It’s just after sunrise and already the weekend surf competition is in full swing. Everywhere on the long stretch of gray sand in the town of San Juan, in the northern province of La Union, the day’s contest audience — young families with kids in tow, weekenders from Manila and other local tourists — have planted themselves comfortably on beach mats, waiting for the next heat. In one corner, music is blasting from a drinks concession stand. Dogs chase after each other all the way to the frothing water line, and back again. The friendly competition that pits many of the local surfers against one another has put everyone in a party mood. But it wasn’t always like this around here.
La Union is just over 200km or four to six hours’ drive from Manila, and the town of San Juan is turning from what used to be just another stop for Baguio-bound tourists into a popular holiday destination in its own right. Here, waves from the West Philippine Sea — thanks to the north swell season from October to April and south swell season from July to September — roll in at almost the same consistency throughout the year, making it ideal for what’s become a growing recreational activity among Filipinos: surfing.
“The best part about La Union is that there are waves for all kinds of surfers — beginners learn at the Beach Break, and the more advanced surfers can get their fix at Mona Liza Point,” says pro surfer and instructor Luke Landrigan.
Nearly three decades ago, Luke’s father, Australian surfer Brian Landrigan, opened one of the first hotels on the strip, San Juan Surf Resort. As Luke himself got more into the sport, he became one of the first surfers who helped popularize La Union until it became today’s “surfing capital of Northern Luzon”. He set up the San Juan Surf School back in 2003, and since then, he has seen the number of local surf schools rise from a small handful to 22 along the 600m beach strip. Despite the stiffer competition, all surf schools charge the same fee of P400 per hour, and surfboard rentals are uniformly P200 per hour.
The industry that helped galvanize the town regulates itself pretty rigorously. Beyond the standard pricing of lessons and rentals, the local surf club screens instructors, who are all required to get a work permit. The group also holds an annual refresher course on new and updated styles of teaching, as well as on the use of beginner-safe equipment such as soft surfboards or “foamies” — stand-ins for the real thing that are more stable on water and easier for newbies to learn with.
The growing surf scene is among the pillars that prop up La Union’s local tourism, and stakeholders like Luke put in the care and effort to nurture a sustainable surf culture. Upholding strict standards, adds Luke, “also encourages entire families to take up surfing because they are assured that the area is safe for their kids too. “If your customers are happy, they’re going to tell their friends and keep coming back.”
Fellow pro surfer and coach Lorraine Lapus-Kuit is one of the many who keep returning. She organizes surf camps for both local and international groups and divides her time between La Union and Bali, Indonesia, where she is now based.
“Apart from the waves, of course, there’s a good semblance of community and everyone is still family,” Lorraine says, reflecting on the warm and friendly environment she’s grown up in since catching her first La Union wave back in 2005. “It’s so easy to fall in love with the place that I now have a lot of friends who have decided to settle in La Union so they can surf more often, instead of going back and forth between Manila and La Union.”
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Something peculiar to “Elyu”, as locals call La Union, makes it all the more special: many of the establishments have been built by surfers themselves. “Surfers tend to be conscious of the impact on the environment, not just the return on investment,” says Luke. Those who make a living where they play also give the destination the feel and flavor of a close-knit community. In La Union, many business owners know each other, surf together and hang out at each other’s shops, hotels or bars.
Mia Sebastian Gamboa first came to La Union with friends in 2003, at a time when the drive took a minimum of six hours and up to 12 hours on grueling days. There were no bars and everything closed early. “After surfing, my friends and I would get a bonfire going and just drink on the beach,” she says. “The vibe felt different. It was also a kind of adventure in itself, because we hung out with people we wouldn’t normally have a chance to mingle with, in Manila.”
The light bulb moment to start a hostel business happened while she was out at sea, riding waves. “I was surfing at Carille one time and thought: if I start a business in Manila, I won’t get to surf these waves,” Mia recalls. “How do I manage that? And then it hit me: why not start a business in La Union?”
She opened Flotsam and Jetsam Artist Beach Hostel with long-time friends Joncy Sumulong and Carla Suiza. “We were just thinking about somewhere we would want to live, where we could hang out with our friends, entertain, have a good time,” Mia says. Now in its fifth year of operations, the hostel is among the most sought-after accommodations along the main beach strip of San Juan, relatively quiet and idyllic during the week, lively and bustling on the weekend.
Many agree that Flotsam and Jetsam’s cheap but cheerful accommodations were instrumental in transforming San Juan — the relatively inexpensive lodging made frequent getaways by the sea possible for weekend holidaymakers from Manila. And indeed, the hostel’s breezy lounge area, chill playlist and incredibly relaxed atmosphere make people feel so at home that many find it difficult to leave.
But the hostel also inspired more entrepreneurs to follow Mia’s lead. “The hostel changed our idea of what it meant to travel; how to set up more affordable accommodations that also look and feel nice,” says Kiddo Cosio, fellow surfer and owner of nearby El Union Coffee. He is among the more active residents working to define this notion of the town as an easy and unpretentious seaside hotspot. “Flotsam added to the La Union experience, so even if you’re not a surfer, you wouldn’t be put off from coming over.”
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Vast improvements in infrastructure, such as the Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway (or TPLEX) also made it much easier and quicker for tourists from Manila to get to La Union’s doorstep. “It helped attract a whole generation of young people who just want to get out of the city — they are El Union Coffee’s customers largely on weekends,” says Kiddo. “On weekdays we usually have locals from San Fernando and San Juan who have frequented our shop on a regular basis for over four years.”
El Union Coffee started with six chairs with the aim to sell 20 cups of coffee a week when it launched five years ago. Now, business is far brisker, and even when the coffee shop and roaster moved to its new location — at the entrance of the Great Northwest Philippines Travel Stop and Viewing Deck, a new semi-alfresco arcade — it kept the picturesque interiors that helped propel it as a popular meet-up point for breakfast and post-lunch socials. “We have light coming in at good places with colors everywhere, so people would feel happy and connected with the place and share with their friends,” Kiddo says.
The Great Northwest Philippines Travel Stop & Viewing Deck is an environmentally conscious coastal commune home to a slew of trendy establishments: Makai Bowls, where you can load up on dairy- and sugar-free breakfast smoothie bowls; Artek Wine Yacht, which offers ringside seats to La Union’s spectacular sunsets; and 55 Tinta Pilipinas, where you can mark your memorable trip by getting inked or pierced in style.
“The funny thing is that La Union doesn’t just attract the surfer crowd anymore, it also brings in people who just want to hang out at the beach over the weekend,” Luke says. “I see this as part of the growth and I know it’s going to get busier and more crowded.”
As with many booming holiday spots, La Union’s nascent dining scene is fast evolving. It’s at this pivotal moment when the town, with its growing weekend population of tourists and locals, is hungry for new things. There’s always something new opening up, and every trip to the north brings a taste of the familiar along with the exciting. Just like a wave.
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Got more than a weekend? Lucky you, there’s more to see beyond the sand and surf. Check out:
- Tangadan Falls, a 45-minute hike that starts out with a view of rice paddies and concludes with a cliff jump or swim.
- Ma-Cho, the country’s first Taoist temple featuring carved stone statues and a panoramic view of the West Philippine Sea.
- Taboc, an area in La Union where you can buy pottery and take lessons for your very own handmade clay pot.
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- Here’s why you should go to La Union next weekend
- 3 ways you can volunteer on your next La Union trip
- Where to eat in La Union
- Where to stay in La Union
This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of Smile magazine.