Two of the most famous sites in Bohol are the Chocolate Hills and the adorable miniature primates, the tarsiers. No trip to the island is complete without a stop to see these unique wonders. In this post, I explore not only the famous hills, and two different tarsier sanctuaries, but also a few nearby stops like the mahogany forest, and one of the many adventure parks. As a bonus, I’ve included some native pre-Catholic mythology about the hills and the tiny monkeys.
Bilar Manmade Forest
Monday (day 3) was the longest drive of the trip, all the way from the southern tip of Panglao to the Chocolate Hills in the center of Bohol. We rode through rice fields, palm jungles, and tiny villages where dogs and chickens meandered freely and residents laid the recently harvested rice on plastic sheets on the side of the road to dry.
As the road turned inland, it passed suddenly into a strange and out of place landscape. Everything in Bohol is tropical: beaches, mangroves, jungles, rice fields. All at once we were in a temperate zone forest of mahogany trees. The sunlight was cut more than half, and the air was cool and dim. We pulled over to marvel at the view, and I realized that we must be in the Manmade Mahogany Forest.
The Bilar Manmade Mahogany Forest is listed as a stop on many Bohol tours, and I saw on the map that it was on the road to the Chocolate Hills, so I planned to see it on the same day. I have since learned that there is no park-like infrastructure at all. The forest is simply planted around the road, and even the tour groups just pull over on the side like we did to look around and take pictures. I suppose there’s nothing stopping someone from walking up into the woods and hiking around, but there are no trails or interpretive signs. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful forest, and I enjoyed the drive through it in both directions.
Later, I learned that part of the reason this forest is so silent and peaceful compared with the buzzing, squawking jungle around it is that the local birds and insects have not adopted the non-native mahogany trees as a habitat. The trees were planted as a way to reforest the island after some slash and burn farming tactics, and now there is a bit of a controversy from Filipino biodiversity specialists about the best way to keep doing that. As stunning as the forest is, it does explain why it felt so alien in comparison with the rest of the landscape, and highlights the reasons why environmentalism is about more than just planting trees.
After 2 and a half hours of driving, we finally made it to the Chocolate Hills Lookout (sometimes called the Chocolate Hills Complex). There was a line of cars and vans stopping at something on the way, but they all looked like tourist groups and there were no clear signs, so we just drove around them and on up to the parking lot at the top. Motorbikes always have a separate parking area from cars here, so we pulled in and were asked for our tickets… which we didn’t have. I’m not sure if that was what we should have done in that long line of cars or not, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone, we just gave an attendant the money for the parking and tickets and she returned with our passes and receipt. We left the bikes there, and although we had to leave them unlocked, the lot was watched so we weren’t too worried.
The Chocolate Hills are a unique geographical formation found nowhere else on earth. There are well over 1,000 of these mounds in this one area of Bohol and none elsewhere in the world. The hills are soft, conical mounds covered in grass that dies and turns brown in the dry season making them look like chocolate kisses and giving them their flavorful name. No one knows how the mounds were formed, but everyone agrees it is a natural rather than manmade phenomenon.
Once Upon a Time
The mythology of the Chocolate Hills is a bit richer than the geology. There are three main myths to explain the hills among the people of Bohol. I have paraphrased them here for you.
1) Long long ago when the land was always either baking dry, or slippery with mud and only the harvest time had green growth, there was a fight between two giants. No one seems to remember what the fight was about, only that it started to rain, and they soon began to hurl huge balls of mud at one another. The fight went on for days until both giants were exhausted. Some say they were so worn out from fighting, they simply lay down and died, but others more optimistically say that once they were worn out, the giants also forgot what they had been fighting about and resolved to be friends, leaving the field of battle strewn with their giant mud balls which became the hills.
2) Also long long ago, a giant named Arogo fell in love with a mortal woman named Aloya. In some versions, they marry and live together, but in all versions Aloya falls desperately ill and dies, leaving Arogo in terrible grief. For his love and loss of Aloya, he cried giant’s tears and where they fell, they became the hills.
3) This legend is a great deal more scatalogical, but it seems to be a favorite among children, as such stories often are. One day, a long time ago, a giant water buffalo wandered Bohol eating all the crops. The people became frustrated and so they laid a trap, piling all the spoiled food where the water buffalo could not help but see it. However, once he consumed the spoiled food, he had terrible stomach pains and… well… you can imagine what happened next? When the buffalo’s business dried out, there were the hills.
Getting the High Ground
When going to view the Chocolate Hills, there are two main scenic points, the one I went to, and another on the opposite side called Sagbayan Peak. The descriptions I’d read online make Sagbayan seem like a great place to go with kids, with a water park and giant animal sculptures and other places to play, but after a 2.5 hour drive to the Complex in Carmen, I opted not to drive to Sagbayan as well. There are other places to get a view, and there are some ATV rental places you can do an off road drive in the area, but it seems like the best way to be sure of getting a nice look is to go to one of these two peaks for a high ground advantage.
The Carmen location where I went had ample motorbike parking, and a little building with a restaurant, snack shop, restrooms and some souvenir stands, and a little off to one side, a giant staircase leading up to the highest peak for the best view. First, I took a circuit of the main building, looking out at the vistas below and peering casually at the souvenir stalls. I have given up souvenirs with my nomadic lifestyle and rely almost exclusively on photos and this blog to help me remember my travels with fondness, but I still like to see what’s on offer. Every now and then I find something I will actually use or wear.
Once we completed the survey of the base level, we headed over to the stairs. I’m not a champion stair climber, but there were lots of places to stop, and a few side paths for extra sights. It’s not too much of a climb for all that it’s the tallest of the hills. Part way up is the turn off to see the “Our Lady of Lourdes” Grotto. The Philippines are mostly Catholic, a holdover from the Spanish colonization. There are churches and shrines everywhere, but I don’t mind too much as Catholic art tends to be beautiful, and no one was trying to convert me.
I took about a million pictures of beautiful flowers and the shifting view on our way to the top. And when I finally reached the peak, took obligatory selfies from the viewing platform. I also went to find the not-actually-famous-at-all well with a a bell to ring the bell and make a wish. There was also a cute little backdrop on one side for people who like to pose with man-made scenery. I liked it despite or perhaps because of it’s total kitsch, but I’m glad it was off to one side and not covering the whole viewing platform.
Why Do They Call It the ‘Rainy Season’
Standing atop this highest peak and taking in the view and the breeze, I noticed some dark clouds moving toward us. The weather in Bohol is still a mystery to me. October was supposed to be the “rainy season” and yet I’d only seen lightning from a long distance (and that close to the equator you can see a long way), our skies had been sunny.
Even as the week continued, we experienced very little rain. I am told that the rainy season is short but has strong showers every day, and the hotel hostess did say that the weather was a little unusually dry for my visit, so maybe I just got lucky? Anyway, not wanting to be caught on the very top of the highest peak around if a thunderstorm hit, we began to descend the stairs.
On the way down, there was a family looking at something off to the side of the path and I stopped to see what it was. It turned out to be a little salamander! The diversity of wildlife, plant animal, insect, fungi, in Bohol is just stunning, but so much of it is tiny. It’s just proof that seeing the best things means being open to looking.
During the ensuing downpour, we got some lunch in the restaurant. I’ve included this meal experience in the food post, so I’m not going to describe it here, but I will say I was pleasantly surprised.
Just Another Adventure Park
With full bellies and sunny skies, we hopped back on our bikes to descend to our next stop. The parking lot attendants asked us where we were headed and advised us to be extra careful because the roads would be slippery. It seemed everywhere we went, the local people were quick to watch out for our safety and well-being.
One of the many things I found online about Bohol was the prevalence of adventure parks. We have these in Korea too, and for some reason I still haven’t ziplined. The Chocolate Hills Adventure Park advertised a kind of zip bike, where you pedal a special bike (with a safety harness) along a zip line between two chocolate peaks. I have nothing against ziplining, it just doesn’t seem like a great way to actually see anything, so I keep putting it off in favor of taking in sights until I manage to find one in a place I’ve thoroughly explored. But this bike thing seemed unique and slow enough to get a great view with plenty of time to look around and admire the scenery instead of zipping through it.
I found the park at the end of my first, but not last, bumpy dirt road. I decided that driving on that road was the first test for any ambitious adrenaline junkie, after all, if you couldn’t navigate a dirt and rock road with uneven levels, shifting gravel, and post rain mud puddles, how could you possibly do the real adventure at the park? You can’t buy tickets to the individual rides at the front but must pay a 60p entrance fee, although they did offer to hold our helmets at the ticket office while we were inside.
I read online that the park had a weight limit, but we decided try anyway and see how much they actually meant it and how much was just a liability disclaimer. It turned out to be sort of both. We were each a few kilos over the weight limit, but instead of telling us straight up “no”, the staff advised us to head on up to the zip bike area and try on the harness with the safety guide to see if it would fit anyway. In retrospect, I’m not sure if this was their way of shifting the responsibility or not. I think if we’d been WAY over the limit they would have turned us away, but since we were close?
We headed further in, following signs to the zip bike and were led to a steep stone stairway with the sign “fitness test starts here” at the bottom. I theorized that anyone who couldn’t climb the stairs to the starting point wasn’t fit enough for the activity, and we began the ascent. Whatever your opinions of stairs are, know that the jungle makes it harder. Humidity. Nonetheless, we persevered and made it to the top and were rewarded with a breathtaking view and a less than stellar ride attendant. I do try to give people the benefit of the doube, and maybe she was annoyed with her coworker on the radio or something else we couldn’t even see and not with us at all, but it was clear she was annoyed with something.
We waited on the viewing platform, and I have to say that even though we’d just come from the tallest peak in the hills, the Adventure Park’s view was stunning. I don’t think I would have gone there only for the view, but it was certainly a nice perk. We also watched a few more tourists take the bikes out and back on the lines from the tower above us to the hill next door. The attendant at first told us that we had to wait due to lightning (the storm that had just passed us?), but then we saw people riding anyway? I’m not sure what was the deal there. I also accidentally got doused in ants trying to take a picture of the hanging trellis flowers. The ants really liked the flowers too, and when I bumped into one, they transferred from the petals to me. Thankfully, they were just small black ones, and I was able to brush them off with no bites, but it reminded me to keep an eye out for what I touch or lean on in the jungle.
Finally enough riders returned that the safety guide was able to have us try on the harnesses for size. I thought it fit. It went over my thighs and around my waist, and while there wasn’t much slack, I was starting to feel optimistic when the safety guy shook his head sadly. Although his English was not as good as the attendant’s, his attitude toward us was much kinder, and he seemed genuinely sad to have to break the news. Although the park employees were not speaking to each other in English, I finally figured out the problem was not merely the harness fitting, but where the straps landed on our bodies, especially our legs. It was disappointing, but understanding the reason wasn’t just fatphobia helped me to accept the results.
On the way back down the stairs, I enjoyed seeking out tiny treasures along the trail. Little bitty flowers, fluttering butterflies, a wee fuzzy caterpillar, an odd sideways snail and a mini mushroom. I love taking photos of tiny things sooo much.
Park for the Less Adventurous
There are a lot of opportunities to visit butterfly enclosures on Bohol as well. Initially, I planned to see the conservatory nearby, but the adventure park had their own and we were already there. It’s impossible not to compare, but I may have been spoiled by the one in Kuala Lumpur.
If you’re going to the Adventure Park anyway, go ahead and visit their butterflies, but don’t go out of your way for this display. We were accompanied by a guide who had been trained to take lots of pictures for us (with our phones, they weren’t trying to sell them back to us or anything, but Asian tourists especially love appearing in their own travel photos in a way I never will) and move people through. She showed us a display on the life-cycle of a butterfly, and we got to hold a caterpillar. Then we walked through a path in a netted off part of the forest. We only saw a couple butterflies and at one point our guide threw a rock in an attempt to get on up on the top net to fly. We quickly stopped her from continuing that and said we were fine with the way things were. She said the butterflies were inactive because of the rain, but I felt like I’d seen half a dozen just climbing down the stairs from the zip bike.
There was a dead butterfly on the side of the trail which she picked up and repositioned so we could take photos. It was a little macabre, but I could tell she had been instructed to make sure that the visitors had as many photo opportunities as possible. On the way out, we posed behind butterfly wings in transparent cases to create a “trick photo” of ourselves as butterflies. It was, like many other things here, quite kitschy, but harmless fun. I’d definitely prefer a trick photo to mistreatment of living butterflies.
The experience was strange. It was small and a little dingy, and I think designed by someone who had heard tourists loved butterflies but didn’t really know how to do a butterfly garden. We never did go to the main conservatory down the road, but from everything I read on Trip Advisor, it’s almost exactly the same from the holding of the caterpillar to the trick photo at the end. I’m not saying don’t go. It’s super cheap and you might see more butterflies than we did. However, I saw a million beautiful butterflies in the wild, just wandering around Bohol and watching the flowers.
After the butterfly enclosure, we were guided over to the suspension bridge which is included in the park entrance fee already. This kind of bridge through the canopy is another very common tourist must do in Bohol, available at multiple locations. Even though I may not deliberately go looking for the silliest touristy things to do, I’m hardly going to turn it down if it’s right there in front of me. We had fun, and got a nice view of the park from the air before descending the stairs on the far side and heading back to the bikes.
Tarsier Conservation Area
Following a delightful and refreshing stop for some locally sourced buffalo milk ice cream, we headed back down the main road where were would be able to find the Tarsier Conservation Area (not to be confused with the “Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary”). Bohol is also famous as the home of the world’s smallest primate, the tarsier. There are two tarsier spots near the Chocolate Hills, and it was worth it to me to visit both, since I was already planning other road trips near each one. I’ll say now, if you can only do one, do the Sanctuary, but seeing both was nice.
The Conservation Area has a bad rap online for being too zoo-like, and I’ve seen some of the zoos in Asia, so I was wary of going at first. I had visions of tarsiers in tiny cages where people could take close up photos, or worse of them being passed from patron to patron as the reptiles so often are. I was pleasantly surprised to find no such thing going on. Make no mistake, the tarsiers here are captive, not wild, and they are part of a breeding program to restore the native population. But their everyday environment is nowhere near what I feared.
Visitors were encouraged to follow a concrete path through the enclosed forest. I saw a lot of paths that were blocked off with temporary barriers or signs which makes me think that sometimes the walking path changes when the critters need to move. There were park staff positioned along the path to help us spot the tiny tarsiers in the trees. Although photos are allowed, there is a no flash and no selfie stick rule, as well as signs all around reminding patrons to keep quiet for the little sleepy monkeys. Tarsiers are nocturnal, and so visiting hours are also sleeping hours. Each one was clinging to his or her tree under a clearly man-made roof of leaves and branches.
I can’t be sure if they are placed at these viewing stations or if the park simply made attractive bowers in good places and hoped. I did see one little guy hanging out in a not great viewing spot with no guide to point him out, so at least a few must be slightly rogue. We were also told they are territorial, and tend to stay in or near one tree as adults.
While it is clear that this park is an animal enclosure, a zoo for one species, I felt that it was still a pretty decent life for the critters who, while yes, had to be ogled by tourists, were at least kept a reasonable distance from the path and protected from invasive hands and cameras.
Whether we like it or not, tourism is the main reason species like these will survive. In fact, the growing interest in ecotourism is a big part of what’s paying for conservation in developing countries. It can be hard to draw the line between exploitation and preservation, but I think the Conservatory is leaning on the right side. Of course, the park dumps you back into a souvenir shop between the exit and the parking lot which was full of tarsier themed everything, and one shelf of wooden phallus ashtrays for no discernible reason at all.
Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary
Several days later on my way to a lunch cruise on the Loboc river, I started out extra early to make time for the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary to see how it compared to the Conservation Area. I tried to get there as close to opening as possible to beat the crowds of tourists, and I think I very well may have been the first customer of the day since cashiers had to be found, then change had to be found. It’s not an expensive tour, but like every little adventure in Bohol, it does cost a small amount to go in. I got a personal guide who walked me through a kind of netting air lock into the forest beyond.
While the Conservation center had been paved paths with guides stationed at each Tarsier, the Sanctuary was much more a natural jungle with mud paths through the trees. I doubt I would have gotten lost in the small area behind the building, but I certainly wouldn’t have seen as many tarsiers without my guide. The Sanctuary is closed in, but the fence and netting are very unobtrusive, designed more to keep predators out than to restrict the tarsiers. I also felt like the tarsier perches here were probably man made to encourage the critters to good viewing sites, and to make sure they were visible from the paths while being sheltered from the sun. However, where the Conservatory perches were obviously man-made, the Sanctuary perches looked far more natural, drawing less attention to themselves and who knows, maybe being more comfortable.
My guide quietly and confidently led me through the tangle of muddy paths, stopping every few minutes to point out a tiny sleeping primate. I was surprised at how close they were to the path after my experience at the Conservation center. While I’d been hard pressed to get any decent photos at the Conservation center, I had merely to hold up my phone to be close enough for great detail here at the sanctuary. I was worried about disturbing the little critters, so I tried to keep a reasonable distance, although more than once they were close enough for me to have reached out and touched, I know that would have been dangerous and damaging for them, so I resisted the urge. My guide was in no rush, and was happy to stand by while I got a good look at each one, and until I was satisfied with my photos. I can’t say I always had a good photo before I decided to move on, since I was keenly aware that simply by watching me back, I was keeping them awake and didn’t want to become a source of greater stress. I probably stayed at each spot between 2-5 minutes before moving on.
The Sanctuary jungle was also the hottest thing I did on this vacation. The trees were so close together and the netting caught the breezes, so even at 9:30 am it was sweltering hot and I was drenched in sweat the whole time. It was entirely worth it.
Tarsier Mythology and Preservation
It was so peacefully quiet and there were no other visitors in the park so I felt very special getting to have this beautiful jungle and adorable creatures all to myself. I talked to them in soft reassuring tones like I was trying to sooth a scared kitten, and I have no idea if that was effective at all or just my own human oddness, but it was so obvious that they were watching me back, I couldn’t help but wonder how many myths of goblins or fairies these peculiarly shaped animals inspired. Their eyes are so large in comparison with their heads and yet the gaze is penetrating. Their hands are smaller than a newborn, but their fingers long and deft with large pads at the tips like a lizard or a frog.
In the west, these creatures have inspired fictional characters like Yoda, Gizmo (the Mowgwai), and the very popular Furbies. But in the Philippines, a deep superstition that pre-dates the Spanish colonization (and has never been fully eradicated by Catholic conversion) holds that forest spirits who dwell in the Balete Tree keep the Tarsier as beloved pets. Although there are very few of these trees left, the superstition has not wholly passed out of practice, and some of the early conservationists mentioned this myth in concerns over the mass capture and killing of the Tarsier that until recently had become normal in Bohol.
Thankfully, they are now a protected species, no longer for sale in every market, and where they are on display to the public, their environment is protected from two and four legged predators while raising money for increased preservation efforts.
It’s December in “real time” here in Korea and I’m mostly occupying my time with end of year chores and dentistry. Looking over my photos, it’s clear I didn’t do nearly as much exploring inside Korea as my first year, and so I’m looking into some winter festivals that I missed out on before. And although January is our holiday time, I may be postponing my next out of country trip depending on what my next contract holds. While things are up in the air, I’m going to be a bit of a money saving homebody, but I have no doubt that some kind of adventure will come my way soon. Until then, I’ll keep publishing the Bohol stories and the China throwbacks. Thanks for reading! ❤