MANILA, Philippines – It was my first time in Bohol. I'd never been to the Central Visayan province, so I didn't know what it was like before the 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck it 7 months ago. I'd never seen its many centuries-old churches intact; never seen the island when it wasn't bearing a post-disaster community.
As someone fascinated by very old churches, I knew I was missing out in that department. Otherwise, it's heartening how much of "classic" Bohol I was able to experience in just a few days, and how the disaster was so seamlessly incorporated into the tourist experience as a historical milestone.
Here's an overview of my trip, with my pros and cons.
Travel down Bohol's roads and clues of last year's disaster peek out here and there –mostly a few large chunks of debris in people's front yards. But when you see the churches, you would see how serious the quake's damage was.
Every church we passed was under major repair, with plywood barricades and wooden scaffoldings around enormous sections of crumbled walls and fallen roofs. It's equal parts heartbreaking and encouraging – you recall how much was lost and could never be recovered, but you also see how much the locals value their heritage, and how they're working slowly but surely to get things back in shape. (I could only wish for the same concern and pro-activeness when it comes to the heritage sites in Manila.)
The only church open to tourists was Baclayon Church, the oldest coral stone church in the region, and we managed to catch some locals working on its ceiling. I was definitely lucky to see the church's restoration up close, although issues of safety did come to mind.
Allowing tourists in is all well and good, but shouldn't safety come first, especially in a centuries-old building that had been struck by an earthquake? It was a lawsuit waiting to happen.
The beauty of the interiors was pretty distracting, though, thanks to the many stained glass windows up high. The floors were bathed in bright, colored light, and I could only imagine the surprises the other churches would have in store once they're fully rehabilitated.
Any trip to Bohol calls for a visit to our "cousin," the tarsier. The teeny-tiny-creature-lover in me was (quietly, respectfully) squealing at every critter we spotted. I truly appreciated how the park was built around the tarsiers' habitat, instead of a mere simulation of its natural home.
We also went dolphin-spotting early one morning, and were lucky to see pods of dolphins popping up to greet us – so many that even our boatman was pleasantly surprised. Snorkeling and island-hopping was also a treat; we saw fish with neon stripes to rival the freshest graffiti, scores of cherry red starfish, and adorably fat jellyfish.
Again, the one thing they all had in common: we saw them safely in their natural habitat, with utmost caution not to perturb their usual state of affairs.
And this brings me to the saddest, lowest point in an otherwise great trip: our visit to the Xzootic Animal Park.
Besides the dirty joke, can you spot the wrong spelling?
The park, part of our packaged tour itinerary, was anything but. It was, quite literally, a dark, sprawling shack with a few small, dirty steel cages here and there. Some of the exotic wildlife included pythons, civet cats, a single squirrel, monkeys, and several gorgeous birds in unmarked cages so I had no idea what kind of birds they were.
The animals were clearly miserable. The squirrel kept on leaping in a state of panic around a cage the size of a refrigerator, obviously feeling constrained. One of the monkeys was gnawing on an old plastic bottle, which it apparently picked up amid all the trash inside its cage.
All this merits its own indignant article, of course. For the meantime, we're trying to get in touch with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources on this.
On the brighter side, Bohol's flora remains lush and striking. The Chocolate Hills were as pretty as a postcard, and we didn't mind that half of the viewing deck was still wrecked from the quake. (Again, another safety hazard. There wasn't anyone guarding the deck despite its precarious state and its elevated location.)
My group also had lunch onboard a ferry crawling through the Loboc River, and we were pleasantly surprised by kids performing musical numbers on a floating stage by the riverside, just waiting for us to glide by.
Above is a quick clip as we turned a corner in the river. Catch those Jurassic Park vibes.
Doesn't this photo make you deliciously sleepy?
The beaches were also very easy on the eyes: white sand, seashells, and corals on every shore we visited. While some beaches were better suited for swimming than others, every spot was ripe for lazy sunbathing. Also a huge plus: a lot of beaches were not as developed as the likes of Puerto Galera and Boracay, so pure peace and quiet prevailed.
All in all, I'm confident to report that Bohol is alive and well tourism-wise, and can only get better from here. While there were a few hiccups, we definitely went home with a lot of good memories – and very deep, very golden tans.
Last year's earthquake may have shaken things up, but the Boholanos' enthusiasm for their home remains very much intact. Their slogan post-disaster, "Bangon, Bohol," seems superfluous at this point. The people have gotten back up on their feet right away, expertly surpassing a tragedy with a strong will and a smile. – Rappler.com
Photos by Marguerite de Leon and Geline Bawagan
Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon heads Rappler’s Opinion section, and is (happily) wrangled into voice over and hosting work. She has been with Rappler since 2013, and also served as its social media producer for 6 years. She is also a fictionist.