Mad About Sisiman (And That Lightless Lighthouse)

August 9, 2014

Wow, I muttered repetitiously under my breath.  I was there to make a short ascent up a beautiful seafront hill and to see something that has haunted me for years: Sisiman's lighthouse in Bataan, a lightless iteration of the tower that was destroyed by typhoon Pedring in 2011. Its former self, an elegant installment amid a craggy coastline that draws photography enthusiasts and bikers more than inveterate travelers and beach bummers. 

But I got more than what I bargained for.

Sisiman's lighthouse without a light.

I didn't expect a gorgeous albeit dizzying cruise down a winding mountainous road that overlooks the coast, or massive mounds of half-quarried hills right beside an urbanized intersection. I didn't expect the 3.5-hour ride from Bulacan to Mariveles, one brimming with terrible two tantrums I just wanted to die by the bus' window seat, to reward me with such well-kept otherworldly beauty.

Sisiman caught me off-guard, even after perusing tens of online posts and forums since seeing its ginormous poster at NLEX two years ago.

And now, here we are. One hundred forty-some kilometers far from home, a world away from another.

I chucked my bag inside the tricycle, a 15-minute, P60-transpo from the highway down to Sisiman. The driver offered to take us around the small town for whatever rate I'm comfortable in, because he thought it's silly inconvenient for me to be trekking hills and an unshaded road to the beach with a toddler (Oh Kuya. Wait till you hear about Magalawa). He dropped us off at the foot of the hill, now laden with knee-high cogon all the way up. 

An unnamed 50-foot hill with a grotto and two crucifixes on top. Not as easy to trek as it seems.
Do you need help, he asked. Shy, I refused. He insisted. Looking back, am glad he did. Though only 50 feet-ish, the narrow rubble steps, unevenly spaced apart, were occasionally a pain to climb especially with a toddler and a bag at 12pm. The heat, Lia's weight and a lack of faith almost made me bail out near the peak.

Examining the way up to the grotto.
And then there we were, my toddler and I, standing in front of Mary's sacred place in the hill, surrounded at all points by mountains, water, and grass, their green tips dancing in chorus with the wind. At the far reaches of the north juts out Corregidor and La Monja islands, and to the east, Gordo's Peak and that pretty lighthouse that glimmered like an ant-esque white speck against the noon sky. 
Trail and views: 1) Easterly view: Gordo's peak, the lighthouse and biking trail; 2) Mama Mary's grotto at the peak
3) Southeast view: ships and sails and a Chinese temple 4) Rubble steps 5) We made it! 6) View from parking space
The mom in me was proud. Not for me self, but for this little girl to have trekked her first hill at 27 months. She wasn't quite as cheery over this feat of hers, so in ten minutes we hiked down and dusted ourselves off

We came to a jagged, rocky road - a biking trail, to be precise - by the side of Gordo's peak, where the now-fenced lighthouse stands. It's as enchanting as it is in pictures, this brand new self of hers, though not as iconic as the one it replaced. Even without a light, its place by the wave-hit rocks and at the side of Gordo's makes it right at home.

Beach at the lighthouse side. All rocks.
Because these moments matter.
Further down the road are more mountains to where the trail leads, and huts. A few years back, there were only a couple of them, but when visitors started trickling in, the locals, fishermen mostly, found it suitable to build more. 

Cottages usually get filled fast by weekenders especially during summer, but on that Sunday it was just us, another family and townsfolk, and My Way streaming from a videoke machine. 

Driver dearest asked an old couple if we could borrow one of their owned shacks for an hour or two, and we managed to get it for free instead of the usual P150 (up to P300 for bigger ones). I wanted to pay, but they were happy to lend. The warm afternoon lent itself to equally warm conversations with these wonderful people, like why they would rather lend than earn. 

Free shade courtesy of these amazing locals. 
Their answers were the same. "Hindi kami kapareha sa ibang lugar na 'pag may turista, pinagsasamantalahan. Ang bisita dapat inaalagaan para bumalik sa Mariveles." (We're not like other places where tourists are taken advantage of. Visitors should be treated well so they'll come back to Mariveles.)

Fish dried out for selling. This is located at the back of the beach huts, and further at the back is the loo.
This small, quiet town of rocks and rugged seas wrapped by magnificent peaks, it's one to easily fall in love with. Sure, its air is salty and odiferous from tuyo and dilis freshly braised under the sun. Its gray beach studded by rocks that crawl deep into the seas. Its earthen paths stripped bare of tree shade and toilets and all those ultra-pampering things the tourist in you would crave for. 

But it is just how magical places should always stay. Raw, stimulating and naturally fascinating, with just the right mix of rugged charm and endearing locals that you end up loving. 

Batanes? Nope. Mariveles.

How to get to Sisiman beach and lighthouse via public commute:

1. Take a Mariveles-bound bus. You can find them in the Pasay EDSA and Cubao bus terminals. For those in the north, they pass by the Dau bus terminals and at SM City San Fernando (every 15 minutes or so). Fare is around P150 from SM San Fernando. 

2. Tell the conductor to drop you off at the BASECO Compound/ SSS Building in Mariveles. The building is located at an intersection, past a yellow gate.
SSS building. Alight here.
3. Board any of the blue tricycles at the tricycle terminal/ TODA fronting SSS. Tell the driver to drop you off at the hill/ grotto, the lighthouse or the beach, whichever you prefer. Fare is P60 one-way to either the lighthouse or the beach regardless of the number of passengers. If you're going alone but want to score cheaper fare, you'd have to wait for two to three other passengers to board the tricycle going to Sisiman, though that may take a long time. I paid P300 two-way plus refreshments because Kuya Oggie doubled as a guide/occasional photog and helped with my pack wherever we went. The P300 covers three hours of his time. Fair enough, I think.

Beach life. Lower left picture shows Bataan Powerplant and Corregidor Island. It really is super near, you can take a boat from Mariveles going there.
Same tricycle to board if you are going to Aguawan beach, a sandier beach farther up Mariveles proper. Fare to Aguawan is P80 per tricycle. You can also ask ze tricycle driver to stop along the highway to Aguawan to take a selfie (apparently, many people do this. The road is elevated and overlooks the entire Sisiman Bay and the hills, which makes for pretty damn good profile pics). 

Note that the grotto is the first destination upon entering Sisiman, followed by the lighthouse, then the beach proper. You may walk from the grotto to the lighthouse which takes around 15-20 minutes. The lighthouse fronts a beach, too, but it's all rocks and deep water. Swimmers walk further down the biking trail to the sandy part (about five minutes).  This is where the cottages are situated too.

TO GO BACK: Go all the way back past the grotto to board a similar tricycle since there are no other modes of transportation from the beach going to the highway. There's a designated TODA there for tricycles. Tell the driver to drop you off at the waiting shed for Manila/ Pampanga-bound buses (along the street fronting SSS).

Parking lot shown here behind Gordo's peak.
TO GO VIA PRIVATE VEHICLE: Take the NLEX, then Roman Superhighway going to Mariveles. You'll pass by a zigzagging road. When you reach SSS Mariveles, turn left at the tricycle TODA then continue traversing that road till you reach Barangay Sisiman. You'll pass by Herma Shipyard on the way there. The road to Sisiman leans to the right, while the road to Aguawan is on the opposite side. Better ask locals. 

There's an empty lot before Gordo's Peak to park you car in.

Travel notes:

  • You'd probably want to bring some food and drinks if you're planning a picnic. While there is a small sari-sari store at the beach, the merchandise is very limited. There is a grocery store across the hill where you can buy anything from bread to ice cream to razors, but they don't sell meals.
Grocery's at the left side, where the tricycle is parked.
  • There is a very small (stress on very) thatched common bathroom/ toilet at the beach owned by one of the fishermen, but be advised this is the kind of toilet that will send Kris Aquino scampering away for dear life. It's all bamboo and tarp. A mere rope serves as a door latch. The floor is well, all soil and dirt. If you are 5'3" or taller, you have to duck while taking a bath (5'3" here and my head already touches the tarp roof). Pay P20 to use it for bathing, P10 each time you use the loo. 
  • There's a toilet bowl but it's so lowly attached to the floor you'll have to squat to use it. There are no bag or towel hooks, so bring something to place your bags on inside. There are two pails and a tabo. Water is sourced from a spring up the mountains and placed in gallons then transferred manually to the pail. If you ran out of water in the middle of business, either you pour water into the pail, or you ask the owner to do it for you (his hut is just beside the bathroom). I prefer/ did the former. 
  • Best time to go is sunrise or sunset as the place is mostly without shade and it can get very hot in the afternoons. Views of the lighthouse are more dramatic too during these times of day.
Cross at the summit of the hill.

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