Much has been written about Bohol. Home of the Chocolate Hills; nest of River Loboc; sanctuary of the tarsier, the world’s smallest primate; and the place where pristine wonders dwell. Yet, Bohol, being called “Cave Country,” offers not just the challenge to explore the pathways beneath the rocks but also teases one to search for what is also hidden behind curved rivers, thick mangrove forests, and treacherous terrain.
The road out of Tagbilaran
The City of Tagbilaran remains the center of activity and politics in the province of Bohol, in Central Visayas in the Philippines. Tagbilaran is also the gateway for tourists before an encounter with the scenic spots and the unspoiled beauty of the island. The usual modes of transportation around the mainland are buses, taxis, the humble jeepneys, and the omnipresent habal-habal, an expanded tricycle that can accommodate up to eight passengers (Just look for the small vehicles with scripture writing written on the back).
But to really experience Bohol, one must get a hired van (seating a maximum of 11 passengers) that can take you on an exciting tour of the countryside. For as low as Php3,500 (approximately USD80), a whole group can be taken around the best tourist spots in the island, including the Chocolate Hills, Baclayon Church, Loboc River, and the Tarsier sanctuary, among others. In Bohol, the list truly is endless!
As our vehicle traversed through cozy establishments and quaint homes until there was the frequent sight of free-growing trees and shrubs on the road-side, our guide, Restie Pinat, promised to show us “Bohol like we’ve never seen it before.”
Oyster bar on the riverbanks
Eighty-three kilometres and an hour-and-a-half drive away from the capital city is the town of Buenavista. The town, it is said, is named such because the Spaniards marveled at the “good view” they had once discovered there. Centuries later, we are welcomed by warm smiles, greetings of joy, and oyster-shell necklaces from the locals of Cambuhat, which boasts a river and village tour to rival the immortal gondola rides of Venice.
Our group was treated to a 20-minute boat ride downstream of the Cambuhat River, where men of the village would paddle along the calm waters while sharing a story or two about the communal efforts of the townsfolk to promote their trade, a unity that echoes in the rich cultivation of shellfish and the preservation of age-old crafts utilizing local produce. Every nook and bend previews a rich array of mangroves and nipa palm growing along the banks, along with floating rafts teeming with oysters.
Our very own tour ended with an introduction to the science of oyster culture, from the beginnings of oyster cultivation to its maturation and collection weeks after. It was the perfect appetizer to the luncheon of seafood waiting for us atop the unpretentious steps of the town’s large dining hut, where we were served a selection of choice crayfish, crabs, fish and, of course, oysters.
Besides oysters, the women of Cambuhat pride themselves for the production of handiwork and ingredients from a local tree called buri. Buri is a palm native to the Philippines, with trunks and leaves similar to the equally useful Raffia. From its trunk, one can get young, starchy wood that will be dried for days and pounded ceremoniously to produce an edible white buri powder for addition to native dishes and sweets. I was treated to landang, a dish of cooked rice, coconut milk, tapioca, and buri powder. It’s best to enjoy the delicacy as a dessert after a hearty meal, and while it’s still hot.
A short walk from the hall is the small village where the local workmen and craftswomen reside. In many of these houses are long, old looms dedicated to the making of buri cloth. Fiber from the stems and leaves of the plants are collected, dried, and spun into spools to make a 10-meter rolls of cloth, which each take a learned weaver a week to finish. The dedication and patience that goes along with this art emanates from all the products made from the cloth such as hats, table-runners, wallets, and many more. A roll of buri can be brought home for just Php300 (USD7), while an exclusively-Filipino hat or table-mat is available for as low as Php86 (USD2).
A retreat across land, water, and air
Our next stop took us to a municipality atop the mountains known as Danao. Located 92 kilometers from Tagbilaran, it took us less than an hour to reach the town from Buenavista, a short wait to the great adventure out there.
Danao’s main attraction, source of funds, and haven of jobs is E.A.T. Danao, an “Extreme/Eco/Educational Adventure Tour Park” set into the mountain ranges and cliffs surrounding the Wahig River. According to Jerome Labra, Municipal Tourism Officer and General Manager of the Park, the municipality was among the poorest towns in Bohol, with livelihood centered on growing crops and chopping wood. Only in the emergence of this tourist gem in 2008 did the town become self-sufficient, with Php5 million (USD115,000) dedicated solely to a concrete social services program every year.
The park is a site to behold, with its free-flowing bodies of water, majestic mountain ranges, and tall, deeply rooted trees that now form the foundation and allure of the attraction’s numerous activities. Some of the popular activities here are kayaking, tubing, and trekking along the length of the healthy river. One can also choose to rappel 60 meters down the smooth mountainside or climb moderate, hard, or extreme up a 15-meter rock wall.
The highlight of any visit to Danao are what I call the “cable attractions,” a set of three rides that involve imported cables from France, a subtle hint of ingenuity, and a 480-meter distance between two cliffs. In an experience that will treat you to the 200-meter deep wonder of the mountainside, Sky Ride is a 10-minute cable ride between two of Danao’s peaks, while Suislide is an enjoyable-yetpractically- suicidal 45-second inclined zipline atop the sprawling trees and the rushing river. The ultimate, not-for-the-fainthearted activity remains to be the Plunge, the Philippines’ first and only Canyon Swing, rivaling that of New Zealand’s Queenstown.
Hanging with my head up (you can also opt to hang feet up), I awaited the iconic “1…2…3…Bombs away!” before the pin was released and I felt that exhilarating moment of free-fall–two seconds of weightlessness and the wind just passing right through my body. Soon, I was left to dangle across the half kilometer distance between the ranges, down a 70-meter cable, enjoying the sights and the sounds of nature around my own, personal void of consciousness, ready to be hoisted up and have another try of the immaculate experience.
When asked about the safety of Danao’s rides, Neil Villanueva, the brains behind the insane attractions, said that “Engineering is about strength and economy.” Adhering to international safety standards, his team decided to “over-engineer” most of the activities rather than risk the safety of the participants, with a well-defined budget still in mind. The Plunge, according to him, has a working capacity of five tons.
Tony delos Reyes, Neil’s business partner, also revealed the future installation of an airstrip in the park with the addition of new activities such as ultralight and paragliding. “We’ve set the launch for July 2011,” he says, hoping that the new attractions will bring in a new set of adventure-seeking tourists, much to the delight of the townspeople of Danao.
At Danao, you can get your Degree in Fear Managament with the Plunge for Php700 (USD16), enjoy the Suislide for Php350 (USD8), and take the Sky Ride for just Php250 (USD6).
Dagohoy and his legacy of bravery
In a nearby organic farm managed by the Gonzagas of Danao, efforts are being made to uplift the town’s image from a poverty-stricken town to a hardworking community determined and inspired by its rich history, perhaps rooted in the ideals of Francisco Dagohoy.
Bohol has around 1,400 caves scattered throughout the island–many of them left undiscovered, especially in the mountains of Danao. From within those caves, Francisco “Dagohoy” Sendrijas, the hero of Bohol, led an 85-year revolt against the Spaniards, with most of his followers refusing to surrender even after his death, the details of which are still unknown. To this day, bones of Dagohoy’s people remain undisturbed in the wet caves beneath the active villages, serving as an inspiration to the Boholanos to be brave and unyielding.
We braved ourselves, then, to explore Kamaria Cave, a formation-rich tunnel which could have easily been used by Dagohoy to evade the Spaniards who had been trying to catch him over a century ago. Getting in was no easy task, but ropes, rock protrusions, tree roots and our ever-helpful guides made it an active but enjoyable experience. Once inside, we feasted on the beauty of sparkling stalactites and stalagmites, representative of centuries of flowing water and minerals. With the occasional submerge and climb atop rocky terrain, I see a brave hero struggling to fight for a voice within the cave: a voice of hope to preserve a rich jewel of nature and a vast history that echoes through the walls of distant caves.
The leader of the band
Soon, we found ourselves leaving Danao and heading for a last-minute trip to the municipality of Loon (pronounced “lo-on”). Loon is a seaside town located 45-minutes outside Tagbilaran. Home to a lush mangrove preserve, the town has collaborated with government units and people’s organizations to create a sanctuary not only for the mangroves and the river, but also for a band of macaque monkeys that thrive in the crab-rich ecosystem in the shores.
A 21-member band of monkeys has been trained by the folk to be in communion with visitors. Every 30 minutes, the caretakers bring 15 male and six female monkeys fruit chops to nibble on as visitors enjoy the sight of a full-grown band of animals trying to get the food-giver’s attention. At the lead is their alpha-male, a large monkey that needs to be stuffed first before the rest of the band can enjoy their share of the meal. The tour is perfect as an up-close animal-watching opportunity.
“The habitat caters mostly to educational tour groups and nature-lovers,” says Loon Mayor Lloyd Peter Lopez. With the ongoing development of an international port in the area, as well as the addition of river and diving activities in the municipality, he sees an increase of tourist interest in the region, with the mangrove and macaque monkeys at the forefront.
The inevitable pasalubong
Bag in tow, I searched for something to bring home from the fruitful trip. Pasalubong (takehome gifts and goodies), after all, is a common Filipino tradition for travelers. Stuffed in my backpack was the oyster-shell necklace, a tour
package from the Tourism Office, and a number of calling cards. I then found a pack of Peanut Kisses, a local specialty, being sold for Php200 (USD5).
Munching on the sweet and nutty delicacy, I thought to myself if out there are more of Bohol’s hidden wonders, unknown even to the locals. While many think that two days in the province would be enough to explore what Bohol has to offer, think again. For me, the glimpse was just a tantalizing preview and really wasn’t enough.