It has been four years since I stumbled on Elaine Abonal‘s site, Surfista Travels. Back then, my life mostly revolved around my laptop – bringing it to meetings, creating content for social media, writing content for websites and press releases – trying in vain to keep up with the needs of my first ever startup. I didn’t think I had the luxury to go out and surf for a weekend – I had words to type, paragraphs to edit, content to publish. Fast-forward to 2016 and my life now revolves around traveling (and still writing) for a living, taking a more laid-back approach to my second startup baby. A big shift happened between then and now that has led me to prioritize work-life balance, and I promised myself a surf trip with Elaine would be one of the first things I’d check off the bucket list this year.
So I did just that.
Elaine organizes a lot of Surfista Travels tours throughout the year, whose location usually revolves around Baler, La Union, and Siargao – three of the more popular surf spots in the Philippines. Check out her Tours & Packages page for a list of upcoming surf camps for the year and black out a date you’d want to join. She sometimes does all girl camps, too, with yoga classes included along with the surf lessons. Personally, the surfing alone will already wipe me out, I don’t need an intense yoga sesh to put me to sleep even faster. Yes, I feel like I am slowly drifting into the #TitasofManila territory.
Pick a package you’re interested in joining and follow the instructions on where to email the registration form. Elaine will then get back to you with bank account details on where to deposit the payment, followed by another email outlining the itinerary for the trip as well as your standard waiver.
I met with kuya Francis, our designated driver for the entire trip, at Petron Gas Station near Dasmariñas Village in Makati at around one o’clock in the morning. There were five of us in total (two had backed out the last minute), which made for one of the most intimate Surfista trips ever. After making sure that everyone on his list was present and accounted for, we quickly made our way for San Juan, La Union. I was asleep for the majority of the trip there, comfortable in the spacious van with the a/c on full blast. Without the usual carmageddon to slow us down, we arrived at our destination a little past half past five, to be welcomed by a wide awake Elaine.
In my head, I had imagined Elaine to be some kind of Amazonian – a sultry-eyed goddess on a surfboard with her caramel skin and long black hair that mimicked the movement of the waves she rode. In reality, she was a petite woman with a tiny frame, big, expressive eyes and a smile that lit up the room. She is very open and warm – I liked that better than the intimidating version I had in my head. Funny how that works.
We were booked at the popular San Juan Surf Resort, owned by father and son team, Brian and Luke Landrigan. Luke is one of the more popular surfers in the country, while his dad was more of the same back in Australia. Affectionately just called Surf Camp, it is one of the nicer (if not the nicest) resorts in a prime spot on the beach, family-friendly, near the good breaks, and is recognized as the #1 surf school in the Philippines. There’s a little surf shop in case you run out of essentials like sunblock or a cute bikini as well as a souvenir shop with t-shirts, mugs, magnets, and bags to remind you of your trip out there.
We camped out at one of the tables of Coast Call Kitchen & Bar for a good part of the morning (our rooms wouldn’t be available until after 2pm), made our brief introductions, and proceeded to order breakfast. The food is reasonably priced and the portions pretty decent, which is bang for your buck. I had a heavy egg baked potatoes dish to start the day and was pleasantly surprised at how much food there was in my bowl.
After breakfast, Elaine handed out some goodies, compliments of Surfista Travels’ sponsors, the most useful being the small tube of VMV Hypoallergenics’ Armada Sport 70, which was such a great discovery and now part of my beach essentials! There was also vouchers for discounts at VMV, Moroccan Argan Oil from Oil of Argan, instant coffee from Glorious Blend, classic Dagat Beads, stickers from Hurley, as well as a Surfista Travels sticker and shirt.
We proceeded to change into our swimwear and Surfista rashguards, and slathered on a copious amount of sunscreen before heading for the beach for a crash course in surfing with the San Juan Surf Camp instructors. They gave us a short lecture on safety, the types of surfboards we could use, the basics on paddling, duck diving, catching a wave, positioning, and the different techniques of standing up on the board. Next, we were all assigned an instructor for our two days for surfing – I was assigned to a quiet (really patient) local named Aryan – and after a quick hello, they had lie down on the board and pop up, to see what kind of stance we had before wading into the ocean.
You wouldn’t think that an hour’s worth of surf lessons wouldn’t be enough for a day, but it really is exhausting! After our surf sesh, we hung out by the beach for a while to work on a tan until we could check into our rooms. My Deluxe Suite was clean and simply furnished, with a double bed, mini fridge, balcony, and a bathroom with strong running water. They also have a decent wifi signal in the rooms as well, which is a necessary lifeline to the outside world for long staying surfers on vacation or creativepreneurs like Elaine who need to get work done in between surf sessions.
If you don’t want to go very far for a meal, Coast Call, the camp’s in-house restaurant, is just downstairs. They have pretty decent breakfast options (although Elaine’s idea of bringing bagels and cream cheese isn’t a bad idea, too), offer a variety of healthy and refreshing smoothies and cold-pressed juices, and serve up big platters of food at affordable prices, like this Chicken Kebab that took me forever to finish.
Surf Camp is Elaine’s home away from home, and i can see why. Both Brian and Luke popped by to welcome and say hello to us, and there was a family of Kiwis that were staying at the resort for most of the summer, who were also there three years ago doing much of the same. Their 13-year-old son that used to follow Elaine around like a lost puppy was now 16, and acted as Elaine’s assistant, helping her take pictures and hanging out. There is a strong sense of familial ties, if you stay there long enough.
Lessons Learned from Surfing
Let’s just say that my two days of surfing was an eye-opener. At just how unfit I was. Popping up on the board not only entails a level of balance (and core strength), you need
working shoulder and back muscles to push yourself up and off the board quickly if you don’t want to faceplant in the water. For the first hour all I manged to do was fall into the water at different angles.
I fared better on the second day. We took the van to Bacnotan beach, where the waves provide you with good, long rides, and I worked on my stance and balancing on the board to pick up speed when riding a wave. I was stoked, but I was also dead tired, my arms and back aching and feeling like dead weight from the day before. Saying you have a surfer lifestyle may give off the impression that all you do is lounge about playing with a ukulele all day, but in reality, there is so much discipline that goes along with it, much like it would any other sport.
Getting battered by waves all day has also given me tremendous respect for Mother Nature. No wonder a lot of surfers naturally become environmentalists. A love for the ocean is one thing, actively taking care of it is another. The last thing you’d want is to paddle out being surrounded by floating plastic bags or accidentally shred your foot on a piece of glass on the ocean floor.
One of my fellow Surfistas, a balikbayan from Hawaii, wanted to try taking the tricycle back from Bacnotan back to Surf Camp, which looked kind of fun, but was probably around 20 minutes of an ass-numbing ride. But hey, you only live once!
Local Tour Guide
One of the best things about having Elaine around is that she’s practically a local who can recommend loads of things to do when you’re in La Union. Or Baler. Or Siargao. Do you want a cultural tour of San Fernando? Check. Do you want to do something adventurous like waterfall cliff jumping instead? Sure. The Surfista group I was with was pretty chill – all we wanted to do was eat! Elaine recommended some nearby places to get some grub, and the foodie in me was happy to just explore the dining scene in the area. The stamp of the local surfing community was evident almost everywhere we went, with pictures of some of the popular international and local surfers displayed on a wall at Surf Shack.
We ended up at Surf Shack for lunch on our first day, which was right across from the Surf Camp. Expect the service to be slow, especially at night when there’s a crowd – that’s just how things are in this neck of the woods, and the faster you embrace it and relax, the more you can enjoy your stay. I had a healthy but heavy meal of Chicken Kelaguan (Php 188), which gives one a taste of Chamorro cuisine from the North Marinara Islands in Guam – a refreshing (and healthy!) combination of grilled chicken, coconut, lemon and green leeks served atop coconut tortillas or titiyas, served with finadenes, or what we Pinoys like to call toyomansi (a soy sauce and calamansi dip).
For dessert and coffee, we walked over to the most popular coffee shop in the area, El Union, for a cooling Dirty Horchata (Php 140), a rice milk concoction with a shot or two of espresso, and one of their giant Skillet Cookies (Php 240). I couldn’t help but admire the Sanskrit shoulder tattoos our bartender was rocking. #InkGoals
We headed back to Surf Camp to rest for an hour before all meeting up at the veranda above the souvenir shop for a short course on Surfing 101. Discussing everything from the history of surfing in general (i.e. how it was the sport of Hawiian royalty), to how surfing got started in the Philippines (each popular surf spot seems to have their own story of some American leaving a surfboard behind and the locals picking it up from there), surfing technicalities (i.e. parts of a wave, how to gauge surf conditions, sizes of waves, etc.), and surfing etiquette (a.k.a. how not to be a douchebag in the water) – learning terms like dropping in, snaking, and other useful things that’ll keep you on the good side of the more experienced surfers. It was almost sunset when we wrapped up the lecture, and we walked to a corner of the beach to try and catch the sunset. Unfortunately for us, it was way too cloudy to get a shot of the glowing orange ball slowly sinking into the sea.
For dinner, we took a short stroll on the beach and ended up at Gefseis Greek Grill Restaurant, which served killer food, whose servers dressed in Roman-esque regalia, with a view overlooking the beach. Try the Tyrokafteri (Php 160) to start – an addicting cheese dip made of two kinds of feta cheese, roasted pepper, yogurt, olive oil, garlic, and a squeeze of lemon with pita bread.
I tried their Lamb Souvlaki Platter (Php 350) – which I was hesitant about because lamb is a tricky meat to get right here – and it came out top notch! Smothered in their special sauce, this can be served atop Greek-style rice or pita bread, and served with a tiny side of fries. The portion size is pretty big, so it would probably be best if you split this with a friend.
Why Join Surfista Travels
I had a fantastic weekend making new friends and learning more about surfing, thanks to Elaine and Surfista Travels. I could’ve easily hopped on a bus and made the same arrangements myself, but I would probably still choose to join a few more Surfista tours in the future for the following reasons:
- The comfort of hopping in a van that you can stretch your legs in and sleep for the roundtrip – with the extra perk of kuya Francis dropping me off at home since he also happens to be from the south.
- Getting access to some of the best surfing instructors in the area.
- Seeing how instructors take you seriously because you’re a Surfista – you don’t get misconstrued for a tourist that just wants to get a picture of himself standing on a board to post on Instagram.
- You get the insight and technical know-how from someone who has been surfing for over 13 years.
- You get to stay at a nice resort with complimentary breakfast.
- Wear your Surfista shirt to any of the popular surf spots in the country, and the instructors know you know your surfing etiquette and can be trusted not to start (or be the cause) of a fight in the water.
- You get a local tour guide in the package, up for
almostanything you want to do between surfing lessons!
- Your guide is also certified by the Philippine Red Cross to administer first aid. How many tour operators here can say the same?
- If you’re female and going at it alone, it feels a lot more safe. Believe me, you’re in very good hands.
- An ongoing support system for when you choose to continue your surf lessons and get better at the sport.
- You start your trip surrounded by strangers, but go home surrounded by friends who come from all walks of life, which is pretty amazing, if you ask me.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the entire trip, which was thoughtfully planned and kept us busy all throughout my day-and-a-half in La Union. Everything was so convenient and hassle-free. This is definitely something I’d try a few more times, since it’s a great way to meet the locals (it’s like everybody knows Elaine!) and broaden your circle of friends. If this is your first ever surf trip, I would definitely recommend doing a Surfista tour, since being surrounded by people who are passionate about the sport helps get you excited and motivated to hone your skills for catching that next big wave.’Til the next one!