Just about 2.5 hours drive from Metro Manila is the province of Bataan, although more known for its crucial role during the World War 2 in the Pacific is increasingly a shining new eco-tourism destination which offers notable bird-watching sites, turtle sanctuaries, springs, waterfalls and of course countless, and thoughtful shrines to the courage of humanity over the horrors of a not-so distant war.
Mention Bataan and instantly what comes to mind are the horrors of the last World War, after all the infamous Bataan Death March which started in Bagac and Mariveles towns will forever be etched in the annals of world history where Filipino and American soldiers were forcibly marched. Of the 72,000 prisoners, only 54,000 reached their final destinations after enduring the most brutal conditions – while the exact count will never be determined, a lot of Filipino and American soldiers were beheaded, bayoneted, beaten by rifle butts, starved, and disembowelments were commonplace along the route which is now marked by stone markers. According to our Bataeño guides, Bataan locals, pitying the Allied soldiers, would sometimes create a commotion as a diversion so that soldiers would be able to make a dash to freedom and disappear in the crowd. Of course, like most places in the Philippines, there is more than what meets the eye.
Photo by webzer
Occupying the entire Bataan Peninsula is the province of Bataan in the southwestern part of Central Luzon which faces the South China Sea and forms part of the enclosure of Manila Bay to the east. The peninsula is an extension of the rocky Zambales Mountains to the north and features Mt. Natib (1,253 meters) and the Mariveles Mountains, which includes probably the most distinguishable and most well known Bataan landmark Mt. Samat which is the location of the Dambana ng Kagitingan (Shrine of Valor) marker which commemorates the heroism and bravery as well as the horrors of the Bataan Death March.
Photo by Dave Ryan
Prior to World War 2, Bataan already had its share of a rather tumultuous history when in 1574 Chinese pirate Limahong used the province (Lusong Point) as a launch pad for his attempt to conquer Luzon (which was of course successfully thwarted). In 1647, the Dutch attempted the same where nearly 200 people were massacred mercilessly in the town of Abucay and over 40 (including the Alcalde Mayor and two Dominican priests) were taken as prisoners to the Dutch colony of Batavia. A plaque marker at the over four centuries-old Abucay Church (also known as St. Dominic’s Church) where the fierce battle was fought stands as a mute remembrance to the carnage in its courtyard hundreds of years ago. It was also in this church where the earliest printing presses in the Philippines began their operations. As early as 1810 Tomas Pinpin and Father Francisco Blancas de San Jose printed several books in Spanish and Tagalog. Abucay Church also features and ornately designed main door which features animals, a person and florid designs which immediately capture one’s attention. The Cathedral Parish of St. Joseph in Balanga meanwhile was used as an artillery emplacement during the Japanese invasion to bombard the Filipino and American forces who made their last stand on Mt. Samat.
The Dambana ng Kagitingan (Brgy. Diwa, Pilar) features a gigantic cross on top of a mountain (Mt. Samat) which seemed to be the silent sentinel of this peninsula. The shrine sits in an area of about 73,665 hectares and was completed and inaugurated in 1970 by then the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. By the foot of this imposing Memorial Cross (which towers 555 meters above sea level) is the marble capped Colonnade which includes a stained glass mural behind the altar, 19 scriptural marble at the parapet. 2 bronze urns which symbolize the Eternal flame, 18 bronze insignias and its 18 flag poles with colors of USAFFE Divisions/Units, and several inscriptions of the Battle of Bataan. The cross itself is made of steel and reinforced concrete. It has an elevator and a viewing gallery located on the arms of the cross. From the base, the cross is at 92 meters while the arms are 74 meters from the base. The elevator however does not work all the time as we found out ourselves when we got there, if it is so happens that the electricity conks out while you are at the viewing gallery, you have no other option but to use the stairs coming down. Around the base of the cross are sculptural slabs and sculptural bas-reliefs “Nabiag na Bato” which portray significant historical events and battles by National Artist Napoleon Abueva. From the base of the Cross to the Collonade is a zigzagging footpath on the slope of the mountain and paved with bloodstones from nearby Corregidor Island.
Aside of course from the Dambana ng Kagitingan in Pilar, a lot of other significant historical markers dot the entire peninsula most of which refer to the significant events of World War 2 as well as other historical events. In the only landlocked town of Dinalupihan, one can find the First Line of Defense Marker, Hermosa has the Democracy and the Commemorative Markers, Orani has the Death March Marker, Abucay has the Main Battle Position Marker, Tomas Pinpin Monument and the Maria Canon Statue, Pilar has the Flaming Sword, and Battle Trail 2. Orion has the Cayetano Arellano Monument, Limay has the Alangan Marker, and Balanga City has the Surrender Site Marker (located inside the Balanga Elementary School where Maj. Gen. King formalized the surrender of the USAFFE forces in the Philippines to Lt. Gen. Homma), and the Fall of Bataan markers. Bagac town has the Battle of Toul pocket and the Philippine-Japanese Friendship marker. Both Bagac and Mariveles have the Zero Kilometer Death March markers (the Bataan Death March started at two points- Bagac and Mariveles). Meanwhile, the town of Morong which used to be refugee processing area for the Vietnamese boat people who were fleeing the Vietnam War has Vietnamese Shrines and Monuments dedicated to the erstwhile Philippine guests. The Philippines as a country has a long humanitarian tradition of accepting refugees from other countries from the Malay chieftains fleeing the iron-fisted rule of Sultan Makatunaw in Borneo to the Jewish people during Nazi occupation of Europe and from the Vietnamese boat people to the North Koreans using the Philippines as a transit country to South Korea.
Photo by chewychua
Far from just being stuck in the past, Bataan now is a hub of industry and a growing and important ecotourism destination. For its part, Balanga City, the capital, is becoming increasingly noticed in the international bird-watching circles with three known birding sites: the Sibacan-Lote Bird Site, Pto, Rivas Ibaba Bird Site and the Tortugas Bird Site, where we experienced birding for the first time. The entire peninsula lies in the path of the East Asian-Australian Flyway where massive numbers of birds undertake an annual exodus from north to south all around the world during the months of September to March of the following year to escape the harsh winters. As these birds travel, there are several requisite stops along the way, one of these many stops in the Philippines is Balanga where a huge number of water and forest birds from China, Japan, Siberia, Russia and Canada stop over at the wetland, and mangrove forests of the area. January 2009 saw Balanga top the annual Asian Waterbird Census in the Philippines conducted by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines with a whopping total of 15,271 waterfowl count. At least 35 species and 15 families were recorded flying this migration route.
It was quite refreshing to know that the local government unit in Bataan is actively involved in protecting the mangroves, the mudflats, grasslands and wetlands of the region. We spied a mangrove nursery in Tortugas while we were there, nets were also installed along the coasts to catch trash that washes out of Manila Bay. The local government of Bataan and the communities face an arduous and uphill battle, but so it seemed for us, the current crop of Bataan officials does have a great concern towards the environment. The best time to go birding is around 6:30AM-7:30AM in the morning, and make sure you bring with you a pretty good pair of binoculars. There is a little bit of development around the area with an observation deck being constructed in the area. The local government of Balanga is hoping to provide birders, students and tourists a nature walk, trail hiking jogging paths, camping, boat rides, and forest exposure experience in its sanctuaries. Being amateur birders as we are, we spotted egrets, herons and kingfishers during our brief yet exhilarating experience. Make sure you wear earth-tone colored shirts as loud colors may distract and drive away birds.
Photo by Dave Ryan
The Tortugas site which is also home to a coastal community whose main livelihood depends on fishing, and processing fish sauce and smoked fish is also an excellent feeding and roosting ground for Black Headed Gulls, Curlew Sandpipers, Blue Tailed Bee Eaters, Wood Sandpipers, Terek Sandpipers, Great Egrets, Asian Dowitcher, Common Kingfishers, Cattle Egrets, Sunbirds, Little Egrets, Whimbrels, Marsh Sandpipers, Black Crowned Night Heron, Rails, Shrikes, White Collared Kingfishers, White Winged Terns, Whiskered Terns, Chinese Egrets, Intermediate Egrets and many other shore birds.
Sibacan-Lote Site meanwhile is home to Fantails, Shrikes, Flycatchers, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Trillers, as well as the Asian Golden Plover, Redshanks, Greenshanks, Pacific Golden Plovers, Kentish Mongolian Plovers, Black Winged Stilts, and many other insect and flower feeding birds as well as several species of egrets.
Pto. Rivas Ibaba Bird Site is also a stopover meanwhile to Purple Herons, Brahminy Kites, Chestnut Checked Starlings, Wood Sandpipers, Grey Herons, Rufous Necked Stints, White Breasted Waterhens and even the fastest animal in the world was sighted here– the Peregrine Falcon!
Itching to try birding in Bataan? You may contact the helpful people of Balanga City Tourism Office (+63.47.7914008/ firstname.lastname@example.org/ www.balangabirds.com) or the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (Joey Soriano – email@example.com).
Photo by Racaza
Aside from the bird-watching, Bataan is also known for the Pawikan Conservation Center in Nagbalayong, Morong, Bataan where a community moves to protect sea turtles (locally known as Pawikan) nesting and hatching on its beaches. A community organization composed of former poachers, government agencies and volunteers make up the center which is still being run since it was first established in 1999 in stemming the tide of killing these gentle sea creatures where only 1-3% of the baby turtles ever reach maturity. The Pawikan Conservation Center faces a difficult task ahead of them due to the challenges of climate change as well as poaching by Chinese and Vietnamese fishermen and even Filipino fishermen in other parts of the country. This is aside from the perils that these turtles face from their natural predators such as sharks. To read more and know how to help – read my article on Pawikan Conservation here. We had a great time learning a lot about conservation while we were at the Pawikan Conservation Center and you can even join the group patrolling the beaches around midnight to watch out for turtles who come ashore to lay eggs. Make sure you bring a torch, and for beginners, we’d suggest you to take the easier beach patrol to the left of the sanctuary. Skip the part where you needed to take off your clothes to wade in some chest-deep water. I don’t think that would be very safe especially when you do it in the dead of the night.
The peninsula is also a very good place to do mountain biking with its many winding roads hugging the mountains and different terrains and gorgeous vistas along the way, Bataan holds a lot of promise in this area. We have seen a few mountain bikers in Bataan during our stay. Mountain climbing and trekking exists around the Orani-Morong area with the mountains of Sta. Rosa (800 meters), Natib (1,253 meters), Silanganan (910 meters), and the Bataan Peak (1,000 meters) compose the Bataan Natural Park. Near Mt. Natib are the Pasukulan Falls (Abucay) and the Pilis Falls (Samal). For sure, there are a lot of waterfalls that are still undiscovered in these mountains as well as in the mountains in southern part of the peninsula. Pantingan Peak (1,388 meters) in southeastern borders of Bagac, Mt. Limay (946 meters) in Limay, Mt. Bataan (1,362 meters), Tarak Peak (1,000 meters) and Mt. Mariveles 1,388 meters) offers more mountain climbing and trekking opportunities.
Make sure not to miss the Dunsulan falls near Mt Samat and Kairukan Falls in Morong as well if you have the time. Other beautiful waterfalls that exist in Bataan are the Marukduk Falls, Ambon-ambon Falls and Limutan Falls (Bagac), and Tukal Falls (Hermosa). Aside from the waterfalls, there are many ways to cool down in Bataan and one of which is the natural spring water swimming pools of Sibul Spring in Abucay where pools of varying sizes line the side of a tree-covered hill. The crystal clear waters come from a spring which feeds into the pools. Sibul Spring is a popular destination especially for locals during the scorching summer months and this is also where the best swimmers of the province hone their skills in time for the Philippine National Games. There are some open-air huts for rent as well. Unlike other resorts, we found Sibul pretty clean and dainty and perfect for a restful swim. The local government is currently sprucing up the place, and more amenities should be available for all its guests. As of this writing, overnight stays are still not allowed in Sibul. There is a staircase going up to the top of the hill where a statue of a Japanese goddess (we presume to be) was erected. The Maria Canon statue as it is called was erected for the repose of the souls of those who have fallen during World War 2, and for those who perished on the fields of Gabon, Abucay. It was built by Mie-kin Daichi Shichmucho of the Sohtahsih sect in September 1970.
There are other sports activities happening all around the province such as motocross (Pilar-Orion, Mariveles-Bagac), Mountain Biking (Mariveles, Bagac, Orion from November to April), Circuit Racing (Balanga), Airsoft war games (Pulong Bato, Orion), and Practical Shooting (BATAS Firing Range, Limay), Notable events are the Senakulo (Holy Week, Calaguiman, Samal), Bataan Day (April 9, Dambana ng Kagitingan/Shrine of Valor, Mt. Samat, Pilar), Banga Festival (Last Week of April, Balanga), Pawikan Festival (Last Week of November, Morong), Tagak Festival (November 24, Bagac) and the Paskuhan sa Mabatang (December 15 to January 6, Abucay).
Photo by Dave Ryan
The biggest surprise that we ever encountered in Bataan was the 400 hectare Ciudad Acuzar in the town of Bagac where a collection of Indio stilt houses, 18th century Principalia mansions, and stone houses stand. For those who are loyal followers of Philippine TV, the place would have been very familiar because it was where the Philippine version of Zorro was shot. Our jaws literally dropped and I almost screamed with delight when we entered the huge estate. Imagine abandoned and decaying centuries-old colonial houses from all over Luzon faithfully restored brick by brick, plank by plank, and laid out in clusters next to the sea. The streets were made of bricks as well with a tastefully done plaza at the center- just a spectacular study of Philippine colonial architecture that can probably put Vigan to shame (Vigan’s main advantage however was that the houses were all originally built in the same area as opposed to the relocation done with the houses in Ciudad Acuzar). An entire row of Escolta buildings were also recreated straight from an old photograph. Escolta was Manila’s former commercial center during its heyday (this was where the young and statuesque Imelda Romualdez became a saleslady before going on to be one of the most powerful women in the world).
Ciudad Acuzar was the brainchild of Mr. Jerry Acuzar, an architect and real estate magnate and plans are afoot to turn some of the buildings into a hotel and since the project wasn’t finished yet, we were among the first ones to ever see and enter the place. We were literally astounded about how gorgeous the newly restored houses were and wistfully thought how Manila could have looked the same had the last World War not come and ravaged the city. The Ciudad Acuzar project was also a testament in heritage conservation and paying more than lip service in restoring part of our past as a nation. Ciudad Acuzar is still off limits to the general public but should be open around December 2010.
Despite the association of Bataan with large industrial factories and the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (that never opened), I say Bataan is on the right track in its massive efforts in environmental conservation done not only by the local communities but with its very able local government.
Photo by Dave Ryan
Why Not Go
If you are on the lookout for huge malls or powdery white sand beaches then Bataan is not the proper destination for you, otherwise, the peninsula offers a different experience that seasoned travelers like we are, are going to really appreciate. To keep in touch, however, the local government of Balanga has turned the entire city proper into a wi-fi hotspot.
Bataan is an excellent ecotourism destination that rarely sees tourists even if it is very close to Manila. The peninsula offers a lot of lessons in ongoing environmental and heritage conservation as well as the lessons of history and humanity. For those who swing by and want a quick yet meaningful getaway from Manila, Bataan is a very good option for weekend travelers.
Best Time to Visit
While generally Bataan is a good destination the whole year round, generally avoid the Holy Week season around March and April to avoid large crowds, you may however, schedule your trip around the months when festivals are held. Be sure to check the local weather to be sure especially if you plan to trek the mountains. You may also coordinate with the local tourism office and the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines for the best times to spot the migratory birds if you plan to go birding. Turtle hatchlings are released into the sea usually in a festival around the last week of November so you may contact the Pawikan Conservation Center as well for that information. Mobile phone signal is quite choppy in Nagbalayong, Morong where the conservation center is located so you may have to contact the Bataan Tourism Office. You can look for the Provincial Tourism Officer Ceasar Cuayson or any of his staff (firstname.lastname@example.org) for additional assistance.
Where & What to Eat
Photo by Dave Ryan
Aside from the famed smoked fish called tinapa, tuyo (dried fish) and bagoong (fermented shrimp paste), Bataan is probably best known for its own version of the classic Southeast Asian sour soup, Sinigang na Manok sa Ayo. Ayo leaves are used to flavor this kind of Sinigang and chicken is best used as meat for this dish. The result is a sweetish sour version of the Sinigang, quite peculiar to the types we have had before. You may try this dish at the Joyous Resort and Restaurant (www.joyousresort.com/) in Balanga who gladly prepared this dish for us upon request.
Bataan’s nightlife is concentrated in the many resorts all over the province. While relatively modest compared with the glitz and glamour of neighboring Manila, Bataan offers a sincere respite from the drudgery of city living.
My to do List
1. Visit the Pawikan Conservation Center. Donate! *
2. Admire the panoramic vistas from the viewing gallery of the Dambana ng Kagitingan..**
3. Spot migratory birds at the bird-watching sites in Balanga City.*
4. Buy a backpack (PhP 1500) from the Made in Mariveles, Bataan! We did and we liked it!
5. Chill out at Sibul Spring.**
6. Taste the uniquely Bataan specialty Sinigang sa Ayo at Joyous .*
7. Visit the many historical markers in the peninsula.**
8. Stroll around the stunning estate of Ciudad Acuzar.*
9. Hit the trail and climb Mt. Natib. **
10. Cool down in the many waterfalls of the province. **
11. Walk the hanging bridge in Morong.
12. Go mountain-biking! **
13. Check out the Dragon Fruit farm (Contact the Bataan Tourism Office for this).
14. Sun by the beach at the exclusive Anvaya Cove in Morong.
*- Highly Recommended
**- Recommended by Locals
Stay Away From
1. Mosquitoes! – just bring bug repellent to be sure
2. Drowning – Make sure you wear a working life-vest when swimming in bodies of water!
3. Getting wet, take Ziplocs with you for your gadgets and valuables.
4. Protect yourself from UV rays by putting on a sunblock.
Photo by Dave Ryan
Bataan is now made more accessible via the Subic Clark Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX) and Northern Luzon Expressway (NLEX). There are buses running direct to Balanga and Mariveles through Genesis Buses. Bataan is about 124 kilometers away from Manila. From Olongapo City, you can also take the Victory Liner Buses. Tricycles and jeepneys are the primary modes of transport around Bataan. There was a quicker way via a ferry from the CCP terminal to the port in Orion but the service was discontinued. By air, you may go through the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport in Clark, Pampanga or through the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminals in Manila and make the requisite land transfers.