Where do you take five adults, four teens, three kids and one senior citizen in two Isuzu mu-X’s for a three-day weekend? Well, just drive northeast and take them to Baler in Aurora province. It’s actually an obvious choice as the destination offers fun activities for each and every member of the family.
This travel bug has been coming back to Baler frequently. My first trip was more than 20 years ago, and I had to take the adventurous route by bus that passed through the old winding roads via Villa from Cabanatuan. What used to be a punishing six-hour drive to Baler from Cabanatuan, travel time has been cut down to three hours from the well-paved roads all the way to Baler via SCTEX passing through Rizal and Pantabangan. So if you leave Manila at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, you can be surfing in Baler by mid-morning.
The laid-back town is not only a cool surfing site but a great base for exploring the coast facing the Pacific.
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 in June 2, 1899 when the remaining soldiers surrendered to the combined Philippine-American military ending the more than 300 years of occupation by Spain in the Philippines.
Manuel Luis Quezon, who served as the President of the Commonwealth of the Philippines, was born in Baler on August 19, 1878.
How to get there
The distance between Manila and Baler is around 230 kilometers but if you take the SCTEX, the distance can go as high as 260 kilometers. But this is still the quickest way to go there.
Start in Manila and drive north via NLEX. Exit from Mabalacat and then enter SCTEX. Exit from Tarlac City and continue drive westward via La Paz, then Zaragosa, and then turn left to Aliaga. Continue drive until the Maharlika Highway in Talavera, and then turn right to 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 and then Villa. It is still 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. 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 P300 to P400 per hour. Those who wish not to surf with amateurs can head to Cemento where the breaks are bigger.
Sabang Beach is not recommended for swimming. The best place for swimming is at Dicasalarin Cove. Entrance to this cove costs P300 per person, and one needs a sturdy vehicle that can drive along a narrow, winding road to the private resort at Dicalasarin. Otherwise, it is best to just see the cove from the viewdeck at the Pagasa station. The drive to Pagasa and Dicasalarin also takes visitors to the Hanging Bridge, Ermita Hill, Diguisit Falls, and Baler Lighthouse.
Those who wish to retrace Baler’s historic past can visit the San Luis Obispo de Tolosa church. Every Sunday morning, the members of Aeta tribe come there to sell fresh kamote (sweet potato), bananas and gabi (taro root).
In front of the church is the house of Dona Aurora, the wife of Manuel Luis Quezon. It is now converted into a museum. Those who wish to know more about Baler and its famous son can head straight to Museo de Baler. For selfie fanatics, 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 wish to splurge, there’s Costa Pacifica. This 106-room resort hotel has all the amenities of a modern hotel including outdoor pool, gym, and kids’ playground.
But if you a taking a big family, better go for a homestay. During my last visit, we found a house near Sabang Beach with three air-conditioned bedrooms and a complete kitchen for P6,000 a day. This helped us save for the cost of eating out because we cooked most of our meals.
But if you wish to dine out, there’s plenty of restaurants to choose in Baler. For a unique experience, there’s Baler Surfer Grille where their 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 (sausage). The nearby Bay’s Inn has buffets on weekends.
For cheap eats, head straight to the row of carinderias (small local eateries) in front of the hospital where one can get a full meal for P60 or less. Or go to the market to buy 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 for P100 for a 20 piece-pack.
For those who can wake up early, go to Sabang Beach to watch the beautiful sunrise coming from the Pacific.
The good food, relaxing stay, and exciting adventures make Baler one of the favorite family road trip destinations on my list.
The author is an automotive industry veteran, and is the head of Product Development and Marketing for Isuzu Philippines Corp. His passions in life are good food, photography, and exploring the great outdoors.