Text and Photos by Art Sta. Ana
On Oct. 15, 2013, the earth trembled for 33 seconds in Bohol, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake that devastated the island and reduced structures both old and new into piles of rubble. Despite the odds, this melancholic Central Visayas paradise has proven to be as resilient as the centuries-old bricks that make up the churches of its heritage district. Now Bohol, which has always been known for its unique chocolate hills, is showing that they are more than these inedible little mountains. For anyone looking for a place where culture meets nature, this is exactly where they should be.
The sands of Virgin island off the coast of Panglao
Take me to church. Church of St. Monica in Albequerque, Bohol, whose wooden pillars date back to the original 1880 structure
Bluewater Panglao Resort
If these walls could talk. The Balili house where Presidents and distinguished guests dined for decades.
Dapper. One of the presidential suits that President Carlos P. Garcia wore
President Carlos P. Romulo’s marital bed
Loboc River Tour
One of the many entertainment docking stations while on the Loboc river cruise
One of the tourism initiatives that the local government has put forward is the establishment of the Bohol Heritage District, an area of about 20 hectares where buildings of more than 50 years are located. Among these cultural treasures are several churches that hardcore Catholics and history junkies alike will enjoy. Some of the more significant images of the 2013 earthquake showed damages to these centuries-old edifices. The famous Baclayon church’s belfry was destroyed, along with complete destruction of the likes of the Albuquerque church and the Church of Loay. Four years later, most of them have already been or are currently being restored, and they prove to be as magnificent as they were before. The wooden pillars of the Albuquerque church remain as steadfast as the intricate paintings on its ceiling are being redone to the detail, while there are no more traces of the collapsed façade of the Loay church. The Baclayon belfry has also been restored to its original glory.
Other cultural attractions are aplenty. There’s the Ermita Ruins beside the Dimiao church, an eerie, abandoned cemetery of 200-year-old catacombs that will make you feel like you’re in a Lara Croft game. Grass and moss have almost completely taken over the concrete, and it can serve as a nice little venue for an impomptu photoshoot or just a space to clear your mind.
There’s the Balili house, a historical treasure right smack in the middle of a city that has now been converted into a transient house. Built by the patriarch of the prominent Balili family in the 1920s, this was where Presidents Quirino and Roxas usually wined and dined as guests here. The interiors have barely been changed over the decades, and guests can get a feel of what it was like to have lived in the war era of the Philippines. The former residence of President Carlos P. Garcia is now being converted into a museum, and guests would soon have the opportunity to see the late President’s memorabilia, including his originally worn presidential clothes, his original work table, and his and his former first lady’s original marital bed covers.
Aside from the dry cultural adventure that you can partake of, the waters of Bohol have so much to offer. Perhaps one of the most unique things the island has to offer is its Loboc river cruise. A trip to rival the river attractions of Bangkok, Venice, or the Amazon, guests get to eat some of Bohol’s finest meals in an hour-and-a-half floating restaurant river ride and enjoy the feeling of being serenaded either by the in-trip’s musical entertainers or the sound of the murky Loboc river. Guests can choose to either rent an entire hour and a half to themselves for about P3,500 plus the cost of meals per person, or join in a group setting for a cheaper price and make new friends, both of which are good options to have. On the cruise, various docking stations provide a few “mini shows,” including a 20-woman strong choir in traditional Filipiniana dresses. At night, take a firefly tour on the Abatan River, an hour river tour where you get to see the mangroves ablaze with fireflies, nature’s best way of imitating a Christmas tree (or is it the other way around?).
About an hour and away from Tagbilaran City, the island’s financial center, are the famed Panglao beaches. Palawan and Boracay come to mind when we talk of Philippine beaches, but Panglao can give both of them a run for their money. The sand is just as white, and the water just as clear, and all of that away from the crazy crowd that’s a trademark for our more famous playas. Several luxurious resorts, including the awe-inspiring Bluewater Panglao Resort, are nestled here, and you easily get the feeling of being taken away from it all as the white sands this side of Bohol meet the warm waters of the sea. The resort itself is massive enough that you would need a shuttle service to get to the beach and restaurant from the rooms. If an escape is what you need, the rooms here are beautiful and huge enough to get lost in, all while opening up to a central pool where you can take a sip of whisky by the pool’s bar. For those seeking a quick mini-adventure in the resort grounds, all terrain vehicles, which are surprisingly affordable to rent, are available, and so are reasonably-priced massages by the beach.
Going on an island-hopping adventure is always on the menu of activities, and Panglao can serve as the jump-off point for a day tour to one of the nearby smaller islands. Pristine waters surround Virgin Island, and breathtaking coral formations can be found by Balicasag Island. As soon as you’re done lounging around or snorkeling and diving and being taken aback by the wonders beneath the blue waters of Bohol, freshly grilled seafood for cheap is on offer for hungry island-hoppers in the style of a Filipino street food cart or carinderia.
Bohol does have much to share, whether you want it dry or wet. There’s an adventure waiting to happen on every corner, and a sight to behold on every turn. As the island rises above the devastation, Bohol has proven that it has more to offer than just the hills. From its heritage sites to its picturesque waters, it certainly seems like it’s going to take more than the strongest of earthquakes to take an amazing island like Bohol down and out for good.