My first glimpse of Baler was from inside the confines of a movie house. It was from the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now. Baler was used as the location for the now famous “surfing scene.” In that scene, Richard Wagner’s “Ride Of The Valkyries” is played through helicopter-mounted loudspeakers during the assault on a Vietnamese village. It was one of the most beautiful movie scenes I had ever seen. Baler was quite stunning even if it was made to look like a war-ravaged Vietnamese village.
After that, I wanted to go to Baler. It took me almost 20 years to finally do so. The bus I was on spent forever to reach Baler via the old winding Villa Road—over five hours to do the 125km stretch from Cabanatuan! Our bus had to stop many times due to landslides. We even had to go down from the bus several times so that it could navigate the narrow trails. It was a thrilling ride. And Baler did not disappoint when we got there.
The laid-back town is not only a cool surfing site, but also a great base for exploring the other side of the Sierra Madre. Baler also has a rich history. The first settlement of Baler was founded by Franciscan missionaries in 1609. In 1898–15 days after the declaration of Philippine Independence in Kawit—54 Spanish soldiers of the Baler garrison made the San Luis Obispo de Tolosa Church their barracks. The Siege of Baler lasted for almost a year with many of the original soldiers dying of disease. It ended on June 2, 1899, when the remaining soldiers surrendered to the combined Philippine-American military, ending the more-than-300-year occupation of Spain in the Philippines.
Manuel Luis Quezon, who served as the President of the Commonwealth of the Philippines, was born here on August 19, 1878.
How to get there
The distance between Manila and Baler is around 230km. The fastest way is to drive via Pantabangan Road. Start in Manila and drive north via the North Luzon Expressway. Exit from Mabalacat and then enter SCTEX. Exit from Tarlac City and continue driving westward via La Paz, then Zaragosa, and then left to Aliaga. Carry on until the Maharlika Highway in Talavera, and then turn right toward the big “To Baler” signage in Rizal.
After Rizal, the road goes up and gets winding in Pantabangan and continues before descending to Maria Aurora. Turn right to Baler. Sabang, where most of the resorts are located, is right across the bridge after the municipal hall.
Those who wish to take a more scenic route to Baler can take the old road via Palayan. It is still a good road all the way to Bongabon, but the trail gets a littler stiffer and rougher in Villa before finally reaching Baler via San Luis.
What to see, what to do
People come to Baler to surf. Or watch babes in bikinis and dudes in board shorts. But seriously, it is the best place to learn surfing in the Philippines. The whole Sabang area is where one tries surfing for the first time. Surfing lessons with instructors and surfboards cost P350 to P400 per hour. After you drink enough seawater, you will be able to stand on the long board. After that, you can rent the surfboards for P200 and drink more seawater on your own.
Those who do not wish to surf with amateurs can head for Cemento, where the breaks are bigger.
Sabang Beach is not recommended for swimming. People usually go to Dicasalarin Cove either by renting a boat from Sabang or by driving via Pag-Asa Road. At Pag-Asa Station, one can have a good view of Dicasalarin. Try to climb the new lighthouse at Dicasalarin Point to get a breathtaking view of the coastal Aurora.
Those who wish to retrace Baler’s historic past can visit the San Luis Obispo de Tolosa Church. Every Sunday morning, the members of the Aeta tribe come here to sell fresh kamote, saging and gabi.
In front of the church is the house of Doña Aurora, the wife of Manuel Quezon. It has now been converted into a museum. Those who want to know more about Baler and its famous son can head straight to Museo de Baler. For selfie addicts, a giant “Baler” signage stands in front of the tourism office.
Visitors can also head to the nearby towns of Maria Aurora to visit the centuries-old Balete tree, and San Luis for a challenging 30-minute trek to Ditumabo Falls.
Where to stay, what to eat
Baler offers a wide range of accommodations, from the basic to the luxurious. For those who don’t mind splurging, there’s Costa Pacifica. This 106-room resort hotel has all the amenities of a modern hotel including an outdoor pool, a gym and a kiddie playground. It stands on the same spot where the “surfing scenes” in Coppola’s movie were shot.
Those on a budget can find guest houses and surf camps that offer lodging for P500 or less per day per person. They include Charlie Does Hostel, Bay’s Inn, Aliya Surf Camp and Parajora Lodge. Those traveling with a big group can check out some of the homestay offerings, or book via Airbnb.
For dining, there are plenty of restaurants to choose from. For a unique experience, there’s Baler Surfer Grill, where Chicken Pinadapa is grilled inside the hood of a Volkswagen Beetle. Beach House, Costa Pacifica’s in-house restaurant, makes good grilled fish and Baler’s famous longanisa. The nearby Bay’s Inn has buffets on weekends.
For cheap eats, head straight to the public market where one can get a full meal for P50 or less. The market also sells favorite Filipino snacks like banana cue and turon for less than P10. It is also here where one can buy Suman de Baler, or sweetened purple sticky rice wrapped in coconut leaf.
There’s a lot of things to take home from Baler. There are handwoven handicrafts made from the local grass sold at the Visitor Center. There’s also this yummy home-made peanut butter of Nanay Pacing. But the most unusual souvenir one can bring home is the giant wooden statue of a girl riding a huge male genitalia. I don’t think this is their version of the “Ride of the Valkyries.”