Treasure of the Sierra Madres

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Mar 7, 2014 - 19:51
  • Updated : Mar 7, 2014 - 19:51
First-time visitors to the Philippines sometimes make the mistake of arriving in Manila without any further travel plans. To be fair, there’s some fine sightseeing to be done ― especially in the Intramuros area, site of the original Spanish fort ― and the city has a certain apocalyptic charm to it, especially during the monsoon season.

Stay too long in Manila, though, and the Philippines’ jungles, dive sites, highland villages, volcanoes and more than 7,000 islands begin to exercise a magnetic pull. An impulse builds up to flee from the rotting concrete to a nearby beach.

This flight mechanism can be seen played out on weekends, when the crowds head south to places like White Beach on Mindoro Island. While only a half-day journey from Manila’s Cubao Bus Terminal, including a short boat ride, it can hardly be called an escape. With the tourist carnival of touts, seashell vendors and masseuses, coupled with the overpriced block-concrete accommodation, it’s almost as wild and woolly as Manila.

Only slightly farther afield, Baler (pronounced “bah-lehr”) in Aurora province, east of Manila, also has a white beach, free of the hassles of the tourist enclave.

Cut off from the rest of Luzon by the southern reaches of the Sierra Madre, the Philippines’ longest mountain range, Baler has always been remote. For visitors, the first impression may well be a refreshing feeling of isolation. Baler’s main draw is a beach that sweeps, in a gradual crescent, farther than the eye can see. Behind and beyond the sand, the mountains rise up along the northern coast in veils of mist.
The restaurant at Bay’s Inn offers well-made food and a view of Sabang Beach in Baler, Aurora province, the Philippines. (Matthew Crawford/The Korea Herald)

For half of the year, Sabang Beach remains a quiet merging of white sand and the Pacific Ocean. The few tourists who come to swim and frolic on the beach are mostly Manilans, and they tend to cluster on the beachfront near the access road. From October to February, though, Sabang turns into a surfing beach. A spot now known as “Charlie’s Point,” where a stream flows into the ocean, was used in the filming of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” in the late ’70s. Never having seen such a use for waves, the brief visit of the film crew opened the eyes of the locals, so that Baler now is commonly referred to ― as it is on the website Surfing Philippines ― as “The Birthplace of Philippines Surfing.”

The scenery hasn’t changed much since the filming of the Vietnam War movie, but the surfing season has. According to a staff member of the tourist office, the waves used to break between July and October instead of during the winter months, when the temperatures reach an extreme low of 19 degrees Celsius. This surf season reversal may be attributed to global climate change.

While Sabang is suitable for beginner surfers, advanced practitioners head to Cemento Beach, where the waves break over a reef. Cemento is a short distance beyond the fishing village of Castillo, at the base of Ermita Hill. From Castillo, it’s a short walk up a set of steps, or along a road, to a Virgin Mary shrine and viewpoint. A further set of steps leads up to a huge white concrete cross, erected by a Filipino emigre in Montreal.

In the days when the Moros sailed up from the predominantly Muslim island of Mindanao to make raids on Baler, villagers used to escape through a small tunnel leading up to where the shrine now stands. The attacks were curbed after the Spanish set up a permanent garrison in Baler at the end of the 16th century, but the tunnel has been preserved, continuing to create claustrophobic anxiety for those with lively imaginations.

Both Cemento Beach and Ermita Hill can be reached on a gentle bangka ride across the San Luis River. A faster alternative is a tricycle ride from town (in the Philippines, a tricycle is a motorcycle with a sidecar). Zipping through single-lane village streets and around sharp hillside turns, the rider barely has time to register road-sign warnings like “Accident Prone” and “Vegetation Control.”

If Baler isn’t remote or quiet enough try Dicasalarin Cove, several kilometers beyond Cemento. Be sure to receive permission to visit and recruit a guide, as the cove is property of the owner of the Bahia de Baler hotel. Aside from surfing, taking walks along the beach and exploring the town, one may also join scuba diving or deep-sea fishing trips. Surf boards can be rented from several places, including the surf shop Charlie Does at Sabang Beach, which charges 800 pesos ($18) a day and also offers lessons. Those interested in colonial history or indigenous peoples are recommended to visit the Museo de Baler.

Lodging with ocean views can be found along Sabang Beach, with prices ranging from about 500 pesos for a non-A.C. room at guesthouses like Pasilyo Lodge and Surf (call +63 (917) 915-1017 for reservations) to the deluxe rooms at Bahia de Baler. As in Korea, the rates fluctuate like the tides ― basic and deluxe rooms at Bahia cost 3,670 pesos and 11,600 pesos on weekdays and 5,280 pesos and 12,230 pesos on weekends (for reservations, call +63 (917) 857-4424).

One of the midrange stalwarts is Bay’s Inn, with room rates of 800 pesos on weekdays and 1,200 pesos on weekends (call +63 (908) 982-3509). Bay’s also provides delectable meals, like fish with fried garlic, though the selection of popular hits in its open-air restaurant is ear-shatteringly loud. Dining options in town include Gerry Shan’s Place (serving seafood and Chinese dishes) and Fermina’s Snack House, with outstanding lomi (pork soup).

Getting there:

Genesis Charters and Tours runs buses from Cubao to Baler from its terminal in Cubao. The first bus of the day departs at 12:30 a.m., the trip takes five to six hours and a one-way ticket costs 700 pesos. Returning buses depart from Baler Market between 5 a.m. and 3 p.m. The company can be reached at +63 (2) 709-0545.

By Matthew C. Crawford (