Monday, September 10, 2018

Baler Break: Taking the Chill Pill, the Sights and the Food in Aurora

The surf.  The waves.  The light.  Ampere Beach in the morning
That we were billeted in a boutique resort in Baler is a telltale indication that the place has come a long way from quaint and simple.   Two of our friends were celebrating their birthdays in September and an invite to spend a weekend in L'Sirene, the only boutique resort in Baler, Aurora, came in.  Who am I to say no?  Even though I'm really more at home in simpler accommodations, I'll take a complimentary treat.  Besides, I need the break.

Curious that all this time I've been to the places near the province but I've never been to Baler.  My friends, who've all been repeat visitors to the place, cannot help but keep comparing the old with the new.  A Mercury Drug in town.  Three 7Eleven stores scattered in adjoining barangays.  And now, a boutique resort catering to the other extreme of the market that once patronized Baler.

First off, the bus trip was really fast -- much faster than I thought it would be.  We left the Joybus station in Cubao around 11pm and before we really got into the deeper phases of slumber, the conductor was already tapping the side of the bus prior to parking in Baler before 5:30am.  I don't intend to complain although a) being relegated to the rearmost seats to the side of the restroom isn't exactly comfy; my seat doesn't recline and I felt the bumps of the road; and b) the restroom really stinks (in an enclosed space, this is really problematic).  Anyway, L'Sirene has an early check-in add-on of P250/hour which we took advantage of since we hardly slept on the Joybus anyway.
Mother Falls of Ditumabo
L'SIRENE, FINDING A BIT OF SWANK AMIDST THE COCONUT GROVES. L'Sirene is well, serene, if swanky, especially on a Friday.  It's tucked in a 3-hectare former coconut plantation in Brgy. Reserva, about 7 kilometers away from the main town and sort of sizeable easement of 300-350 meters from the main road as the resort faces the sea to the east.  It could be a bit unfair to repeat the oft-said label -- that the place's claim to fame is its owner, sexy actress Sam Pinto -- because the resort is rather nice.  The rooms are walled from the courtyard/pool with glass, which while elegant, distinctivem and adds to the sophisticated architecture, makes it hard for people like me to sleep as I can't really rest with even a tiny bit ambient light (good thing I always carry an eye mask).   The loo is a separate room from the shower which is very, very convenient.  There's a 43" LED flatscreen with Cignal digital box which is nice but personally, I take it as an unnecessary complication when out on vacation as it lulls you to passivity instead of pushing you to explore.   It's also hard to complain about the bed, pillows and sheets save for the fact that it's easy to get lazy and opt to stay in (such is the dilemma of the present day tourist:  too comfortable accommodations can lure you away from what you came for in the first place).

NO ITINERARY, NO PROBLEM.  We really had not much plans except to take it easy and let each day unfold save for some spots we want to shoot on sunrise and sunset hours.  On our first afternoon, we visited the Mother Falls of Ditumabo, site of the hydroelectric plant (currently in repair due to damage sustained from rock falls from a typhoon months ago) in Brgy. San Luis.  The 25-30 minute hike from the jump-off takes one through several river crossings, ankle and knee-deep in some places, dramatic cliffs and intact forest cover.  Coming on a Friday was a blessing as we had the Mother Falls almost all to ourselves.  We brought along some Aling Pacing's wonderful banana and kamote (native yam) chips for eating along the trail but could only eat them on the way home -- eating is prohibited on the falls and the trail which is understandable as it keeps the surroundings pristine.
The Millennium Tree in Brgy. Ma. Aurora
We visited the Millennium Tree in Brgy. Maria Aurrora before the sunset, amazed at the site of this over 600-year old monstrosity.  I wasn't able to go inside the hollowed middle which my friend, Ferdz, said housed puppies inside as well as CCTV cameras.

For the sunrise on Saturday, we ventured to Ampere Beach in Dipaculao, about 45-50 minutes away via tricycle.  There were a handful of young female tourists waiting for the sunrise when we got there but we opted to located ourselves very near the surf.  No dramatic sunset that day (although our friends who patiently returned the next morning got a glorious one) but still beautiful and breathtaking especially when you happen to shoot just where the water intermittently pounds the rocks with loud thuds.  Our running joke was:  imagine what we put ourselves through to get a nice picture and publications would just ask for them for free nowadays.  Either that, or some joker would steal them and claim them as his own.  Funny.  Not funny.
Diguisit Beach Formations
After a hearty late, late lunch at Luntian, we chose Diguisit Beach for sunset, wanting to shoot the dramatic rock formations (and pet the really-friendly dogs roaming the beach).  Again, no dramatic sunsets that day.  Well, that's weather-weather for you.  Add to that complication are some young guests from nearby Nueva Ecija who would freely wade in front of my camera while I'm clearly taking a shot.  One clueless lad even asked me to take his profile picture; the nerve.  The other guys would make a short-lived hobby of trying to pull fishes and octopi from the shallows, just for the heck of it.  I tend to be friendly to fellow-tourists and travelers but there's a limit as to what I can tolerate.  Certainly not crassness and plain insensitivity so please excuse me for eventually ignoring the lads.

All the more reason to find an excuse to revisit Charlie Does along Buton St. at the back of the humongous, 3-star hotel, Costa Pacifica, on Sabang, to sample the craft beer and more of the vegetarian fare.  The place is interesting on many levels: for one, the local surfing scene which got started in the aftermath of the filming of Francis Ford Coppola's opus, "Apocalypse Now" in the 1980s, was nurtured with the manufacture of local boards here.  Also, the vegetarian fare is really very, very good even if you're not much into veggie stuff.
Putting the jacuzzi-pool to good use
Two of our friends returned to Ampere Beach on our third morning and got the lovely sunrise they were looking for; the other half of our group, me included, opted to stay in and enjoy the bed instead.   I spent the early part of the morning birding.  Later, the waves were lookin' huge for our foray to the seashore; we spent our remaining hours in L'Sirene between the sea and the centerpiece jacuzzi pool (it would be a shame not to put the pool into good use).  Before boarding the Joybus headed back to Manila, we opted to revisit Luntian for more of their really tasty grilled offerings.  We found some familiar faces there, kinda like finding myself in Sagada and seeing the same faces from one tourist spot to another.  

ENJOYABLE STAY WITH SOME RESERVATIONS.  I enjoyed our short stay in Baler though my destination preference is really some relatively un-touristy place (maybe, Casiguran and beyond is in our future?).  It's good that Luntian serves some Baler and Quezon native fare but I guess that the other places, L'Sirene included, opt not to, which I think is a pity.  I do not come to a place expecting a homogeneous smorgasbord of food and offerings found most of everywhere else.   It's sort of how Sagada establishments changed their menus to suit the guests instead of the guests learning to enjoy the local fare.

While I like the small town vibe of Baler, I guess I came here a decade or two late.  I'm a traveler-type who doesn't mind the usual "hassles" of rural living, the transport woes, the "unusual" food.  In fact, I'm looking for things and experiences unique to the place.  I guess I will have to find it further down the coast where the transport is a bit more rigorous, hence, keeping the casual "selfie" tourists away.  Well, tourism has its good and bad sides anyway.  Listening to our guide, Adrian, I've come to know the good -- he recalls their family going hungry when he was young, his parents opting to eat bananas so that he and his siblings can have the rice and viand.  Contrast to the present when his family is much better off, eating much better, the kids getting an education.

MEET ADRIAN, PERHAPS, THE QUINTESSENTIAL BALER LOCAL.  We lucked out in having Adrian Bihasa as our guide cum trike driver.  Knowledgeable, patient and very trustworthy, he proffered a lot of useful information about the place, the history, the local culture.  I would like to think he exemplifies the Baler ambitious and industrious local -- he grew up caring for his younger siblings; tried his luck in Manila for two years and came back to once again try his fortunes in Baler.  From being a wayward youth, he turned his life around after marriage.  His wife is an OFW in Kuwait; their kids will soon be transferring to private schools in Baler.  He owns his own house and plies his own tricycle.  Eight years ago, he dreamt of being more than just a trike driver and attended a tourism workshop.   Fast-forward to the present, he takes tourists and guests around as trike driver and tourist guide, ably answering queries and imparting insights of his own.

One thing I look for first wherever I go is where can I taste truly local fare.   We had glimpses of it in the suman (native rice cake) we bought from the local market, the suman-leche flan we had for desert in Luntian. Next time we visit, Adrian promised to personally cook us some.  I'll gladly take him on it one day.
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