MENTION Bataan and, immediately, images of the uncommon valor of its World War II defenders come into mind. As the Philippines’s first and last line of defense against the invading Japanese Imperial Army, every nook and cranny of the province is a battlefield hallowed by the blood of Filipino and American soldiers, who made the ultimate sacrifice.
The iconic 92-meter Cross at the Dambana ng Kagitingan (Shrine of Valor) on Mount Samat immortalizes this bravery for the next generation to emulate. Every April 9 WWII veterans and their descendants converge on this war memorial, not to remember their capitulation to the Japanese juggernaut and the start of the infamous Death March, but to take pride in their bravery against overwhelming odds.
But beyond the scars left by the Pacific War, which have become tourist attractions, Bataan is also a land of nature and adventure which is by and large overshadowed by its more popular and commercialized counterparts.
Fun begins at Mount Samat National Park in Pilar town itself, where various outdoor activities have been set in place to provide recreational activities to the shrine visitors. A must-try is the 540- and 70-meter high zipline, the longest of its kind in Luzon, which glides riders to a breathtaking view of the verdant mountains and rice paddies below.
At the zipline’s endpoint, adventure lovers can cool off and dip in the cool waters of Dunsulan Falls or pump up their adrenaline further by doing the six-stages of tree-hopping on ropes and harness.
Also within Mount Samat’s dense vegetation, one can do practical shooting in the Batas Firing Range, play airsoft war games to simulate the close quarter combat of WWII, or pedal around the mountain’s challenging trails.
This mountain park will further burst with life as the Tourism Infrastructure and Economic Zone Authority (Tieza), where tourist-related establishments such as eco-themed hotels, resorts, spas and recreational facilities will be built.
A favorite watering hole among locals is Sibul Spring on the outskirts of Abucay, which boasts of a 25-meter lap pool and a smaller pool for children. Situated at the foot of a mountain, it has refreshing and cool water emanating from a natural spring, which is believed to be therapeutic because of its sulfur content.
Managed by the municipal government, the resort also has a view deck, where a Buddhist monument to peace has been erected by former Japanese soldiers.
Another attraction is Kairukan falls in Morong, whose 150-feet tall drop descends into 30-foot cool basin. A trail originating from Barangay Binaritan can be used as an access to the falls, however, it ends some 500 meters from the site so one has to transverse upstream to reach it.
One can also travel back in time at Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar Heritage Resort dubbed as a living museum of turn-of-the-century Philippine customs and traditions. In this 400-hectare coastal community in Bagac town, a number of bahay na bato ancestral houses ravaged by time and which were destined for the wrecking ball have found a new lease on life in this village either as a museum, shop or accommodation facility.
The only resort of its kind in the country, it boasts of architectural treasures across the archipelago, which were painstakingly rebuilt brick by brick and plank by plank by its developer, the New San Jose Builders to recapture their Old World allure.
Las Casas Filipinas has figured in various period movies and teleseryes, most notable of which are the award-winning Aguinaldo and Bonifacio biopics El Presidente and Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo, respectively.
A guided tour around the reconstructed Spanish-era houses allows visitors to relive a genteel bygone era or dress up as a 19th-century ilustrado for a posterity photo.
For a complete throwback experience, guests can spend the night in any of the heritage house-themed accommodation for a serene nocturnal interlude reminiscent of the unhurried olden days of yore.
A unique tourist spot is the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) in Morong, which has been mothballed for more than three decades and is now open to educational trips. The one-hour tour takes visitors to the inner sanctum of the BNPP, including the reactor and control room, and gives guests an overview and appreciation of nuclear energy.
Paid by the taxes of the Filipinos for almost a generation, the plant tour and the enlightening annotation of its engineer-guides provide ordinary citizens a closer look at the controversial issue in the light of the country’s looming energy crisis.
A few minutes away is the Pawikan Conservation Center which is devoted to the preservation and propagation of endangered marine turtles. Manned by poachers-turned-conservationists, the center’s mission is to secure the eggs laid during the nesting season, and transfer them into the hatchery to help breeding and in the regeneration of fishing grounds.
Tourists go to this sanctuary during the nesting season, especially during the Pawikan Festival held on the last week of November to witness the endangered sea turtles struggle to shore at night to lay their eggs. Visitors can adopt a turtle by releasing a baby turtle into the sea.
Also within Morong is the Bataan Technology Park Inc., a 365-hectare ecotourism enclave which used to be the site of the United Nations Philippine Refugee Processing Center, which hosted refugees from Vietnam, Lao PDR and Cambodia before they were sent to their new homes in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe.
Last but not least among the gems of Bataan is Balanga City, the bustling provincial capital and economic, transportation and educational hub of the province.
In the heart of the city is the Plaza Mayor de Ciudad de Balanga which was relandscaped and surrounding edifices were built in Iberian themes to resemble the Spanish city of Salamanca. In front of the public park is an interactive fountain which livens up the people’s evening stroll.
Its centerpiece is The Plaza Hotel, arguably the best lodging facility in the province, flanked by the City Hall and Victoria Plaza Mall. Now an architectural icon of the city, the hotel has 34 stylishly furnished rooms for a relaxing stay for business or vacation.
Cafe Kyoto, the hotel’s food outlet, is a cozy place to be seen and its authentic Japanese cuisine is a must-taste, prepared by no less than veteran Japanese chef Honda who has made the Philippines his home for more than 20 years now.
On its penthouse floor is an open bar, which affords guests an unobstructed view of the plaza, the 18th-century Cathedral just across the street and a panorama of the mountains of Bataan in the horizon. It is truly a soothing night cap, while sipping on your favorite spirits or cocktails.
A nature getaway is the city of Balanga Wetland and Nature Park, an 11-hectare sanctuary for migratory and endemic bird species recognized by the Department of Tourism as the latest birdwatching site. As part of the East Asian-Australian flyway or the main migratory routes for birds, its mangrove forest and mudflats have become a natural food basket for some 35 bird species and 15 families spotted so far by ornithologists.