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Ilocos Norte & La Union: Northern Exposure

Surfer riding the waves of La Union

La Union
It’s time to get a break from the wintry winds, take a dip in the warm waters and ride the waves off La Union where sun, surf and sand are available year round.

Ever since the Japanese Aki Naga started the surfing trend in 1981, Urbiztondo Beach in San Juan, La Union has been a surfer’s mecca for the past three decades. Of course, there are comparable, and perhaps better surfing spots around the country, but nothing beats this province in terms of accessibility from Metro Manila which is only about 5 – 6.5 hours by private vehicle or bus respectively. It is just two hours away from Baguio City and is just 30 minutes ride from San Fernando, the capital.

Surfers lining up at the beach

There are actually two surfing seasons: July – October and November – March, which is a rarity in the country but a blessing in La Union. The waves here are considered standard, meaning good and are known for the consistent quality. With a sandy bottom, wave length on a good day at 50-150m and swell size starts working at less than 1m, this is perfect for beginners.

Luke Landrigan, a local surf celebrity who has won in international surfing cups, and his team at San Juan Surf Resort (+63 72 720 0340,, offers surfing clinics complete with board rentals and accommodations. Even an hour of instructions is enough to set you riding the waves!

The best time to go to the water is early morning until 10 AM and around 2 PM to late afternoon. Other than surfing, there is beach volleyball, kayaking and a fantastic nightlife. During peak season, the beach can get crowded and, especially on October, the La Union Surfing Break is a big event with an all night party of fun and camaraderie as well as great surfing during the day.

Beyond surfing in La Union, there is another wild adventure up north, in the Ilocos, that is sure to feed adrenaline junkies and offer an exhilarating and one of a kind experience.

4x4 adventure fun in the sand dunes of Ilocos Norte

Ilocos Norte

The unexpected landscape especially at dusk is simply breathtaking. It makes one marvel at the eons and ages that had gone by for such geography to form.  The spectacular view seems to stretch endlessly far into the horizon.

The Ilocos Norte Sand Dunes is a unique phenomenon in a tropical Philippines. This extensive coastal stretch of sand and beach, all 52 square miles, was declared as a National Geological Monument in 1993. It starts from the municipality of Currimao, winds its way to La Paz, Laoag City, then to Suba, Paoay and ends in the town of Pasuquin. The longest uninterrupted stretch is found in Suba and it is in this part where an exciting adventure begins.

Ivan enjoying sand boarding

Sandboarding and 4×4

Sandboarding is a fairly new sport that has gained following in many parts of the world where extensive sandy environments like deserts and sand dunes are ever present. It is similar to snowboarding but done, well, on sand.

In Ilocos Norte, it is offered by the Laoag Eco-Adventure Development (LEAD) Movement (+63 919 873 5516), who conducted test runs in August 2009 using handcrafted boards. It is now a full fledged adventure activity in the area.

Covering the extensive sand dunes can take hours of hiking but there is another, more fun, alternative. LEAD and the Paoay Off Roaders and Adventure Group (+63 917 5230331, offer 4×4 vehicles within the area.

Their skilful drivers can maneuver in steep ascents and inclines giving one a different kind of high. For both adventures, it is better to start in early morning, as it can get extremely hot as the day unravels.

Laoag Cathedral

Other attractions

Beyond the Ilocos Norte Sand Dunes, there are various attractions and other activities to pre-occupy a visitor. Close by or roughly within a kilometre from Suba is beautiful Paoay Lake that offers kayaking activities, for now, and plans are afoot to introduce fun boarding during the southwestern monsoon months or habagat.

Ilocos Norte also has beautiful Spanish-era colonial structures such as old houses, fortifications and churches retaining much of the medieval architecture of the Spanish times.  A good number of these structures are still standing and can be found in the various municipalities of the province.

The most impressive is the St. Augustine Church in Paoay, which is one of four, included in the UNESCO World Heritage List under the Baroque Churches of the Philippines category.

Saramsam Cafe's Dinuguan pizza

Ilocano food fare

A trip to Ilocos Norte is not complete without a sampling of its well-known native cuisine. La Preciosa Restaurant (+63 77 773 1162) on Rizal St., Laoag City, is the best stop for traditional Ilocano cooking. A 1950’s residential house converted into a restaurant, it exudes warmth and assures visitors of familiar home cooked meals.

Want Ilocano fusion cooking? Saramsam Cafe (+63 917 570 2110 also on Rizal, St., in Laoag City offers avant-garde versions of Ilocano food. From their “poque poque” pizza and “dinuguan empanada”, it is tradition with a unique twist.

Of all the empanada-producing areas in the Ilocos Region, which includes Laoag and Vigan, the one in Batac City, birthplace of former President Ferdinand Marcos, is considered the best of the three.

Visit Glomy’s Empanada (+63 77 792 2356) located near the Batac church. Of course, the Ilocano version of the “longanisa” (native sausage) is still one of the best with its spicy, garlicky taste, and is perfect for breakfast even if cooked literally over hot coals.

Mira de Polaris
Balay da Blas


Ilocos Norte has several hotel accommodations ranging from the budget to luxury. Mira de Polaris (+63 917 501 1567 in San Nicolas town, is mid priced and is a good base to stay while in the province. It’s new and each room has free Wifi Internet. They offer several suites good for the family.

Another option is Balay da Blas (+63 917 570 2110 with its beautiful and well decorated apartelle type suites complete with receiving area, a dining room and kitchen. They just built a new extension that offers single rooms in contemporary design.

Originally published in the Filipino-Canadian magazine, Living Today.

2 thoughts on “Ilocos Norte & La Union: Northern Exposure”

  1. I’ve long put off my plan to visit the north coz of work. Reading this just makes me revisit my plan… then hopefully make the real visit of the place. I hope I can try sandboarding when that happens. Your hotel accommodation looks decent for me. Will consider that. Thanks for the resto tips for food.

  2. estancabigas

    thanx for dropping by Karl. Ilocos still has so many things to offer. these are just a few 🙂

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