Words and photos by: Gino Cabigao, BGC Resident
9am on a sunny Saturday morning and it’s 80 degrees Fahrenheit outside. I start my visit by ordering a nice cold “Dirty Horchata” coffee from El Union coffee house. I take a seat on a wooden stool and hear ” I Feel Good” by James Brown playing in the Barista’s, Chloe, Spotify playlist to set the mood for a good weekend ahead. No dress code, so I’m just in my beach shorts reading “Delivering Happiness” By Tony Hsieh while drinking my “Dirty Horchata” coffee. After my coffee is done, I would take a few steps away from my seat and end up on the warm beach sand with a wide stretch of ocean views to look at. Once I’m done enjoying the view, I head back and spend a few minutes chatting with people around. To my left was an attorney, who decided to ditch the corporate attire and throw on a pineapple button up with shorts. A little later to my right is a local celebrity promoting eco friendly initiatives by having her coffee with bamboo straws rather than single use plastic straws. Straight ahead, I see the owner of El Union coming in with his whole family for a bright and busy Saturday ahead. You can pretty much expect the unexpected in La Union.
When I arrived in the Philippines, I was not familiar with the beaches that were accessible by land around Metro Manila. I was familiar with the famous Philippines beaches that I was able to travel to by plane, such as: Boracay, El Nido, Cebu, Bohol, and Davao. Therefore, I was pretty much clueless when I took a random trip with my brother and some friends to San Juan, La Union. After 9 visits this year (…and counting) alone, La Union has been my favorite beach destination so far that is accessible by land in the Manila area. Interestingly, I don’t think I’m alone as I’ve been seeing people from all over the world checking out La Union. Students from Finland, Startup members from America, and Surfers from Australia are just some of the groups you can find visiting. Why? Here is a common itinerary of mine that highlights some of the reasons why to visit La Union:
11:00pm (Friday night) :
Ditch the passport
As I was eating dinner at the night food market in BGC called Mercato, I browsed through my Facebook feed and saw a beach post from Clean Beach cafe in La Union. A few minutes later, I went home to pack a few things and headed to the bus terminal. Passport was not included in my luggage, nor was it needed for this trip.
$10 bus fare
I arrive at the Partas bus terminal in Cubao and purchase a bus ticket for $10 one way ticket (540 pesos), which includes air conditioning and a recliner style seat. 20 minutes until departure so I burn time checking the local snacks being sold and ended up buying a pack of Skyflakes and water for the 4 ½ -5 ½ hour bus ride.
Note: Bring a sweater for the bus ride since it gets cold, there are usually 1-2 stops during the trip, and trips departing to and from La Union happen hourly around the clock, and later time departures usually mean less traffic. Alternatively, you can book van services for bigger groups or even a car service if you want more privacy.
Sightseeing tour bonus or catch up on sleep.
I would usually take a nap right when I get on the bus after telling the bus conductor that my drop off is across the street from the beach in San Juan, La Union. If I don’t wake up during the 1-2 stopovers bathroom break, I would wake up to the morning sunrise. I’m able to enjoy multiple views ranging from the province life, the farmland views near Pampanga, and Mt. Arayat.
Coffee, Kaya Toast, vegan Kare Kare, and huts by the beach.
I always look forward to the culinary delights that you can find in La Union. You can find traditional Filipino food, burgers, Greek food, pizza, and local chocolates all within walking distance of each other. There are 6 places to eat right by the beach that I usually goto during my visit to San Juan, La union:
1. El Union- Aside from the “Dirty Horchata” in the morning mentioned above, you can end the day with their S’mores dessert to cap off the evening
2. Clean Beach- Kaya toast in the morning and another “go to” coffee option from their award winning Baristas. Sundried fries and fresh Orange juice are options to have for a snack.
3. Barefoot- For the vegetarian palate, they have great Shakshouka served with bread.
4. Papa Bear- Vegetarian or Bacon Kare Kare tops my list. They even make the dish right in front of you.
5. Chu’s Diner- Their fresh fish dishes are popular, but I’m a fan of their Aside Katsudon bowls
6. Makai bowls- Smoothie bowls filled with natural ingredients to help beat the heat.
Beach cleanups and “Surf’s up!”
After breakfast and coffee, I use the caffeine and calories effect towards a “Plogging” adventure around the beach. “Plogging” involves combining a beach cleanup while getting a nice exercise cardio session. I would get a basket at Clean Beach cafe and start off picking up any plastics or litter by the shoreline first then work my way back towards the restaurant area ( I encourage you to do a beach cleanup during your visit-Clean Beach offers free Iced tea for anyone who returns a basket after a beach cleanup!).
After sweating it off, I would cool down by catching some waves. It’s one of the more popular activities to do since La Union is known as the surfing capital of northern Philippines. If you don’t have a board, they have ones for rent for around $4 (200 pesos)/ hour. If you don’t know how to surf, they have professionals to help teach you $8 (400 pesos)/ hour.
Picture grabbing a beach chair, listening to the waves, enjoying the sunset, and seeing a wide array of colors in the sky. This is the sight I usually experience during my La Union trips. This is a perfect opportunity for an INstagram posts that does not need any filters.
Local craft beers and dance on the beach.
If alcohol is part of the agenda for the evening, I usually start the evening off at Curious Creatures for some local craft beer options. They even have a champorado chocolate flavored type of beer on tap at times! Afterwards, Flotsam and Jetsam is where everyone usually end up. You will find the local community and visitors mingle over a few drinks and dance to good music on the beach.
Head back by the evening or choose for an overnight stay
Huts by the beach
I’ve been going to La Union just for day trips, but occasionally I will spend a few nights there. You can find a variety of places to spend the night at San Juan, La Union that ranges from air conditioned rooms in Kahuna resort, Bed and Breakfast types in Urbiz Garden, and Hostel types like Z Hostel. Personally, I prefer a simpler fan room right on the beach, like that of MonaLiza, which costs $20, good for 2 pax). If you decide on an overnight stay, you can visit the nearby Tangadan waterfalls, Ma- Cho temple, and or/ grapes farm!
In conclusion, the primary factor for my frequent visits to La Union is that the community members keeps it real. Everyone I’ve met so far knows how to chill and have a good time despite if you’re a local community member or visitor. Whether as a solo backpacker or traveling with others, the La Union community has always been willing to help make your visit as pleasant as can be. Though wifi is available in some places, you will usually see everyone meeting each other in person. As a result, I have met alot of great people of the community and learned a lot of great lessons from them.
I see how the community supports each other by visiting and purchasing from each others businesses. I witnessed events that showcased the good values the community stand up for , which includes environmental issues. Therefore, I encourage us to maintain these great values of the community when we visit. Enjoy La Union, keep their beaches clean, eat the delicious food by the beach, and socialize with the community! It’s a fun experience and it will leave you with this thought– “ You go there with good positive vibes, you leave with better positive vibes.”