Wed Jul 28 16:59pm
It’s when jumping off cliffs or being drenched by a downpour at sea that you become at peace with yourself.
Quick impressions of Siargao from the ferry: It’s small and still provincial. The dock is like all the other provincial harbors I’ve seen—busy and noisy, big bundles and cargoes being transported to or from all kinds of floating vessels. Off to one stretch of the coastline, as our ferry got ready to dock, coconut trees swayed while wiry brown kids enjoyed diving into the dock’s deep waters. As we disembarked, I observed that my fellow passengers included backpacking foreigners toting longboards. What surprised me, though, was that many of the surfers on the boat with us were travelling alone. Since then, I learned that surfing is a solitary sport. For dedicated surfers, it’s a case of me against the waves— so it doesn’t matter if they’re alone or with a group.
Siargao is the Philippines’ surfing capital. From its popularity as a surfing destination, I thought it would be bigger and busier. But it has still retained its provincial soul — perhaps because it’s a surfers’ haven and the group’s distinctly bohemian vibe has permeated the place. Nevertheless, locals complain that the town isn’t what it was ten years ago, presumably when it was harder to reach and few had discovered its attractions.
However, lack of easy access has never deterred dedicated surfers, and Siargao is proof of this. For one thing, traveling around the Philippines is not easy. Going around the islands requires vast amounts of patience, level-headedness, and cool that would put a Zen master to shame. First, one has to fly into Manila and contend with the chaos in the airport. Once out of the airport, you have to go through horrible traffic, bad infrastructure, and confusing road rules to get to your hotel (it’s doubtful that you’ll be able to get a connecting flight to Surigao on the same day). And then there’s the heat, and so many other inconveniences. By the time you get to Surigao del Norte, it’s a wonder you have any strength left to carry your surfboard, let alone your luggage. Yet, upon reaching Surigao del Norte, Siargao town is still two hours away by ferry.
In Siargao, accommodations can range from the most basic—boarding houses with bed and an electric fan—to very lavish. Yet for most surfer visitors, where you lay your head at night matters less than the waves.
Although I love swimming in the ocean, I’m not a surfer, so I can’t relate much to the enthusiasm surfers have for riding the waves. I must admit, though, that the first view of the famous surf break Cloud 9 impressed me. Even how the area itself got its name has attained some sort of mythic status. Common lore has it that Cloud 9 was named by famous American photographer John S. Callahan who first photographed the waves while munching on a local candy bar named — you guessed it — “Cloud 9.” Various permutations of the story exist and, whether you believe it or not, the name stuck and one of the most famous surfing sites in the world found itself named after a candy bar. Stranger things have happened.
We got to Cloud 9 late in the afternoon. It wasn’t surfing season so the waves weren’t that high, and it was mostly local kids out there with a few foreigners. From the shore, there’s a long boardwalk that connects to a three-story viewing deck made of wood.
“We’ve had to fix and shore up the structure many times,” said Governor Ace Barbers, who was in town at the same time. “Typhoons will come and just destroy either part of the boardwalk or the structure.” He said it matter-of-factly, as if there’s nothing much one can do against forces of nature. Peering over the boardwalk, I saw sharp corals undulating underneath. This was not a beach meant for swimming or just floating in the warm water. The waves, even during official non-surfing season, were huge. I could just imagine surfers wiping out and being dragged amid the corals.
Nature-tripping or island-hopping—you can do all that in Siargao. If you can tear yourself away from the waves (or convince your surfing-mad companions that a few hours away from the waves can also be fun), explore the islands surrounding Siargao. We went to Guyam and Dako Islands for a bit of swimming in the white-sand beaches. Going around the islands was an eye-opener. Many of the islands and beaches we visited had few or no people at all — which meant we had a whole paradise to ourselves. It also brought home the fact that the Philippines is so blessed with natural resources, that sometimes we take our land for granted. Floating in the warm sea, I was a bit selfish in wishing that progress is delayed to these islands, if only to preserve this ecological paradise for a while longer.
But worldly concerns mean little when you’re floating in a blue sea or lying on a deserted white sand beach, enjoying a bottle of cold beer — which is what we ended up doing during the tour.
After several island stops, we headed out for Sohoton Caves and Lagoon, touted by one hotelier as “Siargao’s best kept secret.” It’s not exactly a secret, as most people who come to Siargao end up trekking to this magical place. The Sohoton leg of the journey proved to be the most memorable part of our whole trip.
To start with, it wasn’t the best weather to be island-hopping, even in a big outrigger used to rough seas. The day vacillated between overcast and sunny and I worried about being caught in the middle of a downpour out in the open sea. I didn’t relish being tossed about and getting soaking wet, not to mention worrying about whether we would end up capsizing or not.
But we were on a schedule, so off we went. The boatman wanted us to hurry because the only way to reach Sohoton Cove was via a natural limestone arch that gets submerged in high tide. We needed to be there in low tide for the outriggers to pass through. Halfway through our island hopping, the rain opened up and we were drenched in the downpour. It took us almost two hours to get to Sohoton Cove under heavy rain.
Imagine this: It was windy, the waves were high, and we were tossed about in the boat. The rain was pouring in torrents, cutting visibility in half because of the sea spray and mist. We were thoroughly soaked, but we were having the time of our lives. It was a thrilling boat ride, and it got even better when we reached Sohoton Cove.
The rain had dropped to a drizzle by the time we reached the entrance to the cove. Sohoton Cove is one of those majestic places words cannot describe. One just had to be there to engage in the experience.
After passing through the limestone arch, islands of lush greenery suddenly rose all around us, including tall trees and a jungle that looked unexplored. Awed by it all, we proceeded in total silence. We passed by the Horseshoe, a huge stalactite that hung to just above water level, and said to be the only way local guides can distinguish Sohoton Cove from the many beautiful coves and inlets in the area.
Here’s what I’ve observed about moments like this. When confronted with nature at its most primal, man — no matter how modern we have become — instinctively shuts up. It’s the atavistic fear of the unknown kicking in and the awe at a force we still haven’t contained renders us speechless. Besides, it was just so goddamn beautiful! And so it was with us, when we visited Sohoton Cove.
Sohoton Cove is one of the 10 protected areas in the country that’s part of the government’s priority list. Located in the Bukas Grande group of islands, north of Siargao, Sohoton Cove was included in the list because it has rare flora, fauna, and marine life in the area.
After a few turns around the inlets, we reach the first cave called Hagukan Cave. “Hagok” in Cebuano means “to snore” and if one listens close enough, the sound of the wind through the cave does indeed resemble the sound of snoring. The guides allowed us to swim around for a bit and even enter the dark cave. Inside, the cave and the rock formations glowed due to bioluminescence. It was an experience to be swimming in a dark cave while everything inside it emitted a faint glow. With only a head’s breadth between the caves’ ceiling and the water, swimming inside felt like being in a womb.
Next, it was off to the thrilling Magkukuob Cave. We were warned that there was only one entrance in and out of the cave, and getting out meant having to jump from a ledge some 15 feet above the lagoon. Being too chicken-hearted, I opted to stay in the boat and provide moral support to the others who were brave—or foolhardy—enough to try it. Even watching from the outrigger, it was exciting to see the jumpers on the ledge getting ready to plunge into the turquoise waters of the cove. What was even more suspenseful was that there were huge rocks jutting from the base of the cliff, and the jumpers had to jump way into the cove so they would miss the rocks. One had to be talked into taking the plunge, much like a professional negotiator would talk down a suicide attempt from jumping. Some were in tears and prayers, while a few screamed. But all eventually jumped.
One friend who bravely took the plunge summed up the experience: “You would think it’s an easy thing to just let go and jump. But when you’re on the ledge and looking at the expanse of water and the strange beautiful islands, it’s hard to just let go and trust in the infinite. Everything’s just so vast.”
I didn’t jump then, and I regret that now. Given the chance, I would return, deal with my fear and attempt the plunge. This lesson has stayed with me. A few months after my trip to Siargao, I was given another chance to leave my comfort zone and jump. It was not an actual cliff, but it nevertheless involved a plunge into the unknown. My Siargao experience helped prepare me for this day.
NAVIGATE YOURSELF: SIARGAO
As part of the island of Mindanao, Surigao del Norte and its network of islands, including Siargao island, share a diverse and rich ecosystem just waiting to be explored by the brave. Siargao is about 800 kilometers southeast of Manila, with a coastline marked by various reefs and islets.
Travel time from Manila: About 45 minutes to an hour by plane
Languages spoken: Surigaonon, Chavacano (a version of Spanish and Cebuano, quite different from Cavite Chavacano), English, Filipino, Cebuano
Local phone exchange: 86
HOW TO GET THERE
There are direct flights from Manila to Surigao City (capital of Surigao del Norte) via PAL Express. Other airlines such as Cebu Pacific or Philippine Airlines offer routes that fly first to either Cebu City or Butuan City before taking another flight to Surigao City. Once in Surigao City, take a pumpboat to Siargao Island, a trip which is roughly four hours.
WHEN TO GO
Prime surfing season is from July to November, when waves can reach from 10-15 feet high.
WHAT TO BRING
• For first-time surfers in Siargao, bring rubber surfing boots because you will need to walk on some rocky reefs to get to the waves
• First-aid kit
• Lots of sunblock and sunscreen
• Cash. There are no ATMs on the island
• A waterproof camera. You’ll be spending your time near large bodies of water so it makes sense to have a waterproof camera or one with a waterproof case
• A sense of daring.
WHERE TO STAY
Siargao doesn’t have that wide a range of accommodations. A lot are pension houses and hostels targeted for the backpacker/surfer crowd. Most are comfortable enough and provide a range of services, from guides to suggested itinerary.
Patrick’s on the Beach or Patrick’s on Cloud 9. One of the more established resorts in the area, accommodations here range from air-conditioned rooms to tents on the beach.
Traveller’s Pension House. Basic room with amenities. You can choose between air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned rooms.
Kalinaw Resort. Siargao’s newest modern resort with individual cottages furnished simply but comfortably.
Pansukian Tropical Resort. If you want to go luxe, this is the place to stay. With first-world amenities and eight villas, Pansukian is the first upscale resort in Siargao.
WHAT TO DO
Two activities that encompass everything:
Surf. Enough said.
Explore the island and its environs. Most beach resorts will gladly recommend places to see and things to do. The only limit will be your time and stamina. What to see: Cloud 9, Sohoton Cove, and mangrove swamps, among others. Go sports fishing, another sport gaining popularity here.
Prime spots to ride the waves
Tuason Point: Located three kilometers north of the municipality of General Luna and is where the world-famous Cloud 9 is located. Aside from Cloud 9, try Tuason Left, about 400 kilometers south of Cloud 9. For experienced surfers only.
North of Cloud 9: Stimpies, Rock Island, Pacifico, and Burgos
GL and South: You have to hire a boat to reach these waves. Go to Daku island, east of GL for some fun small right-handers, perfect for beginners. Pansukian Reef is for experienced surfers only. Further south, near the islands of La Janoza and Mamon is Mabuntok Reef, which has waves for all levels, situated in some of the best beaches in the region.
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