Siargao: A Different Kind of Heaven

A common expression among today’s urban youth stipulates that “You Only Live Once,” so much so that social networking profiles have been peppered with bucket lists and must-do’s to make life as worthwhile and adventure-filled as possible. These lists include the usual adrenaline-powered dare or the most exotic of foreign dishes. But for surfers (not the internet ones) out for some challenge, the pinnacle of the list lies not in a busy tropical beachfront but in a humble island not unknown to the rest of the world – Siargao.

From its days as a backpackers’ secret hideaway during the late 1980’s, Siargao has come a long way since it was featured by photographer John S. Callahan in a 1993 issue of Surfer magazine. Each year sees tourist arrivals on the rise, especially with the newfound appreciation of local destinations by the Filipinos. Today, local and foreign visitors arrive in throngs, surfboards in tow, ready for a taste of paradise on earth.

Gateways To Paradise

Siargao Island lies on the northeastern tip of Mindanao in the southern Philippines, battered on occasion by the constant quirks of the Pacific Ocean. And there was a time when the only way to reach Siargao was via ocean travel from the mainland, until the completion of the Sayak Airport, which today hosts daily flights to and from the metropolitan hub that is Cebu. Situated in the town of Del Carmen, the airport serves as the main entry point for the thousands of tourists that visit the island each year.

Del Carmen is the home of the Del Carmen Mangrove Swamps, one of the country’s biggest mangrove reserves in the Philippines, with an expanse of 8,692 hectares. It is home to endemic plant species as well as the rare saltwater crocodile Crocodylus porosus. A common activity in town includes a leisurely boat ride around the swamp’s islets and crevices, which includes a visit to Sugba Lagoon, a secret sanctuary where guests can enjoy the clear and calm waters of the swamps while enjoying a serving of the day’s fresh catch. Thankfully, we didn’t meet crocodiles along the way, but we did settle for a short while in a small but tall cave said to have been a refuge to stranded Japanese soldiers during World War II.

After a tour of the swamps, we had lunch at Krokodeilos Restaurant, where you can enjoy fresh seafood cooked many different ways. King crabs and lobsters are served side by side grilled fish and squid, all of which are caught daily from the shores of Siargao. After a long day, experience the tranquility of a cozy dinner or a night’s stay at Bakhaw Bed and Breakfast, which is convenient for guests flying in or out, as it is a mere five minutes away by foot from the Sayak Airport.

For visitors coming in by sea, you’ll likely end up in the port of Dapa in the center of Siargao, so settle for nothing less than Mems Pensionne Hauz & Restaurant for your gustatory needs. Don’t be fooled by its humble interiors, because Mems serves delicacies exactly how Siargaonons grew up knowing them. At our table, we were full after barely having touched the belly of a huge piece of grilled gangis or triggerfish. For shirts and trinkets, Keano Souvenirs right next door offers the cheapest but quality products for tourists to take home.

From Local To International

An hour’s ride away from Dapa is the famed town of General Luna, the home of Cloud 9. Easily, you’ll find the beachfront dotted by resorts and surfing schools offering lessons for beginners and enthusiasts, with the promise that they won’t leave you bereft of the skill until you can confidently stand on your surfboard. Here, surfing is a way of life, with habal-habals and other motorcycles-forrent equipped with a holding pad for boards.

To surfing legend Manuel “Wilmar” Milendo, surfing is like being in a ‘“different kind of heaven.” He has surfed on and within the tubes of Siargao for 14 years, and has helped many others achieve mastery with his Hippie’s Surf Shop, a pit stop for those who want to learn the sport, rent equipment and purchase apparel. A short walk away is Point 303, a lodging-cum-shop where surfboards of different sizes are sold to surfers.

According to Councilor Charlito Plaza, the fame that Siargao enjoys brought tremendous development to the town including providing employment to locals who can now enjoy working right at home instead of traveling regularly to the mainland. He says that the annual Men’s International Surfing Competition in September as well as the Women’s International Surfing Competition in May sees the town abuzz with activity and the resorts full to the brim, bringing new life to an otherwise laidback municipality. Coupled with a newfound passion to accommodate the rush of guests, Plaza notes of the continued efforts of the townsfolk and the resorts to keep Siargao and General Luna as pristine as it was decades ago.

After hours of surfing, try the spicy and delectable dishes of Ocean 101 Beach Resort, one of Siargao’s first resorts. Our very own dinner selection included platefuls of spicy chicken rolls, prawns teeming with garlic and butter, and the island’s version of fried ice cream. While for a little more upscale option, choose from the extensive wine list and the French-Italian menus of Kalinaw Resort, where pizzas and pastas rule the hearts of the guests. Try the fresh carpaccio and the brickoven pizzas, as well as a glass of Bordeaux.

In The Path Of The Sun

By the hour, boatloads of guests leave and arrive along the walkways of Paseo de Cabuntog, the town’s beachfront boulevard. This common area serves as a drop-off point for tourists out for a day of island-hopping, and for surfers who want to venture into untested waters offshore. Easily, you can have these boat rides arranged by your chosen resort or accommodation, a number of which stand out in Siargao.

Of the many resorts standing in General Luna, perhaps the most luxurious is Dedon Island Resort, a private haven fit for royalty which feature Balinese-inspired villas either with their very own private garden or a commanding view of the ocean. Sharing the same beach is Bayud Beach Resort, a humbler but fitting alternative featuring rooms for couples, families and suites for large groups.

Closer in proximity to the enchanting waves of Cloud 9 is Isla Cabana Tropical Island Resort, a one-year young accommodation in the heart of the surfing capital. According to Jerah Faith Paler, officer-in-charge of the resort, Isla Cabana caters mostly to visiting foreigners, especially during the summer months when the waves are at their best. The resort’s ten spacious rooms or cabanas, named after Siargao’s nearby islets, are equipped with class amenities, including soft linens, backdoor showers and bathtubs for the larger rooms. Guests can enjoy the resort’s seaside swimming pool and jacuzzi throughout the day, as well as walk by the pristine white sand beachfront, should the tides permit. For photography enthusiasts, Isla Cabana sits directly in front of the path of the sun’s rising, so one can catch the golden hour and capture the warm glow of the horizon. At night, the Cabana Spa’s expert therapists stand on-guard to relieve the tension one can receive from continuous surfing lessons or fishing escapades.

Marajaw Gajud Karajaw, Siargao!

From General Luna or Dapa, one must visit the so-called Tres Islas, a trio of islets where one can enjoy a cozy afternoon away from the activity of the towns: Naked Island is a islet/sandbar free of vegetation and is a perfect place for swimming and snorkeling, or just plain basking under the sun; Guyam Island, which is slightly larger than Naked Island, is lined by powdery white sand and marked by a cluster of coconut trees; while the largest, Daku Island, is a wonderful inhabited island adjacent to Guyam Island, which has cottages and cabanas where guests can lounge and enjoy a picnic.

For a different tropical experience, head out to the town of Pilar and visit the shores of Magpupungko, a 2-hour marvel during the morning’s low tide, as the stony reef which breaks the ocean waters slowly reveal deep limestone pools along the rocky shore. Limestone and granite sculptures in interesting shapes and sizes also dot the beach, from which visitors dive before plunging into the shallow blue calm of the tidal pools. This beach is also the checkout point of Siargao’s International Game Fishing Tournament, an annual competition where local and foreign fishing enthusiasts battle it out in catching the biggest pieces of tuna, marlin, mahi-mahi and all other fishes abundant in the seas of the island. From Pilar, head out to Sta. Monica and rest the day away in Denaville Resort over cones of this local rice cake called sayongsong. The resort also features the anchors and other debris from a World War II Japanese warship and an 18th century galleon, both of which were deposited by the rough ocean currents along the beach of Sta. Monica. Ten minutes away is a local favorite, the Taktak Waterfalls, where the gentle burs of falling water amid the tranquility of a tropical forest attracts everyone from nature lovers to big groups of families and friends.

Unknown to many, Sta. Monica’s best-kept secret is a surfing spot called Hidden Paradise, a rough break 20 to 30 minutes by foot from the highway. Unlike Siargao’s other surfing spots, this portion of the island has no resorts and no distinguishable road signs or markings. As I sat there admiring the sunset that afternoon, I realized how Siargao, like this place, remains a well-guarded secret despite its famed reputation: Secrecy is not about knowledge or information, but about the purity in which that secret is held true. Siargao will definitely remain to many a hidden reality, a chosen paradise, and, to the surfers and travelers who’ve come and continue to come here, a different kind of heaven.

Where to Surf in Siargao?

Locals and experienced surfers recommend the following surf spots around the island of Siargao:

Cloud Nine (General Luna) – This internationally celebrated surfing capital along the coast of General Luna offers the best waves for experienced surfers.

Rock Island (General Luna) – A right hand break, the swell wraps around the base of a small rock island about 1.5 kilometers offshore.

La Janosa (General Luna) – There are some fun lefts in front of Barangay La Janosa, and some powerful lefts on the east coast.

Tuason Point (General Luna) – Powerful lefts on a shallow reef at the base of Tuason Point.

Pansukian Reef (General Luna) – The reef offers an open right hand break that needs a swell of two meters or more to work. When the wave is big, it has a great inside barrel section. However, one has to keep watch of strong currents.

Pacifico (San Isidro) – Waves up to ten feet high breaks long and slow either on high or low tide.

Cloud 69 (Burgos) – Enthusiasts observe that the strong waves from the Pacific Ocean from a rapid succession of surfs, which makes this site an alternative surfing destination.

Bayod Breaks Surfing Area (Burgos) – Offers medium length right hand waves that can reach a hollow of eight to ten feet at its best.

Neil’s Spot (Pilar) – Protected from big swells and northeastern winds, the waves are usually 40% smaller than the outlet reef breaks of the famous Cloud 9. A good alternative when the outer swells are too huge and risky

Caridad (Pilar) – Has short, fast lefts with a very shallow end bow. Offers a great surf experience when the tide is going high.

Governor Sol Matugas: Bred by the waves of Siargao

If you ask Governor Sol Matugas what Siargao means to the province of Surigao del Norte, she’d have no qualms in saying that it is “the future of the province.” Driven by the island’s huge potential and unlimited resources, she has set the stage to raise the province to a new status in the tourism industry.

“Siargao is the heart of development in Surigao del Norte. It has become recognized. If you say CARAGA or Surigao del Norte, people do not know where it is. But if you say Siargao, people will say, ‘I know Siargao!’ This has become the reference point of the province.”

As both leader of Surigao del Norte and a local of Siargao, the Governor divides her time between the mainland and her home, especially with the completion of the provincial government’s satellite office in the island. When in Siargao, she makes it a point to visit the Sugba Lagoon, where she is “lost and in a different world,” and has her fill of sweet fish, crabs and lobsters, which are part of the usual catch of the day.

In the emerging fame of Siargao in the tourism map, challenges faced by her office include the influx of local and foreign tourists, and the need to educate locals to cater to this development.

“We cannot control the numbers – we’re even increasing the flights. But we are tightening the standards and the system to be able to keep order and discipline when tourists come in. We value tourism and the development it brings but we do not like to destroy the province.”

In bringing the government closer to the people, Governor Matugas hopes that when she retires in her very island, she has provided a legacy of sufficiency and service to her fellow Siargaonons.