What's On & Expat, Aug. 27 - Sept. 2, 2006

Baler High
By Katrina A. Holigores

An extensive sandbox.

Last minute trips I am told are normally wrought with adventure and discovery, these descriptions I have to qualify are normally true for people who are keen on backpacking and in every literal sense "roughing it". There is fear that adventure and discovery are not of those documented so prettily on the pages of a glossy magazine, but there is also that heart racing chance of finding something new about the country you live in, and about yourself. To be brutally honest, I had no expectations whatsoever when I was invited by a cousin to see her ancestral town of Baler in the province of Aurora. I just needed to get out of Manila for a couple of days and spending some time away in a new place seemed the perfect elixir to my urban-ed out soul. So with less than 48 hours to get ready for a weekend stay, I was ready to go, with fingers crossed and disinfectant, hand sanitizers, sunblock and a book within reach.

Fast Facts

Step into the Heritage trail.

Most people, even locals confuse the province of Aurora with the province of Quezon, and this is mainly because Aurora was part of Quezon province from the Spanish occupation up until 1979. Aurora province is the north-eastern most province of Central Luzon and is bordered on the north by the provinces of Isabela and Quirino, on the west by Nueva Ecija and Nueva Viscaya, on the south by Bulacan and Quezon, and on the east by the Pacific Ocean. So what does this translate to in terms of travel time? If you go by land (in our case we chartered a bus) it could take you anywhere from 6-8 bumpy hours since The province's main link to the rest of Luzon is through a narrow mountain gravel road that snakes through the Sierra Madre Mountain Range. For those who do not want to discover how sore their rear ends can be after 6-8 hours can splurge and charter a flight or befriend someone who owns a helicopter, the trip time is greatly reduced to about an hour.

There are some perks though to taking the journey by land, and that's the view (of the horizon and not the pirated movies they have onboard). The Sierra Madre mountain range is an awesome sight and the absence of high-rises, smog and billboards with products you will never buy disappear into distant memory. All of a sudden you do have a feeling of adventure and you do look for- ward to what lies ahead. When our chosen spot for accommodations came into view we happily (and stifly) trooped out of the bus and into our rooms at the Bay's Inn.

The Morning After

The author and fellow travelmate Mike Yuson in front of Quezon's birthplace.

After a much deserved sleep I decided to get to know the surrounding area more. The Bay's Inn was rather modest albeit comfortable in terms of its facilities but it was located right on Sabang Beach. The minute you walk out of your room you see sand, sea and mountains that are a perfect affirmation of how far you've come. Although I wanted nothing more than to take a dip in the ocean, I knew that I only had one full day of exploring left so decided to take a tricycle into the town of Baler. Baler, Aurora's capital, is home to several things; it is the birthplace of the first Philippine President of the Commonwealth, Manuel L. Quezon, it is also where the Spanish Garrison took it's last stand (the siege of Baler) and, presently it also plays host as the 2nd leg of the nationwide Surfing Competition.

The Iglesia de San Luis.

First stop was the Iglesia ni San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, a church right in the heart of town. This church had a rather violent and valiant history having been the shelter for many during the War. A few steps from the church were literally, more steps. Footprints embedded on the ground were the start of the Heritage Trail, which would lead any traveler from the church to the other historical markers around. Next stop was the Quezon Memorial park which was (during my stay) the future home of a new bronze statue of Manuel L. Quezon, a bahay "kobo" (native wooden house) where Quezon was born and the very pretty Museo de Baler. This quaint museum has exhibits on the llongots, who are the ethnic tribe that populate the area and memorabilia on the last president. For a time it will also display some plants and other foliage that were introduced to the Philippines from Spain.

From Ascot to Oahu

The airy exterior of Aurora State College of Technology.

Our very entertaining impromptu tour guide, and Quezon descendant, Ricky Avancena, advised us to take a trip up to Ascot. No, we weren't about to see horses thundering down a track while we wore our most eye-catching hats, we were on our way to the Aurora State College of Technology campus. The airy interiors and the breathtaking view would in my opinion be both conducive and detrimental to any of its students. The first, keeping them feeling cool and refreshed, the second, of the waters below would be tempting enough to make anyone want to hit the waves.

Surfing the afternoon away is a popular pastime among the locals of Sabang Beach. in Baler, Aurora.

Back down in Sabang Beach we're surfers, ok, the comparison to the swells found in Hawaii are a bit much, but I'm sure the mindset of the kids riding the boards were the same, to take the ride of their life. February marks the height of surfing fever when the Governor's Cup is held and participants from the Philippines and overseas make a trek to baler to compete. Surfboards and lessons are available for first timers you just have to ask the locals where to go along the beach.

Wrapping Up

Of Baler blood: Yael Buencamino with Gov. Angara-Castillo.

The beauty Baler was offset by its close affinity with its natural resources. The absence of modern looking type establishments I personally feel lends to the charm of this province and is only enhanced by the fresh sea food and "suman" (a native sticky rice desert) that is available everywhere. A souvenir could be a weaved hat made out of "sabutan" which is an endemic plant in Aurora, although if I could have taken home the fresh sea air and the crashing sound of the waves, that would have been much more ideal. Even with another intestine-shaking 8 hour ride back to Manila, the serenity of my very brief stay in Baler was certainly worth "roughing it".

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