Bohol’s Biggest Hits

Before we left on our Big Trip, the Philippines was a place we casually considered visiting, but it never officially made it onto our itinerary. Truth be told, the only reason we ended up there is because in our desperate bid to get out of China, it was the cheapest place we could escape to; and so it was that within 72 hours of purchasing our tickets, we were touching down in Manila.

Seventy-two hours is not a lot of time to research a country, never mind one made up of 7,107 (or so, depending on the tides!) islands. Thankfully, back in Toronto, my parents have some neighbors who are originally from the Philippines, and we were given a few tips before we left, which was certainly better than simply being armed with a Lonely Planet guide that was 6 years out of date (though to be fair, it’s about as useful as a current LP guide…).

We knew that starting our time in Manila would likely be a mistake—even people who rave about the Philippines tend to have little love for its capital city—but with a baffling number of islands at our disposal, we turned to the list of places we had jotted down back in July and decided on the island of Bohol. We didn’t know much about the place except for 2 things: it has an attraction known as the Chocolate Hills, which most Filipinos speak about in rapturous tones; and it has tarsiers, the world’s smallest primates. These pieces of trivia were 2 more than we knew about anywhere else in the country, so it seemed as good a place to start out as anywhere else.

One of the many ever-present Jeepneys
One of the many ever-present Jeepneys

There are several options for seeing Bohol’s most famous attractions, which range from hiring a private car to ferry you around for the day (pretty much anyone in possession of a vehicle will offer you this service) to taking local public transportation, known as jeepneys, to get from one place to another. Our solution was to find a guesthouse that included a motorcycle in the cost of our room, which gave us the freedom to simply drive ourselves to the island’s star attractions. Having done so, I would say that if you are comfortable on a motorcycle, it is unequivocally the best way to see the sights.

We knew we were in for an adventure when it took us not the 25 minutes that Google Maps had predicted, but instead an hour to wind our way up from our guesthouse on Panglao island to Bohol’s main city, Tagbilaran. As we were warned, the city was a roiling hornet’s nest of activity. The streets were congested, the lines of traffic resembling herds of elephants, impatiently waiting in the moments leading up to a stampede. Tony is a skilled rider, having tooled around his parents’ land in Minnesota on a Honda 250cc from the tender age of 12, so he was able to safely navigate the chaotic stream of cars and bikes, and I was grateful my only job was to hang on tight and attempt to spot our turn, a task made more challenging by the billowing clouds of dust kicked up by all the tires, effectively obscuring our view. Needless to say, we heaved a huge sigh of relief when we reached the outskirts of the city, and promptly pulled in for an early celebratory lunch at the first restaurant that looked promising (read: open).

Lechon Manok, a.k.a. Grilled Chicken with unlimited rice
Lechon Manok, a.k.a. Grilled Chicken with unlimited rice

After filling our bellies, we heaved ourselves back onto the bike, and made our way towards the Tarsier sanctuary. Although Bohol is a relatively large island, the main road that takes you to most of the attractions is a ring road. We hoped that if we just drove along it for long enough, we’d see some kind of sign that would get us to where we wanted to be. Our strategy paid off, though surprisingly, despite the apparent fame and local pride in the island’s tarsiers, there is pretty much no signage for the sanctuary until you are bearing down on the actual turn off, which looms up at you without much warning. Also, there are apparently several places on the island that masquerade as the official sanctuary, but are really nothing more than glorified pet stores, so we took a picture of what to look for, should you ever find yourself on a tarsier hunt on Bohol.

This is where the turn-off is. Note the patiently waiting (and sweating) backpacker with NO motorcycle
This is where the turn-off is. Note the patiently waiting (and sweating) backpacker with NO motorcycle

We passed two bedraggled backpackers on our way into the sanctuary, where we each paid our 100 PHP (~$2.50 USD) and headed down the rocky path to the sanctuary proper. We were greeted by a guide, as visitors are not allowed to enter the tarsier enclosure on their own. Besides, it wouldn’t be much use to do so anyway, because tarsiers are TINY. If you were to go trampling through the bush on your own, you would very likely see nothing. In fact, our guide said that each morning, they head out about 3 hours before the sanctuary officially opens in order to locate the tarsiers, as they are nocturnal and also very territorial. The sanctuary (which is essentially just a huge fenced-in forest area) only has 10 tarsiers in residence, but on the day we visited, we were only able to see 4 as that was all they had been able to locate that morning.

Another reason for visiting the sanctuary with a guide is that tarsiers are actually as weird as they look. If they are startled (like by loud noises or habitat destruction) the female will eat her young and then goes suicidal and smashes her head in. True story! So when you go out looking for tarsiers, you must walk very quietly and never raise your voice above a whisper.

We had heard tarsiers were little, but we were still shocked when our guide pointed one out to see that an adult tarsier is actually smaller than a guinea pig. These little primates are so small, they could easily perch in the palm of your hand.


Even more notable than their miniature stature, however, is their disproportionately HUGE eyes. Their eyes look like dinner plate affixed to their heads, and staring into them, you feel like you are gazing on some kind of alien creature—a hybrid ET-gremlin-elf perhaps! We learned that their eyes are larger than their brain (which is actually quite tiny… maybe this is why they have evolved such awful survival instincts!) and that like owls, their eyes do not move in their sockets, but they are instead able to swivel their heads 360 degrees. Seriously, tarsiers are the weirdest.

After seeing the 4 tarsiers that had been located that day, we looked around the small information center that explains the threats facing the Philippines’ tarsier population and the efforts of the sanctuary to help these endangered creatures thrive, gleaning as much random trivia about them as we could. All told, our entire visit took about 30 minutes, which was a generous amount of time as the sanctuary is not very big and once you’ve seen the tarsiers—as cool and bizarre as they are—there is not much left to do. We were both really glad that we got the opportunity to see these strange little creatures, but we were especially glad that we had our own transportation and were not beholden to the jeepney schedule in order to do so. When we left, the same girls we had passed on our way in were still waiting for a jeepney back to Tagbilaran, and based on the number we passed on the road that day, I would imagine they waited quite a long time. Given that a trip through the sanctuary, while enjoyable, only takes about 15 minutes, waiting for an hour or more to leave is probably not worth it.

Because the day was still relatively young, we decided to continue on to the infamous Chocolate Hills. Despite the effusive praise most Filipinos heap upon these geological wonders, we had heard decidedly mixed things about them from other tourists. The Chocolate Hills are a series of pyramidal shaped protrusions that are formed from limestone; they are covered in grass that turns brown during the dry season, which some fanciful person decided made them look like giant chocolate drops. As we were visiting the Philippines at the tail end of their rainy season, we knew we’d be in for “matcha” Chocolate Hills at best. Knowing we wouldn’t be seeing them in their prime, we set out, but with lowered expectations.


Honestly, we needn’t have worried, and indeed, most of our cares melted away as we rode toward them on our little motorbike. The philosophers amongst us like to wax poetic and claim that it’s not about the destination, but about the journey, and I think our trip that day was proof positive of exactly that. It felt so liberating to cruise through twisting roads, our hearts catching in our throats around each bend, not out of fear, but from the sheer beauty of the landscape the rolled out around us. The scenery was, in a word, spectacular, we zoomed past men and caribao at work tilling vibrant green rice paddies, flooded with water that the rays of the sun high over our head danced brilliantly across the surface of and the brilliant azure blue of the sky reflected back upon itself, giving the dizzying impression of infinity. Everywhere we looked we encountered lush hues of green, too many to count as they were clearly the product of nature run riot. As we drove, the cascade of colors pushed drab China far from our minds, and conjured up the sense we were truly somewhere deliciously exotic. Every so often, our journey through this bucolic paradise was punctuated by ramshackle huts and buildings that lined short bursts of the road, and we soaked in the sights of people simply living their lives right in front of us. We saw harvested rice drying in the sun, freshly laundered clothing fluttering in the wind, and children walking home from school, gaily laughing and waving at us as we motored by, their calls of “Hello!” like euphoric music to our ears.

When the first Chocolate Hill undulated up from the horizon, it seemed incidental, like the mint on your pillow in a lavish 5-star hotel at the end of an already perfect day. We lazily wound our way up a the road to the hills, stopping only to pay the 50PHP (~$1.25USD) entrance fee to the hills, and found it was impossible to keep our happiness in check. Maybe as others have claimed the hills are mediocre, a letdown, but we certainly did not feel that way. Best of all, though most of the hills were an undeniable mossy green, a few were starting to change to brown, giving us a hint of what they would look like in their tawny glory.


Our enthusiasm pushed us forward, propelling us up a steep set of stairs so that we could stand on the peak of a ridge and take in the sight of these perfectly uniform conical karsts, laid out before us as far as we could see with somewhat unsettling regularity. First the tarsiers and now these hills, it was a day of gazing upon how weirdly wonderful the world can be.


As one of the Philippines premier attractions, there were a fair number of tourists at the Chocolate Hills, but no nearly so many as I had feared. We watched as others took cheesy trompe l’oeil shots such as pinching the top of the hills, or offering them up on a platter formed out of the palm of one hand, but by far our favorite was a jumping shot involving a broom so that it looked like you were flying above the hills, Harry Potter style. No idea why this is a thing, but it amused us greatly. If we have any regrets about that day, it’s probably that we didn’t just go ahead and splurge and get our own version taken!

Viewing the Chocolate Hills from up high was certainly breathtaking, but the climb down to the parking lot was sweaty work. We stopped for ice cream (I had a corn-flavored popsicle, complete with actual kernels of corn in it!) before hopping on our bike and heading for home. Not exactly a hardship, and we marveled at how the countryside looked completely new as the sun began to dip in the sky, causing the colors around us to ripen. Our journey took us through a teakwood forest, and we stopped in the river town of Loboc to stretch our legs, admiring their historic church and munching on some caramelized bananas (they are rolled in sugar and then deep fried!) to fuel us through the last half of our journey.


Though the pace of our day seeing Bohol’s biggest sights had certainly been relaxed, it had been a long day nonetheless. We barely had the energy to scrounge up dinner, but even that was a success, as we sniffed out an amazing restaurant that had the best lechon manok (roasted chicken) that we had during our entire time in the Philippines. We started off splitting half a chicken & fries, but it was so good, we promptly ordered a second helping with only the faintest twinge of guilt. In our short few days in the Philippines, we had already started to experience some BBQ burnout as grilled meats are EVERYWHERE you turn, but this roast chicken was truly a thing of beauty! It was the perfect end to perfect day, and when we rolled ourselves home and tumbled into bed, that night, we slept the kind of sleep that had so long eluded us in China: the kind of sleep that restores and revitalizes you so that come the morning, you spring out of bed, excited to face another day.

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16 comments Leave a comment

  1. I love, love, love, scootering and, after having spent the day hanging on the back of the bike scooting through the hills of northern Thailand today, I can say that the Philippines is definitely on my list! We’ll have to spend a day out on the bikes when you guys get up here!

    Mar. 6 2013 @ 7:11 am
    1. Gillian @OneGiantStep author

      That sounds fantastic! Tony literally looks for any excuse to ride a motorcycle; it is by far our favorite way to travel (trains come a close second)!

      Mar. 7 2013 @ 6:24 am
  2. Amanda

    You guys definitely chose the right place to go, wow! It’s beautiful, and sounds like a lovely experience 100% of the way. And a corn popsicle?? How bizarre. 😀

    Mar. 6 2013 @ 7:39 am
    1. Amanda author

      Strange though it may sound, we had actually tried corn popsicles before in Nashville! There was a Mexican place that sold them and I always loved them!

      Mar. 7 2013 @ 6:26 am
  3. Oh man, those tarsiers… Little alien dudes! You guys have convinced me to learn to ride a motorbike…

    Mar. 6 2013 @ 8:05 am
    1. Rachel author

      Seriously, tarsiers are the weirdest. It was a thrill to see something that is so obviously an extraterrestrial! 😉

      Definitely learn to ride a motorcycle—they’re the best way to travel!

      Mar. 7 2013 @ 6:27 am
  4. reading your post on bohol gave me a different perspective =)
    just in case you haven’t included yet in your list, try some extreme adventure on “the plunge” in danao, bohol.. and of course, for gastronomic one, how about bee farm. have fun in the philippines! 🙂

    Mar. 6 2013 @ 8:17 am
    1. Claire author

      Thanks for commenting, Claire! As you will see, we did indeed make it to the bee farm while we were on Bohol… the Plunge will have to wait for another trip though!

      Mar. 7 2013 @ 6:28 am
  5. Carmel

    I’m so excited to read all of this about the Philippines. I’m so excited to go! I don’t know which island we’ll hit, but I’ll keep this in mind.

    Mar. 6 2013 @ 10:40 am
    1. Carmel author

      We managed to hit quite a few islands (though really, we feel like we barely scratched the surface), so by the time you leave, hopefully you will have quite a few ideas!

      Mar. 7 2013 @ 6:29 am
  6. ‘…certainly better than simply being armed with a Lonely Planet guide that was 6 years out of date (though to be fair, it’s about as useful as a current LP guide…’


    Bohol certainly looks as pleasant as you’ve described to us, Steph.

    I think Franca would really enjoy seeing the tarsiers and whilst she’s doing that, I’d be off hunting for the Hershey’s Kisses Hills 🙂

    Mar. 7 2013 @ 1:31 am
    1. Dale author

      Yes, knowing Franca, she would definitely enjoy a tarsier encounter!

      Just make sure before you head to the Philippines that you’ve learned to ride a motorcycle… it will boost your fun levels there 150%!

      Mar. 7 2013 @ 6:31 am
  7. Yegads, the tarsiers are creepy looking! I was expecting cute, but those buggy eyes? *shudder*

    Mar. 9 2013 @ 7:23 pm
  8. After the disappointment of the beaches I’m glad to read this; the Chocolate Hills are one of the things I’m really excited to visit in the Philippines. It sounds quite meaty over there, is there any hope for veggies like me (I’m finding it difficult to get nice Veggie food in New Zealand at the moment)? I like the website revamp by the way!

    Mar. 19 2013 @ 1:09 am
  9. I love Bohol! I know people who don’t care for it, but what’s not to like? Such a beautiful island with so much to see and the tarsiers are so cute!

    Mar. 8 2015 @ 8:40 pm

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