Off-road to Casiguran

Taking advantage of the 3-day weekend last week, I and my group of middle-aged motorcyclists headed for Baler in Aurora province. It was my second ride to this historic town on Central Luzon’s Pacific Coast. This stretch of highway used to be all dirt; now it’s all paved, except for a few remaining patches. Most of our typhoons used to make landfall on this part of the country, but lately their path has been more erratic. The wild swings in climate patterns have given this beautiful place longer spells of good weather.

We left on Saturday morning and promptly got stuck at the tollgates to the North Luzon Expressway. It was clear that a small exodus to Subic or Baguio was underway. The slightly overcast sky shielded us from the late morning sun, and the moist wind blowing from the southwest cooled the surface of the two expressways that soon brought us to the doorstep of Pantabangan town, and from there, to the Canili-Basal-Baler Road.

Our destination was not exactly Baler, but beyond—a small beach somewhere between Dipaculao and Casiguran. Had we started out early while traffic was light and made only the briefest stops, the 280-kilometer trip from Quezon City to Baler would have taken us no more than three-and-a-half hours at a leisurely speed.

But the road to this coastal province is so scenic and so filled with picturesque images of the Philippine countryside that the journey itself is worth the many hours of road travel. This road is famous for its “twisties” and sweeping bends that bring out the best features of modern bikes.

While Baler is manageable as a day ride, it would be absurd for a rider not to stay at least overnight and make time to see not only this fabled town’s unique landmarks but also to visit the surrounding farming and fishing towns that have been built and made productive by hardy migrants from the neighboring provinces. Aurora is home to the Aetas and Ilongots, though their presence in the area is barely visible now.

The Angaras have done a lot to transform this place into both a tourist destination and an economic zone. One can only imagine how much of former senator Ed Angara’s Priority Development Assistance Fund went into the building of the concrete roads and bridges that now link Aurora to the centers of national growth.

Tourists and surfers have clearly discovered this place, which is definitely more accessible from Manila than Boracay or Siargao. Resort hotels led by the newly-built four-star Costa Pacifica are doing good business. But the more ambitious of the Angara project—the controversial Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport (Apeco) in Casiguran, which has been planned as a major manufacturing, service, and transshipment hub, seems to be taking much longer to realize. It was set up by law in 2007, but beyond a few empty buildings, there isn’t much to it still.

Lying about 120 km northeast of Baler, the town of Casiguran is known to have served during the Spanish period as a sanctuary for ships escaping from stormy weather. Framed by the Sierra Madre mountain range and the Pacific Ocean, Casiguran has endless swathes of farmlands and long stretches of pristine beaches, making it easily the largest of Aurora’s eight municipalities in terms of land area.

The road from Baler to Casiguran has been on my mind since I first rode to Aurora more than three years ago. On that first visit, our group of bikers stayed at the Bahia de Baler, which has now been absorbed by the more opulent Costa Pacifica. From Baler, we drove up north through alternating paved and rough roads toward Dipaculao.

There were treacherous dips on stretches of the unfinished highway that could send a biker flying into the air like a freestyle acrobat if they were not spotted on time. On that first visit, I was riding a heavy Aprilia 1000 cc Caponord, and I recall I almost fell while crossing one of these dips which had turned into a shallow stream with mossy rocks underneath. That ride made me wonder what lay beyond Dinadiawan.

I was determined on this second visit to ride to Casiguran, and possibly catch a glimpse of Apeco, Angara’s vision of a Pacific freeport. I brought a lighter but more powerful KTM 1190 Adventure which, while clearly built for street travel, was equipped with off-road capabilities. The trip from Dinadiawan, where we were billeted, was quite short—not more than 60 km. I knew that most of the roads were still unpaved, but I might have backed out if someone had shown me a picture of what they were actually like.

After a few minutes of easy riding on well-paved deserted roads, we came face to face with steep inclines that were covered with thick powdery soil and loose gravel. Once in a while, a bus or a truck would appear from nowhere, and we had to quickly read from its demeanor if it was letting us pass or expecting us to get out of the way. Once you stopped, it wasn’t easy to get moving again.

It was the hardest ride I have done and, at my age, I was thankful to be able to get back brimming with adrenalin. I can’t say my riding did justice to the capabilities of this smart KTM machine. I learned three things on this ride. First, you have to trust your bike; it knows what to do, to the point of compensating for your misguided inputs.

Second, on dirt, you have to keep moving; momentum is your best ally. Third, don’t forget to breathe; exhaustion comes mainly from holding your breath too long and not getting enough oxygen. And fourth, stay away from unpaved mountain roads during a downpour; that silky powder that clings to your shoes and your bike instantly turns into the slickest mud on which the most experienced rider would have a hard time staying upright.

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