If you Google Baler, a quiet surf town about 150 miles northeast of the capital city of the Philippines, Manila, you might get the impression that Baler consists of little more than a couple of different beaches and not much else.
You might even get discouraged from visiting the coastal town when you scroll down the page and see that Google quickly runs out pictures and an article on "Hay Baler Injuries" appears.
This doesn't mean the town has little to offer. It means as powerful as we think Google is, it often falls far short of conveying the true nature of a place.
Baler is not to be missed.
There is plenty to do by virtue of what there is to see. Also, how the town will make you feel: serene.
It may take you a while to get from one site to the next, but what you will see along the way is just as much worth it as is the destination. From the sun-kissed rice fields to the robust palm trees, to the quaint town itself, and even a fishing pier that becomes picturesque at dusk, all framed by the Sierra Madre Mountains in the background, Baler will give you an experience.
And as research suggests, it's far more valuable to spend money on experiences than things.
To get around, you do as the Romans do and take a "tricycle," a motorcycle with a small sidecar attachment. At first, you will be relatively cramped (even for someone who is below average height like me).
Eventually, you will settle in (unless you're over six-foot, but it's about time the short man got a win). Our driver waited patiently for us in the morning or whatever location we went to, for 1,000 pesos a day, or just under $20 dollars.
On our first day, we visited Sabang Beach. The local surf teachers made their low-key pitches to get us to try surfing. Which would cost 350 pesos for the whole day. However, unlike some tourist spots, they weren't relentless in their salesmanship.
From there we drove to the Baler Hanging Bridge. The boards bent slightly, and the structure swayed a bit, but the view of the Tibag-Sabang River underneath you and the mountains ahead of you make the crossing more than compensate for the suggestion of peril.
Further, the bridge seems a long way away from its ranking on some Philippines travel sites as one the "scariest bridges in the Philippines."
From the bridge, we took another drive to make the small hike up Ermita Hill. The view was gorgeous. The hike was cool and took no more than five minutes or so to reach the top. The air had an unidentifiable sweetness.
Next, we checked out the fishing pier to grab water and take in some more views. The views never disappoint in Baler and seem engineered to be peaceful. We capped the night off at a bar with a view of the beach.
We ate cheap, good skewers of meat, and when it got dark, we went inside the bar and sang Karaoke. As someone who can't sing, I had fun giving it a go but was infinitely humbled when a teenager in front of us asked for a turn and then sang beautifully.
The next day we checked out the Millennium tree, which, at 215 feet is the tallest Balete tree in Asia. The tree is so large that you can walk in between its roots. On the way back to town we stopped at the Vincent Gonzales Art Museum. The paintings had a sensuous, psychedelic, almost tortured quality to them. They were stunning and horrifying at the same time.
Gonzales was working outside the museum when we left and spoke to us for a few minutes. I was surprised to learn that he has only been painting for about 10 years; although his work would suggest he has been practicing for much longer.
We celebrated my birthday at a different bar. We drank Red Horse beers that came in bottles so big they would have given Kerouac pause. The bar had a singer, but after she did a couple of sets, it became an open mic.
Each singer sang better than the last one. Their talent was incredible, their showmanship modest. At one point, police came in to check that we were wearing our masks, but they left after a few minutes and their entrance had no effect on the ambiance.
On our final day in Baler, we hiked to the Ditumabo Mother Falls. The climb was made slightly more difficult as I was wearing sandals. However, the hike came with a guide. The woman was several years my senior but climbed with ease and held my hand throughout the trek, which made me feel several decades her senior. Yet again, the views afforded by the small journey were worth every step.
Later, we took a walk along the Sabang Beach, and in a rare moment of good reflexes, I blocked a stray volleyball from smashing into my girlfriend's unsuspecting face. For dinner, we ate at "Dogtown collective," which their Facebook describes as an " Earth and dog-friendly food park in Baler, Aurora. Popups on weekends!"
The location was like eating in someone's cool backyard with the natural dirt floors and vines overhead. We had fish tacos, a chicken katsu burger, and chicken wings. Everything was delicious and the co-owner came over to check-in. He even bought us a round of beers when he learned it was my birthday the day before.
While there isn't an abundance of "activities" in Baler, the mood is so tranquil, the people so laidback, that it is easy to imagine living in the community instead of just making it a weekend trip.
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