Go! Issue 43 - March 15-April 15, 2000

It's not easy being GREEN

Raise your hands, whoever knows where the province of Aurora is. Yes, there's a straggle of film buffs who know that the movie "Apocalypse Now" was set in Baler. And yes, there are backpacking surfers who also know what "tubes" and "barrels" are have been to the annual surfing competitions at Cemento Beach. Rounding up this esoteric group of people knowledgeable about Aurora are mountaineers who've crossed the Sierra Madre, Lambanog (coconut wine) enthusiasts, and retired communists who used to hike up the mountains to take refuge from Marcos' minions. Otherwise, everybody is clueless.

Getting There is the Adventure

Aurora is bounded on the North by Isabela, on the South by the Northern port of Quezon, on the East by the Pacific Ocean, and on the West by Quirino, Nueva Vizcaya and Nueva Ecija. To get there, start at the North Expressway. From Bulacan, take the road that goes to Cabanatuan, at which point you definitely need to make a pit stop before you head up the mountains.

My companions tell me stories of man-eating pythons, death-dealing spiders, wild boar and dangerous NPA (New People's Army, communist rebels) on the way. The sun streams down the miles of deep gorges so lush you'd think it was made of velvet. The sky has never been bluer. People are bathing in fresh springs by the roadside. The sight is inspiring, but our van is not the best vehicle to take on this long and bumpy ride on unpaved roads.

Too Much Greenery

Our arrival to Aurora is heralded by a memorial to Doña Aurora Quezon, the wife of ex-President Quezon, who was ambushed in the 50's. We're ushered off to our host's residence at Baler, the capital. Rep. Bellaflor Angara-Castillo's house is by Sabang Beach. She has a great view of the moon. I watch waves lunging towards the shore, scouring for sand.

Coconut trees grow in bunches, and when the wind blows, they look like they're clawing their way up to the sky. Rep. Angara-Castillo tells us that Aurora has 60-70% of it's original forest cover, making it the greenest province in the country. It's not surprising, then, that the first tourist spot we visit is a tree. The Millennium Tree, the biggest Balete tree in Asia, has its own park in Barangay Quirino. It's a 600 year-old tree, 213 feet in diameter (it would take 54 tree-huggers to protect this tree), and is the height of a six story building. Traditionally, known to house bad spirits, this Balete is different; it's only associated with good luck. The Ilongots ( a native tribe in Aurora) pray to it for good hunting, and guerrillas used it to hide in. It is so big the roots have formed caves you can crawl through for good luck.

Big beaches, small beaches

Noli Guerrero is the head of Environment for Tomorrow, a non-government organization which spearheads projects for the province. He says, "Locals know how hard it is to get to Aurora, so when we have visitors, we really make an effort to be hospitable." Hospitable is an understatement. Say "karaoke" and they'll stay up with you all night singing "My Way." Mention "ocean" and they'll take you to all the different kinds of beaches in the vicinity-all of them quite unique.

Sabang beach is where beginners learn to surf; the sand is almost black, but the water is very clear. Dipaculao beach doesn't have sand, and the beach is mad of big flat stones instead. When the waves draw back into the sea, the stones click together from the force of the waves and make noise like clapping hands. It's quite an experience for sunset, but it's very dangerous to swim in. Digisit beach has sand that is exactly like sesame-seeds in consistency and color, and is deserted, save for fishermen gathering clams. It's perfect for sunbathing. Cemento beach has a long stretch of white sand. You walk through growing mangroves (mostly knee-high) to get to the coral break. Surfers come here to see waves up to 14 feet high.

Getting Around

It's a good idea to make Sabang Beach your base in Baler, because Sabang has the most places to stay in. Don't expect five star accommodation. Some rooms have air conditioners, and the bathrooms are mostly clean, but it's a rare place with hot showers-if at all. AMCO beach resort (Tel. 044-552-4209) is styled like an American colonial building, but the name is a misnomer-it's not beach front property. They do have good food (try the paco salad). Bays Inn (Tel. (02)410-0643) has been catering mostly to surfers for 20 years, and they have a veranda facing the sea. Surfboards are for rent for PhP150/day, while boogie boards are PhP75/day. You can get surfing lessons from the locals. Angara Beach Resort (Tel. 042-209422) is owned by the mayor's daughter and has a charmingly landscaped garden. Room rates average at PhP250-700, depending on where you stay.

Getting around Aurora is easy enough-all places are accessible by tricycle. And depending on where you're going, be prepared to pay anything from PhP5-30 pesos.

Other attractions include historical churches ( Aurora was the last bastion of the Spanish regime), natural springs and waterfalls, some caves and parks. If you want to go to surrounding towns like Dinalungan, Casiguran or Dilasag, you can go by boat for a fee.

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