Travelblog#38: The Visayas Part 1 (Bohol & Siquijor) – the Philippines

­­19th-24th January, 2015

After ten days spent in pretty but a little bit too touristy Palawan, it was time to move on. Me and my three companions – James, Chloe and Jody – boarded a plane. Our next destination was the Visayas; an archipelago of scattered islands which, due to its geographically central location and rich diversity, many consider to be the very heart of the Philippin­es.

Our plane touched down in Cebu. It was a smoggy, concrete-grey metropolis, and there didn’t seem to be any noteworthy attractions, so we caught a taxi straight to the pier and boarded a boat heading to Bohol.

 

Bohol Island

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Most of the visitors to this island head straight to the beach in Panglao, for but the four of us had already spent much of the previous couple of weeks visiting various islands and lagoons, so we were in the mood for something a little less nautical. We stayed in a guesthouse called Nuts Huts near a village called Loboc. It was surrounded by jungle so it was swarming with mosquitoes, but all the noises of wildlife rustling around at night and the decked out restaurant area overlooking Loboc River, more than made up for that.

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Our first outing during our stay there was to the nearby Tarsier Sanctuary, where I got reacquainted with the miniature primates I saw in the wild when I visited Tangkoko National Park a couple of months ago. These ones were a little bit smaller than their Sulawesian cousins and, because it was day rather than night, they were sleeping, which made them even more cute.

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We also made a day trip to the Chocolate Hills, a geological oddity in Bohol’s interior: over a thousand almost identical hillocks which were formed by ancient reefs being lifted up from the seabed by tectonic activity. They are called the Chocolate Hills because in the dry season the grasses turn brown.

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On our way back that day we also made a trip to the Simply Butterflies Conservation Centre in a village called Bilar. It wasn’t quite as good as the butterfly garden we had visited in Palawan a few days before, as the guides mostly relied upon little gimmicks like attaching docile butterflies to your face and telling jokes, rather than telling you much about science of the creatures.

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Loboc itself was a quaint little village, and it has one of the oldest churches in the Philippines; San Pedro, which was severely damaged by an earthquake over a year ago.

Between being driven around all these various attractions during our stay we were treated to very pleasant views of Bohol’s rugged interior of forests, hills, and rice paddies.

On our final night there it was my birthday, so I celebrated with a bottle of wine.

 

Siquijor Island

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After paying a boat fare which should be considered a crime (OceanJet are the only carrier who do a service between the two islands and, boy, don’t they know it), we arrived into Siquijor Island in the late afternoon and caught a tricycle straight to San Juan, where I caught one of the best sunsets I have ever seen.

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The calm, almost still, waters acted like a mirror as the sun melted into the horizon, dispelling rich colours, and the people working in the seaweed farm turned into dark silhouettes.

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The following morning we hired out some motorcycles to explore the island. James, Chloe and Jody managed to get ones which were not too bad, but I ended up being lumped with one that I will henceforth refer to as, ‘Piece-of-Shit’.

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After giving Piece-of-Shit a kick start – and being reassured by the loaner, that the ignition would start working once the battery had warmed up – we set off along the coastal road.

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Our first stop was at San Isidro Labrador Church in Lazi. By the time we reached there I had already given Piece-of-Shit three kick starts and, when we had finished having a look around the charming nineteenth century relic of Spanish colonial times, I got back on to Piece-of-Shit and found that I could no longer get it started at all. A passing tricycle driver kindly tried to help but to no avail; he took a step back, shook his head, laughed, and said “it’s Chinese,” as a form of explanation.

He called up the owner for us, and we had to wait half an hour for him to arrive so he could fix Piece-of-Shit’s battery to get it running again. We then drove on to Cambugahay Waterfall.

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Cambugahay Waterfall was simply lovely, and reminded me of Erawan in Thailand. It had four different tiers to swim in, and the waters were murky-blue. We got changed into our swimming gear and took a refreshing plunge into the lukewarm waters.

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We then drove towards Salagdoong, and on our way there Piece-of-Shit killed its second battery. When I finally managed to kick-start it again the accelerator cable snapped. After much cursing and swearing, I handed Piece-of-Shit in to a repair shop and hopped onto the back of Jody’s bike, telling them we would pick it up in an hour.

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After driving through the middle of Salagdoong Nature Reserve, we reached the beach. It has unfortunately been privatised by government-owned Hotel Apripino, who have built a resort around the seafront, but the amount they charged us to enter wasn’t too extortionate. The beach is still very nice and there is a little peninsular between the two coves, which I climbed and managed to snap a picture of James swimming in the turquoise waters below.

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We picked up Piece-of-Shit again. By that point Piece-of-Shit had wasted so much of our time that we didn’t have much of the day left, so we were forced to drive through the rest of the island quickly, making frequent stops to kick start Piece-of-Shit again.

When we got back we discovered that the guesthouse we were staying at – Czar’s Place – had a live band playing; a weekly event that most of the village (and tourists) turn up to. The four of us decided that trying to sleep was pointless – it was simply too loud – so we just embraced it, and drank. When I had polished off enough beers to knock myself out, regardless of the noise, I went to bed.

The following day was quite lazy, but James, Chloe and myself did work up enough energy to go snorkelling in the afternoon, where we saw lots of lovely corals.

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For more photos of Bohol and Siquijor, go to my Flickr account. One of the photos from this blog was donated to me by James, whose photography website can be found here.

To read the other parts of my time in the Visayas, click on the following links: Part 2 (Apo Island, Dumaguette & Boracay), Part 3 (Tablas & Romblon), Part 4 (Sibuyan Island)

Travelblog#37: El Nido & Puerto Princesa – the Philippines

14th-19th January, 2015

El Nido, with its dramatic landscape of limestone mountains and white sand beaches, is the top tourist destination in Palawan. When we reached there we were greeted by the usual signs of a popular beach experiencing growing pains – inflated prices, cluttered streets, white people outnumbering Asian – but I had already guessed that it was going to be like this so I was mentally prepared. Jody, James, Chloe and I got ourselves a family room (it was one of the cheaper options in town but yet it still cut a bit more into our budgets than we would have liked) and then booked ourselves for ‘Tour A’, to see some sights in the archipelago offshore the next day.

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Our first stop was at a small cove on an island 30 minutes away, where we were told we needed to jump off the boat and swim through a gap between the limestone karsts.

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Have I mentioned yet that my new travel buddies own a Go Pro? Well they do. So, for the next couple of months, while I am travelling with them, you will also be able to see photos of the more watery places I venture to.

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James and I swam on ahead and reached a lagoon.

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In fact, we were taken to many lagoons that day, and a few beaches, most of which were very beautiful. ‘Secret Lagoon’ could do with being renamed though, as you have to queue to get into it these days. El Nido really does have some fantastic scenery but the way that dozens of people are carted around just a handful of famous locations, on these pre-made tours, makes it a little soulless.

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We figured out that it is not too hard to get away from all the hustle and bustle though: the next day we hired out a pair of kayaks because we fancied a bit of freedom.

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We rowed out to a really beautiful island which had a nice beach, calm waters, and better snorkelling than any of the places we were taken to the previous day, and the only other people we saw were a few fishermen and one couple (who also happened to be on kayaks). It was a really lovely way to finish off our time in El Nido but, on our way back, our kayaks were unfortunately turned over by a sudden wave. As soon as I pulled myself back up to the surface, I began scrambling to collect items and managed to recover Jody’s wallet, bottles of water, the oars, and a few other things, but I lost my snorkel and sandals to the tide.

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We caught a bus back down to Puerto Princesa the following morning and our time there began with a trip to Palawan Butterfly Garden, whose friendly staff were keen to show us around the place. I found their collection of cocoons, which had several species of butterflies in the process of hatching, particularly interesting.

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It wasn’t just home to butterflies either, but also scorpions, reptiles, stick insects, and even a pair of rescued Palawan bearcats which had been orphaned by poachers. After we were done admiring all the various creatures and taking photos we were coaxed into the nearby Tribal Village.

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When I first saw the ‘village’ – where a few men clad in loincloths were waiting to begin the ‘show’ – I did worry that it was going to be a bit false and tacky, but I was actually pleasantly surprised. They were Palawano tribesmen from the southern mountains, and they gave us a demonstration on some of their customs; how they hunt with spears and blow-darts, spark fires by striking two stones together, and one of them even played a traditional guitar-like instrument with only two strings. They didn’t speak any English, so a Filipino translator narrated, and she told us how these tribesmen are volunteers who stay in this village for two weeks at a time, on a rotation scheme, and the money generated by it goes towards several programs to help keep their way of life thriving in the modern world.

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In the afternoon we went for a wander around the town, soaking up the atmosphere as we strolled through the local market, along the waterfront, and past the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, where hundreds of people had come to watch live footage of the Pope – who was at the time in Manila – give a speech.

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I then finished off the day with a sunset beer on the rooftop balcony of the guest house we were staying at.

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In the morning I made a quick trip to the Palawan Heritage Centre – a museum which is filled with lots of interesting information on Palawan’s culture, fauna, and history, but does not seem to get as many visitors as it deserves – just before we caught a tricycle to the airport to fly to Cebu.

For the next few weeks of our journey, we will be travelling across The Visayas.

 

For more photos from El Nido and Puerto Princesa, check out my Flickr account. Some of the photos from this blog were kindly donated to me by James, who not only owns a GoPro, but also a DSLR. He is a very talented photographer, and his website, James Robert Eldridge Photography, is worth a browse if you want to see some more professional snaps from Asia.

Travelblog#36: Port Barton – the Philippines

11th-13th January, 2015

We arrived at Port Barton in the early evening and my first impressions were, to be honest, not great. The beach was nice, but I was soon to discover that the accommodation was all hideously overpriced, yet somehow nearly everywhere was full. Large colourfully painted signs advertised nightly barbeques, stone-baked pizzas, grilled cheeseburgers and all kinds of western foods, all sold at very western prices. Where was the Filipino food? When Roy, my former travel buddy, had described this place to me it sounded like a secret little haven which only received a gentle trickle of travellers, but he had been here over five years ago. It seemed this place had since been ‘discovered’, and its clientele had predominantly shifted to the flashpacker party crowd.

It did feel a bit like I was in Thailand.

I eventually found a place for the four of us to stay – a nice cottage with two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, and balcony with a hammock – and I even managed to haggle it down to a fairly reasonable price.

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The next morning we were taken out on a boat trip to explore the archipelago of islands just offshore and we managed to avoid paying all the extra tout-tax by organising it directly with the boatman rather than an agency. The snorkelling spots we stopped at had some nice corals and so-so marine life. The islands, however, were paradise.

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The first place we settled upon was a pair of twin islands which it was possible to wade between across a bar of sand beneath the shallows. Our boatman and his assistant cooked us a lunch of fresh fish and vegetables over a fire while we explored, swam, snorkelled and lazed.

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In the afternoon we got back onto the boat and were taken to German Island, which had a lovely sandy beach dotted with coconut trees. We even managed to spot a turtle while snorkelling there and our guide showed us a spot where a turtle had laid its eggs in the sand.

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Port Barton did grow on me – as it is a genuinely beautiful area – but at the same time the way it is now set up, with its expensive prices and all the pre-fixed tours, makes it feel a bit like you’re on a holiday rather than travelling. It is all a little bit too comfortable. A little too crowded. Locals are so used to seeing foreigners now that they are no longer interesting to them, and thus only speak to them when they want their money and that, to me, as a traveller, creates a distance and makes you feel like you are not really connecting with an area, just seeing all these pretty things from behind a glass as you are whisked around.

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I think I may have come to Palawan a few years too late, but I am already here now and, like I said before, it is a beautiful place, so I am going to make the most of what it is while I am here and just hope that other parts of the Philippines, such as The Visayas and North Luzon, might be a little more adventurous and rewarding, when I get there.

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Jody, James, Chloe, and I got a little bit attached to our nice little cottage by the sea, so after our boat tour we stayed in Port Barton for an extra day, to relax, soak up the sun, bathe, and read books in our hammocks.

 

For more photos, click here.