It’s always easier for me to write about going on vacation, particularly now that I’m living in Not-That-Goa. The Philippines is a pretty Catholic country, to put it mildly, so we got two days off for the Easter holidays. Unlike North America, the holidays fell on Black Thursday and Good Friday, rather than Easter Monday. I didn’t use any of my holidays while in Rwanda, so had banked up a decent amount, and could afford to take off the Monday-Wednesday before the Easter holidays. I was pretty happy to have the chance to explore somewhere else in the country – my roommate and I had done one weekend trip to Donsol, where we swam with whale sharks, but other than that, I hadn’t really even seen the ocean yet (side note, the whale sharks were very cool, but I have no photos because I made the terrible mistake of buying a memory card for my camera in Not-That-Goa instead of the city 1.5 hours away).

I basically played the SkyScanner “Anywhere” destination to pick my flight – I was worried about prices going up so figured I would just book something in mid-March. Flights to Taiwan and Cebu Island were the same price, but the Cebu flight required only that I take two vans for 5 hours to get to the airport, whereas the Taiwan flight meant getting on the 12-13 hour bus to Manila… so I opted for Cebu.

I probably could have spent the entire ten days in Cebu City. Seriously, if I ever had doubts about my love for city life, living rurally in Rwanda and the Philippines wiped them all away. I crammed as much stereotypical Westerner activities into the two full days I had there – I took a hot yoga class, ate Middle Eastern food (hummus!), went to a craft brewery, ate tacos, and drank good coffee with brunch. Seriously, your every-day life is my dream vacation.

Once I had my city fix, I had to get at least one hike in, so got up at 5.00am to make my way to Osmena Peak.

On top of the peak

Osmena Peak is Cebu’s highest, at 1013m, so it’s what I consider to be a pretty reasonable day hike. I’ve found it somewhat amusing to look up hiking information in the Philippines (reading about Osmena made it seem like it was a fairly difficult climb) because most of the Filipinos I work with are very walking-adverse. They’re actually obsessed with the fact that my roommate and I walk to and from work (we live 15 minutes away from the office). It’s something my roommate was questioned on multiple times before I arrived (“Do all Canadians like walking?”) and now that there are two of us, we have created a stereotype of all Canadians enjoying walking. I had to call someone from my office the other day because I had left something behind and needed a key to get in and pick it up, and after explaining this to him, our conversation went like so:

Him: “Is it ok for you to meet me at the office at 7.00 to pick it up?”

Me: “Yeah, sure, I’ll see you then.”

Him: “But how long will it take you to walk there?”

Me: “Probably 15 minutes.”

Him: “But that’s far. Do you like walking?”

Me: “It’s not far. I can walk.”

Him: “Ok…”

We hang up, and he calls back 10 minutes later.

Him: “Why don’t I pick your keyboard up for you and drop it off in the truck.”

Me: (wishing I had an excuse to get more exercise in) “…sure, I guess.”

I mean, it’s obviously very nice of him to worry that the walk would be too much for me, and to stop by my home with it, but I find it to be such a bizarre fixation… and the thought of a 15 minute walk ever being too much for me is pretty amusing.

Anyways. Osmena Peak.

Most people take a motorbike from the bus stop to the base of the peak, which is 3km away. I figured I would walk the 3km – the area around Osmena Peak is known as the “Vegetable Basket” because it has amazing soil and so much grows, so it’s super green and beautiful. In Not-That-Goa, we haven’t seen any change in the market vegetables, so actually seeing cauliflower, broccoli, and lettuce was fascinating enough scenery for me.

From the base of the peak to the top, it’s about a 20-30 minute walk up a decently steep mountain. Maybe longer, if you’re wearing a skirt/flipflops/heels (which some people were doing; where did you think you were going today? WEAR REAL SHOES), or if you usually cap your walks at less than 15 minutes. Due to its relatively relaxed level of hiking, I was a little worried the view wasn’t going to live up to the hype.

Fortunately, I was wrong.

Some of the formations around Osmena were like less perfectly formed versions of the Chocolate Hills (see below).

Even though the hike itself wasn’t all that strenuous, it’s always so hot here in the Philippines, so on the way to Moalboal, I stopped off at Kawasan Falls to take a quick dip.

Hiking up the series of waterfalls – Kawasan is a series of cascading waterfalls, with 3 main levels.


The waterfall that delighted me so.

My next stop was Moalboal, a diving town (I unfortunately didn’t coordinate schedules and just narrowly missed one of my Norwegian friends who was there for some diving). This admittedly does not seem like the ideal location for someone like me, who does not have any diving certifications, but fortunately, it’s also a great spot for free diving and snorkelling. So people who don’t want to financially commit to a diving certification (me) get to experience some pretty cool ocean wildlife regardless.

The sardine run in Moalboal, unlike that occuring in South Africa, is present year-round. It’s insanely accessible – the 70m reef drop off is maybe 20m from the beach, and that’s where the sardine congregate. There’s no net fishing allowed here, but locals are allowed to take their boats out and line fish for subsistence. The sardine run is still poorly understood from an ecological perspective – in South Africa, it’s theorised as a seasonal breeding migration pattern, but as it occurs year-round in the Philippines, it becomes less clear. Favourable conditions for a sardine run include decreasing sea surface temperature, calm current conditions, light north-westerly land breezes, and stable atmospheric conditions. Unfavourable conditions include moderate north to south currents, large swells, and turbid water. It could be that Moalboal generally meets the favourable conditions, and that allows the sardines to stay year-round… but I’m not a marine biologist so what do I know?

It was a very relaxing way to spend a few days – I got to chill out on the beach, get in the water whenever, eat some great food, drink some great sangria, and managed to meet a couple other Canadians. Of course, I can’t sit on a beach too long, so I decided to head to the Bohol, just off the coast of Cebu Island.

It was somewhat bad timing, as the Abu Sayyaf also decided that would be the time to head to Bohol to scout it out for kidnapping tourists. I don’t take my safety lightly when I’m traveling in regions with instability, and was actually going to cancel my plans and just sit around reading books, but fortunately, met another solo traveler. We both discussed whether or not we felt comfortable renting a bike and going about the island, and given the reports of where they was terrorist activity, both decided that if we stayed in regions on the opposite end of the island, and were together, the risk of harm was small enough for us to go out. We also were not going anywhere at all isolated, and the night prior to our trip, the Filipino army had already responded to the arrival of Abu Sayyaf by bombing the active terrorist areas (this sounds like such a relaxing vacation, right?). I don’t want it to seem like I’m glossing over this issue – the threat to safety, the cost-benefit analysis of responding to a terrorist threat by bombing a civilian-inhabited area, etc. – but in public postings (which is what this blog is) I don’t have an interest in going too deep into political debate, particularly since I live in foreign countries through the graciousness of their Governments. I just want to make it clear that I would not have gone if I felt like there was any real threat to my safety.

There were plenty of other tourists out on the same day, so it seemed like the majority of people made the same assessment. I’m really happy I was able to go out, not only because it meant a terrorist threat was contained, but because one of the main reasons anyone goes to Bohol is to see the Chocolate Hills, and it would have been pretty disappointing to miss them.

The view of the Chocolate Hills riding up to the viewpoint.

There are at least 1260 hills, though there may be up to 1800 or so, spread over an area of roughly 50 square kilometres. The hills are grass-covered limestone, which turn brown in the dry season, making them resemble Hershey Chocolate Kisses – thus the name (commercialism, man).

We luckily did not get stuck in the rain, but there was an insane storm literally 2 km away from us when we went up to the viewpoint. It was really cool to watch it move around us.

The hills vary in height, with the majority being between 30m and 50m, and the tallest being 120m.

The hills have a geomorphological name, cockpit karst, and are considered to be a remarkable example of conical karst topography. They were created by a combination of the dissolution of limestone by rainfall, surface water and groundwater, and the subaerial erosion by rivers and streams after being raised above sea level and fractured by tectonic processes. The hills are separated by flat plains, and contain numerous caves and springs. We got somewhat unlucky with the lighting during our visit, but in this shot you can see the difference between the green hills and the more chocolate ones.

Less scientifically accurate explanations for the Chocolate Hills include a couple legends. In the first, two feuding giants hurled rocks, boulders, and sand at each other until they were exhausted. In their exhaustion, they forgot about the feud and became friends, but when they left they forgot to clean up the mess, leading to the Chocolate Hills. A second legend tells the story of an extremely powerful giant named Arogo. Arogo fell in love with Aloya, a regular human. Aloya’s death caused Arogo much pain and misery, and in his sorrow he could not stop crying. When his tears dried, the Chocolate Hills were formed.

Even though a storm had been chasing us for most of the day, we decided to head to a different beach on Bohol, in the town of Anda. It’s another diving paradise – had I known I was moving to the Philippines, I may have done some diving certification, but what can you do.

You can see a couple divers walking in off the beach behind me.

Views off one of the diving resorts.

There was one more thing I had to do in the jungles of Bohol. It is probably one of the most important things I will do in the Philippines.

That’s right, looking at tarsiers is high up on my list of important activities. A tarsiers’ eyes are each roughly 16mm in diameter, the same size of its entire brain.

I’m obsessed with these little guys. Ok, I’m obsessed with animals generally, but tarsiers are so weird and adorable. Their names come from their elongated tarsus bone in their feet – though the tarsier’s body will range from 10-15cm in length, its legs will be double that size. In the local language, they’re called maomag.

Tarsiers are the oldest surviving primate. Biologists have theorised that their anatomy inspired the design of Yoda, though George Lucas hasn’t confirmed. I captured this guy looking pretty Yoda-like.

Tarsiers are the only exclusively carnivorous primates, mainly hunting insects by jumping at them. They will also hunt birds, snakes, lizards, and bats – which is crazy when you see how small they are. Since they’re nocturnal, they weren’t doing much jumping when I visited them.

Like me, tarsiers have long, creepy fingers. Their third finger is roughly the same length as their upper arm. Their elongated digits have made them particularly suited to clinging and vertical leaping. Baby tarsiers are able to climb within a day of their birth.

Tarsiers are endangered. Though they can live up to 24 years in the wild, their lifespan in captivity can be reduced by up to 12 years. Many activities that are common in captivity, including holding tarsiers, using camera flashes, and a poor diet, lead tarsiers to commit suicide by slamming their heads against hard objects in their enclosure. NEVER TOUCH A TARSIER – there are places in Bohol that allow you to hold tarsiers, and if you do so, you’re killing them. I visited the Philippine Tarsier Foundation, which does not allow flash photography, touching, or speaking above a whisper (tarsiers are very sensitive to loud noises). The Foundation does research into tarsier behaviour, and acts in habitat and community management initiatives in the region.

Inside the Philippine Tarsier Foundation – the tarsiers spend most of the day in a mostly enclosed netted section, where they are protected from their primary predator, the housecat. They leave the netting at night to hunt, and usually return before daybreak to sleep. I was roughly a metre away from the tarsier (I was worried about getting too close and stressing him out), but wanted something to compare the size too.

After leaving the jungle, I headed back to the beach on Panglao Island, where I subsisted on ice cream during the day and good wine in the evenings.

The ice cream was made at an organic bee farm on Panglao Island, that was also home to an amazing restaurant and women’s collective.


The farm has a studio where the women can learn traditional weaving skills, design products, and sell them.

To work off that ice cream (I’m pretty sure I was up to 6 cones a day at one point) I went on a nighttime kayaking excursion to see some fireflies. I was unsure as to how cool this would be – I’m pretty into fireflies; there is a very short firefly season in Northwestern Ontario, and my dad and I used to go out and catch them, put them in a jar (with holes, obviously) and let me keep them for the night as a nightlight – as it could have ended up just being a couple fireflies flying around a river, which is not all that exciting, even if you do like fireflies. We paddled a few kilometres up the Abatan river as night was falling, and then once it was dark, turned around and started going back the way we came. At first, you would see a couple fireflies just in the air, and I was kind of like, oh, ok, this is all it is, that’s fine, at least I got some exercise in.

And then it turned into literally one of the coolest things I have ever seen in the entire world – something I don’t say lightly, given all the incredible places I’ve visited.

Photo provided courtesy of KayakAsia. It was honestly even cooler in person – the overexposure in this photo is a neat effect, but when you were out on the water, it was pitch black, save for the tree. There was no moon, so the sky was totally dark, and these trees just looked like a Christmas tree lit up with white lights.

I didn’t bring my camera as I had left my waterproof kit at home – I really wish there were some photos with less exposure so the contrast would be more visible. These are all mangrove trees, which is where fireflies go to breed. They stay in the same trees – nobody is sure exactly why fireflies choose one tree over another.

Trees just next to the lit up one would be totally dark. I honestly can’t explain how amazing this was.

All in all, this was a pretty great trip – and I’m very happy I got to see some of the areas of the Philippines tourists get excited about. Living in Goa can be a bit of a drag, and it was nice to have the chance to really appreciate some of the great things the Philippines has to offer!

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