Enough preamble—we’ve read your comments and we know that all you really want to know about the Philippines is what the beaches were like. Can’t say we blame you, as when we headed to Bohol, we were planning to spend scads of time lolling about on white sand beaches and frolicking in the ocean.
Like most tourists on Bohol, we based ourselves on Panglao island, all the better to flock to what is arguably the province’s best beach: Alona Beach. Our fast & furious research had filled our heads with visions of powder-soft white sand and crystal clear water, perfect for swimming between periods of languor. Temples and culture had all been well and good, but we were ready for some indolent island paradise.
Our goal when we arrived at Alona was to secure lodging as close to the shoreline, but for as cheaply as possible. The trike driver who brought us to the beach was a good sport about it and chauffeured us around to several locations, most of which were charging upwards of $30USD per night, which seemed a tad steep given that we were in shoulder season. We soon realized the magic words were “fan room”, as rooms with air-con inevitably cost more money; we figured that this close to the beach, we’d surely catch a nice breeze, and anyway, we’d hardly be spending our time in our room. After viewing several lackluster rooms, we finally settled on a $20 room, which was rather dark and dank, but just steps from the beach.
We only lasted one night. Not because the room itself was inherently awful (though it wasn’t great), but because quite honestly, we found ourselves rather disappointed by Alona. Dumping our bags in our room, we set off to explore its length, determined to find ourselves the very best patch. Sadly, during our ramble, we discovered that Alona was a far cry from the glorious expanse of untainted beach we had been envisioning. No, the beach was actually quite narrow, as much of the land is covered with hotels, restaurants, bars, and dive shops, giving sunbathers about 10 meters of actual beach to rest and relax upon. With so much hustle and bustle going on around us, we didn’t find the atmosphere all that conducive to lounging. Even worse, rather than pristine lengths of sand, we actually found the little beach there was quite unbecoming, as it was covered in the dregs of the ocean that had been washed ashore; if you asked us, on our first day, Alona seemed to be 50% developments, 25% sand, and 25% sea grass! To be fair, on our second day, we took another look and it was as though the beach had put its makeup back on, as most of the jetsam had disappeared back into the ocean.
That’s not all that pulls a vanishing act, however, as come high tide, the limited beachfront winds up completely submerged under water, with nary a grain of sand to be seen. The upshot to this is that this is about the only time you can actually swim at Alona, as the shoreline is quite rocky once you enter the water. Of course, with all the dive shops in operation, their boats have to dock somewhere, and most of them dropped anchor about 20 or 30 feet out. I don’t know about you, but swimming about in water dappled with run-off gasoline is not exactly my idea of paradise. The whole area just felt really touristy and far too developed for our tastes (you can’t walk more than 50 feet without someone approaching you and trying to sell you something).
This is not to say that there are no nice pockets on Alona Beach, because there certainly are. You’ll just have to pay for the privilege of enjoying them as the best maintained portions of the beach are all owned by private and pricey resorts. While these bits of beach were certainly nicer, we weren’t sufficiently impressed to shell out $60 or $80USD per night in order to gain access to them.
Instead we decided that with Alona being pretty much a bust, we would relocate elsewhere and hopefully find somewhere off the main thoroughfare that was more our speed. We wound up finding a guesthouse that was about 5 km down the road from the main Alona strip that was 100PHP cheaper (~$2.50USD) per night, but we wound up with a nicer room (it was on the second floor of the building, so it actually did get a nice breeze!) and the cost of our room included a motorbike, which tend to rent independently for around 400PHP ($10USD) per day. Although our second guesthouse was also within walking distance to a stretch of beach, it wasn’t much nicer (we kept visiting it at low tide when it was covered in debris), though we did enjoy combing the sandy pools at low tide, taking simple pleasure in spotting starfish in the wild, and marveling at how quickly they could actually move and bury themselves away from our gaze.
With a bike at our disposal, we were now free to tour the island and try to rustle up a stage upon which we could bring our dreams of fun in the sun to life. Our random rides brought us to several more private beaches, the nicest of which was probably Dumaluan, which actually did have freshly raked white sand and looked rather inviting, but also required a daily entrance fee (75PHP or $2USD, so not exactly breaking the bank). We also stumbled upon Bikini Beach, which was quite dramatic and lovely for photographing, but was also quite rocky and had an awful lot of trash strewn about, meaning it was once again no good for swimming or sunbathing. It would seem that the free beaches of Bohol are free for a reason, and after two days of exploring Panglao island, we began to believe that beach time simply wasn’t going to be in the cards for us.
Refusing to concede defeat, we decided that if nice beaches and good swimming would not come to us, then we would make our way to them. We signed up to tag along as snorkelers with a local dive shop, Bohol Divers Club, who were doing a day trip to the nearby island of Balicasag, a place we had read was one of the best (if not *the* best) places to snorkel in all of the Philippines.
On the morning of our trip, we met the large group of Swedish divers we would be sharing the boat with, whose good cheer did much to counteract the somewhat gloomy weather we were facing. The skies were dark and the low grumble of thunder rolled ominously towards us as we motored away from Alona. Our boat captain knew no fear and daringly raced our boat through the choppy waters, charging headfirst into the eye of the storm and quickly bringing us out the other side. When we reached Balicasag, we had left the clouds behind, and the sky was clear.
Alas, the ocean was an entirely different story. Though it was as warm as bathwater, the storms had churned up quite a lot of sediment, meaning visibility was poor and everything we viewed through our masks took on a murky green hue.
By going with the dive trip, we were able to get our transport to and from Balicasag as well as our gear for 1000PHP (~$25USD) for the two of us rather than paying the far pricier 1500PHP ($37USD) to charter a private boat of our own to take us there without any gear. However, as most of the people on the boat were there to dive, we believe we may have wound up visiting a portion of Balicasag that was far better suited for that activity rather than snorkeling: the water was very deep and much of the coral we encountered was not very large, meaning most of the fish action we were able to observe was occurring well below us and we were never able to experience that magical moment when swimming in tropical waters when schools of vibrantly colored fish dart and swarm about you. Perhaps if we had chartered a boat, they might have taken us to a different section of the island with shallower water, and that may have been more rewarding. Unfortunately, another disappointment was that much of the coral we did see was very clearly dead, much of it shattered like priceless china, the clear result of boats carelessly dropping their anchors rather than tying to the docking buoys.
We spent about 2 hours snorkeling about and quite honestly, we did not see very much. Then again, we did see a rather large sea turtle near the end, which is always a thrill, and I’m pretty sure that any underwater outing where you have a turtle spotting must be considered a success in some capacity. Better still, I was able to finally try out my waterproof camera that my lab gave me as a graduation present and my turtle pictures were happily some of the best ones I managed that day.
That said, despite the fact we had fun on our outing, overall snorkeling at Balicasag was quite disappointing. We were expecting an abundance of aquatic life and lots of vivid colors, and got poor returns on both those fronts. We later spoke with travelers who had visited Balicasag 3 years ago and they said that the reef was practically unrecognizable and far poorer than what they had experienced then. Technically the island is surrounded by a protected marine sanctuary, but while were there we did not observe any conservation efforts being enacted (nor were we asked to pay the supposedly mandatory marine park fee), so if things continue on this trajectory, then we’d have to say that Balicasag’s heyday has come and gone.
Perhaps that’s true of the beaches of Bohol in general—in terms of whether they lived up to the hype, we would have to say they did not. None of the beaches we experienced on the island were what we would consider world class, and if your goal in visiting the Philippines is to spend most of your time soaking up the sun or exploring the underwater world, we would say there are better islands to do that.
That doesn’t mean you should skip Bohol, though! No, as you’ll see in our next post, although the island may not have delivered phenomenal beaches, in addition to tarsiers and Chocolate Hills, it gave me something far more precious, something you’re unlikely to ever find mentioned in a guidebook or pictured on a post card.