Philippines, Part 13: The Chocolate Hills (Bohol Again)

Last week we had our first monsoon and were almost marooned on a desert island. Check out that and other past adventures here:

Philippines, Part 1: Have Baby, Will Travel
Philippines, Part 2: Do You Know How to XOOM?
Philippines, Part 3: Confessions of a Carseatless Baby (Vigan)

Philippines, Part 4: Strawberries and Cotton Candy (Baguio)

Philippines, Part 5: Hanging Coffins! (Sagada)

Philippines, Part 6: Voyage of the Icebox (Banauae & Batad)

Philippines, Part 7: Revenge of the Cockroaches (Manila)
Philippines, Part 8: Please Don’t Feed the Sharks (Anilao)
Philippines, Part 9: “Sexy Chic” at the Playboy Fashion Show (Field Study Research)
Philippines, Part 10: Luxury Travel, Filipino Style (Cebu)
Philippines, Part 11: Nuts to the Huts (Bohol)
Philippines, Part 12: If You Were Stranded on a Desert Island . . . (Panglao)

As our last fling on the island of Bohol, we decided to take the “Choco Tour.” When people outside the Philippines picture tourist destinations there, they mostly involve white sand beaches and warm water. But one of the most popular tourist destinations for the Filipinos themselves is the island of Bohol’s most famous attraction: the Chocolate Hills. During our stay at Alona beach, we had been persistently proselyted about those wonderful Chocolate Hills by a gregarious driver named Jojo. On our last day there, we finally set off with him, in a car with windows tinted like a limo all the way round, even the windshield.

Although it was called the “Choco Tour,” Jojo’s extravaganza turned out to be a whole-day tour of the entire island of Bohol. Fortunately, it’s a small island. Our first stop on was the Hinagdanon Cave, a spooky, somewhat brackish pool housed by a cavern filled with swallows nests and bats. Sunbeams let in through multiple outlets to the sky lend the cave a mystic quality and help to illuminate the dramatic stalactites dripping from the ceiling. We oohed and ahed and were glad to get back up to the sunlight.

The historical portion of the tour covered the “Sandugo,” which marks the place where Miguel Lopez de Legazpi (Spanish conquistador extraordinaire) and Rajah Sikatuna (chieftan of Bohol) reputedly each drank a cup of each other’s blood to cement an early Hispano-Filipino peace accord. Whether it was a barbaric native practice or a barbaric Spanish practice was not explained or known by Jojo. Any guesses?

Next we visited the massive stone church in Baclayon, built in 1596 and covered all over in fine green lichen. There is a museum attached, full of garb worn by the priests, massive old latin hymnals, and assorted religious relics. Everything is buried in several millimeters of dust, but it’s still amazingly well-preserved, especially after four-hundred-odd years on a tropical island.

The road we were taking then left the coast and dived into the lush interior of Bohol. Along our first ill-fated Bohol haunt, the Loboc River, we reached the site we were most looking forward to seeing: Bohol’s tiny mascot, the tarsier. Although the tarsier is the world’s smallest primate, he is probably not among the more intelligent, since each of his eyes is larger than his entire brain. Nevertheless, intellectual prowess aside, words are inadequate to describe the sheer cuteness of the tarsier. However, his cuteness to intelligence ratio may have something to do with his status as an endangered species. Needless to say, the tarsier’s meeting with our own little 3-month-old tarsier involved a lot of staring on both sides.

One of the delightful surprises of travel in developing countries is that you can often get a lot closer to interesting stuff than you can in more punctilious places. One of my favorite sites in Syria, the Krak des Chevaliers, is a gigantic Crusader castle, so conspicuously devoid of guardrails that you could have easily walked off dozens of dizzying drops, or ended up precipitously in the dungeon if you weren’t careful. We felt much more like fearless knights than we otherwise would have. Here on Bohol, our charmed discovery was that we were allowed to get within inches of the tarsiers, who were perched on various tree trunks, earnestly doing what they always do, which is staring. If you’ve never been contemplated at close range by a creature that’s ten times cuter than a Star Trek tribble, well, you’ve never lived. As instructed, I managed to resist the overwhelming urge to pick one up and cover it in kisses (possibly aided by my extreme aversion to tropical diseases).

When we had stared our fill at the tarsiers, we continued on our way, pausing to cross the Indiana Jonesesque hanging bridge to the accompaniment of a typical sappy Filipino rendering of “Yesterday” by a young guitarist. An almost surreal twist in the road led us into a man-made forest, a large planting of mahogany trees that for a few hundred meters turns the tropical jungle into what looks like a carbon copy of the California coastal forest. As we continued inland, we came upon rice fields just at planting time. The planters, wearing traditional wide hats, were happy to show us their work. The rice is first seeded in a small area. When it has filled that area with a beautiful lush green carpet, it is pulled up and separated into clumps. Each clump is then painstakingly replanted far enough apart to allow the rice to grow. The result is an entire rich field of rice from just a few seeds.  Who knew?

By this time it was late afternoon, and we were finally approaching the famous Chocolate Hills. With pomp and ceremony, Jojo explained to us how they had been formed. Two giants had loved the same woman (we can only hope she was also a giantess). They fought a fantastic battle all over Bohol, until one was finally vanquished. The winner went off with the girl, and the loser’s tears fell on the ground and calcified into the startlingly shaped hills. We were told that in summertime the foliage on them dies, making them look like huge chocolate kisses. They were still green when we arrived, but did make a startling piece of scenery. To me they looked almost like a collection of somewhat conical hobbit houses in a tropical Shire. We had planned to reach them just before sunset, when our guidebook had assured us they would be at their prettiest, but evidently we had not stared long enough at the tarsiers, because we arrived a good two or three hours early. We climbed to the lookout point, took some pictures, and sat down to wait it out. Too bad we hadn’t foresightedly brought some chocolate to fortify ourselves. We eventually decided it wasn’t worth the wait, so we never did end up seeing the chocolate hills at sunset.

Stay tuned next week as our vacation from our vacation turns disastrous in Philippines, Part 14: Trouble in Paradise (Malapascua).