We were looking for someplace, any place new to visit, my friends and I; a place you could reach after a few hours’ drive.
The past few years, we’ve been to the commonly visited places you could drive to from Metro Manila. North to Subic, Clark, and Baguio, South towards San Juan, Batangas, and West to Punta Fuego, with me the gear-head as chauffeur.
Every time we headed out in the open, special, crazy moments always took place, which are the stuff great memories are made of. Thus, our tradition of epic journeys just had to continue.
The idea for our 2010 road trip would consequently die—until November came around. One day, I heard my folks talking about the improving state of Philippine tourism. Baler was mentioned. Apparently, many friends recommended visiting the place.
At that time, Baler to me was just a multi-awarded Filipino movie starring Jericho Rosales and Anne Curtis, which I was sort of forced to watch when it came out. (I won’t bore you with details.)
So I did some research and learned that Baler offered the total nature experience. Plus, SURFING! Soon after, we were all set for an exotic, three-day vacation in December. With much needed help for us clueless city folk, we were accompanied by Aurora province tour specialists Chili and Raffy Pefianco of Asian Traveller (Spelled with two Ls, the travel agency not the magazine/e-newsletter. Details at www.asiantraveller.com—Ed.); we were all set, except for one thing, I had to convince my Dad to provide the SUV for the rugged trip. Parents are great, aren’t they?
How We Got There
Being first-time Baler visitors, with some hemming and hawing, the trip took roughly five to six hours. We decided to meet and set out from Quezon City at 6:00 in the morning so as to reach Baler before lunch.
We used the newly opened Mindanao Ave. exit, entering NLEX. But we stopped at one of the gas stations for breakfast. We proceeded to the next highway (SCTEX) and reached its far end in La Paz. At this point, I jokingly announced, “We’re already halfway! (Gasps. Exclamations.) In terms of kilometers!” Sure, we were. But, from there on in, we would be using provincial roads. Some, unpaved. So we had to go slower and I, as driver, had to double my focus—while my freeloading friends got their beauty sleep. Now, my Dad’s SUV was truly put to the test.
The route took us through several towns in Nueva Ecija. From Zaragoza, we headed in the direction of Talavera, then through the municipalities of Llanera and Rizal, before stretching our limbs in Pantabangan.
Pantabangan, which surprisingly had Baguio weather, was the beginning of breathtaking views— especially enjoyable for me, the only one who was awake! The road was winding and sloping, which for a car enthusiast like me was pretty fun if a bit intimidating.
I finally saw the “Welcome to Aurora” arch. (Wake up, people!) It took us another 40 minutes of anticipation before we reached our destination.
Ah, Baler! Quaint, tranquil. People were very friendly about telling us where to go and what to do. (Thank God the locals speak Tagalog!) The locals are happy that their beloved town now regularly attracts tourists from here and abroad.
I drove up to our hotel, Aliya Surf Camp, with a big grin on my face after spotting the strong beach waves and the parked surfboards along the coast. Only thing that wasn’t very welcoming was the nearby inn where we had lunch. The service was very amateur. I guess they weren’t used to accommodating the demands of city-folk, YET.
By late afternoon, we could no longer resist the raging rapids along the coast. Out came the board shorts and bikinis. You know the expression ‘hit the beach’? Well we did, literally, challenging ourselves against the tide’s strength. The guys in the group all lined up along the shore at one point, trying to mimic 300 Spartans slashing their way through the harsh waves of imaginary Persians.
By nightfall, we ate at a recommended Chinese- owned restaurant, which was probably the cleanest, most presentable yet affordable restaurant in town, called Gerry Shan’s.
After dinner, it was time to drink the night away. Several establishments in town offered tools for intoxication, so there’s no real need to pack any from home. Our hotel had its own veranda with videoke system. That added to the fun as I watched my friends slowly lose their sanity and, at the end of the evening, crawl their way up to their rooms.
Day two was surfing day. Since there were 11 of us in the group, several instructors waited for us along the shore before noon. Normally, surfing lessons go for 350 pesos an hour. The price is reasonable sans haggling given that your surfing sensei will guide you all the way until you can stand up, control your board, not look like too much of a fool, and are able to safely surf, somewhat.
I had a hard time balancing myself at first. Two seconds of joy and then I fell off. Still, the experience was surely equivalent to three straight hours in the gym, or felt like it.
Because of all the fun we had, we didn’t notice that it was already 4:00 in the afternoon—and we hadn’t eaten lunch! After a very late repast, we rested our worn bodies. Then, it was off to town to have dinner and check out the attractions.
One main attraction of Baler is its famous church, which had so much history as depicted in the town’s namesake movie. Spanish soldiers garrisoned themselves inside the church for two whole years! I wouldn’t have been able to resist some R&R at the nearby beach. Other attractions include the Baler Museum, President Manuel Quezon’s house and car, and the Baler Plaza.
Since we had to go back to Manila the very next day, our tour was abbreviated. Baler is being marketed as an adventurer’s paradise. Aside from surfing, you can do other activities that do not require you to pay fees, such as hiking, biking, sightseeing, and lomography.
After lunch the next day, we left unfulfilled. Three days weren’t enough. It was an even longer journey back to Manila since we were already reminiscing about Baler.
Baler is currently being developed as a regular tourism destination. As with most Philippine tourist spots, nature is its main selling point. Soon, it will be part of the Central Luzon tourism belt, helped by the infrastructure projects going up all across the area. With new roads, the trip to Baler will be cut a little shorter.
“I love Baler because it has remained pristine and pollution-free through the years,” says Chili Pefianco. “You can experience fresh, cool air, unspoiled beaches, scenic views, large trees, and a wild coastline. It is a haven for surfers, trekkers, bikers and birders.”
Next time you’re in search of a place other than your usual hideaway, consider Baler. It’s a slice of paradise that’s close enough to drive to, but far enough so that it lessens the chance of bumping into someone you know.
Print ed: 03/11