Aloha, Alona

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Famous tarsiers of Bohol
We were met on arrival in Bohol with a driver to take us from the ferry port to our hotel. Just based on the size of the gate we had to go through to get in, we knew the Amorita Resort would be a really nice place to stay. With just a short day and half to spend in Bohol we checked in and headed right back out to sort out our activities. Alona Beach, while really small, seemed to have decent number of large hotel and resort properties around it, both existing and under construction. We walked along the main road then down the hill to the beachfront.

We found the Piratas Alona Dive Shop, as recommended by a friend from Dumaguete, and arranged to go on a dive trip the next day. The next order of business was to figure out how to meet up with Paul and Anne who were staying in a town called Loboc on the mainland of Bohol. We had considered renting motorbikes but knowing it would be dark and given the distance, we decided to try to find a driver. We stopped by the tourist police office and what do you know, the officer "knows a guy." So we arranged for 8 hours of his drivers' time the next day, to take us to Loboc and back. With the logistics settled, we chose from the many similar beachside restaurants for our first dinner in Alona.

The next day we could see that Queenie had done some damage to several boats at Alona Beach - a few had sank in the water and several were pulled up on shore and detached from their engines. All of this chaos made it difficult for our dive boat to get close enough to load up, so we were delayed in getting out. Thankfully, it was a pretty quick trip to Balicasag Island and we were in the water by 11:00AM. At the first dive site, the swells and current were very strong on the surface. Usually once under the water its much calmer, but this dive was an exception - the current was strong enough that we had to swim against it to avoid drifting really far away! But the visibility was good and the scenery was full of life. Our second dive was the longest one we've ever done - 62 minutes total, with lots of turtles gently paddling about or scratching themselves on coral.

Preparing to enter the choppy waters at Balicasag Island
We were late arriving back to Alona Beach, so as soon as we could jump off the boat Juli went to the hotel to get our change of clothes and I went to meet the driver. We grabbed some sandwiches and hit the road, as we wanted to make a stop before carrying on to Loboc. Tarsiers are the world's smallest primate and are an endangered species found in the Philippines. Supposedly their heads and eyes were the inspiration for Yoda from Star Wars. The Tarsier Sanctuary in Corella has 8 tarsiers living in its confines. Each morning the staff has to go looking for them, since they are nocturnal and they sleep most of the day. On the day we visited, 5 of the tarsiers had whereabouts unknown. That left 3 of them for us to see live - and while two were sleepy, one was just starting to wake up.

We continued on to Loboc and met up with Paul and Anne at their hotel, a small set of riverside cottages. It was drizzling and threatening to rain, but mostly held off. Once the sun set, we were going to get on stand-up paddle boards and head down the river to look at fireflies, which gather by the hundreds or thousands at a certain type of tree. We were told that the rain decreases the chances they would be out, but we forged ahead anyway. Although the river looked like it was going at a pretty good flow, the boards cut easily through the current and we were on our way in the dark!

Juli paddling down the river
At certain points, there was no light on either side of the river, which made the scenery a bit disorienting, given that all we could reliably see was the water right in front of us. After about 30 minutes of downstream paddling, we came upon the first "mother tree." It was an amazing sight - none of our pictures could do it justice, so I found somebody else's photo which is a great one:

Thousands of fireflies gather in 'mother trees' along the Loboc river

There was one more mother tree a bit further downstream, but that was it. Then began the harder paddle upstream, which seemed to take a while even though we didn't need to go all the way back to the cottages as a van picked us up. Fortunately, all of us survived the trip without a single fall into the river!

A successful night paddle!

We arrived back at the cottages and enjoyed dinner and a few beers together, as well as playing with a new puppy that the owners had picked up the day prior. It was good times as usual with Paul and Anne and we were all sad that this would be our last time to hang out for quite some time. Like us they are focused on more far-flung travel for now, figuring they can hit the States later…but hopefully we'll figure out a way to meet up again sometime soon. Before we knew it, it was 10pm and time to catch our ride back to Alona Beach.

Yes, she actually wanted to take him home
We had just one more half-day left before the journey home began, and wanting to be active before sitting for so long, we took a tricycle to Dolja Beach as we heard the snorkeling was good. Unfortunately to get to the snorkeling required traversing 100 yards of 2-foot deep sea with all kinds of urchins and jellyfish, and by the time we got there, it wasn't all that great anyway! I got stung by something and had a rash on my wrist for about 3 weeks after, so at least I took home a souvenir of some kind! We made it back to the Amorita and decided to try our snorkeling luck again out in front of the resort. Thankfully, we had a nice swim with good snorkeling to finish off our Philippines trip.

Numerous Nemos to be seen while snorkeling!

We went back up to the resort and Juli got a massage which was included in our hotel stay. Not a fan of massage, I just took a dip in the pool, did some reading, and enjoyed our final views of Alona Beach - which are quite spectacular from the Amorita Resort viewpoint.

NOT a budget hostel...when we splurge, we do it right!
From there it was off to the airport, for a one hour flight to Manila followed by a 13 hour trip back to SFO. Once again our adventures have come to a close for a little while, though we'll definitely be back at it as soon as we can.

Delayed in Dumaguete (by Juli)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

We would end up with plenty of time to love ALL of Dumaguete
After almost a full day of traveling with our very wet and stinky hiking clothes, we made it to our surprisingly nice hotel in Dumaguete in time to drop off our laundry and book a scuba trip for the following day to Apo Island.  We walked around Dumaguete, the largest city on our itinerary, and were happy to note that there was a city festival going on.  The festival was called Sandurot and consisted of nightly musical performances, boxing, motorcycle races, and a food and wares market.

Festival time in Duamguete!
After checking out the festival we had a nice dinner of kinilaw (ceviche in coconut milk) and chicken harang harang at Hayahay.   We then called it a night to get ready for our early morning trip to Apo Island.

In between dives at Apo Island
The reefs of Apo Island were the reason why we chose to stop in Dumaguete for 3 nights, so we were really excited that we were headed to the island on our first full day in Dumaguete.  The Islands lived up to the hype and we really enjoyed the three dives.  The visibility was amazing, especially considering that the surface was a bit windy and choppy.  Unfortunately, the company we chose to go with didn't have the best equipment and we had a handful of small mishaps (my BCD got stuck in the 'inflate' position a couple of times, luckily always near the surface!).   We met a bunch of other travelers on the trip and agreed to meet the next day to visit a number of the local sites by motorbike.

One of the Twin Lakes from a lookout point
The next morning, we met up with our travel companions and after an hour of trying to find enough motorcycles, we headed off north for a place called Twin Lakes.  We had to ride about 30 miles to reach the lakes.  The first half of the ride had a lot of traffic which was intimidating when trying to navigate on a motorcycle that I was not familiar.  Sadly, we came upon an accident, where by the look of the two vehicles, it would be surprising if the drivers survived.  Unfortunately, I didn't realize that was the easy part of the ride, the next section consisted of a mix of windy roads that alternated between paved and unpaved.  I almost wiped out on the way up, which scared the crap out of me.
Juli navigating the mixed terrain on the way to the Twin Lakes
We enjoyed our snacks and views from of the first lake and then jumped in a small boat to visit a waterfall and see the second lake.
Our moto gang relaxing in the Olayan waterfall
Personally, I was already dreading the motorcycle ride back.  I got a jump on the group so I could go as slow as possible without holding everyone up.  When I took a brief second to look up from the road, the views were amazing.
Views from the road, heading downhill from the Twin Lakes
We grabbed a drink at a lookout spot on the way back and then headed back to town.  OH wait, I forgot, I did actually wipeout at the construction spot on the way down and broke a piece of the motorcycle that we subsequently had to pay for :(  No more motorcycles for me on this trip!  That night, we watched a couple of live boxing matches (part of the festival) and had dinner at San Rival Cafe, home to the best dessert - silvanas (buttercream cookies).  Todd had at least two every day we were in Dumaguete.

The best dessert! Snack! Lunch!
The next day we got up early to hit Casaroro falls before our motorbike rental ended and before our afternoon ferry departure.  Since I was done driving the motorcycle, Todd "offered" to drive with me on the back.  The falls were amazing and we were the only people there.  The hike to the falls used to be on a raised paved walkway, but a typhoon wiped out the walkway.  It looked like an image from Planet of the Apes. The waterfall was amazing, supposedly the tallest in the Philippines.

Crumbled walkway leading to Casaroro Falls

Todd at the bottom of Casaroro Falls

Casaroro selfie
On the way back, we visited a WWII "museum".  Museum is in quotes, because it was really a guys garage.  The collection was pretty interesting and almost all was found in the local hills from the Japanese occupation.   The proprietor had found numerous (30+) human remains of which most had been given back to the Japanese over the years.

Juli checking out some ordnance at the Cata-al WWII Museum
After lunch, we headed to the ferry terminal only to be turned away because the ferry was CANCELLED due to a tropical storm.  Ugh.  We had already paid 50% of that nights hotel in the swanky Alona Beach (was to be the nicest hotel of our trip).  So, we found a hotel room and busied ourself that afternoon with shopping and a movie.  Hunger Games was the only thing playing, which was disappointing for Todd but fine for me.  The next day the weather was worse and the ferry was cancelled again.  We killed some time hitting up the small anthropology museum at the local university and walking around the town, but ended up spending much of the day in the hotel room watching movies (thank goodness the hotel had a good cable package!).  That night was Thanksgiving so we found the one place serving a traditional turkey dinner and had a nice, but expensive thanksgiving dinner (about 7x the normal dinner price).

Thanksgiving dinner in Dumaguete!
Later, we were walking by a karaoke place and decided to pop in.  Similar to Japan, the establishment consisted of small rooms that were rented by the hour.  Todd and I decided to have a go and spent 2 hours singing popular duets plus a number of Todd's favorites (safety dance, joker, etc.).  I generally refuse to do karaoke since I'm tone deaf, but this was surprisingly a lot of fun.  Just don't ask Todd about my singing abilities and I hope there wasn't any kind of secret recording going on.

Finally, the next day we were told the ferry was running and we were two happy campers.  We only had 2 nights left of vacation, but we were going to make the most of it in Alona Beach!

Easing into El Nido

Saturday, November 22, 2014

We said our goodbyes to the Aurora 2 at the El Nido pier and turned our attention to finding our hotel and getting a real shower for the first time in 5 days. A quick tricycle ride later and we made it to Zaniya's Pension, which was centrally located in El Nido town. The room was small and tidy, and we had a nice view from our second floor balcony.

View from 2nd floor of Zaniya's Pension
The Tao group had planned to meet at 8pm for one last group dinner, and we had nearly all the passengers there plus a few of the crew. About half of the people continued on to our next stop, a karaoke bar, where they had what I considered to be a fair method - each table in the place could submit three songs, and the microphone was passed around from table to table, so that each table takes a turn. Unfortunately it took a long time for the mic to get passed to us, but when we did we made the most of it, then moved on to a beachfront bar, where our group had shrunken down to about 10. We had a good time drinking on the beach, generally dancing like idiots, and sprinting into the bar when a giant rainstorm spontaneously began.

Beachfront bar chilling in El for rouge shorebreak!

Juli takes a turn dancing with Chef

Aforementioned dancing like idiots

Thinking we wanted to stay on land for a day, we hoped to do a combination hiking & biking tour, but at both places that advertised such a tour, the bikes were being repaired in advance of the high season. We decided to do our own tour by renting a scooter - there was a place that rented Vespas, and fortunately we got the last one.
Got room for one more if you still want to go to Aspen!
I was declared to be the driver so first I tried to take it up and back down the street on my own…of course 20 feet into the ride I nearly crashed it into a ditch on the side of the road when I accidentally gunned the throttle while attempting to brake! Juli nervously hopped on and we hit the road, heading north to try to find a waterfall and/or beach. The drive was quite nice - road in good shape and very green landscape all around us. We drove about 40 minutes until seeing signs for Nagkalit-kalit waterfall.

Colorful landscape along the road north of El Nido
The locals on both sides of the road were doing their best to convince us we needed to hire a guide to reach the waterfall, and we were doing our best to convince them otherwise, that we would not get lost, we just wanted to wander on our own. We eventually won out, but immediately got confused about where to go, since the trail essentially started in somebody's side yard and there were several worn paths all around…with a little free guidance from the locals we took the path that went right into a stream crossing, and from there it was much easier to follow the most well-worn path across 8 more stream crossings which led to the falls. The hike was about 45 minutes and when we got to the falls we were the only ones there. We jumped in the pools for a little while, waited out a small rain shower, and then headed back along the path to the road.

Nagkalit-kalit waterfall - decent enough for a dip!
We had planned to visit a small beach that was a 45 minute walk from the road through the jungle, but given the state of our foot blisters, we decided instead to drive back south of El Nido and see if we could find a beach closer to the road. We stopped in Corong Corong Beach, just outside of El Nido, for snacks and while sitting by the water heard a bunch of screaming and yelling. We decided to walk around the see what the commotion was all about. As we got closer we started hearing a lot of screeching and cock-a-doodle-doing, then seeing several caged birds, then seeing the packed grandstand that was cheering on two roosters engaged in a cockfight. We stopped for a little while to watch from the outside, through people's legs - it was quite a lively scene with lots of back and forth between the two fighting birds, other gashed birds being taken away, and bettors cheering on their favorites. As Juli noted, at least in the Philippines when the fighting is done, somebody makes use of the meat for a meal rather than just throwing it away.

We pushed on south and stopped at a seemingly popular place, alternatively known as both Maremegmeg Beach and Las Cabanas - at the end of a narrow path was a really nice beach with a bar, and beautiful views of the Bacuit Bay cliffs. Also enjoying the beach were a few people from our Tao cruise. We had a fruity drink or two, did some reading, and then headed back north to return the scooters. Along the way we stopped to take in a viewpoint and the setting sun. We were happy to have survived a day on land and Todd's scooter driving.
Taking a scooter break at Maremegmeg / Las Cabanas

Sunset over Bacuit Bay
That evening we met up with Paul and Anne for dinner, but kept it an early night since we were scheduled for a 5:45am wakeup call the next day. We had arranged a tour to climb the big cliff behind El Nido town before we got back on the water for an island-hopping tour. Unfortunately in the morning it was sprinkling a little bit, and our guide Nico said it probably would not be safe, so we'd have to try it again the next day. We headed back to the hotel and got a little more sleep in before our island-hopping tour would begin.

Waiting for the island hopping tour to leave on the beach at El Nido
In El Nido there are 4 pre-set island-hopping tours available: A, B, C, and D; all about the same cost of 1,200 pesos ($25 USD). On each of the tours, you join a boat of up to about 15 other people to visit sights of Bacuit Bay, including stops for snorkeling and beach time. Having just come from the Tao cruise where we did that for several days, we were pretty used to that drill, but it was still a nice day out on the water with some good snorkeling at our lunch stop, and some funny fish that nipped at us as we swam at another stop (Small Lagoon).
Big Lagoon SELFIE!
The last stop was "Seven Commando" beach, where we came upon a volleyball game between a bunch of tall Euro-dudes and some local Filipinos - although the Euros were much taller, it was clear to us that the Filipinos actually knew how to play. We joined the game playing on the Filipino side and had a lot of fun spiking on the increasingly frustrated Euros. We had one last El Nido dinner with Paul and Anne and went home early to pack our bags and get some sleep, with the cliff climbing and departure from El Nido planned for the next day.
One last El Nido dinner with Paul and Anne
Our second early morning was rewarded with a clear sky, so we were ready to attempt the climb. The climb was pretty intense even at 6am in the morning, not so much a hike as a free climb/scramble requiring us to pull ourselves up over the rocks - which were fairly sharp and narrow (gloves would have been nice). On our way up we passed a group of macaque monkeys, which Niko said was pretty rare. It took us about an hour+ of climbing to make it to the summit…at which point we were completely soaked in sweat, while Niko hadn't sweat a drop. The view at the top was quite incredible, if we were not flying out that day it would have been nice to hang up there for a little bit longer, see more of the sunlight as it rose over the town.

Sweet, sweaty accomplishment!
The difficult climb down the cliff
While the way up the cliff was a challenge, the way down was even more so. Along with the typical knee stress when going downhill, we had fatigue to deal with and a couple times there were some slips that resulted in feet falling into crevasses of rock, and some bad bruises on legs and backs. Fortunately that was all, it could have been a lot worse. Slowly we made our way down and after about an hour we felt the relief of flat ground under our feet.

We hurried back to the hotel to change our clothes, eat breakfast, and get a ride to the airport for our flight to Manila. The clothes we wore on the climb were so wet I was able to wring liquid sweat out of them! We threw them in our travel laundry bag and then into the secondary compartment in Juli's backpack. Our departure was delayed 75 minutes - fortunately ITI airlines was super helpful in getting us and our bags off the plane and into a van to hustle to the domestic terminal in Manile. The attention they gave was so personal, it was strange - certainly an advantage of an airline with just one route 3x per day, their hospitality went above and beyond what we expected...and the views were pretty amazing too (sit on the left side of the plane if you can)!
Aerial view of "Smile Island" on departure from El Nido
What we didn't expect after checking into our flight in Manila was to be called back to the counter and asked to explain Juli's leaking backpack! We tried to explain it was just sweaty clothes but they said they could not take a leaking bag, so we had to throw the sweaty laundry bag into the main compartment of Juli's pack, with all of her normal clothes, and hope there wasn't much drainage en route.

Tao Cruise (by Juli)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

We woke up at 6:00am to take a private boat to join up with the Tao Philippine trip that had left the day before.  We originally had scheduled to join a trip that was starting the following day, but the boat leaving that day had "document problems" and they offered instead for us to join an earlier trip (which we could not do on-time since we wanted to dive). I was nervous that we were going to join a group that had already spent one day and night together and we would be the outsiders. My fears were unfounded, everyone on the tour was super nice and welcoming. We quickly made friends with both the travelers and the staff. In total there were 20 travelers (16 Europeans, 1 Filipino and 3 Americans) and 6 staff, including our fearless leader Ollie and an even more fearless terrier, Harry.

Crew and passengers on our Tao trip
Harry - he swims out on his own, but usually looks for a ride back to the boat!

We joined the group in time to grab breakfast and had amazing fried fritters made out of the flower from the banana tree.  Surprisingly, they tasted just like a sausage (here's a link to a recipe if you want to try them) - definitely the best vegetarian meat substitute we've ever tried! Then we were off to board the boat for our Island tour.

Boarding our Tao boat, Aurora 2, for the first time
We visited a number of islands and snorkeling spots (a sunken barge, Paradise island) that day and enjoyed fresh caught fish and "Filipino power" (white rice) for lunch.

A typical snorkel stop on the Tao trip - from above
A typical snorkel stop on the Tao trip - from below

We headed to Anaconda River for our camp that night. The camp consisted of two large bamboo houses.  Todd and I quickly chose a room in the house by the water (hoping for a breeze on the hot night) and the staff set up our mattresses and mosquito tents. We enjoyed happy hour drinks, one of many rum and pineapple cocktails and got ready for dinner. We had a long day from our 5:30am wake up call, so after dinner we called it an early night.

Ollie, Paul, and Anne charting a course for El Nido

The next day, we set "sail" again and headed out for snorkeling.  The reefs were amazing, huge brain corals and great colors.  We also saw rays, large batfish and even a small reef shark.  Along the way Ollie picked up various fresh sea critters - mangrove crabs, squids, and tuna, for our later mealtime enjoyment.

Lining up on the boat for a lunch of fresh crabs

We stopped for some cliff jumping after lunch. Juli was the only woman on the boat to make the climb and take the plunge...Todd didn't like the look of the surface that had to be climbed to get out of the water, so he made sure to get good photos of her instead.
Juli takes the cliff plunge during our lunch stop

Camp that night was in a small beachfront bungalow for two at the "Gold Camp".
Our sleeping quarters at Gold Camp

View from our sleeping quarters at Gold Camp
We watched the sunset and then took a ladle (no, that is not a mis-spelling of 'little') shower.  After another fresh seafood dinner, we sat at the long communal table and started playing different games including cops and robber with two scarves and a hand slapping game. We had tons of fun and really got to know our fellow travel companions.
Hand slapping game at Gold Camp

After a late night, we woke up for another day of island hopping, snorkeling and hanging out on the boat.  We made camp that night at the self sustaining Tao Farm.  After an amazing fresh water shower, everyone (well, everyone except Todd) received a free hour long massage.

Dinner at the Tao Farm camp - whole roasted pig
After 4 days and nights eating fresh fish, the pork tasted so good.  We continued games late until the night.  When it got too late, everyone headed to bed except for Todd and Paul from the UK.  They decided to finish off the last bottle of rum and stayed up most of the night.

Passing time at the Tao Farm with feats of strength

On our last day of the tour, we got a tour of the Tao Eco Farm.  The farm includes pigs, goats, chickens, farmed fish, rice paddies, etc.  The goal of the farm (and the Tao enterprise as a whole, including the cruises) is to be self-sustaining and they are well on their way.

After a breakfast of oatmeal (not Juli's favorite), we shoved off for our final day on the boat, making our way to El Nido. Unfortunately, the last day on the water we had poor visibility and none of the snorkel spots could live up to the awesome reefs from the day before. But we still enjoyed our final hours with the group, taking in some lagoons and beaches before arriving in El Nido town.

Kayak wrestling with Chef on the last day of the Tao cruise

Final sunset at the Tao Farm camp