving enthusiasts. 

Getting around Bohol is easy as it is accessible by buses, private cars, taxis and rental cars. Many of the towns in Bohol have a bus terminal where one can get a ride to other towns. Most bus lines operate follows daily schedules.

But do you get there? There are many different means of transportation available when trying to get to Bohol. Since it is promoted as a major tourist destination, you can find a variety of travel options. Flights are scheduled daily with more than one airline flying to Bohol. However, for those who would love an ocean voyage, there are two options open - fast ferry and regular ferry. 

Photography courtesy of Roland L. Jumawan