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Philippines Travel: Treasure Island
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Above: Bohol Bounty on the banks of the Loboc River.

From its teeming reefs to its hospitable people and—yes—delicious cuisine, Bohol is one of the Philippines’ best-kept secrets. Now, this hinterland hopes to parlay its friendly shores into the next big thing. But should it?

By Aaron Gulley
Photographs by Jen Judge

On the drive to the Dauis Convento for a feast that was to be my introduction to Boholano cuisine, I found myself reining in my expectations. While the invitation to a lavish banquet at a 19th-century priory sounded enticing, the Filipino reputation for a coarse palate made me worry that the rendezvous might play out like a blind date at Jollibee.

The scene that greeted me melted my red-plastic-and-neon trepidations. A romantically moldering convent built of coral stone and molave hardwood rested in the shadow of the 146-year-old Señora de la Asuncíon church, and dinner was laid on white linen in a twilit courtyard beneath the branches of a massive acacia. My escort for the evening, a local historian named Marianito Jose Luspo, banished any remaining misgivings with an infectious rasp of laughter that caused his entire voluminous frame to quake. “Boholanos always offer our best plates and fanciest bedding to guests,” he assured me. “From childhood, we are told, ‘The best is reserved for visitors.’”

The Philippines is, by and large, a land of gracious hospitality. And as Marianito told it, Bohol is the country’s most amiable stop. “In other parts of the Philippines, if you show up at someone’s home at dinnertime, they won’t invite you to eat,” he explained. “In Bohol, we stop, we clear the plates in a hurry, and we pretend as if we haven’t started. That’s why houses must always have a back door, so that the smallest child can sneak out and run to borrow the fanciest food he can get. And when he returns, the family must insist that the food was ready and waiting.”

Bobbing inconspicuously in the central Visayas, Bohol, the Philippines’ 10th-largest island at around 4,100 square kilometers, was long regarded as a backwater. “Not long ago, if you said Bohol to someone in Manila, their first question was, ‘Where’s that?’ ” Marianito told me. “Then they would ask, ‘Do civilized people live there?’ ” Just a decade ago, the island supported itself mostly through farming and fishing, with only a few sleepy beach resorts —including the one at which we’re staying—on the isle of Panglao, which is connected by causeway to the provincial capital, Tagbilaran. But in recent years, Bohol has begun wooing more travelers with its lovely, lonely beaches and a couple of natural peculiarities: tiny moon-eyed primates called tarsiers, and the Chocolate Hills, hundreds of conical limestone mounds that, in the dry season, seem dusted with Valrhona cacao powder. But for all that they resemble Hershey’s Kisses, they aren’t nearly as sweet as the cordial local reception.

Bohol has been practicing that welcome for centuries. Though the Spaniards were originally thwarted in their efforts to settle the Philippines—Ferdinand Magellan was hacked to death on a beach in Cebu in 1521, and some of the survivors from the García Jofre de Loaisa expedition were sold into slavery on Mindanao a few years later—the explorer Miguel López de Legaspi found a warmer greeting in Bohol in 1565. He eventually signed a blood compact with a Boholano chief, Datu Sikatuna, which gave the Spanish their toehold. Today, the order of Datu Sikatuna is still the highest award offered to Filipino diplomats. And at Malacañang, the presidential palace in Manila, the country’s head of state receives foreign dignitaries in the Datu Sikatuna room. You might say that Bohol was the birthplace of the Philippines’ storied tradition of hospitality.

That didn’t seem like a stretch from my seat at the Convento banquet, where servers had been plying me with halang halang—a rich, salty soup of chicken and ginger—and green envelopes of a local leaf called coulis, stuffed with steamed crab and coconut meat. Anyone who regards Filipino cuisine as simple or crude, I decided, has never eaten in Bohol. I was completely stuffed yet on the verge of asking for a third parcel of crab when an ambrosial plate of stewed pork and plantains arrived.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above, from left: On the tarmac at Bohol’s airport; a jeepney grille; a lone banca; The fruit of an achiote tree.

“Bohol is abundant in food; the seas and forest are bountiful,” Marianito said between mouthfuls. “So it isn’t difficult for us to give the best to our guests.” With that, he motioned for me to tuck into my pork.

A trip to Bohol without ogling the tarsiers and the Chocolate Hills would be like a visit to Siem Reap minus a stop at Angkor Wat. So I started with a half-day tour that would take in both attractions.

My driver, Bebot Morales, a stumpy fellow of few words, wore mirrored sunglasses and a focused expression that suggested he took his job seriously. After introducing my guide, Veronica Vissara, with a nod, Bebot pulled on his faux-leather driving gloves and puttered onto the road with painstaking precision. Traffic on dozy Bohol moves at a trickle. As we crept past a patchwork of rice terraces beneath a leafy emerald canopy, Veronica said, “Before, Boholanos were mainly agriculturists. Now 75 percent of our income is generated from tourism. Still, the number of people who visit, especially foreigners, is small compared with places like Boracay and Cebu.”

For now, at least. On the drive across the causeway from Panglao Island, we saw a crew of men with backhoes glistening in the morning heat as they pushed blocks of coral around to widen the pocked two-lane byway. The roadwork was in preparation for Bohol’s new airport, which will be moved from the mainland to Panglao, Veronica explained, to accommodate longer runways, bigger aircraft, and the anticipated influx of tourist dollars. Bohol, it seemed, wouldn’t be a languid island getaway forever.

An hour later, Bebot eased the car from crawl to creep, and Veronica announced that we’d reached Loboc, home of the tarsiers. These palm-size creatures are one of the world’s smallest primates, and, due to hunting and habitat loss elsewhere, Bohol is the only place in the Philippines where they survive. A flabby, bored-looking teenager balanced on a stool at the entrance to a netted pen no bigger than a large market stall, squeezing tourists for pesos before allowing them to pass. Inside, half a dozen scruffy-looking tarsiers receded into the far corners as a group of Japanese sightseers stalked them with zoom lenses. When I asked Veronica if there wasn’t a better place to see the animals, she was blunt. “This place is better,” she said, pushing me forward. “You can get close.” As if on cue, the gatekeeper emerged with a tarsier and deposited it on a branch near my face. I’d swear I saw the little thing sigh before it scampered back to a more secluded perch. I told Veronica I’d seen enough.

Bebot inched us another hour inland to the town of Carmen and the Chocolate Hills, where a blazing white flight of stairs led straight up to an observation platform. From this vantage, the denuded brown mounds looked like some bizarre geological rash breaking out on an otherwise verdant plain. It was an arresting sight, but no more so than the spectacle on a terrace below us. There, a billboard-size photograph of the Chocolate Hills on a sunny day had been erected, a courtesy for sightseers who happened to visit when it was misty. On this overcast afternoon, a gaggle of smiling Filipinos was snapping group photos in front of it.

A youngster loitering nearby told me that Boholanos believe the hills are the calcified tears shed by a giant named Arrogo after he lost his lover. Later, when I found out that the hills didn’t assume their haycock-like appearance until the early 1900s (when they were cleared of forest) and that this supposedly ancient myth was hokum, I felt a little cheated. It was a similar sensation to the one I’d had at the tarsier pen in Loboc. In the rush to cultivate tourism, Boholanos seemed perhaps a bit too eager to please. It’s hard to blame them—they simply want a share of the tourist revenue that much of the Philippines have been feasting on for years. But it’s especially sad to see places like the Loboc tarsier lockup flourishing when just down the road, the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary, a scientific research station I visited a few days later, offers a secluded spot to see the animals in their natural environment. Sitting quietly in the forest, watching tarsiers forage high above in the canopy, is just the sort of authentic experience that will both preserve the island’s resources and keep travelers returning.

And Bohol isn’t lacking for authenticity—you just have to tune out the static. As I stood looking out over the eerie landscape of the Chocolate Hills, an approaching squall swirled down over the countryside in slate-gray curtains of rain. The darkening mounds seemed to hover in the mist like ghosts. Then, one by one, they faded into the storm.

You may not always get what you expect on an unscripted trip, but this can also lead to unforeseen rewards, like the invitation you accept from a stranger, who becomes a lifelong friend, or that impulse to hop on a random bus, which takes you to some hidden paradise. At least that’s what I told myself as I reached for the spiny sea urchin the fisherman was urging me to pick up.

From the window of my cliff-top room at the Amorita, a polished seaside resort on Panglao Island, I hadn’t been able to make out what the people rummaging on the beach below were doing, so I clambered down for a closer look. As I arrived, the aforementioned fisherman, who had just waded in from his two-meter-long banca outrigger, upended a sack, sending hundreds of urchins clattering onto the rocks. He offered me one. My scuba experience told me to recoil from these living landmines, but I took it anyway—in the name of good manners.

Though I expected it to hurt, the urchin simply rolled around in my palm, its spines twitching harmlessly against my skin. And then came the payoff: with a grin, the fisherman split the creature in half with a whack of his machete, and showed me how to scoop out the coral-colored roe with my thumbnail for a mid-afternoon snack. He and his family were harvesting the eggs to sell at market. Back home, I’d pay more than they would make in a day for a tidbit of urchin this fresh. And yet here he was, plying me with heaps of the delicacy—and cutting into his own profits.

“Filipinos are generally friendly and giving,” dive master Rommel Ortiz had told me earlier in the day as our boat skimmed across an azure sea. “But Boholanos are the most generous people in the country.” It seemed to be catching. Ortiz, who moved from Manila to manage the Amorita’s dive shop, had originally planned to spend the day with friends from out of town. Instead, he offered to show me around the reefs at Balicasag Island, an hour’s cruise southwest of Bohol. “Everyone comes to the Philippines to dive Palawan’s Tubbataha or sit on the beach in Boracay. But few people know how good our waters are here,” he told me. “Balicasag is like Bohol—it’s a bit of a hidden treasure.”

We brought three tanks apiece, and used up the first two finning over a sloping reef shelf called the Black Forest, where clouds of pinky-size fish shimmered like underwater pyrotechnics, gold and indigo and vermillion bursts against a backdrop of onyx coral plumes. We went toe to flipper with a green sea turtle, who glided alongside us for the better part of half an hour. Even the marine life is outgoing, I marveled.

At the Sanctuary, our third dive site, a plummeting wall coaxed us deeper with lobster-infested overhangs and corals that draped like candle wax over shadowy crenellations. All day I had lamented to Rommel that we hadn’t seen Balicasag’s famed schools of big fish. Then, at 30 meters, we spied a throng of amberjack well below. “Too deep!” Rommel wrote with a grease pencil on his underwater tablet. Then, seeming to reconsider, he flipped upside down and kicked hard. I knew the huge effort and risks he was taking by going deeper so late in the day, but he clearly wanted to deliver for me. And sure enough, he looped below the school and startled it upward, herding the fish like a marine drover. A flurry of meter-plus jacks suddenly engulfed me, glinting like scimitars in the gloom of the deep sea. Rommel was there, too, looking tired but satisfied in the aqueous light.

We ate lunch on a near-empty beach, where a few vendors grilled fish, sipped Tanduay rum, and bantered in Tagalog as they slapped playing cards on a driftwood table. The game was heated, and the gang cackled incessantly. I polished off a whole black snapper then stretched out in the shade of a palm for a nap. Feeling pleased to have seen some of Bohol’s sunken treasures, I drifted off to the sound of laughter muted by the rumbling surf.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above, from left: Jungle greenery; a crab fisherman on his raft; local transportation; a Loboc tarsier.

Like the rum-addled gamblers on the beach, Boholanos know how to party. Every town on the island celebrates an annual fiesta, a Catholic holdover that ostensibly honors the community’s patron saint with days of halted business and wholesale feasting. Each household is expected to prepare food for anyone who stops by, and old friends journey all over the island to eat together and catch up. “At that time of year, depending on what fiesta day it is, all roads on the island lead to that town,” Marianito had told me back at the Dauis Convento. “Even if you don’t know anyone in a town, if you go there on fiesta, your food will be provided.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above, from left: Catch of the day; rice fields near Sikatuna; steamed rice in banana leaves; marsh crabs for sale.

My final day in Bohol fell on fiesta day in the village of Sikatuna, and Bebot insisted that we attend. I was thrilled, but asked if we could first take a spin to a few of the rural spots we hadn’t yet seen. Normally as chatty as a cadaver, Bebot was atwitter with the prospect of the fiesta. “They are slaughtering a 120-kilo pig today,” he said. “I have a 130-kilo pig. It will be very nice for the fiesta in Loboc later this month. Maybe you can come then, too?” Before I could respond, his phone, which had a rooster for a ringtone, began crowing maniacally. His friends in Sikatuna were calling to let us know that they were waiting. It was 11 a.m., and we weren’t expected until three. Rather than suffer four more hours of tinny electronic cock-a-doodle-doos, I told Bebot to head for Sikatuna. He left rubber on the road as he circled back; I had never seen him drive so fast.

It sounded like a brilliant plan to wander around a new town and fill up on delicacies, but I hadn’t considered that awkward moment when you have to barge into the house of a perfect stranger and ask for a plate. Outside the home of Eduardo Baboy Capiz, a well-known bureaucrat, I must have faltered with this thought because the giant man suddenly strolled out to meet me, slapping my back like an old friend and steering me inside to a table sagging with food. There was a blood stew called dinuguan, cured pork tocino, plates piled with steamed yams and taro leaves, and lechon, a spit-roasted suckling pig. When I finally sat down, trying to duck inconspicuously behind my pile of food, Capiz walked over and poured me a highball of tuba, the local coconut wine. He sat and talked to me like an uncle about politics and travel, and it felt like he was genuinely happy I’d come. Perhaps that was just the tuba.

An hour later, Bebot, who clearly hadn’t been shy with the coconut wine, materialized and said it was time to go. I was relieved. I’d been having a fine time, but Capiz’s wife had kept replenishing my plate, and I was full to the point of eruption. Back in the car, however, Bebot told me we were just getting started.

It’s one thing to accept a free meal from a well-to-do public servant; it’s another to do so from a struggling driver. And yet at our next stop that afternoon, Eddy “No Fingers” Banghal, an old friend of Bebot’s who earned his nickname after a childhood accident severed his digits, ushered us into his small, dark nipa-palm shack as if we were part of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s entourage. There was a feast to equal the one we’d just left at Capiz’s home, and Eddy’s wife, Catalina, seemed to melt when Bebot and I hummed our satisfaction with her cooking. Long after I forget Bohol’s beaches and the tarsiers, the amberjack and the Chocolate Hills, I will still remember the Banghals’ warm smiles.

Eddy poured up a tumbler of Tanduay and raised a toast: “To the American, who journeyed so far to eat in our humble home.” We passed it around the table and everyone took long draws. And I suddenly wanted to raise my own toast to Boholanos —if only more of the world’s homes were this humble. Then Eddy sloshed out another round of rum.

THE DETAILS:
Bohol Island

Getting There

It’s a two-hour flight from Manila to Bohol on either Philippine Airlines (philippineairlines.com) or budget carrier Cebu Pacific (cebupacificair.com). Alternatively, skip the layover in the capital and instead  fly to Cebu City, from where it’s a brief onward flight to Bohol’s Tagbilaran Airport or a 90-minute journey by fast ferry. From Singapore, Silk Air (silkair.com) flies daily to Cebu; Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) does the same from Hong Kong. Ferry operators Weesam Express (weesamexpress.com) and Ocean Jet (oceanjet.net)  offer several daily sailings between Cebu and Bohol.

When to Go

Bohol’s coolest weather lasts from November to February, though the climate is relatively mild year-round. To view the Chocolate Hills at their brownest, aim for April or May, toward the end of the dry season.

Where to Stay

Perched on a rocky headland above Alona Beach, Amorita Resort (Easter A. Lim Drive, Tawala; 63-38/502-9001; doubles from US$142) is Bohol’s most attractive retreat. Book one of the six ocean-view villas, which come with outdoor rain showers and soaking tubs overlooking the sea.

Where to Eat

At the north end of Panglao is Bohol’s top table, the Dauis Pilgrim-Heritage Center (Poblacion, Dauis; 63-38/502-3016). Set in the restored Dauis Convento, it serves gussied-up  renditions of authentic Boholano recipes, such as a divine stewed pork called humba. Come for dinner, book a table under the hulking acacia tree in the courtyard, and watch the twinkling lights of fishing boats as they head out for the night. Inside, there’s a selection of tasteful handicrafts and antiques. –AG

Originally appeared in the February/March 2010 print issue of DestinAsian magazine ( “Making Time for Atauro”)



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