Art/Style/Travel Diaries

Why I keep coming back to Elyu

La Union is my comfort place— food, art, surfing—means new scene, new faces, and old memories

The determined and fulfilled would-be surfers who are willing to learn best surfing techniques from their coaches

Elyu, the longboard capital of Luzon

The colorful lights and the crowd in Elyu

Lying in a hammock, I am writing this while listening to reggae music playing downstairs in the colorful surf town hostel, The Circle Hostel in Urbiztondo, San Juan, La Union. Also known as the longboard capital of Luzon, Elyu (La Union) is a perfect getaway for surfing enthusiasts, beach lovers, partygoers, and solo backpackers who love to meet diverse groups of people, and even those who just want good food.

Reminiscing my countless visits, I could still say that Elyu is my perfect comfort place, a place I will always want to come back to in the coming years, as it doesn’t bore me at all. Every time I come here, it’s a new experience—new party place, new faces, and new food.

Halo-Halo de Iloko, long known for authentic Ilocano-style halo-halo

It was already lunch time when I arrived in the province yesterday, and I decided to search for good food around San Fernando City. Top of the list is the famous Halo-Halo de Iloko, which has long been known for its authentic Ilocano style halo-halo. The place seems to be an ancestral house which has been turned into a restaurant. A collection of antique artifacts and several artworks are displayed to show the rich cultural heritage of Elyu and the Philippines. There are even works for sale for a minimal price. What made it more interesting for me is, the items have labels and descriptions which help visitors understand what they are all about.

I ordered the bestseller fiesta halo-halo, made more delicious with the extra yema, ice cream, and ube. It’s not the usual halo-halo we know, as there’s a unique taste so you really want to relish every bite. They also serve buko halo-halo, pritong halo-halo, mais con hielo, and binugbog a saba—all variations of Iloko desserts.

If you’re looking for rice meals, they also have seafood, Pinoy food, and vegetables. Take note, you must be patient to await your turn, as the restaurant is popular and tourists don’t want to miss it when visiting Elyu, so they fall in line. I was just lucky that I was alone and I didn’t have to wait long—I just asked the staff if there was room for one. The place really never disappoints my taste buds and eyes: the artistry, the color combinations, and the lights were just amazing.

Ma-cho Temple, said to be the first Taoist temple in the country and one of the biggest outside China

Ma-cho Temple is the very first Taoist temple in the country and one of the biggest outside of China

As a traveler, I am also interested in religious architecture. I did not hesitate to experience the view deck of the Ma-cho Temple, as it is very accessible from San Fernando City’s main road. I left my car in a parking space near the area and just walked to the temple; my mistake was that I didn’t ask if I could drive up there. So yes, for those who are tired and don’t want to walk, you can easily drive to the temple, as there are parking spots for tourists. Ma-cho Temple is the very first Taoist temple in the country and one of the biggest outside of China. Located in a hilly part of the city, it is a perfect spot to pose for an Instagrammable photo overlooking the South China Sea. Inside was a feeling of holiness, as everyone was so quiet and there were people performing a religious ceremony at the altar. Just be mindful of your actions, as there might be some rules to follow. If unsure, ask.

Macho Temple overlooking the sea

I can still remember my spontaneous Elyu visit with my elementary school best friends early this year. Without bringing enough clothes for swimming, we decided to visit the 40-ft-high Tangadan Falls in the neighboring town of San Gabriel. I had the most thrilling experience on our way to these majestic falls. I had no idea what to expect when driving—I just wanted to see a waterfall because I had never seen one in my life. Halfway there, I was about to give up as the steep zigzag road seemed endless. Considering that I was driving only a small car at that time, I thought I was going to die. But there was no turning back, as there is no way to maneuver a vehicle on that narrow road; next to it is a steep cliff that made my heart pound faster and harder.

Fortunately, after approximately 45 minutes, we managed to reach the registration area where there were habal-habal drivers waiting to guide us to the falls. I asked what to expect if I continued driving, and we were warned that the road got narrower and steeper. Okay, we decided to leave the car and ride motorcycles, for which we had to pay. As expected, the trip became more exciting, if not frightening—no helmet or safety gear to protect us if we fell, and I’m not even sure if the driver had a license. The driver was such an expert that he drove so fast, and I kept telling him to slow down for us to arrive safely; thankfully, we did.

As expected, the ‘habal-habal’ trip became more exciting if not frightening—no helmet or safety gear to protect us if we fell

The adventure didn’t end there, as we still needed to hike downhill for around 20 minutes to be able to see the falls. Water, we needed water. As unprepared as we were, we bought water in a nearby store (tip: bring your own water). The exhausting trek led us to the naturally healing, cold, greenish water of Tangadan Falls. It was stunning, and the obstacles we had to go through were all worth it. Surprisingly, we were the only ones in the area. We were geared up with life jackets for safety. We enjoyed swimming, jumping off a cliff, and taking lots of photos and videos.

The author with elementary-school best friends in the naturally healing, cold, greenish water of Tangadan Falls

Did the challenge of the Tangadan Falls trip end there? No. We needed to hike back uphill for 30 minutes, and we stopped several times to catch our breath—it’s a no joke, and people with heart or respiratory issues are not encouraged to come here. We took a shower in a nearby house for a fee, and drove back to San Juan for lunch.

We tried this famous Bay-Bay Seafood & Grill located in Panicsican, San Juan, just a five-minute drive from Urbiztondo in the same town. Whenever it’s my first time in a restaurant, I usually ask for their bestseller. They suggested their ultimate seafood feast, which is good for three people. The dish has shrimp, crabs, squid, clams, mussels, chicken sausage, sweet corn, and potatoes, in a black pepper sauce, and comes with unlimited rice and a liter of iced tea. The meal was served boodle-fight style—except that it was placed on a plastic cover, not a banana leaf. We ate with our hands, kamayan style. As someone who grew up in a coastal area, I am an expert at determining if seafood is fresh or not. Bay-Bay Seafood & Grill supplied us with freshly caught seafood, and partnered it with a tasty, slightly spicy sauce—a perfect combination. For only P699, it was a sumptuous lunch.

The author’s other go-to dining place, Kabsat La Union, at night

My other go-to dining place in Elyu is the bamboo restaurant Kabsat La Union. The first time I visited the place was with my friend, and the restaurant was newly opened. They serve good food, good drinks, and there’s a sense of luxury. It has sunbathing beds and chairs you can use while drinking your favorite drink and watching the sunset. On our first visit, we were so happy to know that drinks were half the price at happy hour; I’m unsure if that’s still the case now. I ordered a cocktail mix of watermelon and gin. It was my first time to taste such a drink, and I ordered it again on my second and third time visiting Kabsat. I also cannot forget the mouth-watering crispy pork sisig, buttered chicken, and sinigang na baboy—at that time, the best in town. The view, the place, the food, and the drinks are all worth the price.

The author with newfound friends at Kabsat

Kabsat La Union has sunbathing beds and chairs you can use while drinking your favorite drink and watching the sunset

Of course, who hasn’t heard of Flotsam and Jetsam every time someone mentions Elyu? As early as 4 pm this time, people were already lining up just to get an early spot, preferably in front, to feel the classic vibes of the place. My mistake was that I started lining up at 5:30 pm, so I had to wait for almost an hour just to be accommodated. The crowd was overwhelming, with hundreds of visitors patiently waiting outside just to enter the venue, and lines extended to the side road. Good thing was, more seats were provided; the place has maximized its space to accommodate larger crowds. But still, it’s not enough, though the colorful lanterns and lights and the happy faces of the people are worth the wait. Gone are the days, though, when there was a dance floor, and people enjoyed the hits of the ’80s. I miss dancing to ABBA’s Dancing Queen, while talking to newfound friends from different parts of the world. But most important, I got to drink my favorite beer. I think I just need to change with the times.

The colorful sole seller of drinks at Beach Bum Food Park

After having a good time at Flotsam and Jetsam, I tried Beach Bum Food Park, another colorful place with a surfing vibe and music. Several food shops are in the area, selling favorite drinks, appetizers, and even rice meals. I ordered beer, buffalo wings, and pork sisig from three different shops. I stayed there until it closed at 11 pm—yes, there’s still a curfew in Elyu, so get drunk early.

I woke up early today so I can visit the beach, watch people surf, and avoid too much sun exposure. Back in my college days, we visited Elyu the first time to document the surfing, and the place wasn’t as crowded as it is now. Maybe those were off days, or surfing in Elyu was not yet that famous. Don’t expect a white sand beach like in Boracay, as the sand in Elyu is gray. Everyone was on the beach, almost everyone was surfing, some were just swimming, while others were watching people swim and surf and taking photos and videos. Almost all levels of surfers were there—some beginners, others seasoned. I have witnessed how determined and fulfilled would-be surfers are, really willing to learn, and the coaches just made sure to teach them the best techniques. They don’t care about sunburn and tan lines; they just want to enjoy and learn. That morning was a perfect time to surf, as the waves were perfectly high. I wanted to try it, but I decided to do it next time to have a reason to come back.

If there’s a place in Elyu that reminds me of someone important, it’s The Coffee Library. That someone introduced this restaurant as a good coffee spot in town, perfect if you want a relaxed conversation or if you just want to be alone and think. He even suggested some of his favorite meals. I remember I ordered a hot caramel macchiato and tapa meal, while he preferred a frappé. It felt nostalgic when I ate my breakfast in this same place, in the same spot, with the same food. Every bite is a memory of the past, every sip full of bittersweet feelings that still linger. The tender tapa that comes with local vinegar and egg deserves a spot in my comfort breakfast food list. And as a coffee addict, I think their version of the caramel macchiato is one of the best.

It felt nostalgic when I ate my breakfast in this same place, same spot, with the same food. Every bite is a memory

I’m still thinking about passing through the grape-picking agritourism sites of Bauang and Caba. On my way here, I saw guides with banners advertising free entrance and free tasting of grapes. You’ll get a free taste of several wines: bugnay, blueberry, grapes, guyabano, dragon fruit, and mangosteen. There are even some locals who sell corn snacks, dried fish, jam, and souvenirs such as keychains.

You cannot end your visit to Elyu without buying dried fish along the national highway of Damortis, Rosario. There is a long stretch of stalls selling several types—squid, shrimp, tuyo. They’re best paired with fried egg and fried rice for breakfast.

Elyu, as it evolves, has been serving a variety of interests. If you love music, it has opened lots of bars that plays different music genres. There are Korean, Japanese, Greek, and Mexican restaurants if you want to look for alternatives to your Filipino dishes. Art can be seen even in a simple hostel, a bar, or a restaurant. If you value culture, it has centuries-old churches and museums that preserve cultural heritage. It is as well blessed with beautiful beaches, falls, mountains, and agritourism sites. It is really a great escape from the hustle and bustle of city living.

As I pack my things, I am again bringing home new experiences and realizations from my stay in Elyu. I have met new friends I could visit when I get back; our conversations about life have shed some light on personal and social issues. The music brought calmness, and it was nostalgic to enjoy it as if everything was normal. The food, as always, satisfied my desire to try new and authentic dishes. But most important, I was very happy to have seen the crowds visiting Elyu, which means the local economy is progressing, and there is a clearer path to recovery from the devastating pandemic.

The author (in white) with owners and visitors of The Circle Hostel

About author


He is a 26-year-old Speech Communication and Broadcasting graduate of the University of the Philippines. A former creative writing instructor, he is working as researcher in a publishing company.

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