Bohol's Epic Ecotourism

Bohol's epic ecotourism

Bohol is an incredibly beautiful, diverse island located in the central Philippines.  The coastline is dotted with gorgeous white sand beaches and clear warm water; presenting numerous snorkeling and diving opportunities.  The interior of the island boasts lush countryside, rolling hills, and countless waterfalls.  Unique to Bohol; there are also thousands of limestone caves just begging to be explored.
 
Unlike many other places in Asia that use the word as simply a marketing ploy; Bohol has fully embraced the idea of ecotourism.  You can tell that the people of this island care deeply about their natural environment and use ecotourism as a way to preserve and educate others on their countless natural wonders.
 
Bohol is an eco-warrior’s paradise.  There are a plethora of environmentally friendly activities on the island including animal sanctuaries, waterfall trekking, and kayaking, just name a few. 
 
Here are some of the coolest “green” activities you can do on Bohol:

1. Tarsier Sanctuary

tarsier at bohol tarsier sanctuary
Bohol is home to the tarsier: the smallest primate in the world.  Tarsiers are only found in Indonesia, Borneo, and The Philippines.  Bohol is one of only a handful of islands on the planet where you can see the Philippine tarsier. Tarsiers are solitary animals and though small, they can claim up to a hectare of land as their territory. These factors make them highly susceptible to the negative effects of climate change. Tarsiers used to be a common sight all over Bohol, but due to loss of habitat from human development, there are only around 700 left on the island.  In order to preserve this uniquely adorable animal, the Philippines government created the Philippine Tarsier Foundation and the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary.  The Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary, located in Corella town, is 134 hectares of protected habit; home to over a hundred tarsiers. 
 
The enclosed viewing area of the sanctuary is managed responsibly and sustainably.  The area is not fully enclosed, meaning the tarsiers can come and go as they please.  Each day there are usually between 6-8 tarsiers inside.  Before the park opens to the public, guides walk around the area and locate the tarsiers.  Tarsiers are nocturnal animals, so during the day they find a comfortable/safe place in the trees and remain there until nightfall when they begin to hunt. Finding where the creatures have posted up for the day allows guides to show the guests without rummaging around and disturbing the animals as they sleep/rest.  Guests are accompanied by a guide at all times and only a certain number are allowed in at once.  The guides maintain a strict 1:1 group/tarsier ratio and make sure you don’t linger too long at each animal.  It all adds up to a very unobtrusive viewing experience.  Most of the tarsiers are sleeping anyways and don’t even notice that you stopped by for a quick picture.
 
After leaving the viewing area, most guests exit the sanctuary.  However, there is a 15km trail through the sanctuary that you can hike without a guide in search of Tarsiers 100% in the wild.  We were a little hungover when we went (too many Red Horses on the beach the night before), and our guide told us to be on the lookout for snakes so we decided to pass on the hiking trail.
 
We had some unsavory experiences with animal encounters in Indonesia where animals were exploited for human entertainment, so we were unsure at first if we should even go to the sanctuary for fear that it would be more of the same.  To our great satisfaction, everything about the sanctuary is done for the benefit and preservation of the animals which was relieving and refreshing for both of us.
 
The Tarsier Sanctuary was one of the highlights of our trip; it’s an absolute MUST If you go to Bohol.  It might be your only opportunity to see these one-of-a-kind creatures in person.

*A note on the Tarsier Conservation Area*

When searching “Tarsier Sanctuary” on the internet and Google Maps, two results pop up: The Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary and the Tarsier Conservation Area.  Make sure to go to the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary and NOT the Tarsier Conservation Area.
 
 The Conservation Area is not affiliated with the Philippine Tarsier Foundation in any way.  They are a for-profit business that exploits the animals for financial benefit and the entertainment of tourists.  The difference is immediately noticeable when you drive by it: the entrance is lined with dozens of souvenir shops; there is nothing of the sort at the sanctuary.  Apparently, tarsiers are kept in small, caged enclosures for increased ease of viewing.  Tarsiers are very sensitive and shy animals; keeping them in cages drastically reduces lifespan and can even lead to the animals committing suicide.  Not to mention the fact that it’s morally abhorrent to treat any animal that way.  Be sure to avoid this place.

2. Habitat Butterflies Conservation Center

tiger butterfly bohol

Bohol is also home to dozens of butterfly species.  Along the road to the Chocolate Hills is a small butterfly garden and conservation center.  The 50 piso entrance fee includes a guide to accompany you through the garden.  During the tour, you learn about the different species of butterfly endemic to Bohol as well as their reproduction and growth processes.  You can spend as much time as you want in the garden enjoying the butterflies and taking pictures.

butterfly at bohol butterfly garden

3. Countryside Tour and Chocolate Hills

the chocolate hills bohol

Probably the most iconic landmarks on Bohol are the Chocolate Hills: a series of hills in the center of the island that dot the countryside for miles and miles in all directions. 

The hills are best viewed from the Chocolate Hills Lookout, which costs 50 pisos to access if don’t go with a tour.  The viewpoint made for some nice pictures but I honestly wasn’t all that impressed with it. Basically, you drive to the top of a hill, climb up some stairs, wait for your turn to get a clear picture, ooh and aah for a couple of minutes and that’s it.  It all just felt very touristy to me.  What did blow me away was the drive leading up to the hills.  The scenery is unbelievably breathtaking.

One minute you’re driving past dreamy green rice fields and palm groves, and the next you’re winding through towering forests.  As you approach the viewpoint, you get to see some of the iconic hill formations up close; they pop up out of the surrounding countryside like little islands in a sea of rice fields.  If you feel comfortable with driving a motorbike for a few hours, I would recommend driving to the Chocolate Hills yourself. That way you won’t be on anyone else’s schedule and will have the freedom to stop and take pictures whenever you want. 

4. Firefly Watching Kayak Tour (Abatan River Community Life Tour)

sunset on the abatan river bohol
Ever since living in North Carolina as a child, fireflies have held a special place in my heart.  I last saw them maybe 19 years ago, but I can still conjure up fond memories of chasing after fireflies with my brothers.  When I heard that thousands of fireflies inhabit the mangroves along the Abatan river in Bohol, I was eager for the chance to see them again.        
 
In the Alona Beach area of Panglao, there are countless tour companies that offer all kinds of activities from Chocolate Hills tours, to island hopping, to firefly watching, etc.  Basically, anything you want to do on Bohol, these places offer it.  We shopped around about 5 places and the cheapest price we could find was 1,400 pisos/person. Almost $30US!  Being budget travelers, that was way too much money for us to spend for a couple hours of kayaking.  We decided to drive ourselves to the river and try to book directly with Abatan River Community Life Tours instead of through an agency.  We rented a motorbike for 250 pisos, made the 45 minute drive from Panglao to the Abatan river, and were pleased to discover that it would only cost us 500 pisos ($10/person) to for a kayak and a guide.   If you decide to go firefly watching I would highly recommend doing it this way.  The agencies in Panglao don’t offer anything more than transportation, kayak, and guide; so you’re basically paying 1,000 pisos for roundtrip transportation.
 
 If you’re feeling especially adventurous you can get there via the local route by taking a Jeepney (local bus) from Alona to the Tagbilaran Bus Terminal.  From there take another Jeepney heading towards the towns of Cortes or Maribojoc and tell them to drop you off at Abatan River Community Life Tours.  This will only cost you around 100 pisos, but will take you at least two hours each way so leave Alona by 5pm at the latest and don’t linger too long after the tour because I don’t know what time the buses stop running.
 
The tour starts around 7:00, but we got there for sunset and I would highly recommend you do the same.  That way you can sit on the dock and enjoy the sunset with a cold Red Horse in hand.  You will also have the unique opportunity to watch hundreds of HUGE fruit bats wake up and begin to fly around in search of food. These bats are seriously humongous, they are so big I literally thought they were eagles at first. 
 
After the sun goes down, our guides gave us a quick safety briefing and it was time for the tour to begin.  When we went it was a full moon, which our guides said diminishes the luminosity and activity of the fireflies.  Apparently, the best time to see the fireflies is during a new moon or on a cloudy night.  This in no way perturbed us, because we still we still saw THOUSANDS!  It was a totally surreal experience; we would be kayaking by the light of the full moon when all of a sudden, we pull up to a mangrove lit up like a Christmas tree with blinking yellow lights. As we floated under the mangrove branches we were dazzled by the spectacle of flickering lights dancing above us.  The tour takes about an hour and a half in total as you kayak to 5 or 6 different mangrove trees full of fireflies.

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5. Waterfall Trekking

To call the Philippines the land of waterfalls would be an understatement.  Each island seems to have its own unique towers of cascading water tumbling into tranquil pools below.  Bohol is no exception.  We had already ventured to our fair share of waterfalls on Cebu and Siquijor, so we decided to forgo waterfalls in favor of other environmentally friendly activities available on the island.  Here are the waterfalls on Bohol worth a visit.
Can-umantad Falls-located in Candijay, Western Bohol
Twin Falls-located in Dimiao, South-Central Bohol
twin falls bohol
Mag-Aso Falls- located in Antequera, Eastern Bohol
Mag-Aso Falls- located in Antequera, Eastern Bohol

Panga Falls- located near Bilar, Central Bohol

panga falls bohol

6. Cave Spelunking

Located on Bohol are thousands of limestone caves.  This geographical feature is unique to Bohol; we didn’t experience such a bounty of caves on any other island we visited in the Philippines.  They come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are so small you can merely peak your head in, while others are massive, and others still have pools of crystal clear water that you can swim in.  Here are the caves we visited plus some other notable ones that you can check out

Anda Caves

Anda is a sleepy beach town on the west coast of Bohol.  It’s about a 5hr bus ride to Anda from the Tagbilaran bus terminal.  Along with beautiful white sand beaches, Anda also has dozens of cave systems dotted all along the coast and surrounding hills.

1. Cabagnow Cave Pool

This isn’t so much a cave as a hole in the ground, with deep, mesmerizingly clear water inside.  To get to this cave you turn off the Anda Provincial Road (main road in Anda) onto a bumpy, unpaved road.  After driving down that road for a while, you turn right onto and even more bumpy and less paved road which you drive as far as your vehicle will allow before parking and walking the rest of the path to the cave.  There are signs guiding you the entire way so it’s really easy to find.  When we arrived, there was no one there except a few locals and their kids, who were happily jumping and swimming around in the pool.

The locals told us it was free to jump in but the only way to get out was via the red ladder and that would cost us 50 pisos to use.  We chuckled, happily paid the money and spent the rest of the afternoon jumping, swimming, and enjoying the local company.  This cave pool is an awesome local secret and the perfect place to cool off and beat the Bohol heat.

2. Combento Cave

This is actually a series of three caves all located in close concentration to each other.  After seeing Cabagnow, we were not very impressed with these caves.  They’re all very small, one is completely dry, one has a tiny trickle of water, and the third has a small pool of admittedly mind-blowingly clear water.  The only cave you could manage to get inside is the third one which you could crawl in and lay in the pool if you were feeling brave.  The cave was dark and damp and seemed like the perfect home for all manner of creepy-crawly bugs.  Needless to say, we passed on going inside.

3. Lundag Caves

*Warning: Hard to get to*

The caves just outside of Lundag village are off the beaten path.  I’m talking waaaaay off.  We were driving down the highway outside of Anda one day when we saw a brown sign that said “Lundag caves and trekking 3.5km”.  Filled with an injection of spontaneity we decided to go in search of the caves. 

Not soon after turning, the road became more of a bumpy goat path and was getting increasingly steeper.  We were starting to regret our decision but pressed onward into the mountains.  Every time we saw a local we would stop and ask “Lundag, Lundag?” They would nod and motion us to continue up the hill.  Each time, we would gulp and continue driving.  Finally, we came to a little village with a school, a community center, and a few houses. 

We parked in front of the only shop and asked once again about the caves.  The lady who owned the shop immediately smiled and in perfect English, told us to wait while she went to find the man who could show us the caves.  We hung out with her four granddaughters and grandnieces who went to the local high school while she found the guide and rounded up some flashlights from other homes in the village. 

By the time everything was ready for our spelunking expedition, the girls had decided to come with us, so we took off in a three-motorbike caravan for the entrance of the cave.  As we walked up to the cave, I asked the girls if it was a “scary-cave”.  They assured me that the cave was “not at all scary”.  The cave ended up being two separate caves with cavernous chambers, some towering 40-50feet above us.  Though they were really cool, I’d be lying if I said they weren’t a little scary. 

Inside the caves were huge stalagmites and stalagtites and awesome crystal formations; but there were also thousands of bats, crawly bugs and huuuuuuuge cave spiders.  All-in-all it was worth a few moments of terror to see these enormous caves that are rarely visited by tourists.

To put into perspective how rarely these caves are visited, upon signing the logbook in the community center, we saw that the last tourists to visit Lundag came in February; almost 7 months earlier.

These girls are fearless!

4. Other caves of Anda

There are dozens of other caves around Anda that we didn’t have time to explore.  All along the highway you see brown signs for different caves.  If you are hungry for a day of splunking, just rent a motorbike and drive up and down the coast looking for brown rectangular signs.  Who knows what epic caves you might find!

5. Lamanok Island

Located a short drive from Anda, Lamanok island was once home to an ancient Philippine civilization.  On the island are caves where you can find remanants of burial coffins and clay jars, along with petroglyph-like paintings on the walls.

6. Hinagdanan Cave

Located on Panglao, Hinagdanan cave is the easiest cave to access, and therefore the busiest.  From pictures I’ve seen, it looks really cool.  Definitely worth a visit, especially if you are short on time.

Bohol’s commitment to sustainable tourism was really heartwarming to see.  The people of this island refuse to destroy the pristine beauty of their home in order to make a quick buck.  That is something I have rarely seen in Southeast Asia.  As travelers, we express our beliefs and values in part by where and what we spend our money on.  I would highly recommend visiting Bohol and investing in some awesome ecotourism experiences.

 

One-Day Bohol Ecotourism Itinierary (from Panglao)

8:00am-Wake up/breakfast/rent motorbike
9:00am- Leave Panglao for Tarsier Sanctuary
10:30am- Tarsier Sanctuary
12:00pm- Stop to eat lunch on road between Loboc town and Habitat Butterflies Conservation Center
2:00pm- Butterfly Conservation Center
3:00pm- Chocolate Hills Lookout
5:30pm-Arrive at Abatan River Community Life Tours for sunset and a bite to eat
6:30pm- Kayak firefly watching tour
8:00pm- Leave Abatan River and begin drive back to Panglao
9:00pm- Return to Panglao
eco tourism on bohol

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