Road trip around northern Luzon
Eight days, $800 or 40,000 Filipino Pesos
If you would like to organise a trip like this or learn more information please contact Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org
An American man with enormous biceps. That’s who I rented this car from. An old, wrecked American gas-guzzling box. More precisely, a Chevrolet Venture from the (very) early 2000s, a huge six-cylinder with a power-sapping auto and air-conditioning which just about worked. Its fair to say that these are not the most common vehicle in the Philippines (despite the city being called Angeles), but it had plenty of space, it was extremely comfortable and with the smooth engine and gearbox combo, a pretty nice place to be.
I was actually really lucky to find this car. After making a mess of the previous rental car in a pot hole and bodging it back together with things we could buy from the local shopping mall, (luckily the guy – who was a nasty piece of work – never noticed the damage as we returned the car in the dark) I was hesitant to return to the same rental company. As a result, I searched high-and-low starting my search on our scooter travelling around every street in our city and eventually arriving at San Fernando, the neighbouring city, and asking car dealers, mechanics, people in car parks and even the people at KFC if they knew where I could rent a car from. I briefly considered buying a Toyota Corolla which was very cheap which I could sell at the end of the trip.
After no success after 3 hours in the blistering Filipino heat, I headed back home for refreshment and air conditioning. After a short break, I decide to head to the mall for some retail therapy – on the way home, I saw a sign for car rental very close to where we’d rented our last car and wasn’t sure if it meant the same place. I pulled over, parked the scooter and poked around. There was a shop front, a closed but unlocked door and a light on. Inside, on the walls, a few maps and AK-47 posters. On a chair in the centre of the room, the American.
He said he didn’t have much, but he did have ‘a van’. Perfect, I though. Low on fuel, lots of space, ideal for our road trip. Sadly, he’s American so a van is a people-carrier; an American one at that. He showed me around the poor condition Chevrolet and after some excuses came some haggling. I got the car home, converted it from soccer-mom-mobile to a backpacker luxury suite and set about packing for our second big trip – to the surf capital of Phil, Baler, the very famous place where the Ride of the Valkyries scene from Apocalypse Now was filmed. The car was the perfect size for a mattress and our belongings, the view was good out of the drivers seat and its was actually lovely to drive.
“Charlie don’t surf”
I picked up Lauren, my travelling companion from her work at the local American school (Clarke is a former US military base and full of ex-pats), stopped by the house to collect some belongings, then we were off. We had spoken to a few people who knew people who had done this journey before, but the only directions we had were printed out on a piece of A4 paper and Filipino road signs aren’t great – although they are all in English which is useful.
Our journey, strategically, started on highway; a fine piece of Filipino infrastructure are these two lane dual-carriageways stretching between the larger towns on the main island Luzon. Heavily speed governed but fairly priced, they make covering long distances pain free.
However, they only last for so long until you are off the highway and into what makes up the majority of the roads here; a typical two lane roads littered with occasional settlements immediately on the edge, motorcycles and trikes everywhere and poorly maintained, badly driven minivans who drive around like they’re being chased. Sorry, Filipinos, but you can’t drive. I’ll extend this to Asia – not because I’m irrationally prejudice but because I’ve been there. You can’t claim you have experienced scary roads drive until you’ve been here – it’s another world.
We continued east towards Baler passing the towns of La Paz, Zaragoza and skirting around the edge of of the city of Cabantuan on a curious by-pass which, at the entrance, are concrete pillars over a meter wide which our not-particularly big vehicle only just passed through; I’m guessing it was to keep trucks off the road and with a couple of plain-clothed guys helping people through, not such a bad idea – in the UK we use commonly ignored signs and end up with large trucks on windy roads holding everybody up.
At the end of this 5km stretch of road was a t junction. Left was the continuation of our journey; right was the city and therefore a shop where I could buy an aux cable to plug my iPod into the car and fill the car with more Boston, Hush and less terrified Boston 23 year old girl. This turned out to be a bad move in terms of traffic spending at least fifteen minutes driving less than a mile trying to drive into the town – I was extremely glad that by-pass had been there and that our car wasn’t two inches wider. Feeling like luck was both coming and going, I saw at the side of the road a stall which had a little bit of second hand everything. I pulled over, jumped out and found a Van Morrison CD which would hopefully get us through some peaceful kms. It worked beautifully. Lauren hated it so much that she went to lay down in the back of the car listening to my iPod whilst I drove for a few hours in silence. Time to relax and let the car do the work.
Although we’re still in The Philippines remember, so it wasn’t. Remember the American guy I rented this car from? Turns out he’s much better at taking care of his biceps than this cars – I was starting to learn a little more about this old minivan when a brief shower (meaning enormous tropical thunderstorm) started and my windscreen wipers didn’t. There was a noise coming from the bonnet which sounded like a grinding, as if the wiper motors were moving but they weren’t connected to anything. I pull over, Lauren blissfully unaware of any problem, and take a look. My suspicions were correct, the wipers had come loose from their mountings and weren’t wiping anything. Now, I’m a tour guide which means on my person I had many useful things – a map, a flash light, a first aid kit and a kindle loaded with information books. You can’t fix wipers with these. I continued a long the road without any vision for a km or two until I came across a small settlement with a shop and some guys hanging outside; I show them my problem and in thirty seconds and no more than a dollar, we have it fixed.
We continued toward Rizal, a large industrial town in the shadows of the mountains this envelope this part of Luzon. These roads were much easier to negotiate than those in the more rural areas as they were remarkably straight. Really, nowhere I’ve been before has roads like this where you can drive for 4-5km and not turn a bend. This makes progress easy and, more importantly when you’re chasing the light, fast. I got the old Venture up to three figure speeds frequently trying to make up time we’d both lost negotiating trikes and will lose through the mountains.
Speaking of those mountains, we were approaching and, as it turned out, were vastly under equipped for them. The lights on our rental car were shocking; I could barely see 10 metres in the dry. And it wasn’t dry half of the time. The roads were steep and extremely twisty – perfectly manageable for an experienced driver, but mostly, they were pretty scary for average Joe. Lauren, my passenger, was very much paying attention at this point.
The rest of the trip was much like this. Making the most of the situation. It was one of the best trips-within-trips I have ever had and will remember the Philippines fondly for the adventure.