Reviving that Christmas feeling

Fans of the Baguio's cool climate can soon say good bye to the agonizing 7 hours it takes to get there from Manila. No doubt, PIDCo/San Miguel Infra, builders of the TPLEx, must have its Baguio fans too. At the rate they are far advanced in finishing Section 2 up to Urdaneta, the dream journey time of four hours gets closer to reality. In fact, many a former Baguio-phile is rediscovering Baguio, in today's Boracay Century. City congestion forced the authorities to dust-off and apply drastic pre-1990 earthquake one way traffic schemes on Kennon, Kisad, Legarda Roads and Outlook Drive, remedies last deployed during the foreign travel ban Martial Law years.

Just 2 years to go

Considering holiday traffic and brand spanking new connections to the Manila North Road, one should still give the journey a bit more allowance owing to the fact that the last segment of TPLEx from Urdaneta to Rosario, La Union at the start of the Rosario-Pugo diversion to Marcos Highway will still need to be finished. Not only is its route unsettled among 3 competing choices, but the initial plan of only single carriageway, is to be upgraded to 2x2 dual carriageway. The magic 4 hours is still a year or two away.

SCTEx, the catalyst

Even if one is not really into frequent stops for breaks and wayside souvenir/delicacy/curio-gift “pasalubong” shopping, reaching Baguio from Manila in four hours doesn't need Cannonball run or Ironman style driving. Nor would a 400bhp 911 be the bare minimum tool. When the SCTEx was new and the TPLEx was just a series of newspaper press release, I've done Greenhills to Baguio Country Club in 4 hours, with family and staff. It didn't matter if we took along a test drive V-8 Expedition LWB, Kia Carnival, 2.4-liter Previa, V-6 Chrysler Town and Country or the sublime V-6 powered Toyota Alphard over several sorties. Of course, we avoided the high season [summer break school year, long weekends] and stormy or flood prone weather, but we needn't get up at the crack of dawn either.

Off the beaten track

All it needed was to get to North bound EDSA from Ortigas at 10AM, onto the NLEx then exit SCTEx La Paz, take the Victoria-Pura-Cuyapo-Rosales route which adds 28kms. to a total of 272kms. from Greenhills gate to Country Club reception. A must is the Magilas trail from Rosales to Binalonan, then to bear with 17kms. Of MacArthur Highway [being widened and improved now] before we get to the Rosario-Pugo junction leading to easy mountain driving on Marcos Highway. Four hours flat, relaxed and unflustered. Incidentally, four hours with one stop aligns with international driving practice where truck and car drivers are advised to take breaks, even short ones, from driving continuously for 3 hours, whether one covers 350kms or less.

4 hours too, in 1965

But four hours was also the average benchmark 50 years ago. Back in 1965, when the Army engineering battalion haven't even started clearing the right of way for the North Diversion Road. This four hour benchmark was set in ordinary private cars, driven not by race car professionals but by drug company and agricultural chemical company traveling salesmen. By mining company middle managers. Businessmen. And by the rising middle class who were bent on building their mountain vacation home in the incomparable City of Pines.

Greenhills then

1965 was the first year in the administration of the wildly popular Ferdinand E. Marcos. The streets were clogged with all brands of automobiles, a hangover of the free import days of single term President Macapagal, father of GMA. La Salle Greenhills was building up their Grade School then. Greenhills subdivision was mostly empty lots, with a bamboo barrier gate on Rochester street, leading to single carriageway Highway 54, where there was a lone Shell “ranch style” gas station [today's Mazda dealer]. Nearby were Camp Murphy [Fort Aguinaldo today] and Camp Crame.

Baguio houses

The Baguio dream

Our family was into sprucing up the extended family vacation home in Bokawkan, and the fashion of that time were big wood “A-frame” houses. In fact, the entire neighborhood was in the same Rockies style, all with large glass picture windows and chimneys. And rightfully so as the 270 degree view was surrounded by mountains draped dark green with pine stands. Not for us were the cozy wooden cottages of Teachers Camp and the US military officers housing in Camp John Hay, a US Air Force R&R base, that First Lady Imelda Marcos would champion ten years later. Excited to make full and frequent use of the Baguio home meant frequent forays starting from 1st street, New Manila, Quezon City, then the capital of the country.

Dawn sleeper shuttle

Now these journeys were not what you would consider scenic as they were point A to point B trips that sacrificed “stopping to smell the roses” in order to spend more time in Baguio's cool air and fixing/replacing whatever items of property that naughty thieving natives have taken away when the live-in caretakers were fast asleep. Thus, the journey began at the crack of dawn; precisely 0400hrs. Now only a Baguio fanatic, even a toddler sleep-deprived by school days, would want to get up that early and eat hardly anything just to get to the mountains. We brought hard boiled eggs, corned beef buns and Thermos drinks, but only for emergency. With a trusty pillow, there was plenty of time to do more sleeping in the back of the car.

Garden variety transport

The car, was rather common for that time. With its clattering but thrifty 55hp diesel it was popular as a cab and many Rizal province towns [Makati, Mandaluyong, Pasig] used them as Police Cars. Compared to the Ford Fairlanes, Vauxhall 101's, Dodge Coronets and the minuscule Toyopet Corona from Japan, the Mercedes Benz 190D had fully independent suspension. The better to ride on the coarse concrete of Highway 54 [EDSA today], the slab joints of Route 3 [renamed MacArthur Highway in 1961] and the patchy coarse mine aggregate tar paving of Kennon Road. Moreover, there were lots of hump back bridges, pre-war engineered steep cambered highway curves and rough transition shoulders, along the way.

The common man's Merc

The Mercedes assembled in Universal Motors new German specced plant on riverside Mandaluyong, was also popular because it didn't overheat when fitted with aftermarket air-conditioning by either Mark IV of Texas or Frigiking. Though most cars and almost all provincial buses were not air conditioned then, driving in fair weather at early dawn, side and front quarter windows open, were unbeatable forms of natural air conditioning.

Back seat ambience

My limited back seat appreciation of the 190D was to be supplemented decades later when I learned how to drive. I do remember the Mercedes under dash Mark IV air con already had eye ball vents, a feature one finds on the latest A-class and S-class Mercedes today. The pleated leatherette seats, though initially firm, sort off sank to fit. Sometimes I would be awaken by the rush of wind and the roar of the engine as I peek at the vertical strip speedometer, behind the ivory steering wheel, reading 90MPH. Never did I feel nauseous, not even on winding Kennon Road. But then there were days, when the excitement of the trip all just keeps us wide awake, quietly absorbing the whizzing nocturnal scene.

New Manila to Highway 54

Leaving 1st street in the dark under the glow of mercury street lamps, the route proceeds down Pacific Avenue [Dona Hemady], crossing Broadway [Aurora Blvd], then a bit of E Rodriguez Sr., then left to Sampaloc Ave [today's T. Morato], across a Bailey bridge, then onwards to South Ave. [Timog Ave. today]. Then on to Highway 54 rotunda, past Uncle Bob's Channel 7 and Certeza bldg. on the opposite side. In those days, most of Highway 54 was grasslands, while Quezon Ave. junction was a rotunda and West-North Avenue was a channelized intersection. Roosevelt-Congressional with the MAN bus DM Transit garage was a 4-way junction while Dario Bridge was by Bailey. Legend has it that Highway 54 got its name from the its builders, the 54th Army engineering battalion. These were the days before International traffic signs were introduced and most traffic furniture were Stateside look concrete signs with little mirrors to outline arrows and words like KEEP RIGHT. Cats eyes took the place of road markings in some stretches.

On to Monumento and BBB

At Balintawak, there was a rotunda, then Highway 54 ended with MCU on the right. We would already be by the Bonifacio obelisk of Monumento. Turning right into MacArthur highway, we pass Jack's car collection, gas station and his a coffee shop known for its sizzling hamburgers with Baguio strawberry jam and one-armed bandits. This Malabon segment had factories, warehouses and Araneta University on the side. Before descending into Tullahan bridge to cross into Polo, Bulacan [now Valenzuela] one passes bottling machinery display windows of Cosmos Bottling company. Across the river, and it is San Miguel's BBB brewery's bottling machine on display. Here traffic sometimes stops, to allow SMC's fleet of neat green and white Mercedes trucks to exit. But this early, the Brewery is not that busy.

Some kind of in-car entertainment

After this, the open road allows the Merc to pick up to real highway speed. Unlike most of the cars of the genre, the 190's high beam was actuated by the steering wheel stalk instead of a floor button. On misty mornings, the Merc driver's vision through the curving panoramic windshield is evenly cleared by wipers powered by a proper electric motor instead of the garden variety types driven by engine vacuum. There's not much for in-car entertainment, save for the strip speedometer, as the radio slot is covered by a bakelite blanking plate with a chrome “190D” emblem. If needed, family drivers brought along their new fangled battery powered transistor radio.

More forecourts

As we approach the boundary of Polo and Bangcal, Meycauayan, we slow down for a cluster of gas stations here, just around Putong Pulo, famous for its “puto” rice cakes. Arrayed and ready for dawn customers were full service gas stations branded Esso, Mobil, Filoil and Shell- ranch style too – while some had little stores selling knick knacks and pastries. Resuming open road speeds crossing into Meycauayan the few road side residences were fast asleep, except for a lone ice plant.

The Stench

At Meycauayan, seasoned travelers, whether by car or bus, batten down the hatches at the approach of the Meycauayan river bridge as the stench of the leather tanning industry assails the air. Meycauayan's malodorous ill repute was caused by hundreds of amateur backyard tanneries, misusing chemicals and causing premature decomposition of carcasses, dumping all and sundry into the river.

Alternatives to the car

In 1965, besides the private car and the American truck based wood-bodied buses of Dangwa Tranco, Pantranco, Philippine Rabbit and La Mallorca-Pambusco, there were another 2 ways to go to Baguio. One was by PAL's 50 minute flights from Tambo, Paranaque. The other was by air-conditioned PNR sleeper from Tutuban which stops at Damortis in Rosario La Union to transfer the Baguio bound by PNR limousine via Kennon. From Caloocan to Moncada, Tarlac the PNR railway and its telegraph poles run parallel to Route 3 as MacArthur Highway was first known in 1928. It is at Moncada Tarlac, where the railroad splits east to go to San Jose Nueva Ecija and west to Dagupan and San Fabian in Pangasinan.

Roadside night scene

This early, there are hardly any vehicles on the road, unless you chance upon the rare Yellow Ball freight trucks or the occasional night bus to Ilocos. Past the built up section of Meycauayan, highway speeds resume, until Marilao, where another Puto daytime meal stop, Puto Popular, beckons. After Marilao, there will be some “late-night” roadside activity in Lolomboy barrio, of Bocaue, the next town. It's known for night clubs/supper clubs and cabarets that cater to truck drivers and big spender high testosterone men alike. Seasoned travelers avoid this stretch on New Year's eve as the road side gets packed with make shift kiosks selling the towns other's cottage industry, fireworks.

Leaving the built up areas

By now we are past the four towns of Bulacan which pose the worse of Easter Sunday traffic when Manila returns home from spending Holy Week up North. The scenery turns even more sparse with more rice fields, dotted with rice granaries here and there. Guiguinto comes up, then in a blink of the eye, we are past the provincial capitol of Bulacan, Malolos, a place known for candied sweets and Spanish style pastelerias or pastry shops.

Bulacan to Pampanga

With the sky slightly turning a lighter shade of blue, the empty road invites full speed ahead. Past Malolos, the highway shoulder starts getting narrower. At Calumpit we now approach the Candaba Swamp and the highway bends slightly with several hump back bridges in succession that get the 190's swing axles working. Only the 190 and VW's Beetle can take these hump back bridges at speed while most solid axle American cars end up scrapping their underbellies as they flop and wallow on landing. At certain times of the year, the blossoming red flowers of the young flame trees planted by the narrow shoulder are a sight to behold.

Change of language

Calumpit, the last town of Bulacan before crossing the wide Pampanga River into Apalit Pampanga usually have daytime itinerant roadside vendors waving snipes, rail, wild duck and eggs for sale. Across the steel girder bridge, we leave Tagalog speaking Bulacan, entering a zone with the entirely different Pampango dialect. And if one believes the Rightists, this is Huk [HMB] rebel guerrilla territory.

Sugar railways, flat out country

The swampy floodplains gently rise up Sto. Tomas to become sugar cane fields. From here, Route 3 is occasionally crossed by PASUDECO's [Pampanga sugar and development corp.] narrow gauge rail network used for hauling harvested cane. In the daytime, hauling cane is augmented by 6x6 trucks, overloaded thrice over and crawling on the highway at 5km/h. Still, like northern Bulacan, Pampanga, between the sleeping town of Minalin all the way up to the provincial capitol, San Fernando, is flat out country. On these flat out sections between San Fernando and Angeles City, 60MPH is an invitation for buses to overtake you.

American colony, historic markers

The sun wouldn't still be breaking as we speed through Balibago district of Angeles. Here around the vicinity of the massive gate of Clark Air Base, the bar girls of Fields Avenue are just straggling home while the PX markets and sales outlets of ex-US servicemen's cars remain shuttered. The succeeding town of Mabalacat, landmarked as the birthplace of the Kamikaze concept, is likewise asleep. With acacia trees arching over the highway, the speed generated wind creates a rhythmic cadence to lull one back to sleep. Soon we will be crossing Bamban, the border town of Tarlac province and apart from a scenic hilly gorge, the flat lands resume. Its pedal to the metal redux, buzzing past the Capas Camp O'donnel memorial to the Bataan Death March.


With dawns's first light, we are about an hour and half into the trip, some 125kms/75miles from Quezon City. Leafy San Miguel, Tarlac comes next, marking the sugar territory of Hacienda Luisita. Past Camp Ord, [today's Camp Servilliano Aquino], this locale has a sprinkling of roadside eateries that would, in a few years, blossom into favorite dining spots of most Central Luzon travelers. More of the same coming into Tarlac City, which is Philippine Rabbit's home base. From Tarlac City, those heading north by northwest for the Lingayen Gulf and Dagupan City take the turn off at the channelized intersection.

Tour of Luzon special stage

From Tarlac City, one can indulge the top speed of the diesel, marginally slowing down for the sparsely populated towns of Gerona and Paniqui. At Moncada, one loses sight of the PNR tracks as it heads west for Dagupan City. After Moncada and San Manuel, more open road as the sugar cane fields give way to rice, corn, peanuts or tobacco, depending on the season. Though seemingly sparsely populated, the shoulders of the highway get packed with crowds come the annual summer time Tour of Luzon bike race as the Tarlac section is where the peloton picks up speed. The Tour of Luzon drew the best soft drinks, pharmaceutical and tobacco sponsors then and was always a national headline event. There's more of the same open country high speed milieu, crossing into the provincial boundary into Pangasinan.

Sweets and more sweets

Sunrise is in earnest, two and half hours from departure as the countryside wakes up. A few of the local populace on carabao drawn carts, on bicycles or on foot start their day ambling on the shoulder. Villasis allows one to relax the right pedal foot but by reaching Urdaneta City, the markets are already busy, with hawkers waving bricks of sweet popped rice and small squares of candied coconut shavings. After the busy markets, its on to the long girder bridge over the wide Agno River and its back to flat out mode. Binalonan, Pozzorubio and Sison blur by despite the activity of the locals.

A brief stop

After Sison, we cross the Bued River into La Union for the obligatory fuel and toilet stop at the many gas stations that crowd the approach of the rotunda that leads to Ilocos via the North Road on the west and Kennon Road to the North. With less than an hour left to complete the 4 hours benchmark, we step out into the bracing cool breeze behind the, again, ranch style Shell Station to hear the gurgling waters of the Bued cascading from the valley that Kennon Road skirts.

Feel the mountains

Onward to the last leg and the steady rush of wind through the windows is replaced by the rhythmic whooshing of wind against mountainside and the rock road barriers. Kennon Road needs constant maintenance as frequent rains cause landslides, forcing engineers to alternate routes on whichever bank of the Bued river was temporarily stable. Depending on the time of the year, there are misty waterfalls from the opposite cliffs. A smattering of tin cottages dot the mountain sides, homes for the hundreds of miners employed in the copper and gold mining camps along the way.

Shifting passage

Over the years, the entry toll gate would migrate anywhere between Camp 1 and Camp 4, depending on which road section would get cut off by some major storm. The exit toll gate was for a time near Camp 7, at the upper reaches of the Zig Zag, past the lion rock hairpin, but the difficulty of holding a laden vehicle in queue on a steep incline, forced the move to Camp 6, the base of the Zig Zag. After all, it was at Camp 6 where the scent of pines, specially during humid days, was undeniable.

Skills sharpened, passengers participate

Driving on lower Kennon was most exciting, as we passengers were encouraged to grab the handles and shift our weight as the car reacts to camber changes in the curves. It is in this spirited driving that the 190's swing axle shines in aural excitement, with the 13-inch 80 series bias ply tires singing and screeching over the tar spotted surface. On the inclines, it was quite a challenge to overtake as the diesel engine, despite the torque, can only produce half the power of a typical gasoline straight six of an American car. Being in the right gear at the right time and timing one's momentum mattered, for overtaking slower traffic and for climbing up and out of the deep cambered hairpin turns. At least the Merc's 4-speed column shifter was one gear over the usual 3-speed gearboxes of American and Japanese cars.

We have arrived

The tricky spots were located at the end of the steep twisting climb to Camp 7 where many a clutch overcooked or radiator boiled over. And if you made it there, there was still the steep climb to Camp 8, just before the Baguio General Hospital rotunda. Settling for a cruise through now busy Session Road, the choice for breakfast was either Malcolm Square or Star Cafe, but with the excitement to get “home” with so many domestic chores to settle, a brief stop for comestibles and biscocho at Sunshine Bakery and U-Need grocery at Abanao was in order. Arriving at Bokawkan and now looking forward to getting the fireplace ready for evening tide.Time elapsed? Forty Five minutes from the Rosario gas station, four hours from 1st street New Manila.

To be continued....