Deciding on another island to hop to is difficult being that the country is made up of 7,107 islands with exceptional sites on many. The Philippine archipelago is divided into three, with the top group of islands called Luzon (which is the largest Philippine Island on which Manila is located). The middle group of islands is known as the Visayas, and the bottom group is the Mindanao.
We fly to Bohol in the Visayas, drawn by the geographical phenomenon of the Chocolate Hills and a desire to see the endangered Tarsiers. The capital of Tagbilaran is a village-like port with low buildings, the highest being the churches and a mall that locals call “Mickey Mall” because of its McDonald’s Restaurant. The Sun Avenue Hotel is perfect. The staff is super friendly and we find out, after visiting several tour operators, that our hotel offers the best tour rates and we can even customize our excursion inland.
A day later with our driver/guide “Lino” we breeze in an air-conditioned Toyota towards the 40-metre mounds known as the Chocolate Hills with stops at some sites along the way.
In the town of Baclayon, Lino takes us to what he claims, “is oldest church in Bohol” (which I’ve determined means where a series of churches graced a particular spot). This church dates back to the early Spanish colonial days, but was abandoned after marauders forced the missionaries inland. In 1717 another church was constructed using forced native labour to tediously cut coral stones into squares and cement them together with egg whites. This church seen today was completed in 1727, with additions such as a new bell tower since.
Lino is akin to a walking encyclopaedia. “It was in the Visayas that Ferdinand Magellan landed in 1521 claiming the archipelago for Spain, but was also here that Magellan and some of his men met an untimely death at the hands of Mactan Island’s Chieftain, Lapu-Lapu.” The story goes that after the chieftain declined Christianity, Magellan continued to pressure him, provoking the attack on the conquistadors. With storms at sea and such, a lone boat out of this fleet made it back to Seville to report the news of the tropical island find – which as we know prompted Spain to send out more galleons.
Another stop is at a monument to the Sandugo or the blood pact that took place in 1565 between Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and Chieftain Datu Sikatuna; considered the first friendship treaty between the Spaniards and Filipinos. Lino relates, “This was a traditional tribal ritual that entailed each leader making a cut with a dagger on their left arm and pouring the blood into a cup filled with wine which they drank to honour their friendship.”
Miles up the road we pass through the eerie darkness of towering trees in a man-made mahogany forest, planted to stop erosion. The forest gives way to fields of farm workers harvesting rice; the shoulders of the highway are lined with tarps with rice drying in the sun. Drivers respectfully keep their distance from the tarps.
When we near the Chocolate Hills, Lino says, “It is now the dry season so the scrub vegetation on the hills is sun-scorched giving them their brown colour.” There are 214 steps or a winding path up to a viewing deck; we choose the latter. As we gaze out over the hills in every direction I am amazed at how they really do resemble endless rows of chocolate drops (it is said there are 1268 if you care to count). Geologists believe they were formed from deposits of coral and limestone being pushed upward, and sculptured by centuries of erosion. Legend has it that they are the calcified tears of a broken hearted giant, while others say they are the result of two giants fighting and throwing clumps of mud at each other, while another tale pegs them as the leavings of a giant carabao (water buffalo) with distressed bowels. Young people have a friend hold a camera at ground level and snap as they jump, which then looks like they are bounding across the hilltops. I have Rick try this, but the six inches he manages to jump off the ground is not enough to create this illusion.
We backtrack to the town of Loboc. It is high-noon and high-time for lunch on the River Watch Floating Restaurant. Lino drops us off at the ticket booth and leaves to spend an hour or so with his cronies. Along with 30 other passengers, we soon have the spread of buffet items transferred to our plates; rice, noodles, veggies, chicken, beef, seafood, fruit and an array of desserts. While savouring this feast a crooner serenades with heart-warming tunes such as “Over the Rainbow” and “Moon River” as our boat glides down the Loboc River passing small boats and other dining restaurants. Small thatched roof houses can be seen along the shores, and kids swing out on ropes tied to trees and gleefully drop into the river. We pull up to a platform jutting from the shore where we are entertained by a local folk band, singers and dancers, before turning back to our starting dock (all for $10.00 CDN each).
It is next onward to the Tarsiers, but not without a few more stops that our enthusiastic guide says should not be missed. Lino takes us down a jungle embankment to the rapidly flowing Loboc River and mini-falls, then to two hanging bamboo bridges, where the dried wood crackles and snaps as we jiggle along on one bridge to get across and on the other to get back – fortunately well ahead of a too large group making my teeth chatter just watching them bounce out-of-control like newbies on a trampoline.
Yeah! We arrive at Corella and the nearby Tarsier Sanctuary to see the world’s smallest primate. Lino introduces us to Bernard, the Tarsier specialist, who leads us along a narrow root-tangled path to where a few of the elusive creatures perch in the jungle foliage. “The tarsiers are nocturnal,” Bernard whispers, “so each morning I go looking to find where they have ended up for their day’s sleep.” We learn that although the Philippine Tarsier (Tarsius Syrichta) are often referred to as monkeys, they are more closely related to the lemur, loris and tree shrew. Bernard points to a leafy haven where huge fore and hind limbs in proportion to its 10cm size grip a branch with its adhesive pads. Even more over-sized for this 120-gram brownish fur ball are its saucer eyes peering down at us. We quietly walk along to another that has its back to us, but with its ultra-keen hearing twists its head a disconcerting 180 degrees to nonchalantly take a look at us with half-opened orbs. The next has let its long tail droop from the branch, more than twice its body length. I can imagine this rat-like appendage acting like a 5th limb while leaping up to 3-metres during its nightly hunts to satiate its ferocious appetite, consuming about 8 crickets a night (or an insect equivalent of beetles, termites, or perhaps an available lizard, frog, or young bird).
Since the establishment of the Tarsier Foundation in 1996 the endangered Tarsiers have been protected in this reserve of 167-hectares. This fascinating animal has been around for a staggering 45 million years; since the early Eocene period! Encroaching humans thinking they were pests that ate rice crops, along with no knowledge of their habits or environmental needs brought them to near extinction. Solitary and territorial, each tarsier requires at least one hector of lush foliage to roam and hunt. They only breed once a year (a strong smell being crucial to stimulate the April to May mating season); females give birth to one baby after a six month gestation period. They do not do well in captivity, and these shy creatures are known to be suicidal in response to touching and loud noises. Armed with the study results of their behaviour and habitat needs, the slow reversal process is now in effect to protect these living treasures. What a gift to be able to see these little alien-like creatures in this environment under the strict guidance of a sanctuary tarsier expert!
What a day! And what adventure in bountiful Bohol, with a half-day left to cross the causeway and relax on a Panglao Island beach!
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