On every traveler’s bucketlist lies that one elusive place that for some weird, inevitable reason just always comes so close to being unchecked, yet so far away.
On my list, it was Candaba Wetlands.
For many years, this sprawling birding and farming community has swooned, captivated and thrilled me vicariously through those who braved its choppy roads. More than the myriad of migratory birds that make Candaba their transient home each year, it was simply, the town’s primordial charm that made me swear time and again, Imma go there this year.
There were a couple of attempts, the closest being a jaunt with the husband and then eight month-old Lia. And every time, I go home seeing zilch.
You see, Candaba has rigid specifications for one to maximize that bumpy two-hour trip from Manila (in my case, two-and-a-half). If you prefer seeing the bird sanctuary in its wet, marshy glory, go from June till November. Locals swear November to December – extending to around May – is the most opportune time to see birds. During the summer, the swamp dries up to reveal more paddies.
Like any birding site, birds here congregate at two times of the day to feed: very early morn and very late afternoon. In between, chances to see birds range from slim to nil.
On top of those considerations, visitors must also tread a narrow, oft-muddy trail for 30 to 45 minutes to the birding site itself. Vehicles are allowed but discouraged for they disrupt the peace (I also doubt a car can successfully make it through there. Later you’ll see why).
But on an itinerary-less Sunday in SM City Pampanga, I decided to once and for all, just go whether the weather and the birds permit it or not. No 4x4s. No plan B or C. Just me, a backpack, and an obliging toddler.
A lady carrying white plastic barrels uttered words in Kapampangan. She was rather brisk and high-spirited for someone in her 80s. “Malago,” she says, the creases in her cheeks and eyes deepening as she beams at Lia from the other end of the jeepney.
Her warmth and sunniness radiates from a distance, one that’s apparent in locals in Candaba. Here everyone acknowledges every face along the way with a nod and a smile. Elsewhere in Pampanga – San Fernando in particular -I found folks to be more metropolitan: chic, less conversational, and at times a bit cocky.
I apologize and tell her I don’t speak the language. “Maganda raw ang anak mo. Kamukha mo,” another passenger translates. There were four of us waiting for the Candaba-bound jeepney to fill up in front of the mall, which it has been doing so for about 20 minutes now.
The lady inquires of our whereabouts. ” Ah, sa swamp. Matagal pa mula keni. Mga isang oras.”
The hour-long travel time included a 30-minute jeepney ride from San Fernando and a shock-destroying but stunning 35-minute tricycle ride through the Baliuag-Candaba Road. Seas of water-filled farmlands and wooden canoes afloat Candaba River line either side of the elevated road. Sparrows and occasional eagles briskly hover over the horizon in troops, as well as happy men and women sharing home-cooked meals and dried wheat to sweep to the roadside.
It was almost 1 pm when we arrived. The sun pierced every cloud, tree and nerve. The air was dry. Yet we stood stranded in the middle of a wet, mud-choked, strait-like road that screamed dead end, next to the tail of the swamp. Along the way, a deep crevice halted one of the tricycle’s three small wheels so bad we had to alight and trek onward.
The road ahead, soft, hollowed and sparse with humans, was not one my young and fearful driver companion would dare risk a second time. I’ll take the walk, I said, examining the distance to the actual birding site. By this time, two locals have successfully trodden the trail with their bikes, the only other vehicle it fits (even my size 9 foot won’t fit in the middle of the road). Both urged the driver it can be pursued.
A lanky farmer from neighboring San Rafael approached and claimed the sanctuary is about 20 to 30 minutes away, depending on the pace. “Samahan mo ang ate mo oh. Wala ka namang ginagawa,” he told our driver.
But the boy, a dark and unindulgent 18 year-old, shook his head in refusal. “We should have just gone out to Paralaya. There are birds there, too.” It was the nth time he mentioned that. Seriously, kids these days.
Out of sheer stubbornness, I attempt to venture onward for five minutes with Lia dangling on one arm, a bag on another. The near impassable mud quashes my feet deeper as I inch forward. The chances of slipping, more obvious with each stride. Truly an exciting pursuit I will most definitely welcome alone, but not with my toddler.
At the far end of the grass-trimmed road lied a tunnel of trees where those slippery birds await spectators. My heart sank as I turned back in what seems like a third deja vu. Ah, to be so close yet so far away.
The farmer stood right where he was before I left. He felt duty-bound, though happily so, to the visitors seeking the lands he helps reap and sow. We stood by the side of the swamp, listening to his stories of foreign backpackers and avians during birding season. “Come back in November,” he urged. “We don’t run out of birds here.”
It’s just a question of whether nature is on your side or not, he adds.
|That row of trees where the bird sanctuary is. So close yet so far away.|
I don’t know if I can and will come back. As the tricycle crunched against stony roads back to town, I realized I didn’t really need to reach the far end of the sanctuary to find elusive gems. They were there all along: in shy and warm smiles, in conversations under the sweltering sun, in windswept sceneries aboard a three-wheeled taxi. Not as bad ass as a 4×4, but still. A-ma-zing.
Being bared on the road like this, it schools one that often, the most influential of places – those that really stay in the cob-webbed recesses of memory – aren’t those where booze and scantily clad hordes abound. They’re the ones where you see life unfold in its everyday ordinariness, its sheer simplicity so captivating in a constantly wired world.
To be so close yet so far away. Wouldn’t have it any other way.
- There are several ways to get to the swamp from other barangays in Candaba, including Bahay Pare (was told though this route is a bit more rugged though). The one I took was from SM City Pampanga in San Fernando. From the mall, board a jeepney to Candaba town proper (P29). The jeepney unloads all passengers in town, beside the church and the tricycle terminal. Board a tricycle and tell the driver to bring you to the Candaba Swamp in Dona Simang.
- Interestingly though, despite its fame, a number of drivers still don’t know where the swamp is. Mine didn’t and he charged me P420 for a return trip! The rate is P200 one-way (P100 in 2011), but he wouldn’t spare me the extra P20 because he “waited 10 minutes for me at the site”. Superbly annoying considering that he wouldn’t have that extra P200 if I didn’t ask for the return trip, ’cause there are virtually no visitors at that time. But he’s a teenager so I forgive him, and I digress.
- To go back, take a jeepney to San Fernando beside the church/ at the back of the town market.
- There are no stores for miles so be sure to bring food and lots of water.
- The trail offers no shade and can get very hot in the afternoon.
- Keep the noise down. It’s a bird sanctuary.