I was lured to the island of Bohol for the same reason every other tourist is. Promises of dreamy tropical beaches, cuddly miniature primates, and surreal Chocolate Hills made it impossible not to visit this popular island getaway during my trip to the Philippines. But, honestly, it was the prospect of motorbiking Bohol that was the biggest draw. I’m a huge fan of exploring Southeast Asian islands on a scooter and the second I read that Bohol was best seen by motorbike, I was sold. Despite my high expectations I was a little wary of traveling to Bohol, as two major natural disasters had recently wreaked havoc on the island.
Bohol is the tenth largest island in the Philippine archipelago, which means there are quite a few areas for travelers to base themselves. After talking to a number of Filipinos and doing a bit of research, all signs pointed toward getting a hotel near Alona Beach. Not only is this stretch of sand touted by most Filipinos as a “mini-Boracay” but it’s raved about in all the guidebooks.
With images of Boracay’s perfect White Beach still fresh in my mind, I was beyond excited to visit another beautiful beach. I had plans of spending a few days laying in the sun, sipping San Miguels, and swimming in clear blue water. But when Aaron and I stepped foot on the beach, what we saw was a far cry from Boracay. There was a receding strip of sand, which was rapidly vanishing with the tide. The beach was littered with seaweed and debris. The water was cloudy and full of boats and sea grass. And the worst part was that it wasn’t even a swimming beach due to the shallow coral and abundance of sea urchins. (Now for those who think I’m judging this beach too harshly, read this post and this post and you’ll see that I’m not the only traveler who was less than impressed by Alona Beach.)
Aaron and I immediately knew that we weren’t going to be able to entertain ourselves at this beach for days on end. So the next day we rented a couple of motorbikes and set out to see what the interior of Bohol had to offer. The first stop would be the Tarsier Sanctuary, where we would try to spot the adorably freakish little primates in the semi-wild. After that we would continue on to view the bizarre Chocolate Hills. The hills are actually limestone formations. Thousands of symmetrical mounds roll as far as the eye can see, creating one of the most surreal landscapes in the Philippines. In the dry season the hills turn from a vibrant green to a toasty brown. Hence, the name Chocolate Hills.
As I mentioned before, my trip to the Philippines was poorly timed because the country had just been hit by a massive typhoon. In addition, Bohol had been the epicenter of a 7.2 magnitude earthquake two months before I got to the island. Let’s just say that Mother Nature really did a number on Bohol and when I visited, the island had barely begun to recover from the devastation. The majority of the island’s damage was actually caused by the earthquake. Hundreds had died, homes were destroyed, roads were ripped apart, and centuries-old churches were leveled.
There were rumors that the roadways were still impassable and that the viewpoint for the Chocolate Hills remained closed for repairs. Getting accurate and up-to-date information in the Philippines is next to impossible. So, like much of our time in the country, Aaron and I had no idea what to expect on the ground in Bohol. We didn’t even know if it was possible to see this island’s star attractions.
Regardless, Aaron and I rented two scooters from a roadside stand at Alona Beach and we set off to explore. Riding motorbikes is one of my all-time favorite activities but I get super freaked out when I have to ride in traffic. And I didn’t realize that the relatively sleepy town of Alona Beach was actually surrounded by the pretty traffic snarled city of Tagbilaran. But since Aaron was hauling ass (going way over the speed limit, I might add) I had no choice but to get over my nerves, squeeze the gas handle, and weave in and out of traffic in order to keep up. And I have to admit, it was fun!
Traffic was just one of the many challenges we faced that day. There was still a lot of debris on the roads and cleanup from fallen trees was ongoing. Buildings had been destroyed, including many of the island’s Spanish Colonial churches. And we had to be extra cautious in order to dodge potholes, fallen tree limbs, and piles of rubble.
As we twisted along the mountain roads we entered the jungle-clad interior of Bohol. The shade from the lush trees offered a nice reprieve from the heat. And despite the destruction, we were having a blast cruising around the island. We knew the turnoff for the tarsier sanctuary should be coming up and we were so excited to see the curious little creatures in the flesh.
But then I felt it. A rain drop. And after a couple minutes it started pouring. As the rain pelted us, it became impossible to see. Soaking wet, we pulled over and ran for cover. Our clothing clung to us as we shivered under an awning and waited for the rain to die down. It took 20 minutes for the rain finally reduce to a drizzle and we were back on the road. The sun peaked through the clouds and the wind helped to dry us off. And before long we’d arrived at the sanctuary.
Tarsiers are amazing creatures. They are commonly (and mistakenly) known as the world’s smallest primate, but while they don’t officially hold the title they are still tiny. Most adults are roughly the size of a softball and they can easily fit in the palm of your hand. With their comically large and bulbous eyes and their froglike hands they look more like an alien species than something that’s native to this planet.
The sanctuary itself is small and simple place. But it’s well worth a visit. Tourists basically pay the 100 peso entrance fee and are pointed toward a guide who leads you through a small forested area. The guides’ main function is to point out the tarsiers. These creatures are small, shy, and nocturnal, which means they’re difficult to spot, even in the daylight.
It felt odd to have someone chaperone us along this straightforward pathway, but I appreciated that the guides were there to protect these tiny primates. Tarsiers are extremely sensitive creatures – both physically and emotionally. And the sound of tourists chattering, the flash of a camera, or the touch of a human, are all things that can stress these guys out to such a degree they are known to commit suicide. But being able to quietly observe them in their natural habitat was pretty amazing. And lucky for use one of them was awake, staring at us with his bulging eyes.
(Note: Please avoid any “sanctuary” that allows tourists to hold tarsiers or confines these animals to cages. Tarsiers are an endangered species and should not mistreated in this way.)
After we got our fill of the tarsiers we jumped back on our bikes to continue on to the Chocolate Hills. Not too long into our journey the rain made another appearance but this time it was no joke. The rain whipped our faces and after a few minutes we were once again drenched. Determined to reach the hills, we tried our best to battle through it. With the heavy rain we could barely see and the roads were becoming dangerously slick. We had no choice but to pull over. Safety first, right? We took refuge under a bus stop awning along with a handful of Filipinos. And we watched as the rain grew in intensity and flooded the streets. It didn’t take long for the street to look more like a river than a roadway. At one point I even wondered if my bike’s kickstand could withstand the force of the rushing water. We waited the storm out for about 40 minutes. It was getting late. We had no map, or phone, or idea of where we were. All we knew was that we weren’t too far from the hills and we had a 90-minute drive back to our hotel.
We flirted with the idea of heading back, since it would be getting dark soon. But eventually the rain started to die down and the sun poked through the clouds once again. We ultimately decided that we were too close to turn back. Once again the sun and wind dried us off and after a short ride we found ourselves coasting through one of the most magical landscapes I’ve ever seen. There were emerald green rice patties framed by perfectly conical hills. I felt like I’d walked into one of my favorite childhood games, Candy Land. We rode up to the park entrance, paid our 50 peso fee, and parked our bikes.
The extent of the damage was obvious right away. The force of the earthquake had been so severe it had split some of the hills right down the middle. And the viewing deck had been completely destroyed. Luckily, we were allowed to walk up to the viewing area. But the actual viewing platform was too unsafe for tourists to walk on. Even though we couldn’t get all the way to the top, we were still completely wowed by this bizarre landscape. The symmetrical mounds extended into the horizon. I’d seen a lot of pictures of these hills but being there in person was so much more spectacular than I could have imagined.
A lot of people would say that our day was a complete disaster. We were humbled by how badly Bohol had been damaged by not one, but two natural disasters. We were repeatedly drenched by rain and we spent a seriously large chunk of our day waiting out rainstorms. Aaron’s scooter even ran out of gas at one point. Maybe it was all the roadblocks we encountered along the way. Or, maybe it was because we had to work really hard to glimpse Bohol’s natural wonders – those peculiar primates and those otherworldly hills.
Whatever it was, motorbiking around Bohol ended up being one of the most memorable – and one of my favorite – experiences in the Philippines. And, hey, I guess getting caught in that rainstorm was worth it because we got to experience a spectacular rainbow over the hills.
Do you think this view is worth the effort? Have you ever had to work really hard to see a destination during your travels?