Comprising more than 7000 islands, the Republic of the Philippines offers travellers an extensive catalogue of potential experiences: From hiking the ancient rice terraces of Sagada to rafting the rapids at Pagsanjan; from climbing dormant volcanoes to diving diverse reefs.
With so many headline attractions, it can be difficult to decide how to spend one’s time. Panglao, a small island in the Visayas, rarely tops the list. Those who do visit usually center their itineraries on the stretch of white sand known as Alona Beach.
The more introverted cousin of world-famous Boracay, Alona offers access to world class diving and snorkeling. Neighbouring Bohol’s major drawcards – the mound-like chocolate hills, the butterfly farm, and the sanctuary that shelters its tiny marsupial mascot, the tarsier – can also be covered off in a day trip as touted by one of the many tour companies operating along the waterfront.
But having grown use to a slightly slower pace of discovery, my husband and I set out to explore Panglao by bike. We’ve torn the relevant section from our guidebook, and plan to visit the short list of sights the authors have deemed noteworthy. These ‘places of interest’ are dotted around Panglao’s perimeter, which is also conveniently punctuated by appealing-sounding eateries.
And so, with our snorkels slung over our handlebars, we head for our first destination, Hinagdanan Cave. As we arrive, the vendors are still setting up, clowning about as they arrange the hats, shirts, snacks and bottled drinks that will later be sold to vanloads of visitors. The cave harbors a tiny freshwater lagoon where it is possible to swim, but the morning sun has not yet warmed the cave’s dark interior enough to make that an attractive proposition.
Outside, however, the day is heating up, and we swing left for a detour down to the ocean. Soon after leaving the main road, we pass a giant concrete guitar perched in a small clearing. It’s a bizarre sight. But a quick flick through our guidebook leaves us no wiser as to its provenance.
At our first snorkelling break, the underwater life is curious and colorful. We float, relaxed, in the warm, calm, ocean at the edge of the reef. Looking back to shore we can see young boys splashing in a sheltered cove, supervised by fishermen as they mend their nets and prepare canoes for the day’s expedition. Back underwater the fish take on a new dimension: for us they mean fun, but for the islanders they are primarily a source of food and funds.
Our next planned stop is the church of St. Augustine, a legacy of the Spanish occupation. As the watchtower comes into sight we hear the distinctive sound of Lady Gaga. Following the beat, we veer off course and spy a group of teenage girls practising their dance moves in a shaded courtyard. On seeing us, they collapse into giggles, but are easily cajoled into demonstrating their footwork – their flamboyant gestures a foil to the stately surrounds of conquerors past.
After a long and lazy lunch we continue our island circuit, pedaling slightly faster as the afternoon’s storm clouds roll in. Wheeling along a long stretch of quiet road, we pause to observe a group of teenagers playing basketball, while on nearby mudflats children collecting crabs are silhouetted against the setting sun. Each tableau offers a tiny insight into the place as those who live here experience it.
We make one final stop at Bohol Bee Farm – an organic farm and restaurant. Over dinner we check directions for the homeward leg of our journey. Skimming through the guidebook’s pages, I realize that despite our many detours, we’ve managed to visit each of the sites marked on the tiny map. Yet it is in joining those dots that a more complete picture of island life has been revealed.
About the Author: In spare moments not dedicated to her work as a social justice advocate, Rhiannon Cook writes about travelling, the arts, and the environment. More about her at http://www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/artist/cook-rhiannon