discovering san juan, la union: the one day getaway

La Union was a much needed getaway. After three straight months of struggling with law school, piles of readings, and wondering why I was making myself suffer, I decided that I needed a break. So, I filled a backpack with clothes, make-up, skin-care products, and the revised penal code (just in case), and boarded the bus for a one day getaway in San Juan, La Union, the Surfing Capital of Northern Philippines.

First Four Hours

…well, technically not the first few hours of my arrival there–because my friends and I arrived in La Union at 7PM, exhausted from school or work and longing only for sleep–but first four hours of actually living and breathing San Juan, La Union, and this was, of course, to be dedicated to… surfing!

Our first stop was Sebay Surf Resort, a surfing resort right by the beach. We went there as soon as we woke up, so we were absolutely delighted to find out they had a little cafeteria with a great view of the beach that served breakfast and coffee! They have the classic silog breakfast of the Philippines (aka., almost anything you can think of like hotdog, sausage, ham, paired with fried rice and sunny-side egg), so I got bangsilog (bangus, or milkfish) and bought a warm mug of caramel macchiatto. I brought out my Revised Penal Code after the meal as well, but like my friend said, it was a lot harder to study with the kind of view that we had.

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So after letting our breakfast melt it in our tummies, we went off to finally surf! The rentals cost PhP 400 an hour, for the board and for a trainer to teach you the basics and safety precautions, plus accompany you in your first rides of the sea.

The training was pretty quick. They just taught us the technicalities of how to actually raise yourself up to stand when you finally ride the wave: Ready, push upper body up, step out, stand, bend your legs! It took little less than five minutes. And then before I knew it, we were marching to the water and the surfboard’s cord was being fastened to my right ankle (so I don’t lose the board in the water, and also, so I get tied to it for safety).

My first try was, sadly, a miserable failure. I was pushing myself up to stand when I suddenly toppled to my back and fell into the water–the falling part hurt so much less than what I thought. In fact, it didn’t hurt at all. So emboldened and challenged, my trainer and I pulled my board out to the sea for the second try. This time, I finally managed to ride the wave up to the shore! It felt liberating. The moment you push yourself up, seeing that you’re standing on the board and holding yourself there, realizing your actually riding on pure, blue water…it felt amazing. 

So why do I think San Juan would be the perfect place for first-time surfers? For one, the waves are super newb-friendly (we were there first weekend of November). They’re low enough to not make you a shivering mess when you try for the first time, but also low high enough to actually make you have fun! There were a lot of better trained surfers, too, practicing their tumblings and exhibitions. But secondly, the trainers were super friendly! One of them was actually the person who took most of our surfing and group shots! They also kept all our stuff for us-free of charge. Oh, and they also lent us rushguards–super important for me at the time, cos I forgot to bring sunblock!

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Five Hours in the Middle

Bodies aching and legs shaking, we next hunted for some good food. We finished surfing sometime around early lunch, so after we took our showers, we were badly craving for food. The first stop was the Urbiztondo Grill House. It was the first place that popped out in Google whenever I would search for someplace to eat, but also, it was just across the Sebay Surf Resort! We got grilled pork belly and some stuffed squid.

Urbiztondo Grill House Bullet Review

Ambiance: 2.5/5
Food: 2.5/5
Service: 2.5/5

So yeah, overall, it’s just your normal and incredibly average food place. Average place, average taste, average restaurant service. The place was kind of hot given that it had only windows and no air conditioning, and the food was a bit more bland than we expected. So overall, it’s not a place I’d recommend one should visit if you only have a few hours to stay in San Juan.

Second food stop was in the town of San Fernando, so my friends and I had to take a jeepney. When we got to Halo Halo de Iloko, I was surprised to see so many people sitting outside, waiting for their turn to get in. When we got there, we were 7th in the list, and there was a steady stream of other groups behind us also waiting to list their names.

Halo Halo de Iloko Bullet Review

Ambiance: 4.5/5
Food: 4/5
Service: 3/5

The waiting-outside-part was the worst. There was nothing to shade us from the direct sunlight, and the small street where we had to standby wasn’t the best smelling place in the world. But we got in faster than I hoped, and although we were seated at the part of the eatery where there was no air conditioning, it was a lot cooler due to the steady stream of air coming in from the wide gap in the wall. It was a very pretty place. The walls were lined with paintings from the Ilokandia and Cordillera Region, and apparently the second floor of the eatery (sadly, we were too full to go visit) had even more crafts and paintings to show off.

We got cheezy fries, ukoy, and, of course, halo-halo. The halo-halo (a dessert of shaved ice, milk, and lots of other ingredients like coconut, jelly, fruits, yema) was good. Definitely better than most halo-halos in the country, though I’m not sure if it trumps Chowking’s. The fries… had a lot of cheese powder? So I guess that counts for something. Otherwise, I don’t think there was anything special about it. And my favorite had to be the ukoy!!!! Ukoy is a Filipino version of Shrimp fritters. So it obviously has shrimps, mixed in a batter of flour and other things, then fried til crispy. I’ve never been fond of ukoy til I tasted Halo Halo de Iloko’s ukoy. It was just that good. I didn’t even bother to figure out what was mixed in the batter! I just knew it was pure perfection. Maybe they should have changed the name of the restaurant to Ukoy de Iloko. Haha? But anyway, it is definitely a must-try!

The Last Three Hours

Finally, it was time to wind down. La Union is at the western most part of Northern Luzon, which meant its sunset views are perfect. We bought beer from Flotsam and Jetsam, a booming hippie restaurant also by the beachfront, and headed down to the beach to watch the sun set. I won’t dwell much on how beautiful everything was, so I guess I’ll just show you.

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San Juan was such a perfect one day getaway. It was so chill and calm and did wonders for my stress. It was so good at distracting from real life that, of course, I ended up not reading anything from my codal. Ha.

How to go to San Juan, La Union: From Manila, ride to the Partas Bus Terminal in Cubao. They’ll direct you to the buses that pass by San Juan, La Union. Ask the driver to bring you down at Urbiztondo, San Juan. Fares range from 400-600, and travel time is from 5 to 7 hours. 
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