Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Repost: Your Siargao Summer


Your Siargao Summer
Text and Photos by: Kage Gozun

I first met Siargao through a freelance assignment back when I was taking my Masteral degree in 2000. I had never heard of the place and wasn’t even sure what to expect when I got there. All I knew was that it would take a flight to Cebu, a boat across to Surigao and then another boat across to the island itself. And all so I could cover an international surf competition. As someone who: 1) had always wanted to try surfing and 2) loves to travel, I was more than excited to make the long journey.

I landed at the pier in Dapa after almost an entire day of traveling, got on the DOT-appointed jeepney and made a half hour trip on a bumpy dirt road to the town of General Luna, home of the now famous Cloud 9 and the epicenter of tourism on the island. It was near dark when I finally stumbled into my room, but I could hear the waves crashing against the unseen shore, see the leaves of the coconut trees gently rippling in the salt-flavored breeze and thus began my 12 year love affair with not only surfing but Siargao as well.

Since that first trip, I have visited the island a total of thirteen times, with trip number 14 scheduled for this year. With every trip, I come back feeling displaced ... the city holds nothing for me when compared to the promise of the ocean.

In the morning stillness, I would see surfers coming in for breakfast, hungry from their first sessions, already thinking of their cheese jaffles or scrambled eggs. Or boats loading up with boards, surfers headed off towards breaks that they hoped would be uncrowded. The late-risers would be heading out to catch what was left of the swell before the noon tides changed. And me, with my cup of coffee in hand would be wondering what I would get up to that day – would I ask for a space in one of those boats or would I hang around the area, hoping to shoot the perfect barrel on yet anoher perfect Cloud 9 day?
My evenings were filled with beers – either consumed on the front stoop of my room or while dancing under the stars at the no-frills disco in town, where “Horny” was still on the DJ playlist back in 2008.
Every year I live for my Siargao trip. Never mind that I am not from the island or even related to anyone who lives there. Never mind that prior to the year 2000, I'd never even heard of Siargao, much less been on a surfboard. The bottom line is: every time I set foot on the island, it feels like I'm coming home.

So, you feel like you’re ready to get to know the love of my life? Allow me to take you through what to expect.

Time truly is measured by changes in the sky and the recommended dress code is half-naked. Days often meld into each other and there comes a point where  you can no longer tell if it is a Monday or a Wednesday or how long you’ve been on vacation.

Prices have gone up since Siargao’s popularity has grown but you can still find backpacker friendly lodging closer to the town proper. Homestays are becoming a practice as well so just ask around and use your common sense to keep your belongings secure. But to be close to the action, you’ll want a resort near Cloud 9.

My personal favorite has always been Ocean 101 with its large garden and view of Rock Island and Stimpy’s. The restaurant is below the “budget rooms” and often becomes the best place to meet fellow travelers. By the second day, faces are familiar and you could even end up sharing a boat with them to check out other sights… and later trading information you can keep in touch. Some of my close friends now are people I met over coffee and banana pancakes at the restaurant.

Another resort that has is an institution in the community is Sagana Resort. The resort sits on prime property that offers a direct view of Cloud 9. Their cottages are spacious, and comfortable. They even have a very earth-friendly option that includes a dry composting toilet. The restaurant serves some of the most amazing food I have ever had on the island and the menu changes depending on what is fresh in the market. A bit pricey but definitely worth it.

About ten minutes away from the hub is a family-owned and run resort called Siargao Inn, which boasts free-standing cottages that look quite rustic on the outside but are tricked out on the inside. The family that owns it also has their own boat service and their own private beach. If you’re looking to be in Siargao but still be away from the madding crowd, this is the place to check in to. And should cabin fever set in, the epicenter of activity is one motorcycle ride away.

Now that you’re settled in you’ll need to figure out what you want to do. It would be a shame to be in Siargao and not surf.

If you are a seasoned surfer, then you’ll want to check out Cloud 9. It has been called the best surfing site in Asia and was recently named one of the 50 best surfing sites in the world by CNN Go. Get there early because during the peak season, you’ll quickly learn that this right-hander’s nickname is “Crowd 9” for a reason.

If that doesn’t seem up to your skill set, you don’t have to throw in the beach towel. There are over 20 known breaks all over the island – some accessible by paddle and some by boat. About 300 meters from Cloud 9 and Quicksilver is Jacking Horse, a fun but fast spot that breaks both ways. On a big day, the inside section also works and is significantly smaller and has been lovingly nicknamed “My Little Pony” by the regular Manila crowd.

Beginners are usually taken to Dako, a fun break just off Dako Island. And while the word might mean “big” in Bisaya, the surf spot is actually quite friendly most of the time. Be sure to take a local guide with you if you aren’t used to surfing off a boat. While you’re there you might as well make a short stop at Naked Island, a sandbar perfect for photo-ops (whether it’s the ubiquitous jump shot or the “standing at the edge of the water with my hands raised to the sky” pose). There is literally nothing on the island except shells, bird tracks and the occasional piece of driftwood. Also on the way to and from Dako is Guyam Islet, a tiny patch of paradise with coconut trees, small huts and is the perfect place for a mid-afternoon picnic.

Most of the surf spots break right so if you enjoy going left, you’ll need to take a boat to Stimpy’s which is within paddle distance of Rock Island, another right-hander. (I’d like to point out that all of these spots break over reef – most of them live and sharp. So bring reef shoes if you’ve got them, pack a first aid kit and if you have one, bring a ding repair kit as well.)

Not a surfer and not interested in surfing as well? That’s fine. The non-surfing side of Siargao is all about incredible scenery, near-empty beaches and tons of communing with nature. Head to Siargao Inn or Cabuntog and take a walk along the coastline there to find your own quiet patch of sand.

About three hours away from General Luna is Suhoton Cove, home to hundreds of stingless jellyfish that you can actually swim with (UPDATE: in the summer months when the jellyfish are still small, swimming is NOT permitted). Take the boat at sunrise so you can snooze on the way. At Suhoton, you’ll be given a short talk about the Cove then moved to a smaller boat which then takes you through a cave and into the lagoon. If you’d like to, your guide can even take you to another lagoon where you can swim through the underwater opening on another cave and surface on the other side – where you walk through a natural path of stalactites to an opening at the top of the cave. Go through this opening and you’ll find yourself outside the cave, looking down at your boat. The catch? The only way back to the boat is by making a literal leap of faith, straight down into the emerald water below. Sounds fun right? It definitely is.

For something a little more laidback – and a bit closer – ask you boatman to take you to Magpupungko in Pilar. These natural rock and coral structures create tide pools when the tide is low – most of them deep enough for you to dive into. Swim around in your own personal aquarium, surrounded by brightly colored reef fish. Adrenaline junkies often climb to the top of one particularly high rock to jump down into one of these tide pools. If you pack some food, you can even have a small picnic on the beach.

If you think that’s enough saltwater to last you for the vacation, go to Lake Bababu for some caving and a mountain lake. You can also head to the Santa Monica Waterfalls for a really chill day. If you can, try to make it to the Del Carmen Swamps, the largest remaining mangrove stand in the country and home to some saltwater crocodiles.

Or you can do absolutely nothing. I remember laying around a hammock one entire afternoon, drinking mango shakes and taking naps. I would fall asleep in the middle of reading my book, wake up, proceed to read where I’d left off then fall asleep again. I finally crawled out of that hammock when newly-made friends arrived to ask if my group wanted to join them for a few drinks after dinner.

And then there will come the day that you have to put your watch on again and remember that there is a life out there where you have to wear shoes and cover your knees. You will pack your bags and settle your bills. You will exchange phone numbers and email addresses with new friends and promise to tag each other on Facebook. You will hug the locals that have welcomed you into their homes and their lives. You take one last look, before you get on your jeep or your motorbike and leave General Luna. And as you drive away, you begin planning your next trip back. 


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