June is traditionally the start of the rainy season, but this year it felt like it was still dead in the middle of summer. Some 230 kilometers north of Manila, Baler takes a 7-8 hours drive from Manila if you are not in a hurry – and you shouldn’t. The road to Baler traverses several provinces – Bulacan, Pampanga, Tarlac, Nueva Ecija, Aurora – and you detach yourself more and more from urban civilization as you pass by each of them. The stretch from Nueva Ecija to Aurora is particularly pretty. You start with the endless expanse of rice paddies in the planes of Central Luzon, then transition to the rolling foothills as you go nearer Aurora, before the scenery gives way to the hulking, forested giants of the Sierra Madre, the mountain range that stradles the border between the two provinces. Along the way you’ll pass by scenic man-made lakes, and lush green forests that melt the summer heat away. Those with schumacher-ish fantasies may also appreciate the winding roads cutting through the mountains, but extreme caution is to be taken as the road has sudden, nasty turns with mountain walls on one side and steep ravines on the other. Coupled with poor signage and missing railings, the road could remind a careless, rushing driver that cars can’t fly. And make sure to take the longer but smoother route that passes through Pantabangan, as your vehicle will not appreciate travelling the direct way through Bongabon, unless you’re driving a tank.
As we got into Baler though, we were welcomed by a town that looked like…well…a mountain range away from civilization – they don’t even have Jollibee (shock!). Our experience went all downhill the moment we set foot. First, the transient house we were supposed to stay in did not honor our Booking.Com reservation with them, so we had to hastily arrange for less than ideal and hopelessly overpriced accommodations. It looks like the best way to get a booking here is the old phone call and bank deposit way, which used to be the norm in the tourism industry some 10-15 years ago. I did not expect that such a brick-and-mortar way of booking still exists in a provincial capital. And then looking for a meal was such a pain. June 12 is not even a major holiday but the town was already gasping for breath. For a town that’s regularly been hitting the travel section of newspapers, the number of places to eat is desperately few. We were not even looking for good places to eat, just places with something to eat, but even that was a monumental challenge as the few places that they had were bursting at the seams almost all day. Adding to the missery is the lack of any decent grocery store to buy food and supplies from.
Sadly, it looks like the town’s capacity to support its tourism potential is lacking, and that’s what made me feel sadder. Baler is one of the “it” places in the tourism map, and it’s been that way for quite some. It’s not like tourists just suddenly came flocking last month. I see no reason for the town to stay as backward as it is, unless some invisible force is holding it back. Is it a force of politics? A force of nature? The hand of God? I do not know. What I do know is that this town should have, would have, could have been more than what it is now, but it’s not.
The trip to Baler was one where the journey felt more exciting than the destination. There were surprises found along the way, apart from the pretty lakes and mountains. One of these was a lovely little restaurant called Hillocks on the outskirts of the town of Pantabangan. Their menu is pretty simple – your regular breakfast fare of rice, eggs and meat (or fish), but cooked with tender loving care in their open kitchen. Service can take a bit of time, but only because they pay detailed attention to the food that they will serve you. And the one thing the place has an abundance of is ambiance – lush mountainside garden, large shady trees and a rustic open air house of american colonial design – and it doesn’t cost much.
*Photos taken on June 2015.