Baler is in our travel bucket list for one simple reason — surfing and the good vibe that goes with this sport. We’re not surfers. We’re simply curious about the huge interest in Baler’s surfing scene. We’ve long resolved to cover Baler, almost eight years from the time we finally found the right time and the perfect reason — the perfect storm, if you will — to go there. It was a few days after a strong storm, Typhoon Lando, hit Baler. Here’s our trip itinerary and story (we’ve sandwiched the helpful information, tips and suggestions in the text of the article, just for fun).
The Road to Nowhere
When we first assess how to get to Baler, our assessment was to drive south of Manila. It made sense. Baler is located in Aurora, a province physically and politically linked with Quezon Province. We’ve gone through Quezon passing through San Pablo City on our way to Mayon Volcano and the butanding of Donsol. We’ve seen the Pahiyas Festival (Lucban, Quezon) and tasted the JIJF crispy pata of Candelaria, Quezon. But we went north instead, not because it’s where the wise Kings of the North, the Starks, reside. We went north because all our research — including the map and directions provided by the resort, and even the GPS — was telling us to head north.
We could have avoided the problem by taking the plane instead. There are Manila-Baler direct flights. But for us, unless there’s huge sea gap that divides us from our desitnation, we don’t fly to and from our destination. We take the road, hug the earth, and suck in the rich marrow of experience that the journey brings.
The usual route is through the La Paz (Tarlac) exit of SCTEX, but the toll booth lady informed us that the storm destroyed a bridge so we should go further north through TPLEX and take the Pura (Tarlac) exit. The trip took a total of 8 hours. We left just before sunrise to avoid the usual morning rush. The pace of driving was slower than usual. There were stops for breakfast and snacks (as well as to vulcanize a punctured tire). We reached Baler at 12 p.m., in time for lunch. Two hours of leisurely lunch plus a couple of beers later, we checked in, just as planned. Hotel checkin is usually 2 p.m. We usually cut our trips into segments, with time allocation for each segment, with normal delays factored into the timeline. We either slow down or pick up the pace depending on where we stand with the segment-time allocation.
The return trip, already through La Paz, was faster at 6 hours. Travel distance is approximately 300 kilometers, one-way. The concrete road going to Baler is in good condition. It’s a safe road, we must say, although not a lot of vehicles pass through here. It’s literally in the middle of nowhere. Nevertheless, the number of military checkpoints along the way only serve to add to that feeling of security.
The drive to Baler should be on a leisurely pace. A speedy assault on the sharp turns, steep in many places, could easily drive passengers terribly dizzy, to say the least. After all, the road to Baler traverses the Sierra Madre range, the longest mountain range in the Philippines. It’s the eastern backbone of Luzon, serving as a natural barrier against typhoons that naturally come from the Pacific Ocean. Towns east of the Sierra Madre, sandwiched by the range and the Pacific Ocean, bears the brunt of typhoons. Baler is one of these towns.
We Love our Politicians
The two provinces we now call Quezon and Aurora used to be one — a province formerly called Tayabas. It’s like how the earth was one huge landmass called Pangea. The capital of the province formerly known as Tayabas is the town also called Tayabas (now a city). The super-province of Tayabas was renamed Quezon Province, in honor of the President who was born here, President Manuel L. Quezon. A sub-province, which eventually became a full-fleged province, was carved out and named after the President’s wife, the First Lady Aurora Aragon Quezon. Baler, which was founded way back in 1609 and where President Quezon was born in 1878, became the capital of Aurora Province.
So, you see how fun it is? Baler is the birthplace of a Philippine President, in whose honor a province was re-named, with a sub-province named after the same President’s wife, except that the sub-province subsequently became a separate province, and that sub-province (which later became a full-fledged province) covers the birthplace of the President under whose name the mother province was named. Having fun? Yes, you’re probably right. Let’s stick to why we went to Baler in the first place — surfing.
Jericho Rosales and the Siege of Baler
But wait, before we go and talk about surfing, let’s lightly touch on another fun fact. No, Jericho Rosales was not born in Baler. He made a movie entitled — you guessed it — Baler. Echo starred with Anne Curtis in this 2008 movie (you SHOULD also watch his 2015 movie, Walang Forever). The movie Baler involves the Siege of Baler. After the [bogus] Spanish-American War of 1898 and a few days after the Philippines declared its Independence, a group of Spanish soldiers holed up in the Baler church (around ten meters from the main door of the church quietly sits the house where President Quezon was born, at the back of the church currently stands the plaza and the Museo de Baler). The siege lasted for a year.
The Baler church, even with its THICK walls, is small. It was completely surrounded and besieged by Filipino insurgents, yet the siege lasted for a year. It was a time of utter confusion, really. In that one-year period, the Philippines unilaterally declared independence from Spain, but Spain ceded the Philippines to the U.S. (Treaty of Paris), then the Philippines went to war against the U.S. The Baler Siege ended on June 2, 1899. Three days later, 5th of June, Heneral Luna was assassinated (sorry, we just have to insert the last fact even if it has no relationship to the narrative; just a fan of the movie Heneral Luna).
Suman de Baler and the Beach House
Each Philippine destination has its different take on the generic suman, or sticky rice cake. Baler’s suman is wrapped in a sigle young coconut leaf strand, tied into place by a plastic string (the Antipolo suman also uses a single coconut leaf strand, but it is wrapped in a different manner). The suman de Baler is on the sweet side — a dull, round kind of sweetness, as opposed to crass sweetness that assaults one’s senses. Because it’s not overly sweet, the suman de Baler could go a notch or two higher when it comes to acceptable sweetness, but we thought there’s a reason why they stopped short of that higher bar — you’re supposed to dip the suman in latik (molasses in coconut milk) or chocolate.
We had our first taste of Suman de Baler at the Beach House Restaurant, the in-house dining place of Costa Pacifica Resort. If restaurants are haunted and there is a need for exorcism, the Beach House is among best-exorcised of them all. It has a modestly big square area, outlined by glass panel walls that give diners a clear view of the distant sea. It’s airy, with the glass doors open, except when it rains. The high ceiling amplifies the open space. Huge tiles cover the floor, which is perfect because you can just walk straight from the adjacent swimming pool, or the sea, and go replenish the depleted calories. What better way to gulp in calories than the fine food at the Beach House?
Of course, there are other delicious items in the the Beach House menu. The Ensaladang Pako is a joy to eat. A bit on the salty side, it’s very filling with the pako and the salted egg (not sure if, for those with heart/high blood pressure problems, eaiting the fresh vegetable offsets the effect of the salted egg). The Fish and Chips was surprisingly a hit with the kids. The Chicken Inasal, way better than a lot of restaurants in the Metro. The Baby Back Ribs, heavenly, and the Seafood Kare-Kare, a must-try when visiting the Beach House.
Next time we visit Baler, we’ll have our meals outside the resorts. We’ve discovered a number of simple karinderya serving authentic Baler cuisine at the back of the Baler Museum. Definitely much cheaper than the usual hotel/resort food.
An overnight stay at Costa Pacifica costs roughly P8,000. There are other less expensive places to stay in Baler, yes, but if we have to prepare and save for a return trip to Baler, we will again choose Costa Pacifica. Besides, it’s good to get hold of discount coupons, slashing the accommodation price by a significant margin.
When we arrived at the resort, it looked brand-new. The storm had pruned the landscape trees and cleared loose debris that would otherwise litter the place. The crew must have cleaned up really well after the strong wind and lashing rains.
Storm or no storm, though, we felt that Costa Pacifica is one well-maintained place. High-ceiling with clean walls, accented by singular flower designs that don’t clutter the place. Just like the Beach House, the rooms are huge and breezy, with a porch overlooking the sea. Our favorite part? The bathroom. Huge bathroom that would allow you to walk in, with sand stuck in loose corners of your body after the surfing adventure, without any fear of the water massing up because of a clogged drain or something. Really nice.
The lone swimming pool is surrounded by the reception area, the restaurant, one wing of the rooms, and the beach. It’s a modest size pool but it’s a big hit among kids.
The singular aspect that we totally appreciate about Costa Pacifica is the brand of service. Really helpful crew. Plenty of smiles. Warm treatment. These guys know what they are doing and doing it really well.
The Surf of Baler
When going to Baler for a surf adventure, it’s important to set the right expectations. If you want the best surfing spot in the Philippines, you go somewhere else, to Siargao, Surigao, which is located in Mindanao. On the other hand, if you want to visit the best surfing place in Luzon, that would be Baler. In our opinion, the progression for surf starters would be from La Union, then Baler, finally Siargao.
We love the fine, black volcanic sand of Baler’s Sabang Beach. The incoming waves rush to cover a huge swat of beach, leaving behind a thin film of calm seawater that reflect the sky. We also appreciate the sense of security that we felt on the beach. We left our things on the beach as we head out to the angry sea, and retrieved them after without anything lost. Perhaps somebody can confirm if our assessment on beach security is correct?
There’s a surfing counter at beside the reception area of Costa Pacifica. Charlie Does Surfing School, it’s called. Tried to figure out the name. It’s possible that the owner’s surname is Does. It’s also possible that the owner, Charlie, does surfing. Forgot to ask the staff, unfortunately (if you guys know the real score, feel free to share it with us). Surfing lessons costs P350 per hour, with a surfing instructor giving basic surfing tips for a few minutes, then bringing you directly to the water for a crash course in surfing.
When we said “crash course,” we meant it literally. It’s hard to imagine a Mr. Perfect who, on the first try, can stand on the board and glide the waves with awesome grace. You’ll definitely come crashing down, which is no problem because you’re on water anyway. Then the waves come crashing down on you, adding salt to the injury (pun intended). No, it’s not physically painful, but you have to learn to forget that people are most likely smiling after seeing you getting wiped out. No pain, no gain, right?
There’s hardly any danger of drowning for beginners because the beginner’s course starts from the chest-deep area, with the instructor shadowing the novice surfer. The powerful waves cut across some distance, so there’s enough time for the surfer student to stand up and glide. Experienced surfers can always head out to the deeper portion to catch the bigger waves. It’s one happy place that offers something to novice and good surfers alike.
Go See Baler
There’s a whole lot more to see and experience in Baler. There’s the Baler balete tree, the largest balete tree in Asia, and the Dimatubo Waterfalls. There are museums, beaches, caves, rock formations and other tourist attractions that we didn’t get to visit. Making time for all these would have meant dropping poison, commonly called stress and pressure, into the surfing cauldron. One adventure at a time, we thought. So, we’ll see you again, Baler.