It’s strange sometimes how something so seemingly ordinary can change your mindset about traveling. A tree for instance.
There are times when you get jaded about trips and the sights in different provinces, especially those you’ve previously visited. Beaches? Eh. Beaches are everywhere. Hotels? Another architecturally astounding marvel with an infinity pool and a bed to crash for on the night. Been there, done that.
Then, you come face to face with a massive tree that seems right out of a fantasy storybook.
The 600-year old Balete Tree in the town of Maria Aurora next to Baler, towers more than five stories high. It is said that it would take 60 people holding hands with arms outstretched to encircle it. Locals claim that it’s the largest tree of its kind in Asia. Though it hasn’t quite lived up to its moniker yet, it’s been dubbed “The Millennium Tree” and is now the province of Aurora’s most visited attraction.
Balete Trees (relatives of the Banyan tree) are infamous in Pinoy folklore for being the homes of enkanto, mystical beings who can cast spells on unsuspecting people. In some provinces, people believe that Balete Trees are dwelling places of supernatural creatures like kapre (tree demon) or tikbalang (demon horse). Interestingly, some superstitious folk believe that small Balete trees (which are used as decorative houseplants and bonsai) should not even be brought into the house because they can attract ghosts.
View from the top. That’s us down below. Photo courtesy of Adrian Inong
Even Balete Drive in New Manila, a road lined by a row of these trees fronting century-old Spanish houses, has a history of hauntings and urban legends. Beware driving here alone late at night, lest you encounter the dreaded veiled white lady.
The true nature of the Balete Tree is just as disturbing as superstitious beliefs. A number of Balete trees are known as strangler figs. They find a host tree, attach themselves to it, ensnare it in a tight hold of roots, and choke the host to death. Other Balete Trees start as air plants and grow as hanging roots that eventually reach the ground, encircling and suffocating the host tree in the process.
Pretty fascinating if you ask me. But what is even more fascinating is being able to enter and climb inside and up the innards of the tree.
There’s a gap in the base of the Balete tree just big enough for one person to enter at a time. For a moment, I remembered a scene in Pan’s Labyrinth where Ofelia enters a tree into the underworld. The entrance here actually leads to a hollow chamber that can fit several people. As I looked up, I could see the glints of light from all the gaps in the fortress of roots.
Entering the tree is like being inside a strange twisted tunnel.A maze of gnarled roots snake up inside and all around providing a natural stairway you can climb up like a beanstalk. The easiest way to climb is to go barefoot so your feet can cling easily to the tough bark. Not everyone can fit inside through the roots though. Some parts can be a tight squeeze. Another option is to climb the roots outside the tree itself.
Throughout video games and fantasy stories, magic and sentient trees exist, either as guides or guardians or sometimes enemies in one’s quest. As I climbed this gigantic tree, I remembered the many times I had to restore a Genesis Tree in Legend of Legaia or bloom a cursed tree in Okami (which ultimately helped save the world).
Maybe this tree is the distant relative of the Whomping Willow planted on the grounds of Hogwarts, which transports Harry, Ron & Hermione to the Shrieking Shack in the village of Hogsmeade. Or could it be another offspring of the Tree of Protection in The Chronicles of Narnia, from which the wood from the wardrobe from The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe comes from?
Screenshots of the Whomping Willow from Hogwarts & Treebeard from LOTR
Who knows. Maybe, one day the tree will just uproot itself and move along like Treebeard, one of the Ents of Middle Earth, the ancient shepherds of the forest.
For some reason, this enchanting tree in Baler rekindled a sense of wonder I thought I thought I had lost. There must still be magic left in this world if something so mysterious and bewitching can exist.
Group shot #JourneyingJamesTours Baler Dos