Throughout time, seafaring wanderers and enterprising imperialists have been attracted to the Philippines’ Eastern Visayas. The first ancient “tourists” of Indonesian and Malay descent crossed oceans to reach the tropical outpost that is now Siargao. Next came the Spanish conquistadors who brought their language and the Roman Catholic Church along for their several-hundred-year-long stay. The Americans arrived in 1898 and subjected the nation to another long bout of occupation.
Today, although the Philippines is an independent nation, evidence of each of these foreign influences lingers linguistically. You’ll hear hotel staff counting, “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro” and referring to keys as llaves. Indonesian words are painted on storefronts. And in a small village, where fishing boats ferry surfers to and from waves, you’ll find David, a twenty-something-year-old who’s never been to the U.S. yet speaks impeccable English complete with American slang while he and his mother prepare the crunchiest and juiciest fried chicken this side of Kentucky.
Like much of the Philippines, Siargao has long been a melting pot of languages and cultures, but it was largely overlooked by mainland Filipinos until surfers brought international attention to the island. Rumors of perfect swells traveled across oceans and motivated more and more waveriders to make the journey. Eventually, the Filipino government took notice, branded the island as “the Surfing Capital of the Philippines,” and launched a marketing campaign to make Siargao the next Bali. Government officials pushed the Siargao Cup (a sponsored surf contest held each September) into the international surfing spotlight, helped the airlines open more direct flights to the island, and summoned corporate developers to get their slice of Siargao before it was too late.
If you look around at your fellow passengers on your flight to Siargao, you’ll notice that the marketing is working. Every day, an increasing number of domestic and international tourists land on Siargao’s shores. While Cloud Nine is still the stuff of surf fantasies, Siargao’s good-natured locals, exquisite natural beauty, and diverse and bountiful food offerings have made the island a dream destination for everyone.
For this reason, I’ve put together a guide to help you plan a Filipino-style sojourn to this little slice of paradise in the Philippine Sea.
- Location: 500 miles (800 kilometers) southeast of Manila in the Philippine Sea
- Area: 169 mi² (438 km²)
- Nickname: The Surfing Capital of the Philippines
- Languages Spoken: Siargaonan (a dialect of the Visayan language), English
- Currency: Filipino Peso
- Climate: Tropical
- Population: 110,000
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Although Siargao is known to be pretty balmy year-round, the best time to visit is during the dry season between March and October. However, if the main purpose of your trip is surfing, the best months for big swells and ideal winds span from August to November. Keep in mind that the international surfing scene takes over Cloud Nine in September, so expect limited accommodation and crowded surf breaks during that time.When you arrive from the global hubs of Manila or Cebu, you’ll find that the humble, one-room Sayak Airport doesn’t offer much in the way of amenities. Fortunately, an army of air-conditioned vans meets each flight, ready to take passengers into town. Note that if you’re traveling alone or in a small group, pair up with other travelers to reduce the cost of the 45-minute ride to General Luna and Cloud Nine.
The area surrounding Cloud Nine and General Luna has a wide range of accommodation from luxury private villas to per-night hammock rentals. For anyone looking to forgo high-end digs and find budget-friendly accommodation near the best pizza and cocktails on the island, check out the bungalows at Kermit’s or Bayud, an eco-resort located just 15 minutes south of General Luna known for its access to beginner-friendly surf beaches.
Once you’ve reached your accommodation, familiarize yourself with the lay of the land aboard one of Siargao’s ubiquitous homemade moto-tricycles. Custom vehicles are a bit of a thing in the Philippines — from chromed-out jeepneys in Manila to Siargao’s home-chopped tricycles, welders must make a killing. The noteworthy thing about the tricycles is that they’re a cheap and colorful way to get around, especially when traveling short distances.
Many visitors also choose to rent their own motorbike or car to surf different breaks, or to go to Sugba Lagoon or the rock pools. A private vehicle is a handy way to see more of the land and get a feel for island life. Unlike Manila, Siargao has very little traffic, but be wary of dogs, cats, and children running across the road. If you aren’t comfortable driving around the island yourself, most hotels help guests hire a driver or guide to take them wherever their heart desires.
WHAT TO EAT
When in Siargao, unless you’re surfing at dawn, don’t bother getting up too early. You’ll find that mornings start late and slow with coffee shops and breakfast options opening well after 8 a.m. Once things on the street get moving, be sure to stop at Filibeans next to Harana for a coconut latte. Baristas froth locally made coconut milk and pour an espresso that rivals the most artisanal cafés at home.Although you must try the typical Filipino breakfast of eggs, sweet sausage, and rice, you may prefer something lighter before setting off on your adventures. If that’s the case, head to neighboring restaurants Kawayan Bakery (for fresh croissants and French treats) or Shaka (for açaí bowls and smoothies) on your way out.
For lunch, it’s hard to stay away from Harana. The thatched palm-frond roof, flickering pendant lights, and colorful bean bags will lure you in, but the excellent food will entice you to return almost daily. On a hot day, try the coconut kinilaw, a Filipino version of ceviche made with fresh raw tuna, prawns, coconut milk, and vegetables served in a hollowed-out coconut. Harana serves Filipino favorites, but one of the standouts is the pork sisig, a popular bar snack made up of a sizzling mound of sour pork and vegetables topped with a raw egg that cooks as the meat cools. But if you’re burnt out on Filipino food, Harana’s poke bowl is worth trying as well.
When it comes to dinner, try Mama’s Grill and Filipino BBQ in General Luna. That said, get there early and be sure to order the purple sausage balls and an array of seafood, meats, and vegetables.
One last place you must try is Kermit’s. Kermit’s is one of the longest standing expat establishments on the island for a reason. Their pizza, pasta, and cocktails are some of the best on the island, and the atmosphere is lively, fun, and popular with locals and tourists alike. Just be sure to call ahead and make a booking so you don’t have to wait.
WHAT TO DO
Whether you made the journey for surfing or not, you should end your first day with a sunset and a San Miguel beer at Cloud Nine. The famed surf spot is home to a wooden boardwalk that spans a sparkling lagoon and offers a viewing platform to all the action. You can also walk along the point beneath the swinging palm trees and catch a glimpse of the sun as it sets over the bay, where many people learn to surf on longboards.
If you’ve come to Siargao for the surf, catch a boat at dawn and head to Stimpy’s or Rock Island located about 10 minutes from Cloud Nine. You should also check out Salvation, which is about a 25-minute drive or bike ride from General Luna. Beginners should try Secret Spot or Guiuan on the south side.
For non-surfers or non-surf days, take the hour-long trip from General Luna to the Magpupungko Rock Pools. Just remember to visit during low tide and bring a snorkel, some reef shoes, and a waterproof camera to explore the translucent pools. And be sure to stay for a coconut and a wonderfully cheap lunch of Filipino spring rolls, or lumpia, and vinegar-marinated meat or seafood called adobo at a nearby stand before heading back.
Siargao abounds with postcard-perfect swimming and snorkeling spots, but Sugba Lagoon is a full-day aquatic adventure that is not to be missed. Be warned: it’s a bit of a drive and a boat ride, but you’re sure to get a taste for rural life as you pass the traditional above-water villages on your way through the mangroves. At the lagoon, rent a paddleboard and marvel at the green-blue water below.
Lastly, Siargao is host to all sorts of island-hopping tours, or — if you’d rather design your own course — charter a boat and do a DIY tour. Either way, be sure to visit Daku Island, Naked Island, Guyam Islands, or Turtle Island. You can stop by the markets near the General Luna harbor and pick up fresh fish and veggies on your way out, and most boat captains will even make you a BBQ lunch on the beach.
As soon as you step foot in Siargao, you’re sure to notice something special in the air. Whether it’s the island’s intoxicating swirl of cultures, dreamy beaches, and coconut lattes, or the possibility of catching the best waves of your life, no one can quite put their finger on it. But no matter why people choose to visit, everyone leaves infatuated with this little island.
Book your ticket and fall in love with Siargao for yourself.