A strange phenomenon known as the Chocolate Hills and hopes of seeing the elusive Tarsiers, the world's tiniest primates, are irresistible draws to Bohol. A short flight from the country's capital of
Manila on a northern island, lands us in Bohol in the central island group, called the Visayas.
After a few days of milling around the village-like town of Tagbilaran, Rick and I breeze towards our quests with our guide/driver "Lino." Old Spanish colonial churches dot the way, many constructed from coral. We stop at the bronze sculpture erected for the Sandugo (one blood), the famed pact that took place here in 1565 between Chieftain Datu Sikatuna and Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. In this tribal ritual both leaders cut their left arms with a dagger, pouring their blood into a cup of wine, which they drank to honour their friendship.
A previous encounter between the Filipinos and Spaniards was disastrous for the latter. It was in the Visayas that
Ferdinand Magellan landed in 1521 claiming the archipelago for Spain, and where 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 an attack on the conquistadors. A lone boat out of Megellan's fleet made it back to Seville to report the news of the tropical island find, prompting Spain to send out more galleons.
Chocolate Hills National Monument Lino explains, "It's the dry season when the scrub vegetation on the hills is sun-scorched to a brownish colour, hence the name." A lofty viewing deck is accessed by 214 steps or by a winding path; we choose the path. Gazing over the hills in every direction I am amazed at how their conical and symmetrical shapes really do resemble endless rows of chocolate drops (it is said there are 1,268 if you care to count). Geologists believe they were formed by the uplift of coral deposits long ago that have since been sculptured by erosion. Legend has it that they are the calcified tears of a broken hearted giant, while another tale pegs them as the leavings of a giant carabao (water buffalo) with distressed bowels. Spunky young people leap in place while friends snap their picture at ground level, giving the appearance of bounding across the hilltops in the photo.
Backtracking to the town of Loboc, it is high-noon and high-time for lunch on the River Watch Floating Restaurant. Along with 30 other passengers, we savour a delicious spread of buffet items. A crooner serenades with heart-warming tunes such as "Over the Rainbow" and "Moon River" as our boat glides down the Loboc River. Small thatched roof houses line the shores. Children swing out on ropes tied to trees and gleefully drop into the water. Pulling up to a platform jutting from the shore we are entertained by a local folk band, singers and dancers, before returning to our starting dock.
We next arrive at the 167-hectare
Tarsier Sanctuary. Bernard, the Tarsier specialist leads us along a 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 a few have ended up for their day's sleep." We learn that although
Philippine Tarsiers (Tarsius Syrichta) are often referred to as monkeys, they are more closely related to lemurs and tree shrews.
Bernard points to a leafy haven where huge fore and hind limbs in proportion to its 10cm body grip a branch with adhesive pads. Even more super-sized for this 120-gram brownish fur ball are its saucer eyes peering down at us. We silently walk up to another with its back to us; its ultra-keen hearing prompts a disconcerting 180 degree head twist to check us out with sleepy half-closed orbs. Its tail droops from the branch, twice its body length. This appendage acts like a 5th limb while leaping up to 3-metres during the Tarsiers' nightly hunt to satiate their ferocious appetite, consuming about 8 crickets a night (or an equivalent of beetles, termites, or perhaps a lizard or frog).
This fascinating mammal has been around for a staggering 45 million years; since the early Eocene period! Encroaching humans thinking them to be pests that ate rice crops, along with no knowledge of their environmental needs brought them to near extinction. Solitary and territorial, each tarsier requires at least one hector of lush foliage to roam and hunt. Triggered by scent to breed once a year, females give birth to one baby after a six month gestation period. Since the establishment of the Tarsier Foundation in 1996 the slow reversal process has been 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 tarsier expert!
Getting back to Tagbilaran in the late afternoon we still have time to cross the nearby causeway to stretch out on the white sands of Panglao Island beach until sunset, and to ponder Bohol's natural wonders.
Irene Butler writes for Canadian and US newspapers and magazines. She has trekked thru 69 countries with a focus on culture and history and off-the-beaten path travel.
A visa is not required (click below for countries that qualify) for stays not exceeding twenty-one (21) days, provided they hold a valid tickets for their return journey and their passports are valid for at least six (6) months beyond the period of stay.
The Philippine archipelago is comprised of 7,107 islands divided into three groups. The northern group called Luzon includes the largest Philippine Island on which Manila is located. Bohol is in the middle island group known as the Visayas. The bottom island group is the Mindanao. According to 2010 Census the country's population is 92,337,852; Bohol 31,789.
The country's hot and humid tropical climate has a wet season (May to Oct) when temperatures may peak at 36°C - and a dry season (Nov to Apr) with temperatures in mid-to-high 20°C range.