Coming behind Siargao and Baler, La Union is undoubtedly among the go-to destination for surfers in the Philippines. Most people take La Union as a pass-through to other destinations in the further north such as Baguio and Ilocos, but the city of San Juan, in particular, simply has a charm that is worth a weekend getaway.
San Juan, La Union is a 5-hour drive from Manila, more thanks to the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway or SCTEX, which can cut your drive to just 4 hours. The place is also reachable through an almost 6-hour bus ride.
Surfing capital of the Northern Luzon
Elyu, as referred by millennials, is a budget-friendly place compared to others. That’s why backpackers prefer it as their go-to vacation destination. Locals are used to tourists flocking their place so even though Ilocano is their native dialect, the language barrier is not a problem as locals here speak Tagalog and English.
The long stretch of beach provides a playground for newbie surfers and even for pros. The city is known for its two surfing seasons, one that runs from July to October and November to March. Swells–surfing waves– during these months are of great volume making it suitable for surfing.
I went to La Union for the first time with my friends in May, not the best season to surf, but it was summer time all over the country. I wasn’t really keen on surfing, but I knew I shouldn’t miss the opportunity to cross paths with a surfboard.
Despite being dubbed as the “surfing capital of the Northern Luzon”, La Union definitely offers more than just its rustic waves and salty air.
Indulge from one food joint to another
Aside from surfing, La Union mostly referred to as Elyu, offers a wide array of unique restaurants that will surely fill your appetite. One personal recommendation is Mad Monkeys. If you are a fan of burgers then this is your perfect spot.
Adjacent to Mad Monkeys is Tagpuan, a hole-in-the-wall type that offers rice meals that can surely fill up your tummy. Tagpuan, which means “meeting place” in Tagalog, is normally the go-to place for people after a night out of drinks and party.
The number of people dining here is already an indication that you must try these food joints. Make sure you also won’t miss trying La Union’s famous bagnet or deep-fried crispy pork belly. Almost every restaurant in Elyu has this on their menu so finding one shouldn’t be a problem.
Chill in Elyu’s laidback ambiance
Elyu exudes that laidback vibe that just makes you sit back and relax. It truly is an escape for people wanting to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city life. There are plenty of restobars along the stretch of Urbiztondo road, most of which are conveniently located across hotels and hostels.
Music plays a large role in Elyu’s warm and cozy vibe. Some restobars offers open mic sessions so tourists and can jam. Elyu is also known to host some music festivals.
We stayed at the trendy Flotsam and Jetsam hostel. The place, run by backpackers from abroad, shouts chill all over the place.
We got a dorm room good for 8 pax for Php880 a night per person inclusive of breakfast. A very good deal. Flotsam and Jetsam hostel do not entertain walk-ins, especially during peak seasons so you might want to check their website and book prior to your stay. They also require advance payment through credit card or bank deposits so coordination with them is essential.
The hostel’s Hungry Nomad kitchen bar is where tourists mostly flock at night to eat, drink and chill. It gives off that hippie vibe that makes you grateful that wifi signal is weak because it can give you that peace of mind you crave.
Another good hostel to stay in Elyu is the Circle hostel. The famous backpacker hostel chain has made its way to La Union and is conveniently located near restaurants and surf schools.
Tip: you might want to try taking a stroll along the beachfront at night. During our stay, many people were lighting up paper lanterns and releasing them into the air.
Surf your way to Elyu’s waves
You just cannot go to La Union and not surf. It’s like getting a birthday cake and not getting a chance to eat it. Across the beachfront lies a plethora of surfing schools ready to offer lessons. Among the popular ones are San Juan Surf School, Elyu Classic Surf School, and Sebay Surf School.
Surfing lessons usually cost around Php400 to Php500 for an hour inclusive of board rental and a one-on-one with a surfing instructor. It also includes a short lecture on the basics of surfing, which beginners are encouraged to learn.
Some surf schools are associated with hotels so they sometimes offer a higher price for the lessons. Be sure to ask around and compare your options. Also, haggle the price especially when there are plenty of you taking the lesson.
Tangadan Falls, Bahay na Bato, and Ma-cho Temple
When all is done in San Juan, there are plenty of other attractions to see and do that are surely worth the stopovers.
The nearest attraction is the Tangadan Falls. Located in the town of San Gabriel, Tangdan Falls boasts cascading waterfalls that take an hour trek to see. Most hostels or hotels can refer you to guided tours to the falls. Flotsam and Jetsam offers a tour to Tangadan Falls for Php880 per person.
Sadly, the weather was not cooperating during our stay and it wasn’t safe to hike so we had no choice but to pass on this side trip.
An hour drive further north is the Bahay na Bato located in the town of Luna. Translated as the Stone House, this must-visit attraction features a house made of stones and pebbles–something the town of Luna is known for. A Php20 entrance fee is charged for visitors, but children 4 years old and below are free of charge.
Strategically located on the way back to Manila is Ma-cho Temple.
A 30-minute drive to the town of San Fernando lies this Taoist temple to the Chinese sea goddess, Mazu. The temple is open to all religions and doesn’t charge any entrance fees, but donations are highly encouraged.