Light in the darkness in Bohol
PANGLAO—Bohol is back! Or at least the “touristic” Bohol whose epicenter is this island of white-sand beaches and luxury resorts. Indeed, new resorts have even opened of late here, beginning to erase memories of the 2013 earthquake that devastated much of Central Visayas, particularly Bohol and Cebu.
In all, 222 were reported dead, eight missing and almost 1,000 folks injured. More than 73,000 structures were damaged, if not destroyed, but for many Filipinos, the biggest losses were the most famous and iconic Catholic churches for which Bohol was famous. Reports say the “Bohol earthquake” was the deadliest to hit the country in 23 years, with the damage and suffering compounded by the arrival of Typhoon “Yolanda” just three weeks after the quake, sending thousands of Boholanons still living in temporary shelters back to evacuation centers.
With these twin disasters, no one would have been surprised if Bohol has just started its slow crawl back to normalcy, two years later. But there have been blessings as well, starting with the fact that despite the extensive damage elsewhere in this island-province, Panglao Island, where most of the luxury resorts are located, remained undamaged.
Which may explain how Bohol remains a tourist lure. On our PAL flight to Tagbilaran, we espied groups of Japanese and Chinese tourists. Despite a mishap involving a damaged PAL plane a few days earlier, we’re told, foreign and local tourists continued to arrive via ferry from Cebu.
They come not just for the beaches, or even the tarsiers. The Chocolate Hills, despite sustaining some damage (the worst hitting its visitors’ center), still stand and draw sightseers. And the Loboc River Tour, which brings travelers on an enjoyable cruise down the river, marked with merry tableaus put up by community folk, continues to attract local and foreign visitors.
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On this trip to Bohol, I’m staying with a media group at Bluewater Panglao, one of the properties of Blue Water Resorts, including two in Cebu (Maribago and Sumilon Island) and one in Davao (Samal Island).
Spread on its six-hectare property, Bluewater Panglao has much the same Filipino-inspired thatch-roofed cottages as those in Maribago. A central pool area is flanked by two-story buildings with guest rooms, while villas, sprinkled around the rest of the manicured gardens, offer more luxurious accommodations. At a family villa, two rooms flank an outdoor dipping pool, surrounded by sofas and lounging chairs, while the air-conditioned rooms are furnished with beds on floating wooden platforms, flat TVs, a stand-alone tub and rain-shower area.
The coffee shop is located just beside a slice of beach, although guests are free as well to book trips to other destinations in Panglao.
Margie Munsayac, vice president for sales and marketing of Bluewater Resorts, says the Panglao property has grown organically from its beginnings, attracting tour groups and families, like its siblings in the group, as well as being booked for weddings, conferences and incentive tours. Margie is proudest of the groves of bamboo that dot the compound, with the ground covered in bright green and yellow peanut plants.
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Although I’ve seen much of the tourist attractions of Bohol in previous trips, there was one I heard of that I’d been longing to experience.
On the evening of our arrival, we were taken to the town of Cortes, where the Abatan River Visitor Center is located. This is the jump-off point for the Abatan River Firefly Watching Tour, which, while less known than its predecessor along the Loboc River, has a charm and allure all its own.
Before boarding our boats, known as bandong, which are outriggers fitted with nipa roofs, we were met by a young woman bearing a clay pot in her hands, from which wafted smoke that smelled like incense. We were supposed to let the fragrance and essence of the smoke envelop us, said our guide Vicky Gentelizo, the better to imbibe protection against the river spirits.
In almost total darkness, after putting on our life vests, we sailed down the Abatan River, until we came to a stop in front of a tall nipa tree glistening with the twinkling “lights.” “It’s like a Christmas tree!” exclaimed staffers of the GMA-7 show “Day Off,” which was taping at the time the trip of a pair of twin brothers who were enjoying the “day off” of their lives.
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Indeed, it was—and felt—like Christmas. Surrounded by darkness, we beheld only the faint phosphorescence of the bugs, perched on the branches of the tree. Their presence, said Vicky, signaled the “cleanliness” of the surroundings, since they would flee to other plants to alight on at the merest hint of pollution.
The nighttime tour is an initiative of the Abatan River Development Management Council, composed of representatives of officials and NGOs from the towns along the route of the river. The tour, we were told, is aimed not only at creating jobs and enhancing the incomes of the communities, but also at encouraging “neighborhood involvement in the protection, maintenance and management of the surroundings and defend the cultural heritage of the region.”
The Abatan River Tour is also one of the last projects of then Tourism Secretary Ace Durano, who provided funds for the construction of the visitors’ center and the training of the guides and pilots. Aside from the bandong, there were also kayaks bearing tourists, whose guides expertly helped maneuver the river craft in the darkness.
Us city folk may no longer remember beholding fireflies at night, but along the Abatan River, there’s a whole new world of light and beauty waiting for everyone.
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