Baler: A Remote Town Steeped In History

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To most people my generation, Baler is better known as the birthplace of Manuel Luis Quezon, first president of the Republic and whose exploits in Philippine politics is legendary. Baler used to be part of the Quezon province until 1978 when its upper half was ceded to what is now known as Aurora province, in honor of Dona Aurora Aragon Quezon, the president’s wife.

President Quezon was born on August 19, 1878 in remote Baler situated in the eastern part of the Sierra Madre Mountain range facing the Pacific Ocean. At that time, Baler was very much a part of Tayabas, Quezon. Hence a lot of history books refer to Tayabas as President Quezon’s birthpalce.

Visiting Baler is like leafing through the precious pages of history. Here’s a chapter on the Siege of Baler: The date was June 27, 1898, and the place was the barricaded stone church of Baler, where 33 surviving soldiers from the Spanish military command were gallantly making their last stand – determined to fight to the last man for their beloved country – in the raging Philippine –Spanish War. Starving, ailing and war-weary, they kept the faith and kept going long after the war was over. Bloodied but unbowed, the soldiers finally relented and hobbled out of the church almost a year after they occupied it.

Republic Act 9187 was signed into law to commemorate the Siege of Baler, paying tribute to the cazadores – those men of ordinary backgrounds who showed extraordinary valor and zeal known as the last stand of Spain in the Philippines. No less than General Emilio Aguinaldo, who was also the leader of the Filipino revolutionary forces at that time commended the Spanish soldiers for their epic resistance as glorious and worthy of the legendary valor of El Cid.

The road going to Baler passes through the province of Bulacan and Nueva Ecija, while access to Quezon province is through Laguna and Batangas province. The Sierra Madre separates Quezon and Aurora provinces and the only direct way between the two is a bumpy boat ride in the Pacific Ocean. Today, Baler is the capital of Aurora Province.

Baler is one of the eight municipalities of Aurora and one of the smallest. It is the gateway to the other municipalities except Dingalan, which is nearer to Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija. Baler is so small that most of the old families – the Molinas, Quezon, Trnindads, Angaras, Carrascos, Novicios, and Valenzuelas – are so closely related.

For the disco generation and film buffs, they know the movie “Apocalypse Now” directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starred Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen, was set in Baler. Because of the international exposure, Baler has become host to several local and international surfing competitions. There are backpacking surfers who join the annual surfing competition in Cemento Beach or mountaineers who are more knowledgeable about the whole province because of crossing over Sierra Madre, Lambanog, and retired communists who used to hie up the mountains to take refuge from strong man Marcos’ minions.

Coconut trees grow in bunches, along the coastal towns, and when the wind blows, the farmers harvesting the fruits looks like they’re clawing their way up to the sky. Governor Bella Angara claims that the province still has 60-70% of its original forest cover intact, making it one of the greenest provinces in the country. It is not surprising that one of the major attractions in town is the Millennium Tree in Barangay Quirino. It’s believed to be a 600 year old tree, 213 feet in diameter and is the height of a six story building. Traditionally known to house bad spirits, this Balete tree is different. The Illongots (a native tribe in Aurora) pray to it for good hunting, and guerrillas use it to hide in. It is so big the roots have formed caves you can crawl through for good luck. For the adventurous hikers there are numerous waterfalls to visit.

Slowly, the province is now gearing up for sustainable ecotourism. Visitors journey through the forested roads of Aurora National Park leading to Baler Bay, one of the Philippine best surfing sites. The best place to stay in Baler is near the beach from the high end Bahia to the reasonably priced Amco Beach Resort or Bays Inn.

Food is not a problem. There are basic restaurants in town but the best place to hang out is in Bays Inn Restaurant facing the beach, which is the main attraction there. Surfers do their own thing here all year round. Some surfers offer free lesions but you need to rent or borrow a surfboard. Swimming in the shallows is also enjoyable but be careful of the undertow and the breaking waves. Baler is a tourist attraction during the Suman Festival in the third week of February when Aurora Day is also celebrated.

To get to Baler, Aurora Province, take Genesis Transport, either from Cubao (corner EDSA and New York Avenue) Avenida, Manila or Pasay MRT station. Fare is P700, one-way.

Images by Teodoro Pelaez.

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