Travel on a budget: Surf's up at Baler

By Leilani Chavez,

Posted at May 08 2009 04:47 PM | Updated as of May 09 2009 06:03 PM

The sun is high and city-dwellers are hitting the beach. Despite the global slowdown and the constant downpours, there are places to visit without emptying your pockets.

If you're more on the adventurous side, a good destination is Baler, where surf and sun worshippers congregate for a weekend of surfing thrill.

To survive for a weekend, all you need is P3,000 and the patience to brave the long ride. Baler, formerly a part of Quezon province and now the capital of Aurora province, is located 230 kilometers northeast of Manila. It's roughly a 6 to 7 hour drive on squiggly roads and steep cliffsides along the Sierra Madre mountain range.

Some travelers get a vicarious thrill driving up and down the slopes, bringing surfboards, boardshorts, and whatnot for a surfing getaway. While some opt to ride air-conditioned Genesis buses from Manila or local non-aircon D’Liner buses from Cabanatuan in Nueva Ecija, some prefer the pricier 50-minute plane trip from Manila.

Transportation eats up the biggest share for a one-night crash. A one-way Genesis bus trip already costs P391 from Cubao to Baler and vice versa. Take note that unless you visit during the peak season, there are only three bus trips available, starting at 4:30 in the morning with hourly intervals. Travel time takes about eight hours with stop-overs in Cabanatuan and Pantabangan in Nueva Ecija.

Once you reach the terminal, a tricycle to Sabang, Baler’s main surfing town, costs P10 per head. It is the same price if you plan to go around town during your stay. 

Baler goes down in history as the birthplace of Commonwealth president Manuel Quezon and where a Spanish garrison made their last stand against the allied forces of Filipino and American troops. The town has some parks and sites that commemorate these bits of history and are worth visiting if you have the time. Otherwise, there's the beach waiting for you. 

Check the weather. They say rough conditions make the waves bigger and better, but it also increases the possibility of a landslide. The bus to Baler passes through a landslide-prone area so be careful.
Read the wave forecast. It would be a bummer to spend eight hours on a bus then find the waves are tranquil if you want to surf. There are numerous websites on what waves will be like on a particular day so try and visit one before going.
Bring a valid I.D. It might be a tourist destination but Baler is also famed for New People's Army sightings. A testament to this are the numerous military checkpoints along the way. Sometimes the buses are inspected and male passengers are asked to show their I.D.s.
Bring a companion. Baler isn't really a soul-searching type of place so better go with someone. Besides, surfing, strolling along the beach, and going around town are better spent with a group.

Surf and dine

Food comes relatively cheap, thanks to the numerous eateries in town like "Ate Wina’s", one of the canteens lined across the town hospital. If you’re lucky, you’ll see "Sinampalukang Blue Marlin" on the menu for a cheap P43. If you prefer something to nibble along the coast, there’s a little hut across the lifeguard station that sells treats like halo-halo, a Filipino desert made of shaved ice, boiled sweet beans and milk, and turon (wrapped banana fried in brown sugar).

For dinner, grab a table at "Trezzo", an Italian restaurant that temporarily pulls you away from the crashing waves and seaside gale. Thin-crust Italian pizza are priced from P240 to P290 and are good for sharing with two people. It's also reportedly the only establishment on the island with wireless internet (WiFi) service. 

If you’re craving for something Pinoy, head off to Bay’s Inn Restaurant where the menu teems with classic favorites like . The prices there are a little bit higher, there are live acoustic performances to serenade you for the night. It's also a popular spot for party crowds so it's a good place to look for friends and be seen.

There are numerous inns to stay along the beach with per night rates ranging from P350 to P650 for two to three people. A favorite is Elaine MM Lodge where each room has a cable television and a room for two costs P500. Cheaper alternatives are Kahea Lodge with P350 rooms per night and Little Girls Surfer Inn at P400. It is always advisable to make reservations ahead of time since rooms are always booked especially during prime surfing seasons from September to February.

Since it’s a heck of a ride to Baler, most surfers rent boards instead of bringing their own. Kahea Lodge rents boards for P200 per hour or P800 per day while the fee for a local instructor costs P150 per hour. After you get your gear ready, it’s time to hit the surf.

Making waves

Local surfing started in the early 1980s, when surf boards used for the film "Apocalypse Now" (starring Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, and Marlon Brando) were left behind by the crew. It did not take long before the locals learned and eventually mastered the sport.

Elayne Layson is among several surfers who frequently visit Sabang to try the water sport. Still an enthusiast, she had been constantly riding the waves even after continuously getting slammed to the shore, flipping underwater, and being wiped out by an avalanche (which in surf-speak means a breaking wave).

After her third weekend visit, Elayne was finally able to stand on an amateur surfboard. But she says it’s still a long way, and more weekends to go, before she can rip (the surfing lingo meaning "to surf well") without an instructor.

According to Marivic, a professional local surfer and owner of Kahea Lodge, Sabang is a good spot for amateur surfers because the waves are temperate and surfers hit a sandy brown bottom when they fall off the board.

“The best time to learn surfing is during the low tide (around 10 in the morning),” she shares. Good waves also come around 4 p.m. but on prime surfing months, the waves are worth riding for the whole day.

Even though Baler has been establishing itself as a surfing destination, the long craggy ride makes it an alternative destination for most visitors. But for others like Elayne, this “feel of exclusivity” makes the place equally enticing.

“The good thing with Baler is that even during peak seasons, the beach doesn’t become crowded. You still have your own patch of sand—and your own wave to ride,” she said.

At the end of the weekend pilgrimage, surfing enthusiasts often go home donning tan lines, bruises, and body pains—but in a state of unequalled bliss after getting "stoked". That's surf-speak for experiencing something really awesome.

For inquiries or reservations call: Elaine MM Lodge (+63919-537-9405), Kahea Lodge (+63920-868-9477), Little Girls Surfer Inn (+63918-685-9449).