Most people traveling to San Juan, Batangas – just a three-hour drive south of Metro Manila – simply head straight to Laiya Beach, one of the most popular weekend beach destinations from the Philippine capital. The famed coastline is dotted by beach resorts and, just 10 km away, Solmera Coast complements the town’s seaside attractions with a beachfront condotel development by DMCI Homes Leisure Residences at Barangays Calubcub II and Subukin. The sprawling property is a great spot to swim, bike, kayak or simply watch the sunrise from your own private villa.
The easternmost town of the province, however, has far more to offer than just sun, sand and sea. Rich history, nature escapes, and food adventures also await to be discovered by travelers, making San Juan a complete destination!
A chronological tour of San Juan’s colonial past should begin not at the town center but at Pinagbayanan, a coastal barangay seven kilometers east of the poblacion where the Lumang Bayan (old town) once stood. In 1843, San Juan was separated from Rosario, the town it was part of as a barrio since 1698. Due to devastating floods, the town center eventually transferred to its present-day location in 1890.
Archaeological excavations between 2008 to 2012 revealed the remains of the old church, two stone houses, and smaller stone structures believed to be a limestone kiln and koloong (water well). Now located on private property and surrounded by a coconut plantation, the Pinagbayanan Church Ruins, constructed in 1855, can be visited with permission from the lot owners who live next door in a contemporary villa inspired by bahay-na-bato architecture. Not far away from the ruins stands the well-preserved Bautista House, a wooden bahay kubo (stilt house) with capiz shell windows built in 1924, decades after the poblacion transferred.
The poblacion of San Juan centers on the San Juan Nepomuceno Church. The Baroque-style main church structure was inaugurated in 1894, with the belfry added later on in the 1930s. It was built in honor of the town’s namesake St. John Nepomucene, a 14th-century Bohemian preacher who was martyred by drowning. Due to his manner of death, he is considered by devotees to be a protector from floods and drowning.
Aside from the town church, several heritage houses still stand, mostly erected in the early 20th century. Visits to all the ancestral houses in San Juan, however, must be arranged in advance. The Benito Marasigan (BM) Ruins & Museum, a two-storey mansion originally built in 1929-1930, by one of the prominent families of San Juan was destroyed by fire in 2009 and rehabilitated into a single-storey museum in 2015.
Located a short walk away from the church, Casa Louella is another pre-war mansion built by the Treviño-Magtibay family in the early 20th century, and acquired by Custodio Marasigan Ona (nephew of Benito Marasigan) and his wife in 1994. It is presently named after their only daughter.
Another private heritage site worth visiting is Casa Soledad, built by Santos Lopez and Maria Mercado (a relative of National Hero Jose Rizal). They had four children, Miguel, Arsenio, Soledad and Leonor. Soledad, who the house is presently named after, is the maternal grandmother of the fourth-generation Lopez-Tioseco siblings who manage the household. Among the impressive antiques in the home are a life-sized foto-oleo (a photograph enhanced with oil paint) of Leonor Lopez and precolonial pottery from Calubcub Segundo, an important archaeological site.
Lastly, there’s the Aguedo Mercado Mansion, built in 1936. The impressive dwelling is now branded as WhiteHouse San Juan by the current owners, Neil and Joy Marundan who acquired the Neoclassical-Art Deco ancestral house in 2021. It now functions as an events place, and is also open for house tours on an appointment basis.
San Juan is also blessed with natural wonders, aside from its popular beaches. Mangrove boat tours are one of the lesser-known ecotourism activities one can have arranged. Motorized outrigger boats at Barangay Poctol take visitors along a small mangrove river, which empties out to Tayabas Bay, before the boat detours back inland via Malaking Ilog River, a major watercourse separating the provinces of Batangas and Quezon.
Along the way, one can observe the slow-paced life of coastal communities. Fishermen paddle close to the riverbanks on bangkas (small outrigger canoes), carrying bamboo fish traps or casting a line to catch some fish. The riverine tour also provides a wonderful opportunity for birdwatching. Among the wild wetland birds one can see in the area are purple herons, collared kingfishers, and black-winged stilts.
Batangas is known for its thriving food culture, and San Juan is no exception. The town is known for its kapeng barako (liberica coffee), tablea (chocolate tablets) and panutsa (peanut brittle candy), to name a few. All of which are available at the San Juan Pasalubong Center, an essential shopping stopover for buying local delicacies and handicrafts.
Coconut farming is also a major industry in the town, supplying coconut-based products like coco sugar and lambanog, a potent liquor distilled from fermented coconut sap. At Vincel Coco Products in Barangay Tipaz, one can watch how coconut sap is collected from cut flower stalks by farmers who traverse a network of elevated bamboo poles that link the coconut trees together. The coconut sap is cooked in a wok to transform into coco sugar, a healthier alternative to cane sugar.
Coconut sap can also be fermented for a few days and distilled into a strong vodka-like liquor called lambanog, the drink of choice for festival rural celebrations. Jimmy’s Lambanog is one of the top producers of the liquor, processing around 800 liters every production day at their factory in Barangay Lipahan.
Good food is just around the corner in San Juan, satisfying every taste and budget! Exuding the town’s old-world charm are Old San Juan and Cafeño, built within or adjacent to heritage houses. The former is known for their traditional Filipino dishes like kare-kare (oxtail stew), while the latter is known for their signature bacon slab with kesong puti (carabao cheese) salad.
A well-known restaurant chain in the region, Ben’s Halo-Halo not only serves the “creamiest halo-halo in Laguna” but also mouthwatering baby back ribs that hit the spot. Aside from the classic halo-halo, they also serve unique versions with ingredients not typically found in desserts like labuyo chilis and salted egg! On the other hand, for generous seafood platters and Batangas’ famed bulalo (beef marrow soup), check out Four Corners Seafood & Sizzling House.
And lastly, while low-key in ambiance, the family-run eatery Lomihan sa Pulangbato, on the other hand, serves topnotch lomi (a thick noodle soup that originated in Lipa City, Batangas) in big bowls meant for sharing that’s as comforting a warm hug. Among the restaurants we tried in town, this was my favorite find and highly recommend you try it on your next visit to San Juan.
For tour bookings and tourism inquiries, contact the Municipal Tourism Office of San Juan.