Our trip took a little longer than usual from the plan. The bus driver assigned to us had no idea on how to get to the destination. At one point, I was already ready to help the driver with the directions. I, together with two bus-loads of participants and media practitioners, were headed to San Juan, La Union for @reefph’s “Free The Sea Movement”.
The weekend activity, in partnership with World Wildlife Fund, was aimed at raising environmental awareness in the community and with its participants. The main activity was a beach clean-up drive along the shores of San Juan in La Union, a known surfing spot north of Manila.
San Juan is considered to be the “Surfing Capital of Northern Luzon”. Situated along the western coast of the Philippines facing the West Philippine Sea, the municipality is a favorite weekend destination of folks from Manila and its surrounding towns. It enjoys intermediate surf waves that charms beginners and challenges the advance surfers. Although surfing has been a major tourist and economic draw for San Juan, a great deal of its local residents are also into cottage industries like pottery, blanket weaving and broom-making.
Beach Clean-up San Juan
Just right after lunch by the beach, we were briefed by representatives of the World Wildlife Fund on the background of the day's activity. Did you know that 80% of our garbage end up polluting the earth's waters? The improper waste disposal behaviors of humans affect the balance of our ecosystem. The pollutants are mistaken as food by marine animals which end up killing them. Hence, we are all encouraged to practice the 3Rs of waste disposal - Re-use, Recycle, and Reduce.
Our activity had the participants walk the stretch of San Juan's gray sand coastline to pick-up garbage, both biodegradable and non-biodegradable. To make the activity exciting, the organizers had us searching for specially marked "treasures" along the way.There was a catch though... we had to do it under the heat of the mid-afternoon sun. But what the heck, we all did it anyway because you always spend a beach weekend under the sun and we were doing this for a purpose.
Interestingly, the participants had a hard time looking for garbage along the beach.. As it turned out, the residents of San Juan regularly conducts beach clean-ups. They also feel responsible in ensuring the cleanliness of the area where they get their livelihood. The locals' understanding and involvement in the community is a great example of how the local government and communities can work together in creating a sustainable tourism livelihood whilst safekeeping the environment.
Yes, we did have a hard time looking for garbage but we were not complaining. We had more time to enjoy the beach.
San Juan - Beyond Its Shores
After the main activity, we were given the option to either go surfing or spend the next couple of hours on our own. The explorer in me opted for the latter and started out mapping my plans. An old post of a baluarte in San Juan by my brother, who happened to be a resident of the place, piqued my interest. I decided to explore and discover San Juan beyond its shores.
San Juan Town Center
15 minutes away from the surfing shores of San Juan is the sleepy town center of the municipality. It is located along the main highway so it is not that hard to miss. You would reckon that it is the center of power as this is where the Municipal Hall, the church, and business establishments are located. San Juan is an old town dating back to 1582 and has had its own role in the fight for indendence of the country. It is amazing that local officials have managed to keep its history alive by giving a pre-Spanish feel for its government buildings.
Just by the highway is the Presidencia - the seat of the San Juan local government. It serves as the flagship structure of the town with its pre-Spanish design. Behind it are the other government offices and buildings that follow the same design as that of the Presidencia.
Just a couple of meters from the Presidencia is a 2-storey building that serves as the town museum. Unfortunately, the Museo de San Juan was closed at the time of my visit so I was not able to explore it.
At the center of town is an open-space park, also known as the "People's Park". A number of students were busy practicing for a school activity at the time of my visit. Incidentally, the stage had a picture of the Baluarte that I was looking for. It was an affirmation that it does exist and that the locals are aware of it.
Saint John the Baptist Church
The Saint John The Baptist Church stands within the vicinity of the town center. The red-brick facade of the church was reconstructed in 1902 after it was destroyed during the Philippine Revolution. The simple facade of the church is a reflection the town's simple life. A three-storey belfry stands adjacent to the church.
A main altar and two adjacent retablos adorn the church's interior. The retablos are all painted in white and an image of a Crucified Jesus Christ is the main figure on the altar. But what is striking with the interior is the painting on the ceiling of the church depicting the baptism of Jesus Christ by the town's patron saint. It stands out in full color in a white-washed church interior.
Just right beside the church is the convent. The convent was also burned down during the revolution. I guess the locals were able to preseve the old red-brick walls of the convent and incorporate it to its present structure.
San Juan Baluarte
Standing along the sandy shores of San Juan is a circular watchtower that once served this town. It is one of the lesser known "baluartes" in La Union as it stays under the shadows of the scenic Luna Baluarte, north of the town. You find very little information about this tower on the internet probably because it is not on every travelers watchlist. Nevertheless, a old post by my brother of the "baluarte" had me searching for it.
The San Juan Baluarte is about a 10 to 15 minute walk towards the direction of the beach. Most locals know about it when you ask help for directions. As it loomed into view, I got excited to see a full circular watchtower on the horizon against the backdrop of the afternoon sun. My excitement got hosed down after seeing that the Baluarte was reconstructed in poor taste.
The Baluarte stands along a higher area of the beach and has a good view of the West Philippine Sea. A compound, probably a resort, stands adjacent to the tower.
The tower was reconstructed but a small section of the watchtower remained intact from its old structure. Unlike the Luna Watchtower where you could still see its original walls, this "baluarte" only had a small section of its original wall and it is probably the reason why it did not appeal to most travelers.
The watchtower was re-constructed probably to serve as an added attraction but failed miserably with its plan. The one in-charge failed to consider the same materials used in the construction of the original fortress or materials close to it instead of the usual hollow blocks that was used. I also get the impression that the project was abandoned after the mishap.
Nevertheless, my quest to search for the San Juan Baluarte was a success and it gave me a glimpse of how San Juan was once a thriving town in the past.
Surfing San Juan
A trip to the Surfing Capital of the North will not be complete without getting into the water and attempt to stand up on a surfing board. Of course, @reefph had that all ready when they gave each "Free The Sea Movement" participant free surfing lessons.
San Juan is the primary surfing spot where it enjoys swells the whole year round. These swells are good for those who are just eager to learn and those who take surfing seriously.
In my case, I have tried surfing in various travels so, after a few misses and a couple of glasses of saltwater, I was already riding the waves of San Juan.
San Juan Sunset
I was not really keen on riding the waves that long as I was tired from the travel and the day's activity that when my coach said that my time's up, I smiled and headed back to the shore. Of course, I had to do it in style, standing on a surf board.
One of the amazing things to do in La Union is catching the sunset and San Juan is not an exception. I did settle down at its sandy shores to catch the spectacle of the sun setting on the horizon. Unfortunately, the clouds decided to play that afternoon so I was not able to catch its full beauty. Nevertheless, it still gave a dramatic view and was a fitting end to a day of purpose, exploration, and adventure.
Post Travel Notes
San Juan is a small town that made its mark by offering a different thrill – the thrill of conquering water by riding its waves. It is an opportunity that gave the community a new lifeline. However, it is also that same opportunity that ushered in the chances of spoiling what nature has accorded to them. It was a learning experience for me to find out that the community in itself had taken upon themselves a sustainable tourism opportunity by understanding and taking action, even in the simplest way of regularly having a beach clean-up drive.
On the side, San Juan may have its tourism anchored on surfing but a short walk around town can spice up your trip. It is nice to get yourself immersed in the culture and history of the town. New discoveries can spark renewed interest on San Juan.
The “Free The Sea Movement”, organized by @reefph, was a great opportunity to re-learn the value of being a responsible traveller. It is important that, apart from the community, we are also aware that we need to do our part which starts right at home. That in the end, the small responsible actions that we do, affects even the communities that are far from us.
Getting There: One can take a bus headed for Candon or Laoag City as these buses pass by San Juan town. The scenic trip takes about 5 hours. You can ask the conductor to drop you off at the beach strip where most surfing hotels and resorts are located.
Special thanks to @reefph for organizing the trip. It was a great experience and I just wish that you will have more activities similar to this one where you can raise environmental awareness while having fun.
Marc del Rosario
I believe in education, entrepreneurship, and caring for the environment.