Bohol

Bohol is the 10th largest island of the Philippines. It has become extremely popular among local and foreign tourists for its Chocolate Hills, the tiny Tarsier monkeys (smallest apes in the world) and the infamous Alona Beach in Panglao Island.  However, Bohol is big enough to keep you busy for weeks, and if you venture a little, you will discover plenty to do away from the masses while enjoying its beautiful nature.

Scuba diving and snorkelling in Bohol

If you are looking for an off the beaten path experience, you should stay as far away from Panglao Island, and especially Alona Beach, as possible.  There is one reason, however, for which this should be a place to include in your itinerary.  Balicasag Island is perhaps one of the best places to dive or snorkel with turtles in the Philippines.  Some say it is like Apo Island (off the coast of Dumaguete) on steroids.  Only 150 divers are allowed to dive in Balicasag every day, and it does fill up, so do plan and book in advance.  If you don’t get a spot to dive Balicasag, you can find a number of great dive sites around Cabilao Island, Anda and of course Panglao Island.  Pata Negra Divers could be one of the best dive centres in the area.  Tucked away in a back street close enough to Alona Beach and far enough to keep it out of the hustle and bustle.  The staff is very professional, friendly and they go the extra mile to ensure your experience is one you won’t forget.

Nature in Bohol

Bohol is majorly known for the Tarsiers and the Chocolate hills which can be seen in a day trip during which one can also see the man made forrest.  But Bohol has much more to offer.  White sand beaches, cave pools and waterfalls are some of the many sights one can see in this gorgeous island.  Anda is slowly becoming more and more popular, but it is safe to say it is still a place to get away from the crowds and enjoy its beautiful beaches, cave pools and diving. Another popular tourist destination to enjoy nature is the town of Loboc.  Here, one can go on a river cruise or visit Loboc Church which was badly damaged, along with Baclayon Church, by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in 2013. However, if you are looking for a different and interesting way to see Loboc River and get a bit of exercise too, try your hand at Stand-Up Paddle.

Where to stay in Bohol

Depending on your budget, there many lodging options to choose from. Best value for money would probably be Bohol Sea Resort which is beachfront and offers decent sized air conditioned and / or fan cooled room with cable TV, Internet, hot & cold shower, and a really comfortable bed. The resort is located 15 minutes’ walk from Alona Beach where all the bars and restaurants are.

Where to eat in Bohol

There are a few go to places in Panglao for good food. Enjoy the vegetarian dishes offered at Bohol Bee Farm and to round off your visit, book a massage with them with views of the sea. Shaka Bohol offers breakfast bowls and shakes and this branch in particular also offers heftier meals if you are really hungry. There is a “carinderia” that serves well-priced and tasty Filipino food and it can be found along the road that leads to Pata Negra Dive Center and Eco Hotels.If you are craving Italian pasta dishes and / or pizza then head to Oca Golosa.

A plus for motorbike riders is the fact that most roads are well paved and going around Bohol is eaiser on two wheels when it gets congested. Not only that, you get to explore places on the island that not a lot of visitors get to see and since it’s a rather large island, there is enough road to travel. One road worth the mention are the twisties through the man-made forest that takes you to both the Tarsier Sanctuary as well as Chocolate Hills in about an hour and a half or the beautiful coastal road from Panglao or Tagbilaran (2-3 hours). they are not only picture perfect spots but very enjoyable rides as well.

Geting to and from Bohol

If you are not flying and are travelling by road, Bohol is well connected to its neighbouring islands.  From the port of Tagbilaran, you can get to Siquijor, Cebu and Dumaguete.  Fastcat operates the Cebu – Tubigon line and you can also go to Camiguin from the port of Jagna or Bato, in Southern Leyte from the port of Ubay.

Check out our map of the different roro ports in the Philippines.

Ati-Atihan

The Ati-Atihan Festival in Kalibo, Aklan on the island of Panay is, according to many, the “Mother of all Festivals in the Philippines” honouring the Santo Niño in the Visayas Region. Held annually in the first month of the year, like the Sinulog in Cebu and Dinagyang in Iloilo, it ends on the third Sunday with lots of celebrations in the form of eating, drinking, parades with street dancing in colourful costumes and / or painted faces to the beat of the drums all day and a good part of the night. The name Ati-Atihan means “to be like Atis”, the name of the Aeta natives (a Negrito ethnic group) who first settled in Panay and other parts of the country.

One story of the festival’s origin dates to 1200 A.D when ten Malay chieftains (Datus) were granted settlement by the Ati people and to honour their darker-skinned compatriots the Datus smeared their faces with soot to resemble them. The other story starts with the chief minister of one of the Datu’s forging a deal with the natives and buying their land in exchange for brass, cloth and jewellery. The Ati’s then moved up to the mountains. However, they were forced to return to the lowlands after a very bad harvest. In exchange for food and being allowed to stay they danced and sang for the Datus. Same elements but two very different stories.  The religious element came in many years later when the Spanish missionaries arrived and introduced Christianity and to this day Ati-Atihan is celebrated as a religious festival.

Sunday merrymaking kicks-off with a mass at 7.00am and right after, the first sadsad panaad starts, a street dancing competition between the Ati tribes only while other revellers get to stay around to enjoy the dancing and bright native costumes on parade. The festivities restart in the mid-afternoon with another sadsad open for everyone and anyone to join. Ati-Atihan has been nicknamed, “The Filipino Mardi Gras” and can also be described among other commonly heard words like fun, crazy, wild, and colourful as well as informal, disorganized and all-inclusive.  This peculiar characteristic is probably what makes it so attractive in the first place. It is also quite normal to be approached by strangers offering you alcohol. Regardless of the ammounts of alcohol involved (most locals will say that it is the one time when everyone can drink in excess, in public, without being frowned upon), it is really worth saying that there were mostly positive vibes and no fighting.

Finding accommodations during the week-long celebrations itself could be an absolute nightmare as hotels, hostels, inns and pensions are all booked months in advance. If you find yourself planning last minute, ask local friends from Kalibo to help you ask around as their neighbours, relatives or friends might be renting out spare rooms during those days. You might also like Roz and Angelique’s Inn & Suites, Marzon Hotel, Papierus Pensionne, or Ati-Atihan Festival Hotel. Most places take advantage of the influx of local and foreign guests though by publishing higher rates so one way to avoid this by booking ahead of time.

Since getting around can be quite difficult during the festivities you must try to plan meal times as well and check out restaurants some distance from the plaza where everyone congregates (in the case you don’t end up eating at a local resident’s home). Otherwise if you don’t mind eating at fast food places which will be overflowing with people looking for a quick bite. It’s quite easy to eat something “light” on the streets as there are tons of corn, peanuts, and refreshment vendors either walking about or with stands. Some offer delicacies like deep fried cow intestines.

It is apparent that more than a few things have been modernized through the year like the choice of playing pop music or dressing up the Sto. Niño in different costumes. It also begs asking: When did the practice of carrying statues of baby Jesus while drinking or being drunk begin? Has it always been like that? On the flip side, there is something uniquely Filipino that is ever present even during Ati-Atihan – it is the hospitality and openness of the people (in this case the Aklanons) which is most specially felt when a complete stranger can be invited to their homes to partake of food and drinks. It doesn’t really matter that they just met you in the streets that very day. It can also be said, how amazing it is, that a feast which is at least 800 years old is still celebrated this way today. At the end of the day, each person’s experience is unique and therefore you decide what takeaways you have from Ati-Atihan.

Hala Bira! Viva kay Señor Sto. Niño!

Moalboal

Moalboal a small but lively coastal resort, popular among travelers in the Philippines.  It’s located around 90 kilometers from Cebu City. It has a lot to offer, from a coastline lined with  bars and restaurants where you can have a drink or two while watching the sunset, and gaze over the azure waters in front of you and at the distant hills of Negros to a number of trecks and adventure activities in the nearby Kawasan Falls. Directly offshore is a stupendous coral wall, which you can either snorkel and/ or scuba dive, and immediately greets you with outstanding marine life — including Moalboal’s world-renowned sardine run. The area where all the tourist resorts are found is called Panagasama Beach and the actual town of Moalboal is located a few kilometers away along the highway.

Moalboal is best known among tourists as a scuba diving and snorkeling destination and as well as the famous sardines in the house reef, one can dive at the nearby Pescador Island, which is home to some great dive sites full of tropical life.

Away from diving there are other attractions such as Kawasan Falls in the Barangay of Matutinao in the municipality of Badian. Depending on your pace, it is an easy and quite pleasant 15 to 30 minutes walk from the national road. Along the way, you will want to stop and  jump into river as the water is so clear that you can see all the way to the rocks sitting calmly in the bottom. Sometimes, the rocks take on a blue shade which in turn gives the water this nice tint. The waterfalls are three-tiered, and as with most fresh water sources, one must expect to jump into cool and very refreshing water. The longer and more physically demanding route to get to Kawasan is from Canlaob, Alegria. Sign-up to go Canyoneering. Enjoy while you travel downstream jumping from heights (some are optional while others are not), rock scrambling, swimming (you will be provided with life jackets) and hiking. Again depending on your pace, the tour can take between 3 to 6 hours.

After a long and tiring day of activities it always helps to have a clean and comfortable room to return to with a hot shower to boot! Moalboal has plenty of options for accommodations, to fit different budgets and preferences, and most of them can be found in or around Panagasama Beach. If you are looking for a place that might have all you need, under one roof: a restaurant, swimming pool, rooms, beach and a dive/ snorkeling center check out Quo Vadis.

The 96 km that separate Cebu from Moalboal, are a fun ride, especially once you get away from the city, and pass Carcar.  Real fun starts on the Santander-Barili-Toledo Road with some uphill and downhill slopes, twisting roads and a beautiful coastal road leading up to Moalboal. From Moalboal, you can also enjoy an even better ride going to Santander (where you can board a roro ferry to Siquijor or Dumaguete) as you have the killer views minus the traffic from beginning to end.

Siargao

Siargao is a tear-drop shaped island in the Philippine Sea and is part of Surigao del Norte and the Mindanao group of islands. It’s known for surfing and for the beautiful white sand (smaller) islands that surround it. Siargao ,although a less well known fact, boasts the largest mangrove forest reserves in Mindanao and is home to some 3,000 Indo-Pacific saltwater crocodiles. Don’t let its size fool you either, it will take a good part of your day ride around the island and you will need more time than you may think to see everything.

Surfing is probably the top reason why people go to Siargao and surfers of every skill level have plenty of spots to choose from. There are those who say there is surfing all year round, however, the more experienced surfers and local residents will agree that from March to August it is more or less flat and that the real period to surf falls between September to March, with the peak falling on the months of November and December.  Some international surfing competitions are held in Cloud 9 during this time. There are a number of different surf spots around the island, some of which are accessible from the shore and others by bangka.

Cloud 9, the most popular break on the island has a coral bottom and powerful waves and most ideally surfed a couple of hours after the tide has started to rise. This spot is best for advance level surfers and should be avoided by beginners, who can surf in Quicksilver, which is a stones throw away from Cloud 9.

Another spot for the highly skilled is Pacifico located in the northern part of the island and away from the crowds of General Luna, here the waves can get big and crazy but also a lot less crowded than Cloud 9.

Worth a mention, are the offshore breaks of Daku Reef and Cemetery, for beginners and experts, which are accessible only by bangka. The bangka ride costs about Php 250 per person.

Some other activities that can be enjoyed while in Siargao inlcude:
Island hopping to Daku, Naked and Guyam Islands. A less well known option is Mam-on Island, located a bit further out but this means less crowds while having full access to a beatiful beach.

The clear waters of Magpupungko Tidal Pools in Pilar, are another favourite among visitors, and is best during low tide.

A quick ride from General Luna brings you to Del Carmen where boats go to Sugba Lagoon.  The 30-minute ride takes you through mangroves which are the home to saltwater crocodiles but once past this the sea color changes from brown to aquamarine. Entering a natural enclosure of jagged rocks, the lagoon has a floating structure which houses a restaurant, SUP and kayak rental and plank to jump off from.

Food is another thing that Siargao has a good handle on. The small island is filled with restaurants that can cater to anyone’s palette. Vegetarians and vegans will also be happy as some places give this option for their dishes. Bravo, is a resort with a very good restaurant offering some tradional Spanish dishes such as Albondigas (Meatballs), Tortilla de Patata, Boquerones and more. Kermit serves some pretty mean authentic wood-oven baked pizzas, really good pasta and some amazingly tasty desserts. Another place serving authentic Italian food is La Carinderia which can be found along the main road across from Mama’s Grill. Healthy shakes and breakfast options are available in Shaka Siargao  located across the street from the entrance to Cloud 9. A little distance from the other restaurants is CFC which serves big sized burritos and australian beef hamburgers.

Hotels occupy most of the prime properties along the beach. There are more than a few to choose from and depending on your budget and preference. Seaside properties usually mean higher rates as well, resorts along the coast are Bravo, Isla Cabana, Arka Hayahay, Siargao Bleu, Romantic Beach Villas to name a few. Kawayan and Kermit are also good options for places to stay although not along the beach. For the budget conscious Paglaom Hostel offers very clean accommodations and the opportunity to make new friends. Pacifico Beach Resort in Pilar, which has it’s own surf spot right in front, is the perfect hideaway from the noise and crowds.  If money is not an issue, then Dedon is a little slice of paradise and exclusivity.

Siargao used to have a super laid back and backpacker feel to it with unpaved roads. Now, with paved roads, exploring areas outside of  the very busy General Luna, one can stil find peace and quiet among towering coconut trees along the shore of virgin beaches.

At the time of writing, Loose Keys Moto Culture were about to open their shop, right next to La Carinderia.  Check them out if you want to grab a bite, a drink, or if you need a surfboard or even get new items for your wardrobe.  Did we say they have a really nice fleet of small motorcycles built by the guys from 3B Customs in Surigao City???

Southern Leyte : Padre Burgos

The Philippines has over 7000 islands. The most popular ones being Palawan, Boracay, Bohol, Siquijor and Siargao. If you are planning your trip to the Philippines, chances are, most of your destinations are in some of the islands mentioned. On the other hand, the islands of Samar and Leyte (excluding western Mindanao), are among the less traveled in the country. Leyte still shows the damage caused by typhoon Hayan (Yolanda) in places like Tacloban and the East coast.  Having visited almost all the islands in the country, Leyte deserves a lot more attention than it gets.  Padre Burgos, in southern Leyte, is not only a great place for scuba diving but also an ideal place to learn about and swim with whale sharks in a non intrusive, eco friendly way. There is more than enough information on the internet to know why you should not go to Oslob to swim with whale sharks. Going there and paying to swim with these beautiful creatures is highly discouraged, among other reasons, because the fish are fed, touched and abused by the thousands of tourists that jump in the water with them every month (about 1000 per day). The interaction with these animals in southern Leyte is, on the other hand, conducted by scientists volunteering for Lamave, the largest independent non-stock, non- government organization dedicated to the conservation of marine megafauna and the marine environment in the Philippines. Their volunteers will not only guide you through the interaction but will also answer all the questions you may have about whale sharks and what they have learned through years of study, research and observation.

A ride through the less densely populated Southern Leyte is an amazing way to appreciate and admire the islands nature.  The scenery is stunning — with beautiful coastal roads that run through Burgos, Sogod, Liloan, San Ricardo, Bato and Maasin, and twisting roads that cross the mountainous areas as well as the breathtaking views from Agas-Agas bridge (the tallest in the Philippines).  If you like winding roads and an easy joy ride with very little traffic, then Leyte is one of those places to put on your list.

Sogod Bay Scuba Resort is a nice, clean and cozy resort, the staff is extremely helpful and friendly, the beach front is clean and beautiful with crushed corals and the food is simple but very tasty. Don’t forget to try their homemade apple pie! They also organize scuba diving to the best dive sites in the area as well as tours to swim with the whale sharks. Remember the whale shark season goes from December to May.

Padre Burgos is easily accessible by road. It takes around 3 and a half hours from Tacloban.  It is also close to the ports of Bato, to and from which you can travel between Cebu or Ubay (Bohol), the port of Maasin, the port of Liloan, from which you can take the Fastcat ferry to Lipata (Surigao City), and the port of San Ricardo, from which you can take the Montenegro Shipping Lines ferry to the Macapagal terminal, also in Surigao City.

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