Bolinao, with its long expanses of shoreline and simple but active rural community, is a good place to go to get away from it all. Jason Zarzuela visits this Pangasinan town and spends his days eating with the local folk, soaking in the small town life, and strolling along the beaches.
The town of Bolinao has been on my mind for some time now ever since some of my friends started going on chill-out trips at this laid-back destination, best known for its beaches and its landmark lighthouse. I had missed out on all of their trips. The itch was finally scratched one day in December when my girlfriend and I boarded an air-conditioned Five Star bus bound for Bolinao at the Cubao terminal along EDSA.
Getting to Bolinao and Bing's
Our bus eased out at midnight. Two Judy Ann Santos movies later, we arrived at the terminal in Bolinao town proper. We alighted and were approached by several tricycle drivers shouting, "Sir! Patar sir?" After taking a moment to get our bearings, we decided on a tricycle driven by Joey, and asked to be taken to Bing's Beachside Resort in Barangay Patar. We were a bit taken aback by the "standard" P150 fare touted by all of the drivers, but when we got to the resort, we realized it was a fair deal. It was, by my reckoning, about a good 15 kilometers away from town, on roads that were mostly laid along the scenic coast.
Bing's Beachside Resort offers no-frills but clean accommodations, ideal for guests who just need a bed for the night and plan to stay out most of the day. It is definitely not for couples planning to lock themselves up in a room, or at least within the resort, all weekend. We decided on Bing's when we called them and got a good deal on their published rates (which we found by doing a little internet research). We read a few negative reviews online about Bing's getting their guest reservations mixed up, but we didn't have that-we had a smooth check-in at reception and had a pleasant stay.
Day 1: Bolinao Town Food Trip
Joey turned out to be a swell guy, so we decided, to engage him (for an additional P650) for the rest of the day. First on our agenda was to get something to eat. Joey drove us to the Church of Saint James Fortress back in town, where we sampled the binungay sold by vendors by the church entrance. This glutinous rice cake delicacy is made by steaming a bamboo segment filled with gata (coconut milk) and malagkit (sticky rice) over fire. It's a curve-ball take on the typical suman that I know. To eat it, you crack the bamboo lengthwise and scrape out the binungay. I knew this would taste good with tsokolate (local hot cocoa) or just plain old sugar, but I found that it also goes well with sweet ripe mangoes, which the vendors urged us to try with the binungay.
Ambling over to the church courtyard, we inspected a marker commemorating the first Catholic mass in the Philippines, held in Bolinao in 1324. This challenges the historical fact foisted on us that the first mass was held in 1521 at Limasawa in Southern Leyte.
To burn off the binungay, which, like most suman, was a bit heavy, we decided to walk around and check out the pantalan (wharf), about three blocks from the church. Since it was a Saturday, which is market day, the pantalan was busy with colorful outriggers bringing merchants from the outlying islands into town to buy and barter goods. We hung around for a while and then headed for the area beside the church where a lively perya (town fair) had been recently set up, with a ferris wheel as its centerpiece surrounded by other rides and booths offering various games of chance. The perya would run until July 25, the feast day for Bolinao's patron saint, St. James the Great. That's a pretty lengthy run-it was mid-December when we visited.
Before going back to Bing's Resort, we dropped in at the Bolinao Seafood Grill, ATBP, for an afternoon meal. We ordered standard seafood items off their menu: grilled fish, grilled squid, and seafood kare-kare with rice, soda and beer. The seafood was very fresh and the portions generous. Our favorite was the kare-kare (seafood stew with peanut sauce and vegetables) complemented with bagoong (fermented shrimp paste). For P500 split three ways, it was very good value for our money.
On the way back to the resort we made a quick stop at the Ilog-Malino Bridge, which spans the Balingasay River that flows into the South China Sea, and snapped a few pictures.
Joey went home after dropping us off at Bing's, but not before we traded mobile phone numbers. Bing's beachfront was serene. There are just a few other resorts in its immediate vicinity. The popular beach area, known as Patar White Beach, was about 5 kilometers down the road. The waves seemed to break a little strong and high, about 200 meters from the shore, though I wasn't able to determine if the breaks were caused by a reef line or a sandbar.
Our grumbling stomachs woke us up at around 10 in the evening from what was supposed to be a short late afternoon nap. We didn't have any food in our room and Bing's Restaurant was already closed. A fifteen minute walk by the roadside taught us that transportation could be pretty scarce around Patar at that time of the night. A text message brought Joey to our rescue and he took us back into town where we all had a very affordable and filling late dinner at Adora's Restaurant, a 24-hour joint, which was very popular with the townsfolk, according to Joey (as proved by the fact that it was packed at such an ungodly hour).
We decided to kill about two hours before heading back to Bing's, so we stopped by the town fair again, where we had some green mangoes with bagoong. Curious about the bright lights on the other side of the church, we walked over and found that the town was holding a song-and-dance contest for their public school students in the cavernous roofed basketball courts. A few numbers later I was already hankering for a drink. We had one at the St. James General Merchandise across the street, right in front of the church. They regularly set up a few plastic tables and chairs at night and we discovered that this made a great people-watching spot. It gave us the best vantage point --we were able to unobtrusively observe the town and its people passing by, all while enjoying a few beers.
Day 2: Resort Roundup, a Lighthouse Visit, and Some Sightseeing
Joey picked us up at nine the following morning. Our first stop was the Rockview Resort, so named because of the wide array of rock formations dotting its shore. The resort has a few picnic huts that can be rented for the day. We didn't need one since we just wanted to take some photos, so each of us just paid the P10 entrance fee.
Since we neglected to have breakfast, by the time we were done taking pictures we were famished. Joey drove us to a nameless sari-sari store at the fork in the road that led to the Treasures of Bolinao Resort on the right and the public Patar White Beach on the left. We bought a can of meat loaf and two cans of sardines which the storeowner was glad to fry and sauté for us for a nominal fee. He also included a share of the boiled rice that they had ready for lunch.
Fed and rested, we were ready to explore Patar White Beach. We parked behind a loose cluster of wood and bamboo structures-shops selling souvenir t-shirts, trinkets, and local handicrafts, interspersed with sari-sari stores making a healthy trade selling sodas and beer. Beyond these stores lay rows of picnic huts, almost all of which were occupied by day-trippers with their rented nuclear-powered videoke machines and pots of home-cooked food that they had brought with them. Most of them ended up leaving before sunset; some stayed the night and wound up sleeping on the tables, on the benches, or buried in the sand.
The atmosphere was festive. Except for the Treasures of Bolinao Resort that was at the far end of the beach, we did not see any other place that offered a proper bed and a proper roof. Maybe it's better this way-the lack of amenities forces you to rough it up a little bit. Garbage bins made from old rubber tires were spread out all over the beach (there appears to be a community effort to keep the beachfront as litter-free as possible). Strolling barefoot on the beach, we realized that the cream-colored sand of Patar White Beach had something in common with the sand in Boracay-the sand does not get hot even at midday, though it's not as fine as Boracay sand. I'm inclined to agree with Joey's claim that this part of Patar has the best stretch of beach.
We left Patar White Beach to visit the solar-powered Cape Bolinao Lighthouse. Built in 1905, it sits atop the Punta Piedra Point, also in Patar, and is the second tallest lighthouse in the country. From the platform alongside the lighthouse we got a great view of the Bolinao sunset.
It was almost 7PM when we got back to Bing's. While we were washing up, Joey went home and came back for us with his three-year-old daughter in tow. We decided to spend our last night in Bolinao in town, again at Adora's-we couldn't get enough of their food. We roamed around town after dinner and mingled with the now-larger crowd at the perya. When we passed by the covered basketball courts, there was another event in full swing, this time a Christmas function for local government employees and officials. The whole town was in party mode. Thirsty, we crossed the street to St. James General Merchandise, took a table, and went to the counter to buy our drinks, before finally calling it a night and returning to Bing's.
Day 3: Pasalubong Shopping
The next morning after our breakfast of tapsilog and coffee at Bing's restaurant, Joey brought us to the market to pick up some Pangasinan specialty dried danggit and bangus (rabbitfish and milkfish; P180 for a kilo of both) to bring back to Manila, before finally dropping us off at the bus station where we shook hands and made our goodbyes. His reminder that we hadn't had enough time to visit the Enchanted Cave and Tara Falls had us promising to return. It wasn't an empty promise-we do plan to return. We've already got a few places lined up for our itinerary-the Hundred Islands, Anda Island, and Santiago Island-which is sure to include the same warm places we enjoyed this time around. Sure, it's a bit of a long haul getting to Bolinao, but the town, beaches, and other attractions have that steady, small town appeal that make it feel like a movie you wouldn't mind watching again, and again, and again.
How To Get There:
About 250 kilometers north of Manila, Bolinao lies at the tip of Pangasinan's peninsula, west of the Lingayen Gulf. Average travel time on the road from Manila is about five hours.
Some bus companies that offer direct trips to Bolinao are Five Star Bus Company Inc. and Victory Liner Inc., with terminals in Cubao, Quezon City along EDSA. Passenger fare for an airconditioned bus is about P420.
To drive from Manila, take the EDSA northbound route and enter the Balintawak junction of the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX). Take the Subic Clark Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX) and exit at Dau to take the road for Tarlac. In Tarlac, make sure to take the road heading to Camiling (and not the road going to Urdaneta--this will add hours to your travel). From Camiling, take the road leading to Alaminos, then Bani, until you reach Bolinao, Pangasinan.