Of the Philippines' top surfing destinations – La Union, Baler and Siargao – it's Siargao that demands the most commitment to visit, and yields the most fun in return.
As you fly into the single-runway airport, you'll descend over mangrove forests that go on for a bit before you see the very first signs of human habitation. Prior to the opening of Sayak Airport, foreign surfers tolerated a four-hour ferry ride from the Mindanao mainland to the Dapa port. And this was when Siargao was still largely unpaved – so that meant a rough ride over dirt roads to the surf spots near General Luna town!
Why did they make the effort – and why do they still bother today? Because the local community (the Siargao-born and “settlers” alike), and the natural surroundings have conspired to create something special in Siargao.
This 170-square-mile island resists the lazy label “the next Boracay” and aspires to something completely different: a laid-back, close-knit island community that rejects big-box resorts and Starbuckses, devoting its days instead to the pursuit of happiness and the perfect wave.
Many travelers come to see this for themselves. Some never leave.
We asked a few of these new Siargao settlers to tell us what brought them here… and what visitors ought to expect.
Tip 1: Siargao's surf breaks are not for beginners.
Elaine Abonal, founder and head instructor of Siargao's Surfista Travels surf camp, finds more and more foreigners heading to Siargao, some of them ending up in her care. “In every group, there's someone from New Zealand, flying in from Australia, because it's cheaper to sign up for Surfista than to surf in Australia!” she tells us.
Surfista Travels began where Elaine first learned to surf, in La Union north of the Philippines' capital Manila – but shifted to Siargao because Elaine “wanted it to be the whole Siargao experience – island hopping, rock pools, yoga, and the surf lessons.”
Elaine doesn't get a lot of utter beginners, because Siargao isn't generally kind to complete newbies. “In Siargao, it's more difficult to learn,” Elaine explains. “If you go to La Union or Baler, you'll be walking off the beach to the waves; it's a sandy bottom [there], so you don't even have to wear reef shoes.”
Siargao, on the other hand, is what Elaine calls “surfing extreme”: CNN describes Cloud Nine, Siargao's top surfing break, as a “dramatic and powerful reef break, which crashes onto shallow razor-sharp coral… Skin and sometimes bone are often ripped to shreds by the ocean bed.”
Everything else after Siargao, Elaine explains, is a walk in the park. “[After Siargao] you'll go to La Union and you'll go, really? That's it?” Elaine laughs. “As a surfer, I improved so much more in one month surfing every day in Siargao than five months in La Union!”
Surfista Travels offers “the complete Siargao experience” folded into a fun surf camp: spend mornings attacking the surf, then the rest of the day visiting Siargao's other attractions, island-hopping, doing yoga, or exploring the burgeoning food and drinks scene on the island. For more details, visit Surfista Travels' website, or check out their Instagram and Facebook pages.
Tip 2: Prepare to stay for at least a week.
Visit the “Tower” off Siargao's Cloud Nine (pictured above) and you'll get a feel of what makes Siargao's community so tight-knit. You'll find locals and visitors chatting as they step off the boardwalk into the surging waves; you'll overhear old Siargao hands up in the Tower decks swapping tips and gossip with newcomers.
The tension between local and visitor, so common in other travel destinations, is replaced in Siargao with an easygoing friendliness.
“Everybody just wants to be good to each other,” explains artist and Siargao regular Archie Geotina. “Greed is not an option here – people work here to live, whereas in a place like Boracay or Manila, everybody is trying to make a buck…. As an artist, it's what drew me to live and work here.”
Siargao attracts a lot of other seekers besides Archie, who find their timetables mysteriously lengthening after their arrival. “Everybody who journeys here is looking for something,” Archie tells us. “The ones that really stay for a while, they're looking for something different – even the people who come here for a short time, they're always saying, 'I don't want to leave'!
“There's a saying here: to stay a week in Siargao is not enough,” Archie confides. “To stay longer than a week, that's when you settle in and feel what the real magic is.”
Tip 3: You can enjoy Siargao even if you don't surf.
You'll find Jof Sering's art shop/studio Felice along Tourism Road, somewhere between Matanjak and Cloud 9 surf breaks. From her front-row seat here, Jof has noticed that Siargao newcomers have shifted slowly away from surfing and on to other interests.
“Siargao is changing – the tourists are becoming more diverse,” Jof tells me. “Before it was the hardcore, on-a-budget surfers – if I opened the shop years ago it wouldn't fly at all. Now you see families – non-surfers curious about the place.”
Siargao was a regular beach getaway for Jof's family back when she was a kid, so she remembers when the roads were all just dirt paths and motorcycles were the only motorized road transportation available.
Today, air-conditioned vans can now be hired to take large groups to Siargao's non-surfing attractions. They're mostly located far from the east coast surfing hotspots – Magpupungko Pools, a tidal pool about 30 minutes' drive northwest from General Luna town, and Sugba Lagoon, a gorgeous hidden lagoon tucked away between mangroves, taking about an hour and a half drive from General Luna.
Siargao's best swimming and sunning beaches can be found on an island-hopping tour that skips through Naked Island (actually a sandbar); Guyam Island and Daku Island. Each stop provides pristine white-sand beaches that equal anything Boracay has to offer.
Siargao's accommodations and dining choices have also expanded as well, allowing Siargao to cater to more than just the backpacking surfer. “It depends on what your budget is, what kind of person you are, and then what kind of activities you like to do,” Jof says.
Tip 4: Siargao island life isn't as convenient as you'd like.
Siargao is not the “next Boracay”, and locals are desperately hoping that this won't be the case for the foreseeable future. As tourist spots go, Siargao is a little more challenging to get to, with less of the creature comforts most travelers prefer.
“The reality is much more difficult than the fantasy of living in paradise – there's a lot of things we can't get here,” Surfista Travels' Elaine Abonal tells us. “We still don't have the comforts of a city – hospital, ATMs, good schools and all that.”
There's a grand total of three ATMs at Siargao's Dapa Port, and few (if any) establishments take credit cards. Siargao is a cash society; travelers should bring as much small change (in Philippine pesos) as they can. And Siargao can only offer basic medical services – for major medical emergencies, you'll be ferried over to the Mindanao mainland for treatment at a hospital. (Make sure your travel insurance is all ready when you visit.)
Surfing beginners and flashpackers might want to give Siargao a miss at first. “A lot of beginners go to La Union and Baler, they're closer to Manila – they have more access to city stuff, like banks, hospitals and all that,” Elaine explains. “There's more hotels, you can go for a weekend and come back to Manila. Siargao, it's far, so you have to really commit.”
The easiest way to visit Siargao is by taking a flight from Cebu, Clark Airport and Manila to Siargao's Sayak Airport. If Manila's seedy reputation scares you, avoid entering the Philippines via Manila by flying internationally into Cebu. Find out more about transportation in the Philippines, and budget airlines in Southeast Asia.