Just in time for surfing season
Text and images Mark Anthony Barquin Togonon
As I clamber over the jagged cliff, my legs shake uncontrollably. The Magpupungko tide pool’s depth and clarity are far from scary, but the thought of a potential injury makes my heart thump like a trapped wild animal, desperate to escape. What if I miscalculate my jump and slam my head on the steep rock wall before plummeting into the water? I watch children before me leap off the rocks effortlessly and splash into the lucent water below.
“Go on, jump!” a boy with sun-bleached hair prods, trying to stifle his laughter at my awkward position. Don’t you dare be a wimp and embarrass yourself in front of the children, my subconscious berates me. The cool summer breeze feels like needles upon my bare skin. I shut my eyes, gather my breath to murmur a pathetic prayer, and plunge into the pool.
Kissed by the sun and sculpted by the massive barreling waves of the Pacific Ocean, the small, teardrop-shaped island of Siargao stands brave-faced just off the coast of Surigao Del Norte, a province in the northernmost part of Mindanao. Siargao is considered the surfing Mecca of the country, with waves averaging seven feet during the last quarter of the year, attracting surfers from all over the world.
But there’s more to the island than adrenaline-inducing waves. It is also blessed with postcard-perfect beaches, enchanting lagoons, caves, lush coral reefs, bizarre rock formations, and expansive mangrove reserves.
Toward the end of the two-hour boat ride from the town of General Luna, we catch sight of broccoli-shaped limestone hills and gray bluffs sprouting with lush plant life. They sit mirrored amid the stillness of the clear emerald waters. We are at Sugba Lagoon in the town of Del Carmen on the western part of Siargao. I ask the boatman why the place is called Sugba, which means “to barbeque” in Visayan. “This used to be a hideaway of fisher folks. Here, they’d gather to grill their catch and have a few drinks,” he says. Our chatter is interrupted by a startling cry above the forest canopy on the opposite bank. “That’s the resident White-Breasted Eagle!” the boatman blurts out excitedly. The majestic bird circles against the clear blue skies with measured wing flaps before landing on a high branch and, as we watch, it dawns on us that it is building a nest.
A two-story wooden house, which was built by the local government to cater to visitors, rises up from the placid waters. Besides the lady caretaker, whom we ask to grill the meat and fish we bought at the public market earlier, there is no one at the house when we arrive. My friends and I rush to the second floor veranda to admire the gorgeous vista of the lagoon from a higher vantage point. “Can we spend the rest of the day here?” someone in the group asks, completely enamored with the scenery. Without thinking twice, we cancel our plan to visit other islands in the afternoon. I check out the empty hall behind the glass sliding doors. Here, guests can spend the night if they wish. The hall has large glass windows that extend to the floor, flaunting a view of the lagoon on both sides.
We snorkel to our hearts’ content and swim with the stingless Spotted Jelly, which can only be seen in summer. Before sunset, we head back to General Luna, where we rent a motorbike to explore the island’s nightlife. Our grumbling tummies lead us to Mama’s Grill, a rustic and unassuming open-air eatery, which according to locals and tourists has the best barbeque on the island. After an hour of waiting in a long line, we find out what the fuss is about. The impeccable balance of the succulent, melt-in-your-mouth grilled meat and its sweet, spicy sauce are indeed to die for.
Siargao Island’s motto is pretty simple and straightforward: Eat, Surf, Sleep, Repeat. Travelers from all over the world come here to surf, only to be smitten with the island’s charm. Many have decided to stay indefinitely when they discovered that there’s more to Siargao than enormous waves. Among them is Pal Martenson, a Swedish man who owns Villa Solaria, the lovely 2000 sq. meter resort where we are staying. Pal recalls how he fell in love with the island and its people in 2013. “The people here are friendly and beautiful and they take care of each other,” he says. When the property was offered to him seven years ago, he knew he’d regret for the rest of his life if he passed it up.
Welcoming guests in a lush garden setting, Villa Solaria is a three-minute motorcycle ride to Cloud 9, the island’s primary surfing spot. It is perfect for solo backpackers, couples, and big groups. Here, ₱300 a night can get you a cozy bunk bed and sun-worshipping globetrotters for neighbors. Those who come in large groups can choose among the six two-story thatched bungalows that could fit up to five people, the most expensive priced at only ₱2,000 per night. Not bad at all! To keep his guests entertained, Pal regularly organizes island hopping, diving, running, and fishing activities. He also offers all-inclusive surf packages for both amateurs and professionals.
Lit by the orange glow of sunrise, a gorgeous speck of land in the middle of the sea catches our attention. We are standing against the bobbing of the boat as we approach Naked Island. Fittingly, the islet is devoid of any structures or trees, save for a few patches of grass with pretty purple flowers. We have the islet to ourselves when we arrive, and the rare solitude and freedom in a popular destination bring out the audacious adventurer in us. “Let’s go skinny dipping!” somebody in the group suggests. “Seriously?” another asks. “Yes!” I have always wondered how it feels to swim au naturel. I think this would make a hilarious Instagram post—Naked on Naked Island! Kicking cool sand along the way, we run to the other side of the islet where we are partially concealed by an elevated mound of sand, pull off our clothes, and dive into the clear turquoise water.
Siargao is considered the surfing Mecca of the country, with waves averaging seven feet during the last quarter of the year, attracting surfers from all over the world.
As the sun drags itself above the horizon, we move to the nearby Guyam Island, a privately owned shape-shifting islet that is less than a hundred meters in length. Aptly, guyam means “small” in Visayan. It is quite stunning from afar: gorgeous white sand, sparkling waters, swaying coconut and Talisay trees, a handful of wooden cottages and razor-sharp rock formations on one side. Quiet and uninhabited, Guyam Island seems like the perfect place to pitch a tent and sleep under the stars.
There is sand all over our hair and the skin on our back have grown red and taut. We are catching our breath in heavy sighs after several failed attempts to do acroyoga in the sweltering heat. I may have mastered the art of blissfully contorting and doing #YogaEveryDamnDay poses against stunning beaches and sunsets, but the simplest acroyoga pose is not as easy as it looks. Daku Island would’ve made a perfect backdrop for one, making our Instagram friends drool with envy. The largest among the three islands, Daku Island, is home to a small fishing community living contentedly in the absence of materialistic distractions and pollutants. Nestled under sweeping coconut trees, a cluster of wooden cottages invites us to bask in the gorgeous view of the sea and the nearby islands. We decide to drop our ambitious acroyoga “photo shoot” and soon, we are gulping down ice-cold soda and brushing Cheetos dust from our fingers. Our next challenge is to stay awake. It is difficult when all we hear is the soothing cadence of the crashing waves, the rustling of the palms, and the birdsong.
It is noon and a slow hour on Cloud 9 when we arrive. A few surfers walk lazily along the shore. The waves are small and the tide is low, treacherously exposing razor-sharp corals and sunbaked rocks on the seabed. Feeling lethargic after finishing a pan of three-layer pizza at Aventino’s, we decide to languish by the viewing deck at the end of the long wooden ramp.
Cloud 9 is the most popular break in the island, and this is where the action usually happens. Several international surfing competitions used to be held here from August to November, attracting surfers all the way from the US, Europe, Australia, and Indonesia.
The waves haven’t picked up and after a long lull, our surfing coach takes us to the nearby Rock Island, named after a massive outcrop of rock rising up from the swirling waters. It is the surfers’ playground at low tide. After a quick lesson on standing up and balancing on the surfboard, we paddle into the current. Soon, our coach signals us to pop up and ride the incoming wave. Keep your weight centered on the board, my coach’s instruction reverberates in my head. In one quick motion I jump up in a crouch, arms stretched and feet wide, only to be tipped over as the wave’s peak begins to crash. The waves knock me over countless times. Surfing is not as easy as it looks. Standing centered on the board was so much easier on the sand earlier. My friends, on the other hand, are doing much better. They appear effortless as they glide along the crest of the wave. On my final attempt, I manage to stay upright on the board until the wave dissipates. I scream and wave my arms up and down excitedly as if I have just won the Surfing Cup. This must be how it feels to be “stoked.”
Surfer or not, anyone who visits Siargao won’t run out of things to relish. Inarguably, the friendly faces everywhere and the charming, relaxed atmosphere of surf living and beach bumming have made this tiny and sun-drenched island irresistible for so long.