Bohol has wonders aplenty—both below and above the water. Our first stop in the Philippines boasted strange conical hills, animals that looked like Gollum, ginormous sea turtles, unending turquoise waters, and huge schools of fish flitting among the soft corals.
See and Do
Most visitors come to Bohol to check out the strange "Chocolate Hills," 1000+ perfectly conical hills that were supposedly formed thousands of years ago by the effects of rainwater on coral deposits. Whether or not you buy the explanation, the hills, green when we saw them, are strangely interesting (admission: 50P). They are all relatively the same shape and size, very close together, and completely different from the surrounding landscape.
They also give people the opportunity to try out their fantasy of being a witch. Not quite sure we understood the connection, but here's a family trying their best to make it onto the broomstick.
The hills are located in the middle of the island, surrounded by lush rainforest and calm rivers. The drive there is easy and beautiful, taking you past rice paddies, grazing buffalo, and old Spanish-style churches. The other things you'll pass, though you'll never see them, are tarsiers. Supposedly, these weird nocturnal creatures grace the interior of Bohol at one animal per hectare. However, unless you're a talented trekker and animal spotter, your best bet is to stop at the sanctuary (60P) on the way to the Chocolate Hills and see them there.
The first thing you'll notice about tarsiers are their eyes, which seem to be half the size of their head. The animals can't actually switch their gaze, so instead Mother Nature has blessed them with the ability to rotate their heads a full 180 degrees. After you're done staring at their eyes, check out their hands and feet. Gollum, anyone?
While Chocolate Hills and tarsiers are the biggest land-based attractions, anyone who knows anything about diving will tell you that the real reason to go to Bohol is for the reefs around Balicasag Island. For us, this fact was a happy coincidence, as we were meeting our Honeytrekking friends at Alona Beach to celebrate the 500th day of their on-the-road honeymoon.
After listening them describe the diving, we knew we had to go. Our first two dives post-certification were with Sierra Madre, offices at the far end of Alona Beach. I can't recommend them enough. They gave us our own dive master since we had fewer dives than other people at our level, they helped us prepare our equipment, they made delicious coffee, etc. Regular dives with them are 1200P ($30), but you can ask for a discount and see if that nets you anything (hint, hint).
Both of our dives were around Balicasag Island, a prime diving spot if there ever was one. If we thought the water at Alona Beach was the clearest of clear, imagine our surprise when we looked underneath our dive boat and saw at least 15 meters deep of thriving coral reef! The first dive, at Cathedral, took us past swinging soft corals and a huge sea turtle that, after observing us for a few minutes, swam off without a backwards glance. Our second dive began at Black Forest and ended at Turtle Point. It was our first drift dive and we saw five huge sea turtles, a school of at least a thousand jackfish, and tons of other interesting fish whose names escape me.
It was an incredible experience, and it was awesome to just be able to jump in without having to worry about getting certified. Yay for scuba!
Other excursions from Alona Beach include whale shark watching in Cebu (cancelled due to bad weather the morning we booked), dolphin watching, and island hopping. You could easily spend a week on this island alone.
Alona Beach is really expensive, which sort of sucks, especially since the beach itself isn't that nice. We stayed at Alona Grove and paid 1000P for an AC room, which took some negotiation. They have fan rooms for as little as 600P, which might be your best bet for something cheap. The rooms were about two minutes from the beach, and they were clean, though not exactly nice.
If you want to splurge, consider staying at Amarela Resort. It's a beautiful resort, right on the beach and away from the hawkers of Alona. At low tide, you can wander the tide pools and hunt for crabs and conch.
The view from their restaurant is spectacular and the rooms themselves, all individually decorated, boast tasteful furnishings, bright white linens, and grand views. With a comprehensive book and DVD library, you could easily spend a week there getting away from it all. With the priciest rooms going for ~$300 a night in low season, it seemed like an affordable bite of luxury.*
* Amarela hosted us for a tour and dinner, although these opinions, as always, are strictly our own.
Eat and Drink
There are plenty of restaurants and bars on the beach at Alona, though if you're looking for something cheaper, you'll have to head to the main road. There, you'll find several restaurants with prepared food in metal tins. Just lift the lid and see what's underneath. Dishes range from 15-40P and are a cheap way to sample the local cuisine and get full.
San Miguel, the national beer of the Philippines, is plentiful and cheap. It won't run you more than $1 for a bottle. Also, be sure to try Red Horse, San Miguel's more alcoholic and flavorful cousin.
After landing at the Tagbiliran airport, we caught a tricycle to Alona Beach for 250P. These funny motorbike-pulled vehicles are all over the Philippines, and alongside the jeepney, a vehicle originally concepted from leftover US Army jeeps, they make up a good chunk of transportation on the islands.
Once at Alona, you can bargain with the tricycle and motorbike drivers to take you anywhere, or you can rent a motorbike. We paid 350P for our one-day rental.
You have a range of ferry options from Bohol for islands all over the Visayas. We chose to do something different and headed to Camiguin, which required us to catch a bus to Jagna. The 75-minute trip cost 60P and deposited us outside the ferry terminal. We opted for the slow ferry for 400P (340P for students), though you could save an hour and pay 600P for the faster craft.
The slow ferry was spartan, but it got into Camiguin on time and we saw about 15 dolphins while on-board, which had us asking whether we should classify the expense under transportation or entertainment.
Interested in seeing the Chocolate Hills and tarsiers without paying for a plane ticket? Check out our Bohol photo tour.
Do you have any tips for backpacking on Bohol? Let us know in the comments!