After taking a solo tour of Pangasinan, I was ready to do it again when I read up on Aurora province, where surfing is all the rage. But I learned that a friend was available to accompany me on this trip, so I decided to save the ‘going solo’ idea for another destination. Instead of paying for a tour, we agreed to go rogue; we’d go to Aurora and just get a local to give us a tour. (Warning: this is going to be a long post, so grab a snack and get comfortable before you proceed.)
I booked our bus tickets online to make sure we don’t run out of seats. At the moment, only Genesis Bus travels directly to Aurora; I think all the other bus lines just pass by the province and let you off someplace where you can take jeeps or tricycles that travel to Baler. I chose Joy Bus (a specialty bus line under Genesis) to check out what the fuss is about this supposed luxury bus. I chose the trip that departs at 2:30 AM so we’d have plenty of time to do whatever when we got to Baler. Booking online for two on a deluxe bus cost us Php 1,485 (Php 700 each, plus an Php 85 service fee). We weren’t sure if we wanted to stay two days or three at that point, so we decided we’d wait until we get there to buy our tickets back. Joy Bus only has buses at the Genesis station in Cubao, so coming from Parañaque, we headed there at around 11. (They forfeit your seat if you’re late, and I hate being late.) We boarded at 2AM and after sleeping for most of the trip, we arrived at the Genesis bus station in Aurora at around 7AM.
A short tricycle trip took us to AMCO Beach Resort. After checking into the hotel and having breakfast there (paid, because our complimentary one would be served the next day), we went out in search of a tricycle to take us around town. We found several parked just at the entrance of the hotel, and at the front of the pack was Kuya Marlon, who agreed to take us around.
Our first stop was the Hanging Bridge of Baler located in Barangay Zabali. According to Marlon, the bridge was first constructed in the 1970s to accommodate students of the Aurora State College of Technology (ASCOT), who needed an easy way to travel to and from school. It’s since been reinforced with steel, so you don’t have to worry about it swaying with the wind while you’re crossing. You don’t have to pay a fee, but the people supposedly taking care of the bridge won’t say “no” to donations.
We moved on to Ermita Hill (also in Zabali), at the bottom of which you’ll find the Tromba Marina Statue, a sculpture of a family escaping a tsunami. According to the place’s history, a tsunami supposedly hit the area in 1735 that wiped out a lot of people and damaged the location. The monument represents the survivors who escaped death by climbing Ermita Hill.
The stairs going up Ermita Hill is going to take a lot out of you, but you should have no problem if you have the stamina. At the top, you have to sign a registration form (I think it’s how they keep track of the number of visitors) before you can have a look around. Being the highest point of Baler, the whole point of going up there is to enjoy the view of the city. There’s also a tall cross up a hill you can visit, but Marlon said it would be more hiking, so we forgot about that. You don’t have to pay an entrance fee, by the way.
After a snack of turon and buko juice to recover from that damn climb, we boarded the tricycle and headed for Diguisit Falls, a multi-level waterfall found just off the highway. It’s incredibly rocky and slippery, so I was glad I was wearing running shoes, at least. I’m not completely sure how high the falls is, but it’s definitely a challenge to climb. If I recall correctly, there are four levels to the waterfall, and most people stop and the second level from the bottom to take pictures or swim a bit in the cold water. Kuya Marlon suggested that we climb one level higher, where there was another pool of water just for us.
Now, I’m all for trying new things, but I’m far from being an expert hiker. At that moment thought, my sense of adventure overshadowed my sense of reasoning, so I readily accepted the challenge. About halfway up as we hoisted ourselves by gripping sharp rocks and tree roots and stepping on muddy surfaces (I was struggling a bit because soil had completely caked the bottom of my shoes), I was thinking, “Shit, what have we gotten ourselves into?” I was relieved when we finally got to the top where, as promised, we could hog another pool of cold water. He told us only a handful of people make it to this level because it’s so high and the ascent is far from easy. True enough, we noticed a couple of dudes attempt to climb, only to give up after a few tries.
I was going to pass on taking a dip because of how cold it was, but fuck that, I didn’t risk my life on that climb just to sit on the sidelines. The first dip was freezing, but it was definitely refreshing. We stayed for about 30 minutes before we decided it was time to go. I was dreading the climb down because we were so high up and the way up was seriously challenging. Marlon suggested that we climb down facing the terrain so it would be easier to grab onto roots and looking for footholds (he went first so he could assist us). He was right; it was easier, albeit just as slippery, to go back down. Scary experience but fun, I’ll have to admit. In retrospect, that climb has to be one of the craziest things I’ve ever done.
Diguisit Beach and the Diguisit Rock Formations are just a few minutes away from the falls. When we got there, low tide had pulled the water back enough that we could walk across the rocky sea floor covered with sea urchins and brittle stars to get to the massive rocks.
After climbing up the jagged rocks and taking photos, Marlon took us to a portion of Diguisit Beach where a rocky basin gets filled by water from the strong waves, forming a sort of swimming pool in the middle of the sea. We enthusiastically dove in, swam around and even snorkeled a bit since there were some fish at the bottom. The pool’s not that big, though, so no Olympic-style laps allowed. Finally, hunger got the better of us, and we decided to go back to Baler to grab a bite.
Lunch was at this place called Terrick’s Foods Pa!, a carinderia-style food place where we ordered kare-kare, liempo, and sweet and sour fish. Tasty enough, but the portions were pretty small. We did our best to fill up because according to Marlon, the trek to Barangay San Luis’ Ditumabo Falls is a little over half an hour long and the path is not for the weak.
He wasn’t kidding. To get to Ditumabo Falls, you have to walk across an unpaved and rocky path, over boards laid across small streams, under giant pipes, and on top of boulders. Basically a walk in the park, if you’re Indiana Jones. Again, you better be wearing your hiking or running shoes here; my aqua shoes hardly protected my feet (My running shoes were ruined after our adventure at Diguisit Falls, so I changed into my aqua shoes and left the fallen footwear at the tricycle.). It might not be an ideal place to take little kids or very old relatives, unless you’re prepared to carry them if the path proves too difficult.
Also known as the Mother Falls, this behemoth spews out ice-cold water down a 20-meter swimming area below. The water at Diguisit Falls was tepid compared to this one. No matter how tired I was after the trek, I just couldn’t bring myself to take a dip in this hypothermia basin, especially considering that the wind coming from the rushing deluge was just as frosty. A lot of people were enjoying it, though. And I mean a lot; the falls reportedly draws crowds of around 4,000 in a weekend. We wanted to make it to our next stop with the sun still out, so we left at around 4PM after a quick snack of camote cue (now I understand why there were so many food stalls at the entrance).
The Old Balete Tree in Barangay Maria Aurora, also dubbed the country’s “Millennial Tree,” is said to be the oldest of its kind in Asia at 600 years old. It’s also so big, it would take around 60 people to form a circle around it. The inside is a bit hollow, and the branches create a sort of obstacle course you can weave through. Curiously enough, there’s also a CCTV camera inside. Maybe they’ve already lost a few good men inside, but I didn’t ask.
We got back to the hotel at around 7PM, washed up, and took a tricycle to town to look for dinner. After a pretty underwhelming meal at Yolly’s (the ulam was served cold, the beef in the beef steak was chewy, and I thought it was pretty overpriced), we went in search for a coffee place for a night cap. The search for this joint called Stir It Up proved futile (no one seemed to know where it was or if it even existed, not even the tricycle drivers), so we found another one online called Groundswell Cafe, located in front of Costa Pacifica. The place is said to be run by surfers, and the decor is, you guessed it, surf-themed. It was pretty nice, actually. And the most amusing part to me was that they served both coffee and local craft beer, so everyone goes home happy. I stuck with my latte, which was nice and strong. We lounged there, sipping coffee and devouring some cheesecake (also nice), for about an hour before calling it a day at around 11.
The next morning, I got up at about 5:30 and shook my friend awake so we could watch the sunrise at Sabang Beach. Then we got back to the hotel for breakfast at about 6:30. At 7, Marlon came back to take us to Dipaculao to see the geometrically awesome Ampere Bridge and the picturesque Ampere Beach. The sunrise at Ampere Beach is supposedly beautiful, with the fog and everything, but we were to tired from last night to get up incredibly early for it. Oh, well.
We went back to Sabang Beach to attempt to swim despite the aggressive waves, which we did for about a few minutes. Then we started feeling the current pull us in. Marlon had mentioned this legend earlier about how the beach supposedly takes an “alay” (sacrifice) every year, and that it hadn’t nabbed one this year yet. Not planning on being the next ones, we decided to haul our asses back to shore.
Back at the hotel, we washed up, packed our bags, and checked out at 12. At the Genesis station, we were greeted by a vendor bearing bad news: there were no more buses available back to Manila. But there was a guy there with a van who was asking around for passengers to fill up his vehicle going to Cubao. Before agreeing to take him up on his offer, we went to the ticketing window to inquire with the lady, who confirmed that the only way we’d be able to go home on a bus was by chance. Not willing to take the risk, we agreed to pay the guy Php 550 to take us. He gave us until 1 to get back to town, buy pasalubong, and have lunch, so we dumped our bags in his van and sped off.
We were back at exactly 1, at which point we waited for just a few minutes for a couple more passengers before finally pulling out of the station and heading home.
Now this post isn’t done, because I do have a couple of regrets looking back:
- I didn’t surf. I KNOW: Aurora means Baler, and Baler means surfing. I was all up for it; I tried it only once when I went to Siargao a couple of years ago and had a blast despite skinning my knees and wiping out a lot of times before finding my footing (literally). But I didn’t want to do it alone at Baler. My friend had said before the trip that he would try it. Then he took one look at the roaring waves and chickened out. I promised myself that I would go back to Baler to surf with or without a companion.
- As I mentioned earlier, we missed the Ampere Beach sunrise.
- We didn’t go to Dicasalarin Cove. It’s supposed to be this incredible beach with a nice view and a lighthouse, all picturesque stuff. And the swimming’s not too shabby, either.
- The hotel we chose was pretty bad. It seems we chose the wrong AMCO beach resort. We didn’t know there was also one in front of Diguisit Beach too, and that it was the better one of the two. I’ll tell you more in a separate post.
If you’re heading to Aurora anytime soon, here’s a few tips you might find useful (check out my Bolinao post for additional tips):
- If you get dizzy during long trips, be sure to bring medicine to manage it. The road to Aurora tends to weave from side to side because the roads are at the edge of the mountains.
- The minute you get to Genesis, book your bus seats back to Manila immediately so you don’t miss them. (I was going to do this originally, but like I said, were still undecided on whether or not to stay for two days or three).
- If you’re not joining a tour, Baler has a lot of tricycle drivers accredited by the Department of Tourism to take you a city and/or nature tour. Marlon Ablao, our friendly tricycle driver/tour guide, is not an accredited guide (though he says he plans on becoming one), although he did a very nice job of getting us around. I tried to drop the “kuya” when I learned I was older than him (he’s 30, I think), but it was hard when I got used to it. If you’d like to hire him, his number is 09482665778.
- If you do hire a tricycle tour guide, be nice and treat him to snacks and/or lunch. A tip at the end of the tour is well appreciated too.
- Before you get to Aurora, research on the places you want to visit so you can communicate to the driver where you want to go to save time.
- Wear hiking shoes when going on the eco tour. Many of the trails we took (particularly Diguisit Falls and Ditumabo Falls) were rocky, unpaved, and slippery. Just bring your aqua shoes and/or flip flops in your bag for when you get to the beaches or falls.
- Again, water at the waterfalls we visited is cold (I suppose at this point I can say all waterfalls), so you might want to bring a shirt or rash guard with you.
- Buy pasalubong during your down time so you don’t end up scrambling for them right before going home. There are a lot of pasalubong centers in town for food and shirts, but I think Baler is most well known for peanut butter and coco jam. My bag was already too heavy without jars of these, so I opted for the lighter stuff, like toasted pastillas and camote chips. Not sure if they’re actually native to the place, but the people I gave them to were just glad they got something.
- Get a waterproof bag for your stuff. My bag, a black 10-liter Tactics bag, is proving to be very useful in all my water-related travels. You can put your spare clothes, gadgets, pet fish, whatever in it and they’ll be totally safe. (I wasn’t paid to say this, though wouldn’t it be nice?)
As for the cost of this trip, here’s a breakdown (for two people):
Joy Bus (one-way) – Php 1485
Tricycle to hotel – Php 30
AMCO Beach Resort – Php 2,000
Breakfast at AMCO – Php 180
Kuya Marlon’s two-day fee (plus tip) – Php 1,250
Hanging bridge donation – Php 20.00
Ermita Hill snack (including Marlon) – Php 70.00
Lunch (including Marlon) – Php 251
Ditumabo Falls entrance fee – Php 120.00
Ditumabo Falls snack (including Marlon) – Php 50.00
Old Balete Tree entrance fee – Php 40.00
Tricycle to town – Php 30
Dinner – Php 270
Tricycle to Costa Pacifica (for Groundswell) – Php 30
Groundswell Cafe (2 coffees and a cheesecake) – Php 395
Tricycle from AMCO to bus station – Php 30
Tricycle back to town for pasalubong – around Php 15
Tricycle back to bus station – around Php 15
Lunch – Php 110.00
Van to Manila – Php 1100
Total: Php 7,441 (Php 3,720.50 each)
(Tricycle fares start at around Php 12 to Php 15. My own pasalubong cost around Php 300. Miscellaneous expenses like snacks bought for the bus ride are not included.)
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