Star Date: August 2007
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
(Welcome - Visayan Islands)
"The one who says it cannot be
done should never interrupt the one who is doing it."
"Few countries in the world are so little known and so seldom visited as the Philippines, and yet no other land is more pleasant to travel in than this richly endowed island kingdom. Hardly anywhere does the nature lover find a greater fill of boundless treasure." Written 130 years ago by Fedor Jagor, a German ethnographer, he would be astonished that so many natural treasures still remain. Travelers can try caving, cycling, diving, snorkeling, mountain climbing, hiking, gold hunting, sailing, surfing, rafting, or windsurfing; all followed by a soak in a natural hot spring or hiding out on a remote desert island.
Like a bigger version of Camiguin Island, how could you not fall in love with the island of Bohol? The verdant mountainous interior boasts over 1200 "Chocolate Hills" and the lush jungle lowlands are the home to one of the world's cutest primates, the tarsier. This extraordinary packet is wrapped up with white sand beaches, brilliant blue oceans and presented by some of the friendliest people in the Visayas. To experience the true Boholanos don't expect to show up at Alona Beach after an expensive taxi ride, stay at an overpriced hotel, followed by a crammed, expensive day trip to whisk you past Bohol's main sites. Taking a tour or diving exclusively from a dive resort shows only a glimpse of what is available here.
Arriving in the small northern port of Tubigon only 1 1/2 hours by ferry from Pier #3 in Cebu City, (or 2 hours to Tagbilaran, the congested southern port town), allows you to choose your direction and head off to explore the island by bus and jeepney. 'Smoozing' with the locals, as we have said so many times, is the way to experience the heart and soul of a place. From Tubigon we caught a stretch jeepney, not to be confused with a stretch limo, up into the mountains. It was then that the heavens parted and dumped our first rainy season deluge on us. It poured for over 3 hours and luckily we made it to Carmen and waited it out under cover in front of the market. A tricycle ride up the hill dropped us in the misty wonder of our new home for a few days.
In the dry season the over 1200 Chocolate Hills, covered in a thick lawn-like vegetation roasts to a deep brown, reminding one of deliciously named chocolate drops. Decorated with bright green vegetation and mist these well 'manicured' hills are unique, with explanations of their existence ranging from natural erosion to the remnants of a battle between two giants. Often when there is only one hotel to stay it is expensive but surprisingly the tender loving care of the manager, Narena, has turned this small resort into a great place to hang for a couple of days. Mixed reviews of the Chocolate Hills depend on whether a person arrived in the heat of the day on a whirlwind tour or actually stayed to experience the different moods of the mounds. Sunrise on a clear morning left us speechless as the colorful rays illuminated an ever increasing display of hills, swathed with low lying fog as the forest came to life. Once awake at 5a.m., (a rare occurrence for us now that we no longer punch the work clock) we decided to explore the countryside between the hills. We walked for hours through quaint thatched homesteads and farms, dwarfed by the mounds. We joined a grandpa on his porch as we admired his new puppies and were invited to rest at another hut while someone scurried up a tree and brought down 2 coconuts. Life is sweet in the Chocolate Hills. Sunset, long after everyone has gone home, presents equally rewarding views from the top of the outlook, down into the surreal valleys. If time allows, linger and enjoy.
We walked down the hill and caught the jeepney into Loboc. Loboc is the diving board for river trips up the Loboc River to the not so special Tontonan Falls. Be warned that scores of tourist 'all you can eat' buffet barges, belching bearable love lounge music from the 80's, congest the narrow river at lunchtime. It is the ride up that is pleasurable but timing is crucial. We discovered a reasonable alternative to the fray by being dropped off at Sarimanok Boat Dock, about 1 km north of Loboc Central Square. We were greeted by Danny and his family and some of the cutest creatures on earth, the tarsier. Danny has been raising these pocket-sized guys for over 15 years and currently has a baby the size of his thumb at home with it's mother. It is immediately obvious that he loves his little friends and they feel comfortable enough in their surroundings to simply stay put in the greenery of the corner without a locked cage. Nocturnal by nature, he carefully opens up the little 3 inch woven baskets, and gingerly lifts out a tiny ball of fluff. The saucer like eyes pop open as he puts them on your shoulder. The tarsiers are the oldest and one of the smallest surviving members of the primates and after surviving a mere 45 million years you guessed it - they are now an endangered species.
Bohol is trying to stop their main threats of habitat destruction: introduced species, hunting and illegal pet trade. Stephen Spielberg must have had a close encounter with a tarsier before creating ET. These adorable, passive primates can fit into the palm of your hand, rotate their head almost 360 degrees, and move their translucent ears independently, like little satellite dishes, to pick up sounds. They have eyes 150 times bigger than humans and when you least expect it they leap onto a nearby branch over 15 feet away. Having a chance to get to know them without a parade of tourists, we discovered that they were soft, cuddly, and although we weren't allowed to hold them in our hands, one went immediately to sleep while being softly petted in his little branch hideaway. A grey female, 13 years old, was still agile and first in line for a fresh cricket shish kebob. A pleasant hands on experience; we didn't want to tarnish the aura by visiting any other mini zoos. For an experience in the wild, and to discourage the sprouting up of too many illegal holding cages of these sweet tiny guys, it is recommended to seek out the Tarsier Visitors Centre.
Nut's Huts. Sounds like a place we would end up eventually. A paddleboat upstream lands you in this steamy little complex along the river. Individual thatched huts with porches facing the river and a large open air restaurant made for a relaxing few days. After another short visit with our tarsier buddies back on the dock we caught a couple of jeepneys to Alona Beach on Panglao Island. We were pleasantly surprised at how laid back this little stretch of white sand was. The sand rolls up at 10pm and actually doesn't ever seem too crowded compared to the northern beach resorts. Traveling to beach areas off season really has its benefits.
On some of the Visayan islands the strong Spanish Catholic heritage is only a veneer covering deeply imbedded folk beliefs. In rural areas Tagalog is traded for local dialects and ancient animist ways are still observed if you look closely. Men wear waist coat talisman for good luck, drivers honk their horns at large banyan trees thought to house animist spirits, and before urinating in the jungle men will utter "Tabi-tabi po", (Move aside, sir). All this is minor compared to the Barangan or Visayan shamans who put hexes or curses on their foes or claim to pull out diseased body parts with their bare hands.
Somehow we ended up on the quaint island of Cabilao when the hotel in Loon was less than exciting. After a jeepney to the port of Mac Pac then a fishing boat ride to the island, Joseph found lodging in a private home. We were invited to share a coconut charcoal fire at the back of the next door neighbor's house. Every evening was spent visiting with Mary and her family - that was until their favorite soap opera came on and they were glued to the mesmerizing screen; our clue to head home. Even though the quality of programming is sorely lacking in developing countries one cannot compete with the lure of the new altar in every living room. In fact when we spent so much time with the locals on Cabilao Island they were surprised. Remember it is our job to be ambassadors and always be prepared to say hello and smile first. A simple joke goes a long way. The locals here are sooooo friendly and they are the highlight of the island, above water that is.
Welcome Talibon! Can you imagine a sign like this in America? Passing the little towns of Buenavista and Jeta Fe we enjoyed a few days in Talibon, the little port town in northern Bohol. Not a sign of extremists or terrorists anywhere, only friendly villagers busily loading boats along the pier or hanging out at the market. We caught the twice daily ferry (10am or 10pm) over to the hustle and bustle of Cebu City.
Everything in Cebu is 'oldest' in the Philippines. A walk around the Downtown area, taking in Cebu Cathedral, Carbon Market, Magellan's Cross, The Basilica Minore del Santo Nino, and Fort San Pedro, sets you on a stroll through Spanish history starting in 1521 when Magellan first planted his cross. The joke here is that after all his laborious voyages Magellan was in fact cross. He was killed by Chief Lapu Lapu on nearby Mactan Island. Apparently the chief had good insight in to future life with the imperialists and foresaw what his territory was to become under the guise of Christianity. Mactan Island is currently the international airport for Cebu. The Basilica was built in 1565 and was burnt down 3 times, until the current one was constructed in 1767 - no smoking allowed. It houses the icon of the Santo Nino, a statuette given to Queen Juano by Magellan when this 'heathen' was converted and baptized. Likenesses of this little guy are everywhere in the country and we were almost as excited to find him as an American would be spotting Elvis or Waldo. You can avoid the lines of hundreds of praying pilgrims wanting to rub the glass case (well half of them were praying, the others were checking their cell phones); by simply walking up and catching a sneak view from 5 feet away. Another black Madonna and child is blessing her followers in a side chapel. Outside pilgrims were lighting hundreds of candles in stands identical to those next to the Jokhang Temple in Tibet. Exchange Jesus and bishops for Buddhas or monks and it is all the same. And the fun part is that the symbols are, with a few variations, also the same. Church organizations help provide support, structure, socialization and often fund charities. They provide different needs for different people. Mankind, from the beginning of time, has been controlled by organized world religions. An option is to skip the middlemen. Just take the time to quiet yourself - the answers are in the silence.
The Philippines, recently declared the most corrupt nation in Asia, is almost exclusively and flamboyantly Catholic. When we inquired what the church's stance is on the thousands of young girls hanging out with westerners 20-40 years their senior, the reply was that it is frowned upon, but then many of the priests have relationships and illegitimate children. As above so below. Churches are businesses, and really successful ones. God and his prophets Buddha, Krishna, Mohammed, etc. must either writhe in pain or have one hell of a sense of humor at how mankind has interpreted and changed their simple truths. In the end our actions speak. What does your life say?
It is said that first we acquire knowledge, then we live it, and when we finally act this knowledge or belief with compassion, it becomes one of our truths. Always a challenge and ongoing process.
Palawan has been described as one of the last large, unexplored islands in the Pacific. Home to 323 species of wildlife, this remote island has finally had marine and forested areas set aside in hopes of preserving this diversity. Palawan is a sliver of remote western islands and here we discovered the untouched Philippines. Bright green mountains jutting up from the Sulu Sea are home to unique flora and fauna, more closely resembling its nearby southern neighbor, Borneo. Still sparsely populated, it is here that you can discover new islands, hike through primal forests or see reefs teaming with life.
When we landed in Puerto Priscessa we discovered an overgrown country community bumped up to city status. We walked to the market and teetered along the rickety bridges through the shanty towns lining the shore. A bumpy bus ride to Sabang was worth the jarring once we set our sights on this tiny fishing village and idyllic cove. Put on the map because of the nearby Subterranean National Park, a protected Unesco site, we stayed at the far end of the beach, in basic thatched nipa huts and when we weren't hiking in the surrounding jungles we spent most of our time in the pristine bath water at our doorstep. Starting out early our first morning we decided to tackle the 10 km Monkey and Jungle Trails leading to the cave and underground river. The difficult but rewarding trails transported us to another place and time as we wandered among some of the rare primal, virgin forests left on earth. Tall limestone pinnacles climbed up through the lush vegetation and we almost expected to see a dinosaur come crashing down the remote valleys. Monkeys played above, cicadas screamed and deserted beaches offered the reward of an au natural swim to rinse the sweat off. The only hikers in the last 2 days, it is another benefit during off season. The afternoon rains felt refreshing as we completed the loop, exhilarated by the power of nature in it's rawest form. Arriving at the river snapped us back to reality as boatloads of tourists donned hard hats and fluorescent life preservers to explore part of the interesting underground river. Every stalagmite is described as a statue of an angel or the blessed virgin Mary, with a few sex symbols thrown in to spice things up. Arrive early for a quieter trip through this dark cavern, but whenever you take the 40 minute trip, sit back, relax and go with the Pilipino flow. The entrance is guarded by inquisitive monitor lizards, 6 feet in length, vying for scraps with macaque monkeys. A fun close up encounter; reminding us of our adventure with their big brothers, the komodo dragons, in Indonesia.
Back down the dirt road with it's spectacular views to the highway; we caught a bus north at the junction. Thrown out at our next dirt road we rode on the back of the last jeepney to Port Barton. Another remote fishing village, we fell in love with the quiet, pristine beach and laid back locale. Only about 5 travelers made it out here and driving back down the road past virgin canopy trees (this time up in the front of the 'windshield less' jeepney with the driver dodging bugs, hair flying straight back, one passenger on the hood) we were glad we had allowed the time. Having ridden inside, on the back, and now up front in jeepneys we contemplated hopping on top for a panoramic view. The road was so bumpy that we believed the stories of 'unsavy' travelers being baked in the sun or being thrown off their precarious perch atop rice bags.
Via jeepney then bus we jumped off in Taytay for a couple of days. This quiet town boasts the interesting and scenic Santa Isabel Fort built in 1667, as a safeguard from pirates. Not a pirate to be seen we caught the bus to El Nido up the bumpy dirt road, called the main highway north, attesting to Palawan's remoteness.
Hidden away between jagged limestone cliffs and a quiet white sand beach is the little village of El Nido. Arriving on St. Juan's Day we were properly baptized as we got into the fun of throwing water in the jeepney. In our idyllic little nipa hut along the white sand beach we awoke the next morning and discovered that we indeed had it all. The glorious limestone islands stood like sentries guarding the little cove. Jubilee was our gracious hotelier providing a morning smile, hot water, information and even a machete to eat our daily coconuts from the trees on the beach. We planned a lazy day for our 6th wedding anniversary and as we rolled out the door for a swim, Jubilee informed us that a boat for snorkeling the surrounding Bacuit Archipelago was leaving in 20 minutes, half price. With the exception of the 2 Korean love birds cooing in the next seats we had the coves and islands to ourselves.
The 8 hour boat trip through the islands was no less than dazzling! We explored Big and Small Lagoons, Cathedral Cave, and Hidden Cove, where you had to actually climb through a hole in the mountain to enter a concealed cove. Seven Commandos Beach offered the best snorkeling so far on our trip: displaying the flamboyant lion fish, eels, angel fish, orange clown fish (Nemo) peeking out from their soft white or red coral hideouts, fluorescent fish of every shape and color, 6 different colored and decorated starfish and even a striped sea snake oblivious to our watchful eye. 80% of tropical marine fish worldwide comes from the Philippines. The favorite method of catching these fish is with sodium cyanide, a product introduced in the 1960's that eventually kills the fish and certainly creates havoc on their reef environment. Dynamite, plus cyanide, is also used to collect fish for human consumption. When it comes to reefs a little dynamite damage goes a long way. With this recent history it was great to see the results of regenerating a few reefs implementing some simple ecotourism principles.
The author revealed that "The Beach", the backpacker cult classic is set here, in the Calamian Island group. Society seems intrigued with identifying the perfect beach and no doubt current top runners can be found amongst these islands of northern Palawan. Come visit Palawan, where life is still a beach!
And so it goes........................................Next a tramp steamer to Busuanga Island and headhunters in the mountains of Luzon. Glad you are enjoying tagging along with us as we travel. Sometimes keeping notes seems a bother, but when we receive such encouraging emails it make the effort worth it. Sharing the world is what it is all about! Until next month Keep Smiling and Keep in Touch. Take care. We are glad you stopped by!
Love, xoxoox Nancy & Joseph
$1.00US = 47 pesos.
Bathrooms here are called comfort rooms and although they are basic they rarely smell. They certainly are comforting after a long jeepney ride!
Travel off season to resort areas and enjoy lower prices and that feeling of having the beach to yourself. It usually only rains for maybe an hour in the afternoon and the rest of the time it is sunny as usual. Plenty of time to catch some rays.
Overnight ferry Sunday 8pm from Camiguin to Cebu City. Comfortable bunk beds out on the open deck. Great night air and local camaraderie. Take the free shuttle bus to SM Mall when you can book a ferry to Bohol or store your bags in air conditioned comfort. Take a jeepney to pier#3 to catch the ferry to Tubigon.
Sarmanok Rent a Boat:
Nuts Huts Retreat: 3 km upriver from Loboc, phone: 0920 846 1559, 400-600p for a nipa hut in the jungle along the river. Over 220 stairs up and down to reach it from the road, be kind to yourself and catch a boat in. A large open air restaurant perched on the side of a hill offers treats for the backpackers swapping tales of travel, lost loves, past and future lives.
Alona Beach, Panglao Island:
The Bee Farm: We caught a ride with a local and hiked in the1 km to the eclectic, hippy type collection of organic gardens, huts, workshops, stores and rooms. Perched along the ocean this classy establishment was planned with great care and now has the feel of a 5 star health resort. The owner, a Filipina who lived in New York for 15 years, returned and built this thriving business one step at a time. We chatted with her while sampling some of the many foods in her shop. Only relying on word of mouth, this unique place has made it to the big leagues. It is a stop for tourist vans and commands high prices for it's recent upscale rooms. Everything is organic. Try the flower salad at the restaurant along the ocean or a chocolate hills truffle - mmmm!Also available is roasted corn used as coffee, 'ube' yams, (bright purple sweet potatoes) and other organic veggies.
Cabilao Island, Bohol:
At the north of Bohol this
little port town is worth a look. We stayed right along the
shore at La Vicenta's Lodge (400p w/fan). Only one good
room (#20) but the balcony is literally over the water and the
toilet makes use of the underlying tidal zone. Like staying in
a shanty town along the shore but with the luxury of clean sheets,
fan and tile. Stand in the center square of town and walk up
the hill 50-100 feet. It's down an alley on the left past
Dante Optical shop. Ferry back to Cebu.
Cebu City: Casa Amigo, 79 Echavez St., phone: 6332 233 4557, standard double a/c 750p, large rooms, new, clean, on jeepney routes. More expensive but when we arrived all the pensions were full.
Someone told us to check out the Patrea? Pension across from the Cathedral (or the Basilica). It is clean and quiet as it is run and occupied by nuns. No late night parties but only 150p.
We ate at Persian Palate and
Krua Thai in SM Mall. Both had great veggie fare and the
Thai flavors still tingle my mouth.
Puerto Princesa City:
We exchanged health ideas with a local Filipina and Muslin woman who own and operate the funky Vegetarian House Restaurant on the corner of Burgos and Manalo Streets. Portions are small (30-60p) but a rare surprise when we found it.
Mangrove Paddle Boat Tour: One of the best deals to date. Crisanto, a unique old fellow sporting a large 3 cornered woven sun hat will paddle you around mature growth mangrove forest. He explains the different types of mangrove, the ecosystem comprising a mangrove swamp and as you slowly drift back, listening to the birds and cicadas, he breaks into song and serenades his customers, all for 75p for 45 minutes or $1.50.
Elsa's Beach Cottages, a few doors down from the Bamboo Restaurant, 300p double with bath down the hall. Lovely gardens, friendly family run resort right on the white sand beach. We chose the room on the top floor of the lodge facing the ocean and we literally had the whole resort to ourselves. Staying in a remote fishing village loses it's charm as the sun goes down and the mosquitoes, sometimes malarial, turn out to feast on new guests. Without proper accommodations, a fan, and/or a good mosquito net to sleep under, the 'Perfect Beach' would be less than perfect. Because of the infrastructure and suitable accommodations this could be one of our longer term hideaway places for several months. Bring lots of books as there is only electricity from 6pm to 10pm.
Dara Fernandez Cottages, next to Glorias & Ricos. (500p for the newer bamboo hut w/ bath. Jubilee will help make your stay one to remember. She has dreams of working in Sweden, the highest paying country for the 10 million Pilipinos working overseas.
We walked through the stilt
nipa huts that line the hills of El Nido and found a path up into
the cliffs. Although we didn't find the lookout we enjoyed the
hike and I'm sure a
glorious view awaits anyone who makes the climb through the forest.
Enquire as to the trail direction before you set out.
Skyline Grill: 0921-6862329. We cooked here every night, made carrot juice and enjoyed conversations with the friendly family and staff. When Pacita isn't cleaning the edible nests of swiftlets she is busy cooking appetizing meals, running 2 stores, and helping to care for her family and her husband who lost his leg recently when the 55 gal drum he was welding exploded. Tasty food, good prices and the lowest internet rates in town. Catch a drink at sunset on the beach then stop by the Skyline and say hi from us.
P. S. Scratched on a scrap of paper. It reminds us to lighten up!
Ode to the Cockroach
You can run, hide, jump and fly,
30 seconds in a microwave and not bat an eye,
You, the ultimate survivor, will remain when we all say, "Bye, Bye!"