Paradise Found in Siargao

Sunday, June 24, 2012

It was love at first sight.

Siargao dazzled me the first time I laid eyes on it—brilliant aquamarine reefs one second, lush mangrove forests the next. As I soaked up each vibrant glimpse from our precarious propeller airplane, I knew that I was going to be utterly, hopelessly seduced by this island.

Siargao is an island off the tip of Mindanao, the southernmost region of the Philippines. It sits alongside the Philippine Deep, the third deepest submarine trench in the world, surrounded by expansive coral reefs. The combination of these two factors, plus some gnarly seasonal winds, give the island's waves their impressive power. It's because of these fabled waves that Siargao holds near mythical status among surfers. Two summers ago when I holed up at a surf camp in Ericeira, there was no shortage of folks wanting to know a) why on earth a Filipina would come to Portugal to surf when we have perfect water and waves back home, and b) could I please, please, please arrange a surf trip for them to Cloud 9?

In Siargao, Cloud 9 isn't just an idiom; it's the moniker of a surf break so epic that it draws surfers from all over the world. We visited Siargao during the low season—literally and figuratively. Summer was officially over in the Philippines and kids had gone back to school, so the island was pretty quiet. The waves were also small, by Siargao standards. Locals say that when the surf's really high during the habagat (monsoon) season, which goes from August to November, those waves can get as high as halfway up the tower.

Nevertheless, I was nowhere near ready to dance with Cloud 9—but it was lovely to watch the locals get down and boogie. I plucked rides out of Quicksilver, instead, just next door. It's a beautiful and kind place to surf for a padawan on a longboard. The waves seemed to catch and hold the board with finesse. Paddling back out to the line was almost meditative, with the water generally calm between sets. And need I elaborate on the joy of surfing in a bikini vs. wetsuit?

Since I'm still a newb, I went out with an instructor, who made damn sure I caught plenty of waves—partly so he could surf while I rode, and at times, at the expense of people I unwittingly dropped in on as a result of such ardent multi-tasking. But I couldn't complain; at P300 per hour of instruction, plus P200 for a day of surfboard rental (a pocket-friendly $13.50!), it was a very sweet deal indeed. On my first try, I caught a wave and had a wonderfully long ride, making it seem as if no time had passed since my last surf session in Ribeira d'Ilhas.

Surfing is undoubtedly Siargao's primary draw. But even when the tide is low, Siargao doesn't stop putting on the charm. The beachfront below is exquisite in and of itself—but the fact that one can frolic here and then soothe surf-battered muscles with blissful massages for very reasonable prices at Nuat Thai just beside it makes it an extra heavenly place to be.

For P400, you and a boatload of friends can sail to Dako Island, where you can float in shallow turquoise waters in absolute peace and quiet—or, if you're like me and weirdly buoyant, float with a rum coke in hand. A bottle of Tanduay rum and liter of soda costs less than P200 (that's under $5, if you haven't looked up the conversion rate by now)—and no one will stop you from drinking while floating.

It's totally worth feeling like popcorn in a microwave oven on the bumpy ride over to Magpupungko Beach. When the tide is low, a network of crystalline limestone pools appears, where you can swim and stare bug-eyed at exotic baby fish darting between clumps of seaweed. If you're looking for an adrenaline rush, there are also massive rocks and deep trenches that create opportunities for heart-thumping dives (Tip: If you haven't mastered a cannonball, this isn't the time to try, lest you end up doing a butt-flop instead that will leave your skin red and stinging for hours #truestory).
Siargao is a place that can snag your heart and never let go. Just ask the newest locals—surfers of Swiss, French, British, Australian, and assorted other nationalities who left their old lives to make this enchanting island their home. Or the visiting surfers, who meant to come for a week and ended up staying for months. The presence of such an international crowd has turned the island into a curious and intriguing place. The vast majority of this island remains very provincial. AC might not be standard in all accomodations (and certainly not WiFi)—but if the craving hits, you can easily find a place with fantastic wood-fired pizza or even some authentic tajine.
But if it's Siargao's rural charm that you're after, there's plenty of that to go around, as well. The main method of getting around is still by habal-habal (that would be a motorcycle built to pile on as many people as possible), or jeepneys stacked to the brink of toppling over with produce, foodstuffs, and warm bodies. You can easily have a banana pancake for your post-surf nosh—or you can purchase fresh-off-the-boat crabs on the shore and ask Manang Laida to cook that goodness up in her beachside shack.

By the time I bid Siargao goodbye, I was a woman hopelessly smitten—and I will love you from afar, Siargao, until we meet again.


How to get there: There are three flights per week between Cebu and Siargao. Book here and offer eggs to pray for good weather if you can't allow a bit of rain to alter your travel schedule. (Yes, Filipinos do have patron saints for everything.) Make arrangements with your resort for your transportation between the airport and resort. This isn't JFK; you can't hail cabs straight out of the airport.

What to bring, other than your surfboard and swimwear: I highly recommend mosquito-repelling lotion, and pants to wear at night. I brought back 22 mosquito bites as lovely souvenirs. I don't recommend you do the same.

How to find a surfboard and an instructor: Just hang around Cloud 9 and they will find you. The instructors never tried to hustle us and had a standard rate of P300 per hour. Stores and resorts around the area will say that they rent out boards for P200 an hour and P500 for the whole day, but this is the Philippines so you can haggle. Rentals farther from Cloud 9 will give you a board for P200 for the entire day. A spot right at Cloud 9 will bring it down to P300 if you negotiate.

What else to put in your belly: The chicken barbeque on the island is cheap and delicious. Seek out Ronaldo's for some yummy grub (and grab some Yo Ho Ho mango rum at Patrick's across the road). If you're looking for a more peppy night out, wander over to Boulevard for chicken and karaoke. What? You're in Asia. Karaoke was gonna happen, sooner or later.

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  1. I went to Siargao last year to learn surfing and I'm hopelessly hooked :)

    1. So jealous of your proximity to Siargao! It's an island to love