Dubbed as the Garden Coast because of its botanical gardens, the regional center of Ilocos region, La Union also boasts of excellent world-class surf breaks and thus, appropriately nicknamed the Surfing Capital of Northern Philippines.
La Union, with its fine coastline that faces the South China Sea and its beautiful gardens, fell way behind in tourism after more popular tourist destinations like the Hundred Islands in Pangasinan, Palawan, Batangas, and Boracay gained more prominence in the past 10 years. Long before that, local tourists and American military servicemen from the nearby Wallace Air Station (which has now been converted into a business and industrial area to facilitate the economic activity in the region – with service, manufacturing, shipping, and agricultural areas spread all over La Union) trooped to the seedy beaches of Bauang for some good old rest and recreation (which is of course a euphemism for the prostitution boom) until 1991. And like the surrounding areas of the former US military bases in the Philippines like Subic and Clark – an unmistakable awkward vibe is felt in the air when discussions turn to anything that remotely mention the former American military presence in the area.
La Union, which is 6 hours north of Manila, was created by a Royal Decree issued by the Spanish Queen, Isabella, on 18 April 1854. The province was created from 9 towns of Pangasinan, 3 towns of Ilocos Sur and the villages of Eastern Pais del Igorotes that straddles the western foothills of the Cordilleras. The name of the province was, thus, derived from the union of these towns from the different provinces. Before the Spaniards came in 1572, La Union was already a bustling and important trading port, especially for gold, with Chinese and Japanese merchants present in the area.
The province made a big comeback though and literally made a big splash in the local and international surfing community as it is now one of the favored surfing sites in the Philippines after Siargao in Mindanao. The friendly swells of San Juan and Urbiztondo towns, with its equally amiable and well-established surfing community (surfing started in the ‘80s when foreigners started settling in these towns) is both best for the beginners with its beach breaks (San Juan Beach Break; Bacnotan with a right-hander) and reef breaks (a right-hander in Monaliza Point- popular among the locals, who can also be a bit territorial; Carille – features waves that can be up to 300 meters long and 15 foot high in best conditions) for the more advanced surfers and one of the most accessible surf spots if you are coming from Manila. There are two major surfing competitions – the Rimat Ti Amianan (Treasure of the North) in December, which is one of the important legs of the Philippine Surfing Federation Surf Circuit and draws top Filipino surfing talents, and the Mabuhay Longboarding Cup, an international surf event which is incidentally the longest running longboard competition in the Philippines.
Photo by tristanjohn
The Billabong Cup also has an annual surf competition here – where Luke Landrigan, the most famous amongst the bunch rules the roost and one is of the co-founders of the United Pinoy Surfers. His Dad, Brian Landrigan, actually was among those credited of piquing the interests of the locals when he was amongst the first people to start catching the waves in this area in the early ‘80s. Luke eventually settled in the area and established the San Juan Surf Resort.
If you are a beginner surfer or simply want to learn the ropes of this fast-rising sport in the Philippine sporting scene – contact either Pj Valenciano (+63.9217.8607193), Yna Lozada (+63.917.8827583), Donna Valenciano (+63.917.8059011) or Gerard de Sagun (+63.927.7905149) of He’e Nalu Surfing Pinas. They organize surf camps to San Juan as well as in many other surf destinations in the Philippines like Baler in Aurora Province (Pacific Coast) and you can get taught to catch that wave by topnotch Philippine surfers themselves. Top surfers Daisy Valdes and Jefferson de la Torre had a lot of patience teaching us the basics of surfing and helping us to paddle out into the seas. Usually, you should be able to stand on the board and catch the wave in about 15 minutes (well, I guess I am a relatively fast learner – heh!). He’e Nalu Surfing Pinas is also the only surf group actively involved with the beach clean up.
If you plan to head out, please check with the group or with the Philippine Surfing Federation regarding the weather, and wave conditions. In some cases, the swells are not very reliable. San Juan Surf resort has a live cam feed, although it seems that it is not as updated as one would want and Global Surfari has a surf forecast resort (although this cannot be independently verified).
With the rise of La Union as an important surfing destination, comes the problem of waste. Good thing that Green Zinc Clean Shores spearheaded by Chris Sullivan, a non-profit organization aimed at protecting Philippine beaches, has started raising awareness not only amongst locals but with visiting surfers as well. In San Juan, a typical surf camp usually starts with a talk from one of the founders – Uffe Konig. Green Zinc also organize volunteers in beach cleanups – if you go to one of the surf camps – a beach cleanup is usually included in the itinerary – a sort of giving back to the community for every stoke that one experiences in its rolling surfs.
Aside from surfing, La Union is also known for its Botanical Gardens in San Fernando City which showcases different pavilions in its sprawling ten-hectare facility -a Fernery, Palmery, Fragrance Garden, Sunken Garden, Evergreen Garden, Arid Paradise, and a Shade Garden – with flora and fauna that are indigenous only to the Philippines. This offers a welcome respite from the humid and sometimes searing hot weather of the province.
Photo by akosikenet
A beautiful Taoist Temple is another important tourist attraction in the province. Ma-Cho Temple, is located on a hill 70 feet above the sea level and offers commanding views of the bay. Coming from Manila, it is situated on your right, after you basically leave the San Fernando city centre on your way to San Juan. It was constructed on 11 September 1975 through the joint efforts of the local Chinese community. Ma-Cho, a revered Chinese deity was said to be born in 960 AD during the Sung Dynasty and according to a legend, she actively participated in the rescue operations of distressed fishermen, thus earning herself the titles, “Goddess of the Sea” and “Queen of Heaven” amongst others. The eight inch wooden statue has a striking similarity meanwhile to the “Virgin of Caysasay” who is enshrined at the Basilica of San Martin in Taal, Batangas and devotees believe that the two are one and the same. From 20th to 26th of September of each year, devotees and pilgrims gather for the annual celebration of enshrinement for a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Saint Martin in Taal, Batangas and from there, the devotees together with the image of Ma-Cho will travel back to San Fernando City and then a procession follows around the city centre. Similar temples can also be found in Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore and many other countries with a sizable Chinese community (which basically goes without saying that they are everywhere).
For Catholics, La Union offers aged churches namely- Basilica of Our Lady of Charity (1578), Our Lady of Namacpacan (1600s-1800s), St. William Cathedral (1764), Sts. Peter and Paul Parish (1587), St. Michael the Archangel (1817) and St. John the Baptist (1707) and St. Christopher Parish (1696) – the only church in the Philippines with three belfries. Other attractions include the Balay Anito Falls which means House of Spirits, 4-5 kilometers from the main town of Santol. Apparently in early times, locals saw a ball of fire on this waterfall and thought these were spirits or “anitos” and “balay” means house, thus, the name. Lon-oy Springs in San Gabriel, La Union which consists of numerous natural springs, deep waterfalls and clear waters – Bakes Swimming Pool gets its water supply from these springs. Can’t make it to the rice terraces of Banawe or Sagada? The rice fields of Bolikewkew, Delles and Burgos provide a sneak peek of the big ones and serves as a hiking and trekking alternative. The Arosip Ecotrail reveals several waterfalls such as the Zim-zum-ug Twin Falls (one of the falls dried out as waters was redirected to the rice fields), Tekdag-aso Falls, and Padtok Falls.
Why Not Go
If you are looking for picture-perfect white sand beaches like Boracay (although there is a decent beach in San Juan and at Poro Point) or the rugged, misty mountain town of Sagada, then better pack your bags to those destinations – La Union does not have that.
Photo by akosikenet
Need a surfing fix close to Manila? La Union is one of the best choices for you. The laidback and friendly surfing communities in these parts are some of the most chilled and relaxed weekend sports getaways in this part of Luzon Island.
Best Time to Visit
If you plan to go to surf – the North Swell usually starts around October until March (although beware as well, because this time is also notorious as being the jellyfish season and a lot of surfers get stung); while the South Swell arrives around late May to June until August. To catch better waves, check out the Philippine weather forecast by Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical & Astronomical Services Administration – and for seasoned surfers, best time to ride the waves is when there are typhoons around the area. For other sites in La Union, it is best enjoyed during the dry season.
San Juan Surf Resort is definitely one of the more established resorts in San Juan. During weekends, however, the resort can be booked to the rafters. Check-in times are very strict. We booked a night at this resort in February, and when we got to La Union, my friend suddenly fell ill. Since we arrived early in the morning and check-in time was at 12 noon, we begged to be checked in early so we could rest. Unfortunately, the resort was booked so our request was declined. The lady at the check-in counter (or was it the bar?) was a tad unhelpful and we felt she was totally uncaring even though my friend was ashen-white and was close to fainting. So we instead asked some of our friends at Surfer’s Inn, an apartment type inn nearby, to let us use a room to rest and recuperate and we were gladly accepted.
Surfer’s Inn has a more bohemian appeal and a tad cheaper. Ask the guys at He’e Nalu Surfing Pinas for more information on getting a room there. A personal favorite, Lola Nanny’s (+63.920.409.1030), meanwhile, is another good place to stay – which has a middle of the road appeal compared to San Juan Surf Resort and Surfer’s Inn. Like Surfer’s Inn, the accommodation is basic, but the owner Lola Nanny’s has a treasure trove of colorful stories about her days in Australia and the local surf community of San Juan.
There are surfboards that are up for rental in most resorts but prices vary.
There are more resorts situated in San Fernando, but it is an annoying commute from San Fernando to San Juan, and lugging around a longboard might be too troublesome. Lists of accommodations are available at the La Union Province Official Website.
For those who prefer to splurge, Thunderbird Resort in Poro Point has a casino, a nine-hole golf course and Mediterranean-inspired villas overlooking the South China Sea.
Where & What to Eat
San Juan in La Union might be one of the curious places to get your authentic Australian meat pies. Owner Lola Nanny Landrigan (Brian Landrigan’s ex-wife) of Lola Nanny’s, a Filipino-Australian, makes these pies herself – although you have to call in advance as these pies sell out really fast.
Fresh seafood and traditional Ilocos dishes are also notable in La Union. There are heaps of restaurants in San Juan, Bauang and San Fernando but nothing stands out.
Nightlife in La Union is characterized by the squalid remnants of American military presence in Bauang or having a quiet bonfire or relaxed drinking at the surf resorts of San Juan..
My to do List
1. Surf the breaks of San Juan, Carille, and Bacnotan.**
2. Check out the Ma-Cho Temple.*
3. Stroll the Botanical Gardens of San Fernando.*
4. Chill and get into conversations over dinner with Lola Nanny Landrigan of Lola Nanny’s.*
5. Strum a few tunes around a bonfire.
6. Help Green Zinc in the beach cleanup!*
7. Dive at Fagg Reef.
*- Highly Recommended
**- Recommended by Locals
Stay Away From
1. Mosquitoes! – just bring bug repellent to be sure
2. Dust Mites. – bring Lysol with you, if you think the hotel room is oldish and not cleaned properly.
3. UV rays – Apply ample sun protection and sunglasses if one heads out to surf.
4. Bring a rash guard especially for girls, if not available, wear a shirt when surfing
If you are not coming with a tour group, Partas buses are the most reliable forms of transport to La Union (and it passes through San Juan) from Manila. Other buses that operate in the area from Manila are Dominion Bus Lines, Farinas, Maria de Leon, Philippine Rabbit and Viron, which leaves Manila terminals every hour. Pick the buses that go to either Narvacan, Laoag, Abra, or La Union. It will take about 5-6 hours travel from Manila (San Fernando is 273 kilometers north) but will only take an hour if you are coming from Baguio City.
Jeepneys, tricycles, mini-buses, and rent-a-vans are the mode of transport within the province. If you are taking your own car and you are coming from Manila, take the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX) and then connect through the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX), exit at Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac and follow the National Highway through Pangasinan and then La Union. You can get a more detailed map of Northern Luzon (La Union included) at one of the bookstores.
Ryan supports socially and environmentally responsible and sustainable tourism, as well as the promotion of the Philippines as an alternative Asian tourist destination.
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