Baler to Manila via Bongabon

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Everyone goes to Baler and back via Pantabangan. It is the easiest route, and the views are scenic – – with 2 dams along the way.

Not so many know that back in the old days, the road to Baler was via Bongabon in Nueva Ecija. In fact, during President Manuel Quezon’s time, the family would take this road to and from Manila. That is why it was also on this stretch of road where then First Lady Dona Aurora was ambushed. A sad footnote, but an important detail to illustrate that back then, Bongabon was the road to Baler. Thus in her honor was created the Aurora Memorial National Park, a protected area within the Sierra Madre mountain range covering parts of Aurora and Nueva Ecija. The road system stretches nearly 71 kilometers from San Luis, with an area (according to Wikipedia) of   5,676 hectares.

Left San Luis at 830am

Baler used to be part of Aurora Sub Province, which was then politically under Quezon Province. Imagine that the people of Baler would then have to go via Nueva Ecija, and then on to Pampanga, Bulacan, Metro Manila, and Laguna before they reach the provincial capitol in Lucena for a transaction with the government? Until of course Aurora became a province unto itself.

Last time I took the road back to Manila from Baler via Bongabon was in 2010, seven years ago. I wrote in my blog then :

Jungle Route vs Scenic Route

Returning to Manila, we decided to take the Bongabon Road from San Luis in Baler. Why? Because the map showed it to be a shorter route. From San Luis, it said 77kms to Bn (Bongabon). Wow, must be a really quick return trip! And the roads were paved. I figured we will be in Nueva Ecija in no time. But it wasn’t meant to be.

The Bongabon route is what I will now call the “Jungle Route”. If you are not on a 4×4 and not adventurous enough, stay with the Pantabangan “scenic route”.

The paved road from San Luis ended way before I could rejoice at the decision to do this shortcut. Soon enough, we were traversing a dirt road carved out of the Sierra Madre, with deep ravines on our right. There were several portions that were so narrow and we had to stop to give way to trucks going up the mountain trail. Most of all, we had to cross two rivers, one was deep and wide enough to make me re-think of the sanity of continuing. But then,this wasn’t the first time my 4×4 was crossing a river, so what the heck. In my mind, I was more worried about  the van that we passed early on. It is one of those second-hand vans you can buy for P150,000,  and I was sure they will have trouble with their decision to take this jungle route. They probably also had a map, and decided to take this “shortcut”. I was glad I took this route so I can advise non-adventurous friends to stay away, and challenge my daring friends to take this road either to or from Baler.

The Road 7 Years Later ( June 5, 2017)

Just the other day, I was in Baler from another route – – via Quirino Province. It was also some adventure. Thus, to complete the adventure, I decided to try what I then called the Jungle Route to Manila via Bongabon. Bummer. It was, after 7 years, a concrete road – – – or at least around 85% of the way.

Left San Luis, the town after Baler at 830am. Entered the Dona  Aurora Memorial National Park and was out of it by 11am, on a very leisurely drive, with some stops for photos and a stop at the marker of the site where Dona Aurora was ambushed. Thus, 2 1/2 hours for a distance of 71 zigzagging kilometers with portions of dirt roads.

the historical marker. I was there when this was unveiled by the National Historical Institute a few years ago.

This is obviously a low-traffic road such that dogs feel like they own the road. I must have spotted nearly 50 dogs on the route, with some of them comfortably lying down right in the middle of the road. This one I chanced upon (my cam was not always on) was, at least, on the side of the road.

Yes, there are still some portions that remain unpaved. Or maybe the concrete must have been washed away by landslides. Most likely, the unpaved portions will be done after cutting up portions of the mountain to widen the road, as most of the road system from San Luis to Bongabon are now wide. And there are plenty of spots and opportunities to stop and soak in the beauty of the forest.

Stop and marvel at the forest

Avoid the road after a typhoon as landslides could block the road

 

 

 

 

 

 

51kilometers to Bongabon, Nueva Ecija

 

There was only one point where my 4×4 crossed a narrow a shallow river, but only because the bridge was still being put up. In sharp contrast with my previous trip on this route where crossing rivers and streams was “normal”.

Crossing the shallow river

 

and up into a dirt road

Methinks that even when DPWH finishes all work, this route will forever be under repair. The terrain is just so different and prone to mudslides and land slides. Mental note to self : avoid this route after a really heavy downpour. Or be stuck when trees and earth block the road.

Otherwise, this is a route I can now take anytime. A welcome change from the usual Pantabangan-Baler way.

I strongly suggest you try this route.

P.S. On way home, we stopped in Zaragoza in Nueva Ecija, and had a wonderful lunch in a roadside carinderia. My driver and I ordered one steaming hot palayok of pink salmon, one sizzling plate of pork belly, and one sizzling plate of dinakdakan (an Ilocano delicacy made of pork and liver). Plus three (3) orders of rice, and 2 bottles of Mountain Dew softdrinks? Guess how much we paid.

After the meal, I was guessing how much the bill wpuld be, and I flashed it on facebook and asked friends how much the bill would be. Some guessed as much as P680, with others itemizing how much each item was to come up with a good estimate. And almost no one believed that the sumptuous meal cost us only P295.

I thoroughly enjoyed the meal, and the Baler-Bongabon Roadtrip

 

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Road trip: Quirino to Baler,Aurora

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Why would anyone make a road trip from Quirino to Baler in Aurora Province? Because the road is there.

Quirino, named after the 6th President of the Philippines, is landlocked, It has Nueva Vizcaya to the west, Isabela to the north, and Aurora to the southeast.  Visitors go to Quirino for adventure tourism – – cliff jumping, exploring its many caves ( it is said that practically the entire province of Quirino sits on a syatem of caves). I had planned to stay overnight but chose to bypass after reading up, realizing I should spend maybe 2-3 nights for me to fully explore Quirino. That will have to be another trip.

I was crisscrossing Cagayan Valley and the towns of Isabela, photographing the beautiful old churches. Then I spent a night in Santiago City, intending to explore Quirino, and then decided to save it for a longer trip. Thus, unplanned, I inquired about the road from Quirino to Aurora – – whether it is now passable. I first heard about it and wanted to cross then from Casiguran in Aurora to Quirino, many years ago. When I was told that the road is good, I went on and traveled to Baler instead.

ORYZA HOTEL in Santiago City, my start off point

 

 

On the road to Cobarruguis, capital of Quirino

 

Destination: Maddella town hall

 

Santiago City to Maddela, the jump-off point to the Quirino-Aurora Road is 62 kilometers. And it was an easy 78 kilometers to Barangay Dinadiawan in Dipaculao, Aurora. I got on Waze and learned that it was going to be a mere 1 1/2 hour drive.

Ain’t no mountain high enough

I was imagining an adventure into the hinterlands. As it turns out, the road system is 95% complete and it was concrete roads all the way. Except for certain sections about to be concreted, or maybe just being repaired due to landslides. There are also slippages in many sections but, overall, road travel is safe. There are stones and pebbles piled up on the sides of the roads that are not passable because of the slippage – – – it is hollow underneath.

I felt comfortable especially after coming across many cars and SUVs coming from the other end. Then the road must be good all the way, I said to myself.

It is a picturesque route. Mountains and hills and rivers. For a while I thought I was along Kennon Road.

At the end of the mountain road is Barangay Dinadiawan in Dipaculao, a town I have visited many times before, next to Baler.

Dinadiawan in Dipaculao, Aurora

1.5 hours from Maddela to Dinadiawan, another 1.5 to 2 hours to Baler

Lunch was in a carinderia by the roadside at Dipaculao Poblacion.

And then I was back in Baler, enjoying my beer.

 

Baler Revisited

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This is another revisit. April 2017.

On a previous visit, Costa Pacifica was under construction. Now it is the best Baler has to offer, and nothing comes close.

Costa Pacifica has no equal. The 2nd best will be a far 2nd.

Aurora Beach Camp is a campsite no more. It has been developed into a resort called Coconut Plantation.

Not a trace of the old campsite, Coconut Plantation is now a proper resort, with air-conditioned cabanas.

 

There was just a pebbly beach before, now there is a swimming pool with gazebos

 

this cove is the only thing that reminds me of the old camp site

 

While the resort looks nice, I can not see my self staying in this place which is about an hour from Baler’s nerve center, Sabang Beach. The snacking experience was also bad. The “restaurant” is a shared space with guests checked into a room within the restaurant area. we were having snacks while the guests were comfortably slumped in the sofas right beside our table, applying make up, and doing things normally done in the privacy of their cottages. Not their fault. Just bad space planning.

 

I didn’t stay at this resort, and only went for snacks. Ordered “pako” hamburger. I thought it was expensive at P200, way more expensive than the better tasting (for me) Big Mac which even comes with fries.

PASALUBONG CENTER

For some reason, I missed writing about things to buy in Baler. The best place to go to is the Pasalubong Center at the back of the public market. The best buys are Pacing’s coco jam and also shredded beef. Look also for rice cakes and other kakanin in the stalls just outside.

vinagar, including pinakurat in stalls outside th Pasalubong Center. And suman (photo below). There are also several carinderias in the area if you get hungry after shopping

 

WHERE TO EAT IN SABANG BEACH

Yellow Fin : top favorite. At the back of Costa Pacifica

 

Good Food. Inexpensive. With healthy options.

at Good Food, blue marlin with rice (and it is a good size cut of marlin) is P200. Quesadillas was good. Taco was nice. No softdrinks here – – so we had lemon grass for drinks.

 

Vegetarian.

 

ALTERNATIVE ACCOMMODATIONS. 

There are plenty. Here are some of them just around (at the back, actually) of Costa Pacifica

wherever you end up staying, you will want to be on the shores of Sabang morning and afternoon. Enjoy Baler !

To and from Baler, there is Hillocks Coffee Shop and Restaurant. My favorite stop. Along Pantabangan.

 

CLICK ON THE LINK BELOW FOR LAKWATSA TO SEE MORE OF BALER

LAKWATSA

Baler is now more accessible after the roads have been completed and it now takes only a few hours from SCTEX. Before we hit Baler town, we stopped at the centuries old balete tree that is so huge and intricate it can literally carry 100 people at any one time, hanging around it.

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Baler now teems with visitors from Metro Manila, for that now-so-near holiday. Especially for those who love the beach and the surf. In fact, Baler is gives visitors a flavor of either Boracay or Phuket.

Baler Kahea

Baler Aliya

Baler surf2

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Baler resort

Baler Desiree's Inexpensive accommodations on the beach front

Baler Amihan

Baler outdoor Boracay feel – – food and drinks almost on the water

Baler outdoor 2

Baler store Store on the beach front

Other than the main beach lined with hotels, surf shops and restaurants, Baler offers tens of other beach locations. We had lunch in a rather quiet beach, at the Aurora Beach Camp. Here, there were no other visitors and we…

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Costa Pacifica Baler

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This is my nth trip to Baler, but the last was when Costa Pacifica was still being constructed. My first was at Bahia, that beautiful resort with a swimming pool at the front, with beautiful rooms, but really very few. Next thing I knew, there was another Bahia, this time a 3-level structure. Costa Pacifica, built by the same owners, is right between the 2nd Bahia and the ocean.

Today, Costa Pacifica is without equal. Nothing comes close. The resort compares with the best resort hotels I have been to.

As one enters the lobby, the resort feeling immediately sets in. Very tropical. Open space plan, with the huge pool and the ocean right in front of the guests. Tables and deck chairs surround the swimming pool.

The rooms have verandas facing the ocean. Ours was a suite on the second floor with a perfect view of the whole grounds, including the pool and the beach.

The room has 2 comfortable beds, a wardrobe with a safety deposit box, a luggage rack, color tv, a nice big bathroom with a shower and a tub. Two lavatories. Spic and span. With all the bathroom amenities one finds in 5-star hotels and resorts.  Not all rooms have living rooms, but our suite has a good-sized living room with 2 daybeds that double as sofas, another TV with a DVD player, a round breakfast table for 4, a bar counter top with 2 bar stools, a kitchen counter, with coffee and tea facilities. And a fridge stocked with mini bar items. The veranda has two deck chairs and a clothes drying rack.

 

 

the pool deck as seen from our bedroom, on the right

 

when the blinds are up – – the view from our beds

 

the living room, and the living room deck

 

 

Costa Pacifica sits on a huge property that has a long waterfront, probably the longest waterfront property in Baler. The garden has colorful chairs grouped in one section, a gazebo with swing chairs, a swimming pool bar. And nearly everyone gravitates to the shore where surfers get the ooohs and aaaahs from awed guests. I understand that Baler still offers the cheapest surfing lessons, and there are surf boards for rent. And lost of surf instructors.

Buffet breakfast is served at the restaurant called Beach Club. The breakfast spread is sumptuous, with cereals, fruits, breads, omelettes, and rice plus many choices of dishes to go with fried rice.

Outside of Costa Pacifica are a variety of restaurants and bars. And alternative, albeit cheaper, accommodations.

 

But one can say that Costa Pacifica is the nerve center when one comes to Baler for a holiday. One can go around. But the spell of Costa Pacifica will stay in the visitor’s mind for a long time. And this view will probably stay for quite a while, until the visitor encounters another beautiful resort.  Costa Pacifica will have a place in in their guests’  hearts.

I booked online, and you can book thru their website:
http://web.costapacificabalerph.com/

Hillocks Coffee Shop & Restaurant – – on way to Baler

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Pantabangan is a small town so I thought I’d include Baler on the title of this blog. For, indeed, this is my favorite stop on the way to Baler.

I first went to Hillocks about 2 years ago and enjoyed the food and the ambience. It almost doesn’t feel like one is in a rather obscure town – – – for who would really go to Pantabangan, Nueva Ecija, to experience Hillocks?

Yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised that Emi, the owner, remembered me and my blog name BOYPLAKWATSA when I took my wife and daughter there for lunch on our way to Baler.

You will find Hillocks on the right side of the road, and it is impossible to miss with its elegant country-style structure.

Guests can park right inside the property, and enter from the main door of the restaurant, accessed from the rear, on a trellised path. As one enters the cafe, he will be pleasantly surprised with the set-up. Huge tables with benches for seating. And small coffee tables and chairs on the veranda.

Food is always good. We had Hillocks fried chicken, beef binayabasan, pork belly, and batutay longaniza. Batutay longaniza is an all-day breakfast offering but we decided to order the dish for lunch. We loved it and ordered 4 kilos that we will pick up on our way home.

Make sure you save your hunger pangs for Hillocks when you are on your way to Baler, or to any town of the province of Aurora. Or when you decide to just visit any of the resorts in the town of Pantabangan.

By the way, of particular interest is the white house visible from the property – – the residence of the owners. Clearly, the owner has good taste. And it manifests in the food served at this cafe.

Hillocks is at 497 East Poblacion, Pantabangan, Nueva Ecija
Contact Emi at 0906 2090 711
Find them on Facebook:
https://web.facebook.com/hillockscoffeeshopandrestaurant/?fref=ts

(As usual, this blogger paid for his meals, with no special discounts, and this blog is written only to share to fellow travelers the wonderful lunch experience)

Abundant Place in Silang

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Located on the Diversion Road in Silang, where all the gardens are, is Abundant Place,  a cafe that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I used to pass this way when I go to Tagaytay via Daang Hari and on to Imus and Dasmarinas. When one gets to Silang and bypasses the road to the town center, one is greeted with flowers and other ornamental plants left and right, throughout what seems like a 2-kilometer stretch. In fact this place is a weekend destination for gardening enthusiasts. Coming from Imus and Dasmarinas, Abundant Place is on the right, and quite difficult to miss because of its prominent signage.

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My very first encounter with Abundant Place happened many many years ago when I chanced upon their display of interesting foot stools made of “banig” material along the Sta Rosa – Tagaytay Road. Then I bought 2 foot stools and ordered mosquito nets (not the nylon variety) with sea shells for accent for my Alabang home bedroom. Thus when I saw the Abundant Place signage in Silang, and saw “breakfast” I stopped to check.

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At the entrance to the store is a blackboard with the day’s menu. I opted for pork tapa, 2 orders for myself and my driver. Plus cafe barako.

My bill for 2 breakfast orders with coffee, including the 10% service charge, was P330.00

My bill for 2 breakfast orders with coffee, including the 10% service charge, was P330.00

 

The cafe was done in a very creative way, using concrete, stones, bamboo, nipa, shells, beach sands, white screens, and many interesting accent pieces. I was so impressed with the cafe’s  design. I couldn’t believe it that the owner, who also did the place, is actually a pastor.

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STORE

While waiting for my breakfast to be served, I went inside the store and browsed at the items for sale. I wanted to buy so many items and the only thing that stopped me was the thought that I needed to first create some structure in my Tagaytay weekender to replicate the look of the cafe. I actually bought one item, a tiffany lamp for P500.00

my find, for P500.00

my find, for P500.00

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I so loved the place I thought I’d take photos and include in my blog. When in the area, make sure you stop and you will not regret the visit.

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ISKARGU Restaurant in Calauan, Laguna

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Many people think the restaurant has escargot as the main attraction. I thought the way the restaurant was named is very clever, and has very high recall – – – even for those who will hear it for the first time. ISKARGU is a play on the main dishes – – – ISda, KARne, and GUlay.  The owner must have been inspired with the popularity of a genre of restaurants in Cebu called SUTUKIL which stood for the three ways of cooking fish. ISKARGU is more clever, because it can be mistaken, in a fun way, with the popular delicacy in France  – – escargot, kuhol to us Pinoys.

 

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More than the name, I consider this native restaurant the best stop on this side of Laguna. Excellent food turo-turo style, inexpensive, and a very unpretentious setting with wide windows that open to rice fields. Not unlike the more popular place that has huge fish images made of cement, huge this and huge that. But with very slow service I could die of hunger before my order is served. At ISKARGU, I pick mouth-watering dishes and I am served immediately. Rice is served on banana leaves. Ordering halo halo completes my experience.

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Just yesterday, I had a group of 12 for lunch. We had 2 orders each of 6 different dishes including fish eggs (not caviar?), pinaputok na isda, kinilaw, etcetera etcetera. Our bill came up to only P200 each. And there was a singer to entertain us with old familiar music while enjoying our lunch.

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Everyone from  #FUNtastic Philippines Fun Group that joined the unplanned food trip showed happy faces – – – busog sa masarap at murang lunch. Our friend Bobby Taron took this group photo:

#FUNtasticPhilippines Fun Group

#FUNtasticPhilippines Fun Group

 

A quick edit to share how one in our group reacted upon seeing my blog on ISKARGU, only because he also loved the place. Here is Papa Jet of #FUNtasticPhilippines, in his own words:

” First time I ate here, and I just have to say that it’s definitely worth adding it to your travel itinerary to Laguna area — 22.6 km after Rizal Shrine in Calamba… on the way to Cavinti (Pagsanjan Falls), Lake Caliraya, Majayjay, Lucban, Mauban, Tayabas… definitely even worth it, just to go to IsKarGu just simply to have good food that you can be proud of, even with your foreigner visitors!!! You might even be mentioned by the real good singer, if she knows you’re from FUNtastic Philippines… ;)”

For visitors who want to bring something home, their counter features many interesting “take home” items – – – pastillas, native wine including lambanog, apple cider vinagar, turmeric, pinakurat vinegar, bottled guyabano end items I don’t see in pasalubong centers.

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When I left the place, I saw a poster inviting regulars (and their guests, I think) to a buffet for P299 featuring 30 different dishes. I do not think anyone can get a better deal than that.

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I just checked their social media page, and I am sharing the link in case readers want to discover ISKARGU and get to know the place even more prior to a visit.

https://web.facebook.com/pages/Iskargu-Restaurant-Dayap-Hi-Way-Calauan-Laguna/233278473452270?_rdr

It is worth the travel. In fact, we did not have to go anywhere around there. My friends and I just thought we wanted a good lunch out of town, and so we went. Maybe it is time for wanderlusts and foodies to just go, not having to find any reason or excuse. The foof trip is reason enough.

By the way, at the wall outside were photos of many personalities who have enjoyed ISKARGU. Government officials, movie and television personalities, some prominent businessmen. I figure this is the best endorsement they can ever get – –  celebrity diners who opted for best value.

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Bobby Taron who took our photo, completing the frame. What a beautiful ambience for lunch.