Sun, Sand and Surf

The town plaza is popular for the huge signage that spells out the town’s name. (Photo courtesy of Jun Ruiz)

Baler, in Aurora province, is a perfect getaway for a long weekend, wherein one can have his heart’s desire of sandy beaches fronting the roaring waves of the Pacific Ocean. Gastroenterologist and fitness enthusiast Dr. Jun Ruiz enjoys the thrill of surfing for the first time, and discovers more of this coastal town

If you are looking for the charm of a quaint coastal town to escape the hustle and bustle of Metro-Manila, Baler is the place. It is located in the province of Aurora and is six hours away from the metropolis. It is nestled around breathtaking mountains and is bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the east. Baler is the perfect getaway for a long weekend. It is literally a hidden gem in Luzon, enclosed by the beautiful Sierra Madre mountains and its sandy beaches fronting the roaring waves of the ocean. This remote location afforded relative isolation that has helped preserve its historical sites and cultural heritage that are all deeply rooted in its past. Though Baler is best known for surfing, there are more attractions and fun activities this town can offer to visitors over a few days. But frankly, surfing was the reason I went to Baler.

The history of surfing

Surfing has always fascinated me. The sport requires athleticism, speed, top form, and confidence. Surfer dudes, in their brightly-colored rash guards and boardwalk shorts, look cool both at the top of the waves and on the beach. They seem to have all the fun under the sun and living the moment like there is no tomorrow. Sometimes, I wish I could be one of those carefree guys.

Surfing has always fascinated the author. He had his moment of sun, sand, and surf in Baler. (Photo courtesy of Jun Ruiz)

Surfing may seem to appear as an American sport, but its origins were in Tahiti in ancient Polynesia around the 18th century. The European explorers observed that the natives were into competitive surfing. Surfing was only introduced in the United States in 1912, but it took off in the 1960s when popular culture was fascinated by its lifestyle. Southern California emerged as the surfing heaven in America.

In the last decade, my interest in learning to surf grew. I lived in California during these times, and had the chance to visit some of the finest beaches where surfing is popular, like Santa Cruz, Huntington Beach, Pismo Beach, and Malibu. I would sit by the sand and watched these surfers ride at the top of the waves. In my personal observation, they are athletes in top form, possessing the skills, flexibility, balance, and determination to make this difficult sport look easy. Back then, my workload as a physician was heavy, and the distance to these beaches were also significantly far. I yearned to learn surfing when opportunity would present itself. Little did I know that this goal would be achieved only after almost a decade right here in the Philippines.

The birthplace of surfing in the Philippines

The birthplace of surfing in the Philippines is Baler. The history started in 1977 during the filming of a surfing scene in director Francis Ford Coppola’s cult classic Apocalypse Now that was about the Vietnam War. After the filming finished in Baler, the American production crew members left their surfboards with some locals picking up the boards to learn to surf by themselves. Thus, the Philippine surfculture was officially born.

During one of the three-day weekends last year, I came up with an idea to go on a road trip around Luzon with friends. Flying was not an option as the plan was only finalized two weeks before our trip. We had several destinations in mind, but I focused on Baler to rekindle my desire to learn surfing. My cousin Cynthia and I were able to recruit few of our friends, like Beh, Susan and her nephews, who were all eager to give the sport a try. As no one wanted to drive through the winding mountain roads continuously for hours, we rented a van for our convenience. We were fortunate that our driver Reyno has been to Baler several times and he then served as our guide during the entire trip.

The author considered his first surfing lesson a mild success. (Photo courtesy of Jun Ruiz)

Tour back in time

We left Metro-Manila at 6 in the morning, and arrived past noon in Baler. We first checked in at the newly opened The Cube by Costa, a hip hotel property made up of ingeniously re-purposed shipping containers and all-white exteriors. Then we proceeded to the upscale resort destination Costa Pacifica for lunch. This beachfront hotel has luxurious amenities, like the beautiful outdoor swimming pools, a big green lawn with gazebos, and a boardwalk where you see great views of the towering waves of the Pacific. We ate our lunch at the main restaurant called the Beach House, reportedly where the best culinary recipes are offered in Baler.

The author and his friends Cynthia, Susan, and Beh enjoyed the walk on the Hanging Bridge. (Photo courtesy of Beh Perez)

For the afternoon, we headed to the town proper to learn about the history and culture of Baler. The town of Baler was founded by the Spaniards in 1609. We first stopped at the small plaza at the center of the town, which is a favorite spot for visitors. Here you will see the huge signage that spells out the town’s name, the 400-year monument, and the surfboard props. We took Instagram-worthy group pictures by the sign. Then we went to the ancestral home of the former First Lad yAurora Aragon Quezon to start our tour back in time. This design of the house is a classic architecture of the “bahay kubo”, a simple hut made of wood and nipa. We then proceeded to the ancestral house of former President Manuel L. Quezon. Aurora and Manuel Quezon are the only historical couple where two Philippine provinces have been individually named after them.

Ermita Hill offers the vantage point of panoramic views of the Baler coast. (Photo courtesy of Jun Ruiz)

A couple of blocks away is the San Luis Obispo Parish Church where the historic Siege of Baler occurred in 1898. The Spanish troops had their final stand and took refuge in the church for nearly a year even after the war against the Americans ended. We finally visited the Museo de Baler, where we caught a glimpse of the colorful history and culture during the Spanish colonial period. There are various artifacts on display, like Chinese porcelain from galleon ships, and relics from the Siege of Baler. Just outside is the Quezon Memorial Park, where a statue of the president sits in the middle of the park. After we had our dinner at Aliya’s camp resort, we slept early to prepare for our early morning surfing lessons.

The ancestral home of the former First Lady Aurora Aragon Quezon is a classic “bahay kubo”. (Photo courtesy of Beh Perez)
After a 45-minute hike, you will find the 50-m high Ditumabo Falls. (Photo courtesy of Jun Ruiz)

Sabang Beach

Waking up just before sunrise, we all walked with excitement and delight from the Cube towards Aliya Surf Camp Resort at Sabang Beach. This beach is the prime surfing center in all of Baler, and surfers from all corners of the world come to experience the adrenaline at Sabang Beach. While the waves can reach up to 9 ft high and are best during peak surfing season from September to April, one can still catch some baby waves near the shore throughout the year.

The soft fine gray sand of Sabang Beach stretches for over two kilometers. Under the gentle morning sun, the waves were smaller than imagined and just right for us first-time surfers. We met our instructors in the shacks, rented our surfboards, and learned the basic techniques of surfing before we headed to the waters.

To become a surfer, one has to possess a few skills that I believe I have: determination, balance, flexibility, strength, and endurance. Having regular strength training and cardiovascular exercises helped me in the last three elements. With my determination, I was prepared for this moment. I headed to the chest-deep waters with my instructor. I lied down prone on the board, while waiting for the waves to come.

Despite my repeated wipeouts (falls) from the surfboard, this only made me more determined than ever. By the halfhour, I was able to maintain my balance for at least five seconds. Eventually, I was able to consistently reach the shore without falling off the board. It was a mild success, but it did not really come easy. Surfing was one on my bucket list, but this was no onetime deal. I took another one-hour lesson the following morning, and improved as a beginner. This was my moment of sun, sand, and surf – just like those of the California surfer dudes.

The biggest balete tree in Asia towers over 200 feet, and is believed to be 600 years-old. (Photo courtesy of Joshua Paraguya)

Rock formations and Dicasalarin Cove

After our breakfast, we proceeded to visit the other natural wonders of Baler. We first crossed the popular Hanging Bridge in Barangay Zabali, where you get good views of the Tibag-Sabang River. Excited to enjoy the gorgeous local scenery, we headed to the top of Ermita Hill, which offers the vantage point of panoramic views of the Baler coast, Sabang Beach, and the Pacific Ocean. You will also see the Tromba Marina statue on its slopes, which immortalizes the miraculous journey to safety of the survivors to the top of the hill during the 1735 tsunami that ravaged Baler.

After lunch, we went to visit Diguisit Beach not for swimming, but to be captivated by the amazing natural brown rock formations called Aniao islets. These adorn the rocky coast and were shaped by the pounding of the waves over centuries. This is a picturesque attraction popular for photo-taking. The summer temperature got hotter during the day that we decided to go to the secluded Dicasalarin Cove, surrounded by beautiful foliage of the hills of Baler. Before our descent, we enjoyed the serenity of one of the best vistas of Baler from the hills. We enjoyed the private white sand beach to ourselves as the clear waters cooled us down.

Ditumabo Mother Falls

After another thrilling hour of surfing at Sabang Beach in the following morning, we proceeded to make a side trip to the popular Ditumabo Mother Falls, the biggest waterfalls in Aurora in the neighboring town of San Luis. Getting there is literally not a walk in the park. The trek was an adventure by itself, took 45 minutes, as we crossed a few streams and climbed up the rocky path along the gentle slopes under the forest canopy. The rough hike was definitely worth it, as I was overwhelmed by the breathtaking sight of the 50-m high Ditumabo Falls. The mountain-fed waters cascade down into a 30-m wide basin, creating a natural swimming pool. We plunged and swam in the refreshing cool blue waters, a satisfying reward after a challenging hike.

The secluded Dicasalarin Cove is surrounded by beautiful foliage of the hills of Baler. (Photo courtesy of Jun Ruiz)

On our way to Manila, we visited the biggest balete tree in Asia known as the Millennium Tree. It towers over 200 feet, and is believed to be 600 years-old. You can easily enter inside the hollow center of this supernatural tree.

Riding back to Manila, I was full of contentment and tremendous achievement. I only wanted to surf and to ride the famous waves for the weekend, but I got so much more. I will continue to surf as this ignited the adventurer in me. My memories of Baler will forever have a place in my heart.

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