Bustin’ Out of Manila: La Union

“I’m 32 years old, standing in a dorm room, eating a glazed donut at 7:30am.”

At least I think that’s what Sarah said. I couldn’t make it out over the banging construction and the sound of bricks hitting the roof of our hut.

This was one of those times where life is handing you lemons and you are shoving Krispy Kreme donuts into your mouth in a state of confusion.

Last weekend was a 3-day, lobbing cruel Monday off the workweek. This meant either 3 days relaxing in town or 3 days loafing on a beach in La Union, a surf town five hours north of Manila. I suffer regularly from FOMO and Sarah is persuasive, so there I was, 3pm on Friday afternoon, getting cozy in the backseat of Crystal’s car.

[A note on public transportation: Jen and Andrea took a bus to La Union, and while the bus ride there seemed to be luxurious by backpacker standards and they arrived on time, the ride back was another story. The lesson I’ve gleaned from their WhatsApp messages is this: If you’re bussing in the Philippines, get there early or you might get stuck sitting on a plastic stool in the aisle.]

Traffic was mildly painful leaving the metro area, but once we were on one of the major roadways here – the SCLEX? TLEX? T-REX? – it was a breeze. There was singing, San Miguel, a stop at Krispy Kreme, and that unbridled relief and joy that comes with being a teacher on a Friday afternoon, a three-day weekend sprawling like freedom on the horizon. Sigh.


Snack break: Starbucks, KFC, Krispy Kreme. So healthy.

It was close to 9 when we arrived at our hostel, Flotsam and Jetsam. I have made it a point to avoid hostels since my days slumming around South America when hostel life was fun and we all wore string bracelets on their wrists. Hostels are cool. They’re great ways to meet like-minded travelers. But I am private and enjoy solitude and a clean bathtub in my old age, so I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of sleeping in a dorm room, even if four of the occupants were friends of mine.

I will say this: Flotsam and Jetsam made me reconsider my hostility toward hostels. Located right on the beach, with a cozy quilt and shisha-filled yard, F&J was super chill. En route to our hut, we passed an array of broken guitars, bongos, and maracas. My kind of place.

The hut itself was a marvel to me because each bed was canopied with mosquito netting. I have never slept under mosquito netting, so I was pretty excited about this. I had also spent a good 20 minutes earlier that day researching malaria and dengue cases in the region, so the netting was welcome. I felt like a fish.


It was late, and we were coming off of a long day, but the idea of being at the beach superseded any lethargy we might have had. Sam’s friends were in town and we were determined to find some karaoke, so we walked down the road – after drinking a bit at our hostel with Jen and Andrea – to what we thought might be a karaoke bar.

It turned out instead to be a little surf restaurant that appeared to have been hosting open mic earlier in the night but now was filled with drunk men eating tacos. Sarah and I brazenly ordered a carafe of some tequila-based cocktail and suddenly, it was 2am.

Everyone else in the bar was falling apart. To my left, a man who was clearly three sheets to the wind asked me four times where I was from, not understanding the concept of “America” or the “USA.” He fell asleep on his bar stool before I could educate him on bald eagles and freedom. Two of the bartenders had to carry him out of the bar – “But where did they take him?” Sarah wonders – much to the entertainment of the waitresses, who reenacted the scenario in fits of giggles.

Sarah and I thought it would be smart to leave before one of us was being carried out by a bartender, so we headed back to the hostel on foot. Only it was dark and we were deep in conversation, so we ended up passing it and wandering up and down the road until about 3:30am. This is the type of wandering that is punctuated by stopping and keeling over in stitches because you’re laughing so hard and waving your room key around like it’s a nunchuck. By the time we got back to our room, it was after 4, and we were in that state of delirium that comes with good company and lack of sleep.

I tucked the mosquito netting under my mattress and settled in for a nice, long snooze.

Two hours later, I awoke to a jackhammer outside my window. Turns out, the hostel is expanding and is under construction! Our hut was right next to the construction site – so close, in fact, that chunks of brick were hitting the roof over my head.

Solution? A coffee shop whose owner is a friend of Crystal’s. El Union – easily remembered – is hard to spot from the road because the building itself also looks under construction. If you’re in San Juan, don’t miss this.

Cramped and narrow, with a handful of tables and garage doors opening to the outside, this hygge little establishment was exactly what we needed to shrug off the construction grump. That and good coffee. And grilled cheese. And horchata. Served in a mason jar.

The owner chatted to us for a while before grabbing his guitar and singing with his wife. Because that’s what you do when you own an amazing coffee shop. You stroll around barefoot spreading good vibes.

Everything was uphill from here. We found a gorgeous beach resort called Kahuna, just down the road from the coffee shop, where we paid to use their pool for the day. It was quiet. It faced the beach. The pool contained a basketball hoop. The food was banging. Life was good.


Best pool ever.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s