Our rental Hondas speed along the occasionally winding road that takes us across the densely forested island. After we pass Loboc, one of the few little towns that actually appear on the map, we go past only a small number of clearings where some unnamed hamlets sprung up on the roadside. Other then that, the road is surrounded by tall subtropical trees, bushes, and thick vegetation that all but encroach upon the tarmac.
After an hour’s drive the road, which is in a surprisingly good condition, leads us out of the forest into a large flatland that the local Boholanos use as a pasture and a couple of small farms. No longer protected by the thick canopy, our faces get pummelled by thick rain that comes down in force – a leftover from a typhoon that went past the islands recently. We’re not wearing helmets and with the speed we’re driving at the rainwater squeezes itself into my eyes, making it hard to drive. Still, we continue making our way across the clearing.
Completely drenched, we laugh out loud and scream in joy at the top of our voices, in volume competing with the roar of our engines and the near-deafening noise of rainwater pounding the ground. We are young, happy, unencumbered – simply free – riding some rental bikes across an island in the Philippine archipelago that just a few months before non of us heard of. It really feels like it’s the time of our lives!
The rain becomes unbearable and at long last we find a shelter on the side of the road. The 3 of us pull up and hide in the unfinished-looking construction that might perhaps serve as a garage or bus stop in the future. We are exhilarated despite being completely soaked! My wet t-shirt and shorts don’t bother me – back in our seedy hotel in Tagbilaran I have enough dry clothes which I suspect are being carefully guarded by a group of king-size Philippine cockroaches.The temperature too is something we don’t have to worry about: November temperature on the island is around 25°C (around 77ºF). We rest while waiting for the rain to ease off. So far we’ve done about 40km (about 25 miles) so we’re definitely more than half way through on our way to the Chocolate Hills – one of the most famous places in the Philippines.
If you’re lucky enough to have the rare chance of seeing the flag of Bohol, right in the centre of it you will spot a long horizontally arranged cluster of what looks like green upturned bowls. This cluster is indeed the symbol and pride of the island and it has been intriguingly dubbed: the Chocolate Hills. This curious geological formation has become one of the main tourist attraction of the country and is definitely the #1 place to visit on the island. Actually, most of travellers reserve their time on Bohol Island only for a visit to the Hills before moving on to some other location in the vast archipelago.
Finally the rain stops. My travel companions Gosia, from Poland; and Franziska, from Germany; and I mount our Hondas and are off. We still have perhaps less than an hour’s drive ahead which on the straight-as-an-arrow Loay Interior Road that lies ahead should be a piece of cake. Our progress is only interrupted once when my motorcycle breaks down. Normally it’s hard not to panic when you find yourself in the middle of nowhere on a road with almost no traffic, with a broken bike, know nothing about motorcycle repair, and this is the first time you have ever ridden such a vehicle. Definitely a situation not to be recommended! Luckily all those thoughts don’t have enough time to burgeon in my brain, because from behind the next turn comes a man on a scooter. It’s a middle-aged Filipino man. He slows down as he approaches and, seeing my problem, kindly pulls over even without being asked to. It takes him less than 5 minutes to repair my bike. Sadly, he speaks no English so I cannot tell him how grateful I am to him, but I think he got the message. He drives off while the 3 of us continue. Soon we spot the first few weirdly conical mounds ahead and shortly arrive at the government-run Chocolate Hills Complex.
The small complex houses a rather dubious-looking little restaurant and a hotel; there are some souvenir stalls in front; some locals are wandering around the small car park selling delicious honey-dipped banana chips. Excited that we’ve finally arrived and that the rain has ceased, we hike up one of the hills that has a viewing deck on top. After a long journey spent sitting soaked on a motorbike, climbing all the steps of the 64m high cone takes us a while. When we finally reach the top we find ourselves in the middle of a vast plane that is peppered with an impossible to count number of symmetrical green mounds. All of them shrouded in light mist – an effect of the earlier torrential rain meeting the hot soil. The 360° panorama that the observation deck provides is stunning. This one-of-a-kind geological curiosity certainly lives up to our expectations!
But what are they actually? Well, definitely not hills made of chocolate – that’s for sure! In the Filipino folklore we find various legends that attempt to explain the origin of those mounds. There are romantic tales of woe, love, death, honour, battles, and tears; and there is also a couple of admittedly not-so-romantic ones in which the Chocolate Hills are a direct result of some incontinent giant’s gastrointestinal distress. Thank heavens for science, for the enlightened modern geologist tells us that the grass-covered hills are in fact made of limestone that over centuries has been eroded by rain and ground water. Yes, all 1,247 of them! Limestone! Not chocolate, not massive dried tears, not anyone’s feces! Just a spectacular example of karst landscape. So where did chocolate come into all this? Well, the grass that covers every single mound turns brown during the dry season. Therefore, when you visit the complex at that particular time it really does seem that you’re surrounded by hundreds of chocolate blobs sticking out of the jungle.
The Chocolate Hills aside, Bohol boasts yet another tourist draw: one of the world’s smallest primates – the tarsier. Tarsiers, locally known as mawmag, live on 4 southern islands of the Philippine archipelago: Bohol, Mindanao, Leyte, and Samar. Being nocturnal animals, mother nature gave them disproportion-ately big eyes that are set in their heads which rotate a complete 180°! Anyhow, owing to the big eyes and defenceless appearance, a vast majority of people find tarsiers simply adorable and go all ooh! ahh! aww! at the sight of a tarsier.
A fairly short drive from the Chocolate Hills Complex is a little enclosure tourists can visit and see the famed tarsier. My travel companions decide to swing by on our way back to Tagbilaran. Once we’re there, it turns out we can not only see but also feed them cockroaches. The insects are already prepared and impaled on small sticks. It’s funny how the minute primates react when they see a tasty cockroach within their grasp – they get all excited, they eyes glaze over and their greedily reach out their tiny hands towards the roach. Quite sweet actually!
Coming back to the enclosure itself, it is just a part of the sub-tropical forest that has been fenced around so that tarsiers don’t escape. Overall it’s a rather small area so once you feed a tarsier, walk around a bit, and take some photos, you’re all ready to go after 15 minutes, really.
Driving back to Tagbilaran along the Loay Interior Road we reach the small town of Loboc that we passed through earlier on our way to the Chocolate Hills. This is our last stop and a chance to catch a final break from sitting on the motorcycle seat. Now, in the Philippines Loboc is known for two things: first, it is the music capital of the whole Bohol Island; the second thing are its floating restaurants that travel up and down the scenic, meandering Loboc River. Gosia, Franziska and I have some time to kill – there is about an hour of daylight left and because the remaining road to Tagbilaran doesn’t lead through deserted middles of nowhere and is generally quite straightforward we are not nervous about covering that distance after dark. We decide to stay in Loboc and hire a small raft to take us up the river to Loboc waterfalls in the middle of the Bohol forests.
Loboc waterfalls perhaps aren’t the most picturesque sight you’ll come across in your life, but if you’re just a 15 minutes’ boat ride away from them why not go and see them, right? Once on the raft, the three of us kick back and relax while the boatman steers the small vessel up the winding river.
The forest that Loboc River cuts across appear virgin – there is no visible river bank, just thick bushes and trees that swallow up the river on both sides. It looks as if no man ever set foot in this land! And so I might easily assume, yet the loud old motor engine attached to our boat reminds me otherwise. Nonetheless, I still feel as if I was on some BBC Nature Programme expedition and was about to see Sir David Attenborough any moment. We reach in the small falls within 15 minutes, just as the boatman promised.
After returning to Loboc town we while away a little bit of our time at the river bank and soon mount our motorbikes again. It’s getting dark and it’s about an hour’s slow journey to Tagbilaran. It hasn’t rained ever since we reached the Chocolate Hills and now it begins to drizzle a bit. We’re going to be all wet again, but I’m satisfied as the whole day has been really well spent. I’m already looking forward to snorkelling tomorrow off the coast of the island. Funnily enough, that will be my second day in a row on Bohol when I’m all wet! Hopefully we’ll get some sun too!
1. GETTING THERE – if you’re going to Bohol Island, then you most probably will head for Tagbilaran. You have a couple of options of doing this: by air or by sea.
- By air – Tagbilaran has a small airport so you can easily fly straight from Manila or any other airport. Check Cebu Pacific budget airline website for connections.
- By sea – most often travellers head to Tagbilaran from Cebu City. If you’ve just flown into Cebu airport and are not interested in visiting the second largest city in the Philippines just yet, then straight from the airport you can catch a taxi to the pier. I cannot stress this enough: haggle haggle haggle! Together with my 2 fellow backpackers we actually walked away from the airport and caught a taxi off the road. Once at the pier, you can buy a ferry ticket. IMPORTANT INFO: Last ferry departing for Bohol leaves at 8pm so don’t be late and double check which pier number you need to be on! Also, check the Cebu City to Bohol (Tagbilaran) ferry schedule in the links below.
2. ARRIVAL – once in Tagbilaran, just pack all your stuff into a tricycle and let one of the locals drive you to the town centre. There you can walk around and find some accommodation without any problems. I myself didn’t book anything, and the little hotel I stayed at was completely empty (I’m not counting cockroaches and cute little lizards).
3. TRANSPORT – Tagbilaran is small and definitely walkable, but if you’re not much of a walker, then the tricycle is a cheap and fun option. If you’re thinking of renting a scooter or motorbike to travel to the Chocolate Hills like I did, then you should be able to find quite a few places with bike rentals. If you’re having trouble, then ask a tricycle driver. He’s bound to have a buddy who will rent you one of his bikes for the whole day.
- Cebu Pacific budget airline – www.cebupacificair.com
- Cebu City to Bohol (Tagbilaran) ferry schedule – http://schedule.ph/boat/from/Cebu-City/to/Bohol
|3||Chocolate Hills, Philippines|