BOLINAO, Pangasinan - Beyond its pristine white-sand beaches, the coastal town of Bolinao in western Pangasinan has more to offer to visitors.
Tourists can explore Bolinao's caves and coral beds, learn about its history and culture, or enjoy a cruise with lunch on Balingasay River.
Bolinao, facing the West Philippine Sea and with a population of 75,000, is at the end of a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Metro Manila. Buses take tourists to the town on runs that take five and a half hours.
Although the Pangasinan and Ilocano languages are widely spoken in Bolinao, the town has its own language, Bolinao or Binu-Bolinao.
"The Bolinao culture is still very alive, especially on Santiago Island," said Myrna Aguila, the town's tourism officer. The island, located off the northern tip of Pangasinan, has six of Bolinao's 30 villages.
"People there still practice bayanihan. If somebody gets married, everybody helps in the preparation. During fiestas, homes are open and visitors can just go in to eat," Aguila said.
Margaret Celeste, chair of the Movement of Bolinao Concerned Citizens Inc., said residents were fierce defenders of the environment, always ready to stand up to any threat.
In the 1990s, the residents opposed the construction of a P13-billion (S$400 million) cement plant in the town, prompting the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to reject the proponent's application for an environmental compliance certificate.
Tourists appreciate the town and its attractions, and always return, encouraging the construction of resorts and other lodging facilities over the last five years.
Responding to the increase in tourist traffic, Bolinao's tourism office has drawn up itineraries for visitors who want to explore the town.
A day tour, for instance, always begins with the highlights of the town's history.
Guests are taken to the 406-year-old St. James the Great Church and led to the nearby Spanish well before proceeding to the town hall.
A marker in front of the church says that in 1324, Franciscan missionaries led by an Italian priest named Odorico celebrated a Mass in the town, way earlier than the recorded first Mass in the Philippines, on Limasawa Island in Southern Leyte, in 1521.
For pilgrims, part of the day tour is a visit to St. Clare Monastery in Luna village.
The monastery was established following the visit of Mother Jeronima de Asuncion of the Order of St. Clare (Poor Clares) and a Franciscan friar to the town in 1621. A marker was built near the port to commemorate the event.
From the town centre, tourists travel to Patar village, 19 kilometers away. After a short stop at Balingasay River, they go to Cape Bolinao lighthouse and then to the white-sand public beach in Patar.
Tourists staying for another day in Bolinao can enjoy a "cascades tour."
"It's a trip to the falls and the tour starts early in the morning, between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. so that it will not be too hot," Aguila said.
Bolinao boasts of three waterfalls: the Tara Falls in Tara village and the Bolinao 1 and Bolinao 2 falls in Samang Norte village.
Tourists have to trek for about 15 minutes to get to the falls, where they can enjoy a dip in the clear waters.
From Tara Falls, they can have a two-hour river cruise with lunch of choice seafood on Balingasay River.
The cruise, offered by the floating restaurant Sungayan Grill, costs P1,000 per group of 10 or P2,000 for a group as big as 30, excluding food.
Balingasay, the Ilocos region's cleanest river, boasts of century-old mangroves growing on its banks, which stretch for 5 km up to Bolinao 1 and 2 falls.
"On a good day, there are even migratory birds perched on the mangroves along the way," Aguila said.
For tourists opting to stay for three days, they can go snorkeling at designated spots around Santiago Island.
Located in Lucero village is the town's giant clams nursery, near the island's fish sanctuary.
The giant clams are from the University of the Philippines' Marine Science Institute (UPMSI) marine laboratory here.
The UPMSI nursery is not open to tourists, so the institute transferred the clams to the municipal government's giant clam nursery to enable visitors to see them.
Councilor Genaro Caasi, chair of the town council's tourism committee, said scuba diving would be added to tourism activities in Bolinao after the Department of Tourism had identified suitable dive sites.
Tourists can also explore three of the town's 11 caves. These are the Enchanted, Wonderful and Cindy's caves, all in Patar.
The Enchanted Cave has a pool of spring water 1.52 to 2.13 meters deep and can accommodate 16 people. It is accessible through a 14.02-m descending stairway.
The compound where the cave is located has been developed into a resort that has a kiddie pool, picnic sheds and function spaces. Fossilized shells of giant clams dug up from the area adorn the site.
Every guided tour of the town always ends in a "market encounter," where tourists are taken to the town's public market to buy binungey (glutinous rice cooked in a bamboo), shop for souvenirs or buy dried fish.
Bolinao is 280 km north of Manila. The town can be reached through the North Luzon Expressway and the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEx).
From the SCTEx's Tarlac exit, travelers cross the Tarlac River to hit the Romulo Highway, which takes them to Camiling town.
From there, travelers enter Pangasinan and reach Bolinao after passing through the towns of Mangatarem, Aguilar, Bugallon, Labrador and Sual, Alaminos City and Bani.
Victory Liner and Five Star Lines offer daily trips to Bolinao from Metro Manila. One-way fare is about P500.