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Trying to contain my emotions

I didn’t want to make the trip, almost succeeded in avoiding it, which I would have regretted! There were a lot of challenges coordinating the trip and I was milking all the reasons not to go. I mean who looks forward to business trips where you go to interesting places, don’t get to do anything but work all day long, and by the time you are ready to do a bit of exploring, you are either too tired or there is nothing left to see except the familiar night life, if you are lucky enough to be in a major city! Plus, I really hate traveling while nursing a hang over from the previous night’s partying. There just aren’t enough barf bags!

The main problem is the distance of the destination. Isabela is about 460 kilometer (285 miles) away from Manila and I have to go there by land since I also have a stop over in one of the provinces along the way. I really can’t stand long land trips, especially when I am not the one behind the wheel. But work pays the bills, and I have lots of bills, so I have to endure the uncomfortable ride to Isabela.

Isabela is primarily an agricultural province. Located in the Cagayan Valley, it is one of the richest provinces in the Philippines and dubbed as the rice and corn granary of the country. It’s fertile rolling hills and plains, bordered by the Cordillera and the Sierra Madre mountain ranges, make it a vision out of a postcard!

But what excited me the most about the trip was the prospect of making a side trip to the Banaue Rice Terraces. I had a look at the map and found that it is only about two hours away from where I was staying. Quickly, I researched on how to get there using public transport just in case my companions didn’t buy the idea of a side trip.

Meanwhile, short of making a PowerPoint presentation to convince my companions to do the side trip, I planned in my tree house cottage of Villa Diana. Knowing that some of the people in the group were first-timers in the Philippines and had some sense of adventure gave me entry points to exploit.

My Tree House in Villa Diana

Armed with my arguments, I came down to dinner with the group only to realize that the conversation was about how close we were to the famous landmark. Perfect! I didn’t even have to open my mouth because the decision to do the side trip on our way back to Manila the following day, was made quickly. My inner travel diva was jumping for joy and swinging from the branches of the tree house!

We left Villa Diana at eight in the morning and hit the road to Banaue. By about 10 AM our van started negotiating the zig-zagging road leading to the viewpoint. It took us another 30 minutes before the majestic structure came into view and directions pointed us to the best vantage point.

It was truly a majestic site! A living example of a symbiotic relationship between humans and nature, the terraces were carved by ancestors of indigenous Filipino people dating more than 2000 years ago, using minimal equipment and harnessing the power of their natural environment. The terraces were built on the sides of the mountains for the indigenous people to plant crops and tap the water source from rain-forests on top of the mountains for irrigation. I couldn’t help but marvel at the ingenuity, architecture and engineering of the structure that resembles the pyramids of Machu Pichu.

Banaue Rice Terraces @ the View Point

We had lunch in one of the local hotels. Their restaurant was right in front of the rice terraces and I was told that their deluxe rooms also open to this majestic view. I could just imagine waking up in the morning to this glorious site and I was almost tempted not to leave.

The Banaue Rice Terraces have peaks reaching as high as 1500 meters above sea level and are considered as the 8th Wonder of the World. They have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1995. There are several hiking sites, which can take you for a closer interaction with the structure and the community around it. Sadly, it is experiencing a major preservation challenge as the current generation have little interest in maintaining traditional, agricultural lifestyle. But in its present state, it still evokes so much emotion – a mixed feeling of achievement, pride, joy, anger, sorrow and triumph.

Pyramid

Too bad I only had an iPhone to capture the moment but I vowed to come back and explore the various hiking sites for closer interaction.

Tarsiers couple on a branch

I was not surprised to find  Panglao Island in Bohol, a province in the Philippines recognized as one of the top 16 Best Secret Beaches on Earth by Travel and Leisure Magazine.I have experienced the place and i was won over not only by the sand and surf but by how such a small place can offer so much activities for everyone. Immediately I got inspired to write about my experience on the island and my top 10 “must” things to do on Panglao Island, Bohol, Philippines.

I was told that if there’s a harder way of doing things I will find it – certainly our travel arrangement to and from Panglao was on the left side of convenience. First, I booked our flight to Cebu rather than straight to Tagbilaran, the airport in Bohol. I wanted to experience the ferry from Cebu to Bohol, thinking that I could do a Titanic scene on the bow of the boat, but alas we were not allowed outside of the enclosed areas so it felt more like a bus ride. After about an hour we reached the port and as soon as we got out, there were people offering accommodations and tours around the island. I made a prior booking to one of the cheap hotels on the island and they had a service to pick us up from the port, that made it a little convenient. By this time, i could see my partner’s face trying not to show any signs of discomfort with my arrangements and I was trying to be cheerful, not showing signs of guilt for making the start of this trip a bit of a challenge.

It only took about 10 minutes to get to the hotel from the port and that was a bit of a surprise since it was very close to the main island (Tagbilaran). From the map on the Internet we were supposed to cross a narrow bridge which will take us to Panglao Island and I knew from browsing through the map that the beaches are on the farther side of the island. We got off the van and proceeded to check-in only to find out that the reservation I made from the Internet was not confirmed because their server was down and that we cannot swim on the beach because it was too close to the port. Well it’s a good thing they didn’t charge for reservation fees.

Plan B (I always have alternative plans): I got the number of one of the tour providers from the port and I called them to provide us with transportation that could take us around to look for alternative accommodations. Within minutes we were en route to search for a suitable place to call home for the next 4 days. We told the driver to take us to places that have beach fronts.

The first one was really cheap, clean but it looked like a hide-away where you will take your mistress for a weekend getaway; the second one was Bohol Country Club, 5 star accommodations, quite posh, expensive but lacked character; the third one was right next to Bohol Country Club, mid-range priced, clean but they have videoke and I still curse the inventor of karaoke machines for making everyone feel that they could sing; and the fourth one was perfect! We stayed at Alona Tropical Beach Resort. It was along Alona beach, the rooms were big and clean and it had its own veranda where we had coffee right in front of the beach.

We settled in our room, got unpacked and organized our itinerary for the rest of the trip. And these are the top 10 “must” things to do based on our experience of the island:

Want coconut?

Laze around the beach drinking coconut straight from its husk. We love coconut, especially the ones you drink adn eat straight from its husk. When we found out that they serve this while we were having lunch, we couldn’t get enough of it! We practically had it every meal and on our last day we ordered 4 and finished it in an hour! They just cut the top part of the green husk, insert a straw and voila! paradise in a husk. After finishing the juice we asked them to break it open so we could eat the supple flesh. Beautiful!

Walk along the stretch of Alona beach and interact with the locals.

locals

They are very friendly in Bohol and although most of the locals you will encounter as you walk the 1 kilometer stretch of the beach will try to sell you their wares, you only need to say no once and they will respect that. Say it with a smile though, they are just trying to make a living. Honestly, I felt really safe here and the people have funny and interesting stories to tell.

Go scuba diving in Balicasag.

diving in Balicasag

This is where I did my introductory dive and I never looked back since then. It was the perfect immersion to the underwater world and I was singing the theme from Disney’s Little Mermaid “Part of Your World” for the duration of the trip. I was already amazed when I was snorkeling while waiting for my partner to emerge from their dive, but I was even more captivated when we went down 30 feet. Now I am a certified scuba diver and planning to go back to Balicasag to interact with my favorite fish – the Barracuda!

Have lunch in Balicasag Island prepared by local folks. After diving the boat docked in Balicasag Island for lunch. The dive instructor told us that we can get food there for lunch. We were expecting the usual restaurant but we were directed to one of the houses and they showed us freshly caught fish, prawns, squids, and crabs. Some were still alive and jumping for dear life, wetting my appetite even more! We chose a bout a kilo of huge prawns, a kilo of crabs, a huge fish, rice and soda. They cooked the seafood according to how we liked it and in about 30 minutes lunch was served. We had lunch under a tree where there was a simple table setup. In occasions like these eating with your bare hands and licking your fingers are the norm – so don’t be shy, dig in!

See the Philippine Tarsiers (Tarsius syrichta).One of the world’s smallest primates now endangered because of the destruction of their natural habitat due to logging and slash-and-burn agriculture and poaching. These creatures are nocturnal and they look like a cross breed of a mouse, a koala, and Yoda. Yes they look like they have super Jedi powers ready to unleash their light sabers on the dark side of the force. But they are so cute you’d want to eat them alive! Looking into their eyes though makes you feel their grief for the loss of their natural forest habitat and being reduced to a carnival-like existence.

Go on a river cruise in Loboc River. Now this one is like the Philippine version of The Love Boat. It’s a huge raft made of bamboo powered by a 4-stroke diesel engine. Aboard the raft is a buffet of seafoods, meat, vegetables and fruits and its all inclusive in the cruise fees of about 300 pesos (back in 2010). As you cruised along the river, while stuffing yourself, you are serenaded by a local singing and playing familiar western tunes on his guitar. There are also a couple of stop overs where you will see the local dance troupe showcase traditional dances with gusto and captivating smiles. The cruise go as far as the Loboc waterfall, which is a bit of a disappointment because it looked more like a busted sewage pipe than a waterfall. But the highlight was the scenery, the ambiance and the general simplicity of life. Climb aboard, they’re expecting you!

Have lunch and coffee in chART’s Art Cafe.This was just near the entrance to Alona beach resort and one of those rare finds. We found it on our way to Loboc River and made plans to check it out the following day. I was drawn to its Mediterranean architecture of white walls, arches and interesting use of space. The cafe was very homey and it had paintings of local artists and the owner, a retired European lady, hence the architecture. I can’t remember what we had for lunch but I could remember that it was quite sumptuous and I enjoyed their coffee. I had a brief tour of the place, which also offered accommodations and they had beautiful Mediterranean-inspired interiors. They also have their own pool and since they do no have a beach front guests can go to Alona beach which is about 2 minutes on foot. We chatted up the waitresses and typical of these places we got to find out a lot about them, including their sex lives, but this is not something to read on these pages!

 

Go crazy on the freshest catch of the day. Walk along the 1 kilometer stretch of Alona beach at night to get the best deal on fresh seafood for dinner. All the establishments along the beach display their fresh seafood – clams, crabs, prawns, different kinds of fish, lobsters, squids, and octopus. Choose the ones you like and tell the waiter how do you want them cooked from soup to grilled to sauteed and even sashimi style. I am not sure why crabs seem to be the best seller because as you walk across different stalls you will always here the waiters say, “Sir, we got crabs!” Is that a warning?

Have a massage on the beach.After a hearty meal we walked on the beach and found some of the locals offering massage services. It may not be a good idea to get a massage after having a meal fit for a last wish so walk it off a little. We had coffee first, walked and talked with some more of the locals and booked for a massage after an hour. We told the masseuse where we were staying and they said they will wait for us there in the specified time. When we got to the beach fronting our hotel they were waiting for us. We thought that they will do it in our room. Apparently, they are not allowed in the room for security reasons so we had our massage under the stars. Quite an experience and it felt like a body scrub and a massage at the same time with the sand sticking to our oiled lumps of fat! The sounds of the ocean is so calming and the cool breeze rustling the leaves of the palm trees calmed our senses – so calm that we both fell asleep. The masseuses had to wake us up about half an hour after the massage. We were half-naked, oiled and breaded with sand like pork schnitzels!

Chase after pods of dolphins.

Now this one is not to miss even if you have to wake up at the unholy hour – 4:30AM! We had this arranged the previous day. Talked to one of the locals and asked them what time the boat will leave and how much. Back then it was about 800 pesos. The guides picked us up from the hotel and helped us board a small motorized boat. We were in the middle of the ocean waiting for the dolphins by about 5:30AM. This was a bit crazy, felt like a regatta with all the other boats racing to find the dolphins in the vast ocean. An hour passed and still no dolphins. I badly needed to pee and since we were not on a yacht, surprise no toilet! The guides said just stand on the side of the boat and do my business. Well, I really had to go so I went. And then they came – the dolphins – attracted to the scent of my caffeine laden piss perhaps? And then the other boats came around as well to have a look at the dolphins…and my exposed piss-tap which didn’t feel like ever being drained! Yes, I exposed myself in Bohol and it felt so good I had goose bumps after!

So there you have it. My list of 10 “must” things to do in Bohol.

How much did I spend on this trip?

  • Airfare – 200 dollars (return for two)
  • Accomodations and Food – 350 dollars (4 days/3 nights)
  • Transfers – 50 dollars
  • Dives – 200 dollars
  • Tours – 50 dollars

Worth of the experience – priceless!

What are you waiting for?