Still lovely: Baguio in a day

You’re less than an hour away from Baguio City when you reach the famous Lion’s Head on Kennon Road. —PHOTOS BY CHARLES E. BUBAN

BAGUIO CITY—From the lowlands we drove to the country’s summer capital and stayed for 10 hours. And we enjoyed every minute of our visit.

We (my husband Charles and I) came up with the plan last year, when travel restrictions due to Covid-19 were eased. We carefully chose the date, taking into consideration the factors that might spoil our trip, like the weather and a large stream of other tourists. We settled on April 19, a weekday after the long Holy Week break. And then, recalling that our good friend Yam had mentioned months earlier that she wanted to spend a couple of days in Baguio, we invited her to join us.

It’s 280 kilometers from our house in Las Piñas City to Baguio. The distance may sound daunting for travelers planning a mere day trip, but thanks to the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEx) and the Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway (TPLEx)—which started operations in April 2008 and October 2013, respectively—one can now reach Baguio in four hours instead of the usual eight. 

On the road at 4 a.m. 

Our tight schedule required us to leave Manila at 4 a.m. I’m not used to getting up early, so the first hour on the road was a struggle for me not to fall asleep. But the idea of setting foot in Baguio again after four years was sufficiently bracing. Besides, Yam and I had to keep up the chatter so Charles—our designated driver, and like me not a morning person—would stay awake, alert and able to make quick decisions. Our discussions, from politics to show-biz gossip, were satisfactory.  

Watching the sunrise along the highway amid the rice fields and trees and the backdrop of the Cordillera mountains made me forget that we were still hours away from our destination. It was a welcome and relaxing sight for all of us. 

And it was a good thing that our 2014 Toyota Wigo, which Charles and I fondly call “Beaker,” had a full tank of unleaded gas and that we brought snacks with us in case we got hungry during the trip. We were able to travel continuously, saving us precious time and money. The only time we stopped was for a bathroom break at the PTT gas station in the Bamban, Tarlac, area of the SCTEx. 

On track to arrive in Baguio at 8 a.m., we gave each other high fives before hitting the road again.

Kennon Road

We decided to take Kennon Road and were surprised to know that upon exiting Rosario, La Union (the last toll exit of TPLEx), one only needs to drive 500 meters more to get to the foot of Kennon. Others prefer to use the Aspiras-Palispis Highway—aka Marcos Highway and about 15 km away from the TPLEx Rosario exit via the Pugo-Rosario Road—because it’s wider and said to be safer than Kennon Road. But I would choose the latter anytime. 

Besides, whenever I go to Baguio, I love having my picture taken with the Lion’s Head on Kennon as my background. It’s like a tourist’s badge of honor. 

As expected, there were road repairs being done on Kennon, but because it was a weekday and still early, we had no problem getting to the 40-foot Lion’s Head at 7:08 a.m. Vehicles were allowed to park at one side of the road and we were lucky that only a few other tourists were present when we reached the famous landmark. We were greeted by a Saint Bernard and his puppy, both owned by someone in one of the souvenir shops in the area. I noted vendors offering “strawberry taho.” 

After finally finding a good spot at the Lion’s Head to have our pictures taken, we immediately went back to our vehicle. But not before saying goodbye to the Saint Bernard, huge but gentle and affectionate, and probably part of the place’s tourist attraction. 

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‘Batirol’, etc.

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It’s always best to start your day in Baguio with a hot cup of Batirol’s “choco-late original blend.”

It was a little past 8 a.m. when we arrived at the renovated Choco-Late De Batirol inside Camp John Hay. We ordered daing na bangus for breakfast and, of course, the restaurant’s famous “choco-late original blend” which tasted so good it reminded me of the tablea that my late Lola Neneng used to serve for breakfast at our home in Mindanao.

Our next stop was the 103-year-old Baguio Cathedral on Upper Session Road. After offering a short prayer, we decided to leave our vehicle inside the church compound (for a fee), then headed on foot to Harrison Road where the Baguio Vintage Collector shop is located. We were met by Alvin Quesada, who runs the shop where one can buy rare toys and other collectors’ items. It was nice to know that his shop is still doing good business despite the pandemic.

A trip to Baguio wouldn’t be complete without a visit to its public market and buying strawberries and vegetables. I commend the people behind the upkeep of the market: Its tourist-friendly environment made buying the stuff we wanted a breeze. 

Walking back to Baguio Cathedral was challenging because this time we had to endure the 11 a.m. heat— heat! in Baguio!—and the long incline going to the church. It was a relief to reach the church and head back to Beaker to get ready for our next destination.

Like Yam, I was excited to visit the BenCab Museum. It was Charles’ second time to visit, so he served as our tour guide. Owned by National Artist for Visual Arts Benedicto Cabrera, famously known as BenCab, the artworks are truly a feast for the eyes (don’t miss a visit next time you come to Baguio). Outside the museum is a beautiful garden with a wooden walkway that can be used to go around the large pond where koi and ducks coexist.

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At the BenCab Museum’s Maestro Gallery, one can view the works of some of the country’s masters of Philippine art.

Our visit was made extra special because Ryan, one of the museum’s staff members, volunteered to take our pictures in some of the galleries. And those were not ordinary pictures that he took. Using Charles’ cellphone, Ryan did various photography tricks that we never knew a smartphone was capable of doing under skilled hands.

It was already past 1 p.m. We were not feeling particularly hungry, and with the dearth of parking space in certain restaurants, we proceeded to Mines View Park to buy a couple of plants and the famous Baguio broom.

Pony rides

Wright Park was next on our list. Finding a space to park was difficult, probably because parts were undergoing renovation and certain areas had to be sealed off to make way for heavy equipment and other construction materials. But people were not discouraged from visiting and enjoying the pony rides. 

I had the chance to speak with Robert Pascua Paulo, who owns a horse for rent at the park. He said he was happy to be working again after almost two years of inactivity due to the pandemic restrictions that prevented tourists from visiting Baguio. 

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Robert Pascua Paulo has been renting out horses for tourists in Wright Park for the last 15 years.

Paulo recalled that it was a difficult time for the pony boys. Some of them even had to sell their ponies to put food on the table. Full operations became possible again in October 2022, and since then the situation has been slowly going back to normal for the pony boys of Wright Park. 

It was good to know from Paulo that the horses are regularly checked by a vet and are fed regularly and treated well. “Aside from the vet, there are also animal welfare advocates who look into the condition of the park’s horses,” he said.

It was now 2:56 p.m. and on Romulo Street across from Wright Park, we had our late lunch at Pizza Volante. From where we were seated, we had a good view of Wright Park. It was heartwarming to see tourists visiting the place again, buying souvenirs and renting the ponies, helping the pony boys get back on their feet. 

The Mirador Peace Memorial is a popular spot inside the Mirador Heritage and Eco-Spirituality Park. The bell attached to a traditional Japanese gate or “torii” is actually part of an unexploded bomb dropped on Mirador Hill during World War II.

Our last stop was the Mirador Heritage and Eco-Spirituality Park. Opened to the public in 2020, the 5-hectare park is for those who want to pray, meditate, or simply spend time in a green space with a panoramic view of the city. The stairway of Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, a famous spot for pilgrims, is made up of 252 steps. We didn’t attempt to climb the stairway, and instead lit a candle and offered a prayer in front of the image of Our Lady before proceeding to Mirador park. 

We dropped off Yam at her hotel on Upper Military Cutoff Road, tarrying for a few minutes before saying goodbye. It was already 5:51 p.m. and I could now feel Baguio’s cold. 

No complaints

I was the designated driver on our way home but I wasn’t complaining. Despite cramming a tight schedule into 10 hours, we never felt tired. Charles said it was because Baguio, with its (still) many trees and crisp-cold weather, was calming—truly a respite from the concrete jungle that is Metro Manila.

Maybe we weren’t the only ones from Manila who drove to Baguio and stayed for only a day to see the sights and eat in restaurants made famous in blogs and such. Maybe there were also others who made sure to gas up early and stick to a strict schedule while traveling to and from Baguio. There’s plenty of options, choices. But a trip, no matter how short or long, is always lovely when you’re with special people to share it with.

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