It is also the birthplace of surfing in the Philippines and remains a popular destination for the beach combing younger set. But for the not-so-young and disinclined to surfing like me, this historic town – surrounded by sea, lush hills and rolling mountains (part of the vast Sierra Madre range) – has plenty of tour attractions.
With four travel companions, we hopped on a “red eye’’ air-conditioned, toilet-equipped Joy Bus. The bus ride took only five hours; our driver deftly navigated the dark, narrow and twisty two-lane road.
We arrived in Baler at dawn, greeted by a chorus of crowing roosters and barking dogs. We hailed two tricycles already lined up at the bus depot at such an unholy early morning hour, waiting for disembarking passengers.
In this countryside, the tricycle (pedicab) – not the jeepney – is king. Our party of five needed to hire two cabs, at only 700 pesos each cab (about $15) for a day (renting a van would have cost us four times as much). Because the tiny cab can only seat two adult passengers, I had to hang on the back of the motorcycle driver’s seat. This would be how we got around during our entire three-day trip, with our drivers also acting as our capable tour guides.
Our rides putt-putted to Sabang, the town’s main beach where most of the tourist accommodations and restaurants can be found – ranging from cheaper “homestay” (shared housing that includes the use of the kitchen) to luxury hotels such as the posh Costa Pacifica. We checked in two doors down and two notches below at Bay-ler View Hotel (spelled the way foreigners mispronounce Baler).
A peaceful ocean with splashing waves aglow at sunrise welcomed us, with not a soul in sight on the shore or the boardwalk. But not for long, we watched beach-goers and surfers trickle in while we enjoyed our hotel’s complimentary breakfast (supposed to be the best on the strip).
Sabang has been the country’s top surfing spot since the sport was introduced by the production crew of Francis Coppola’s 1979 film classic, “Apocalypse Now,” who shot here on location and surfed in between filming. After wrapping up production, they left their boards and the sport for the locals to enjoy.
Frequent, rippling waves wash ashore on Sabang beach making it ideal for surfing novices (other points on the coast offer bigger waves for the more skilled surfers). We witnessed private surf training sessions around us at any time that we were on the beach. English-speaking local experts conduct lessons for just 350 pesos (about $7) an hour, offered at a few surfing schools lined up along the concrete boardwalk.
In addition to surfing, there’s plenty to do and see in Baler.
On our first day, we toured historic landmarks in the town’s central district. A giant likeness of Manuel Quezon greets guests at the town plaza, near the spot where he was born. A replica of his humble bamboo and nipa (palm leaves) house stands next to a glass-enclosed car that belonged to his “adopted son,” Gen. Douglas McArthur.
At the center of the plaza, Baler Museum displays old photos and news clippings, yellowed by heat and humidity in hot and un-air-conditioned rooms. We glimpsed the town’s past: old Sabang beach covered with coconut trees for miles on end before it had a concrete boardwalk; “Apocalypse” filmed on the beach with smoke billowing from simulated bombs in the background; a few sepia photos from Quezon’s days as president of the Philippines. A corner shows pictures of flora and fauna that thrive locally. Another area displays various contemporary art by local talents.
A block away and within walking distance from the plaza is Doña Aurora’s home, its original nipa exterior walls replicated on painted wood. Inside the modest house, yellowed family photos and news clippings from Quezon’s days in office hung in the dining room. The tiny comedor (kitchen) has the typical paminggalan (kitchen sink and counter) on an open overhang with a view of the carriage house below that displays Quezon’s shiny red presidential limousine encased in glass next to the house.
Right across the street from Doña Aurora’s house, the historic Church of Baler is painted a bright green, covering patina from its historic past. It was the site of the “Siege of Baler,” when more than 50 men held and occupied the church as a last stand of waning Spanish rule during the 1897-98 uprising.
Baler is gateway to lashing typhoons that frequent this Central Luzon area during the wet months of August to November, bringing plenty of rain to the lush forests, coconut plantations (fresh coconuts sell for 17 cents each at road side stands) and rice fields. Short palms (cultivated for vinegar) grow out of swampy shores below the narrow, rickety hanging bridge that we crossed on foot over Baler’s bay inlet.
A few feet away, Diguisit Falls cascades to a trickle near the main road. We stopped and clambered up a few feet to the top of the waterfall. Across is a panoramic beach with coral and rock formations, with imposing Aniao Islets in the distance.
The winding road led us to Ermita Hill, the highest point of Baler where seven families hiked up to survive a catastrophic tsunami in 1735 depicted in a sculpture at the foot of the hill called “Tromba Marina.” Two viewing decks provide expansive views of Baler’s coast framed by tall trees in the botanical preserve.
We headed back to the town plaza for lunch at one of the eateries along the main street serving char-broiled tuna belly, large squid and other fresh ocean catch of the day, as well as other local fares such as tinopak (like tinola chicken soup but cooked with pakwan (watermelon) in place of green papaya).
The next day, our tricycle cab drivers met us early to take us a half-hour away to the neighboring town of San Luis, to see Ditumabo Falls. We hiked up one mile and a half along a cascading stream that we had to cross on precarious makeshift wooden bridges, climbing and hopping on giant rocks, ducking under a giant water pipe that was in disrepair from a recent typhoon. It is the area’s mother of all falls, towering 140 feet, and commonly referred to as “Mother” Falls. We marveled at the vigorous sight and sound of Dimutabo, and watched daring swimmers get close to the raging torrent in the cold waterfall basin.
On the hike back, we were thankful to our guides for getting us there early as we met swarms of visitors just getting there closer to noon. Before taking off, we rewarded ourselves with a snack of palitaw (boiled rice paste dipped in shredded coconut) and camotecue (fried skewered sweet potato in caramelized sugar), washed down with fresh buko (coconut) served at one of the food stands by the trailhead.
Our drivers/tour guides then drove us to the town of Maria Aurora for its main attraction, a giant balete (banyan) tree overgrown with a maze of tangled roots that one can walk through. This famous 300 to 600-year-old giant (about 200 ft. tall and around 50 ft. around the roots) attracts tourists like us by the busload.
After taking a bunch of photos, we meandered to the big, busy concession shop next door selling souvenirs and local delicacies such as bukayo (shaved coconut cooked and sweetened with palm sugar). We watched an elderly couple deftly wrap suman (sticky red rice steam-cooked in young yellow coconut leaves).
We capped each full day with a late afternoon trip to the beach just a few feet from our hotel. For us non-surfing dudes, just watching novices attempt to get up on the surfboard, while we were neck-deep in the warm bobbing ocean with gray powdery sand to sooth our feet, was pure bliss.
On our last morning, we had time left to hop on one of the outrigger fishing boats arranged by our driver to take us to Dicasalarin Point. The remote coast is the setting for the reclusive resort belonging to Baler’s other prominent political family, the Angaras, who also owns Costa Pacifica. It is open to public viewing for a small boat docking fee.
A white, modern lighthouse marks the point which we could have climbed via winding steps, but instead we chose the easier walk around the base to a secluded cave. We moseyed through the mostly unoccupied Ifugao-inspired cabanas; then made a quick run-through of the deserted three-level art gallery with underwhelming art on display. The scenic boat ride, rather than the destination, made this last stop in our splendid tour all worth it.
Our boat puttered back to Sabang, just in time for us to check out of our hotel and catch the last available bus leaving town that day – though it was only 1 p.m. in the afternoon.
Surf’s up or not, we had a great time. As their not so original slogan says, “I Heart Baler!”
To get there:
It is best not to drive on the winding mountain road to Baler. Take an air-conditioned bus (Joy Bus at their Cubao depot on EDSA, www.phbus.com) for as little as $10 each way.
Where to stay:
Beachfront hotel accommodations on Sabang Beach are very reasonable (a room big enough for 4 people costs about $50 at Bay-ler View Hotel, www.baylerview.com).
Omar Paz, a San Francisco Bay Area graphic designer and former art director at Filipinas Magazine, is happiest when traveling in the Philippines which never ceases to amaze him with new discoveries and places to visit.
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