As long as there’s light, two things are constant in Baler: scenery and surfing. Story and photos by Esther de la Cruz.
Every year with the arrival of the Amihan tradewinds, experienced wave riders descend on the coastal town of Baler in the Philippines. On good days, native bancas ferry surfers to catch nine-foot swells off Cemento Reef, Dicalasarin Point and Dalugan Bay.
During the monsoon season, smaller waves breaking on the sandy cushion of Sabang Beach allow beginners a shot at the fun. Local surfing coaches, all deep tans and toned torsos, urge newcomers on with shouts of, “Up! Up! Up!” at crucial moments.
It’s hardly the idyllic beach scene the Philippines is known for, yet give it time, and Baler’s mystical beauty rarely fails to leave an impression.
The story goes that the film crew of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now left behind boards used in the movie’s helicopter attack scene, filmed in Baler Bay. Curious locals observed the actors’ techniques and in the late 70s, a handful of teenage boys became the first Filipinos to ride the country’s waves. With time, rumours of Baler rippled through surfing circles and foreigners began showing up at what became known as ‘Charlie’s Point’. But Baler was in no rush to share its secrets.
Only within the past two years, following the re-paving of a mountain road and the debut of a comfortable six-hour bus service from Manila, has Baler emerged as a destination for adventure and culture seekers. Weekend holidaymakers from the capital are giving Baler’s tourism a boost. This month the first commercial flights will touch down from Manila at the airport in San Luis, a 30-minute drive away.
And while many come for the waves, Baler has much to offer leisure travellers. In 2013, the 76-room Costa Pacifica Resort debuted as Baler’s first upscale accommodation. Staffed by a team of friendly, efficient Baler residents, with a beachfront location, international restaurant, two swimming pools, an excellent on-site surf school named, ‘Charlie Does’, and partnerships with the area’s top tour operators, Costa Pacifica showcases the best of Baler under one well-designed roof.
The resort’s spacious rooms and plush beds are a joy to return to after a tiring surf session. Organic touches such as locally woven saboten are artfully featured throughout, adding a welcome sense of place. A palette of marine hues, beachy blues and bright white lifts the mood in the open-air Beach House restaurant, where wood-fired pizzas and fresh fish tacos are served alongside Filipino specialities. Suman – Baler’s favourite sweet treat of sticky rice steamed in palm leaves – is offered at the Beach House; as is pako, a tender fern enjoyed in salads or steamed in coconut milk.
Despite its newfound popularity, Baler is wonderfully provincial in its charms. In the tidy town centre, Spain’s signature is evident in the arrangement of a small-scale church, plaza and public market. A museum tells stories of Baler under colonial rule, Baler under water in a 1735 flood, Baler under siege by Chinese pirates and Baler as the last Spanish stronghold in the archipelago. Two-lane streets and bridges lead to nipa huts perched on rocks over the surf, canals lined with colourful bancas, and quiet beaches where pukot, a traditional method of fishing, is still seen.
Yet the idyllic scenes unfolding around Baler and the island swagger on display at Sabang Beach are minor players to the real star of the show, which is Aurora province itself. Some of Luzon’s most rewarding treks wind through the lush, forested peaks of the Sierra Madre, where caves are still being discovered. Nature lovers can dip their toes in the impressive Dimatubo Falls or climb the 600-year-old balete tree just outside the town. It would take 60 tree-huggers to embrace this specimen, thought to be the oldest of its kind in Asia.
It’s safe to say no attraction exemplifies the hidden treasures of Aurora as well as Dicalasarin Cove. Accessed via boat or cliff-hugging drive, the entry passes to Dicalasarin are handed out exclusively by the front desk of Costa Pacifica. What awaits in the cove is a traveller’s dream: sheer rocks guarding a small, empty beach, cool water beckoning with the gentlest of currents, and above it all, a white lighthouse leaning out over the blue of the Pacific.