BOHOL, Philippine Islands, Aug. 10, 2015 – After an hour and a half flight from Manila, my plane touches down in Tagbilaran City on Bohol Island. Bohol, which means “rolling hillside,” is part of the Visayas, an island chain located in the southeast of Cebu Island in the Philippines.
After checking into The Bohol Beach Club, a 20-minute car ride from Tagbilaran City, I take a walk along the Beach Club’s white sand beach back to the hotel lobby where my tour guide waits for me.
While Bohol is an expansive island, there are four attractions that bring most tourists to explore this lush island’s interior. The first is the Tarsier Monkey. This strange and rare little creature with gigantic eyes is exclusive to Bohol. While one can see these alien-like primates in cages at a local zoo-like sanctuary, I prefer to see them in their natural habitat.
After racing down a winding road we come to a small museum. Inside is an assortment of exhibits with information on the little monkey. After I pay 40 pesos, my tarsier guide meets me.
We walk through the dense jungle foliage for only a few minutes, he stops at a small tree and points up at one of the little creatures. He is a 2-year-old and about the size of my fist. He’s a little too high up in the tree for me to get a good look at so we venture onward.
The guide stops again and this time, the monkey is at my eye level. He tells me that I can get close and have my picture taken behind it. They are relatively comfortable around people.
The monkey’s hands are knobby and hairless. It’s fur is grey and soft, but you really notice are the massive eyes. So large and reflective are this monkey’s eyes that you can see a rounded, fish-eyed version of yourself staring back at you in the eye’s reflection.I marvel at it for only a moment before it vanishes.
Tarsiers look incredibly slow but that is not the case. They launch from branch to branch with the quickness of a flea. I look for the little guy in the surrounding trees and spot him nearly 10 feet away. This is an enormous distance for such a small creature to cover in no time at all.
My guide walks me through the rest of the sanctuary, showing me nearly a dozen more of tarsiers and then it is on to the next stop.
We drive through a though an enormous man-made mahogany forest on our way to the other side of the island. As we come out the other side of the forest, designed to protect the island, the geography changes significantly as we enter one of the Philippines’ natural wonders, the Chocolate Hills.
The Chocolate Hills is an expanse of gigantic pointy Hershey-Kiss shaped hills made of limestone and covered in emerald green grass. Their cartoonish shades of green against an electric blue tropical sky along peculiar shape feel otherworldly.
We drive through these hills, feeling very much like a characters in the world of Super Mario Brothers until we arrive at the highest hill of the range, where there is a viewing platform.
We climb several hundred stairs along with other huffing and puffing tourists, stopping at various terraces to catch our breath and look at the alien world around us, until we reach the top of the viewing platform. . If looking at them from the ground was awe-inspiring, to overlook the thousands of limestone hills is simply arresting.
While I could easily spend a half-day just looking out over the hills and the tiny smokestacks from the fires of the hill’s indigenous residents, there is still much to see.
After a quick stop at a small but informative butterfly sanctuary, it’s time for some lunch and a river cruise. Along the Loboc River, a wide, emerald-green river that runs through the center of the island, there are several boat shops that offer river cruises. Most of these include lunch, live music and stops at breath-taking waterfalls.
Because I couldn’t drag myself away from the Chocolate Hills in a timely manner, I’ve missed my lunch cruise. Fortunately I can hire a local river guide to take me upriver by myself. While this doesn’t do much for my appetite, which is growing, my guide stops several times for me to take pictures of monitor lizards sunbathing on the jungle’s edge and tropical birds scavenging along the shore.
He stops at one point along the way and points to a tree. He explains that at night thousands of fireflies are take to the air, surrounding the tree and lighting up the otherwise pitch-black jungle.
We move upstream towards a waterfall, which we can hear minutes before actually arriving. The guide suggests that I take a swim. At first I am nervous, as the current is strong and the cascading water is a bit stronger than some of the more gentle falls I’ve been in.
Nonetheless, I dive into the warm water and attempt to swim toward the 20-foot falls. While it is like swimming on a treadmill, when I finally arrive, feeling the fall’s invigorating spray, it is well worth it. I rest behind the tumultuous water; it’s rumbling, cancelling out my thoughts for a peaceful moment.
After a few minutes, I rejoin my guide, who laughs as I try to climb from the water onto the bamboo stabilizer of the banca, as the current nearly rips off my bathing suit.
Having burned all of my calories swimming in the Loboc waters and climbing the Chocolate Hills, I return to the beach club to enjoy the rest of the afternoon drinking San Miguel beer and reading in a hammock on the white sand beaches just outside my bungalow.
The next day, I wake up early and take a stroll to the Beach Club’s dive shack. My dive master and I take a small boat off shore and out to a larger banca that waits for us in deeper water. It is overcast and the air is heavy.
My guide tells me that we will likely see some beautiful coral and sea turtles. I notice a photo of a giant school of barracuda and ask if we will see anything like that. Highly unlikely, he tells me.
We press out into sea and, as we dip into the swells, I hold on for dear life as my unnerved guide walks me through the gear. Though I have been diving many times, I’ve never been certified, so he must walk me through the various steps and will be with me for both of my dives.
We are heading to Balicasag Island, a small, popular dive spot about a 45-minute boat ride from the resort. Once there, we begin our first dive and it is exquisite. A school of jackfish greets us as we make our way along the edge of the beautiful reef. My guide points out grouper and an eel. We aren’t down long before two sea turtles make an appearance as we swim along a grassy spot on the sea floor.
We return to the surface to relax after a beautiful 40-minute dive. The sun is now out. A woman and her husband pull up next to my boat in a small dinghy. She boards and tries to persuade me to buy some pearls. I decline repetitively until finally caving and buying a mother-of-pearl box. After she leaves and I am re-hydrated, I begin my second dive.
The second dive starts much like the first, except that I get stung by a jellyfish. I hate jellyfish and had hoped to avoid this experience. Annoyed at the pain as it moves up my arm, I want to return to the boat and clean the wound.
My dive guide, unaware, points out a sea turtle swimming about 10 feet above us, the sun silhouetting his lazily moving, majestic body. While it is a striking imagine, all I want is to complain about the searing sting on my arm. Unfortunately, I can’t as there is a regulator in my mouth and we are about 50 feet deep.
My mind begins to play tricks on me. Jellyfish, I had always heard are poisonous. I don’t recall seeing a hospital since I arrived to the country three weeks ago, and now I’m on a tiny island. At least I got to see the Tarsier Monkey before it all ends.
Now, convinced I am going to die, I let my dive instructor take me across an extremely colorful reef. When he points up, I look up and see the sun blasting through the water. It’s the tunnel of death….
And then above me, I see what he is pointing at. It is the elusive school of barracudas. Perhaps a hundred total, each fish is about five to six feet long. Despite their vicious reputation and equally daunting physicality, the school of giant fish above me is serene beyond belief.
They move slowly, without expression. I watch in awe, my grudge against the jellyfish becoming a thing of the past. I look to my right and there is a turtle. Perhaps he is as impressed with the barracuda as I am.
We swim alongside the school for the nearly the rest of the dive until without reason, they turn and disappear into the deep blue of the sea. We resurface and I look at the red splotch on my arm and could care less.
The sun warms me. My dive instructor asks if I want to go again. I tell him it’s fine. I’ve seen enough.
I return to the Beach Club for the day. For the evening, I wander nearly two miles down the beach to a small village called Alona Beach. I enjoy a fresh seafood dinner looking across the water to Balicasag Island, the gentle waves rolling onto the beach just two or three feet from my beachfront table. Twinkle lights hang above me as a man on a bike tries to sell me ice cream.
A cover band sings a bad version of Carly Simon behind me. The sun finally sets and as it does, I hire a driver on a motorcycle to give me a ride home on his side-car. As we drive he tells me about life on a Bohol. His father was a rice farmer. So is he.
As he continues to chat, I listen to the sounds of the jungle against the putter of his bike and the tales of the island. Another perfect day in Bohol.