The prop plane to Cebu was up there as the scariest one I’ve had, with turbulence bad enough that I had to pull the trigger at the end of the long journey when we finally arrived in Siargao. All was well in the world once we got checked in to Harana Surf Resort, our home for the next 5 days. After freshening up, we naively began to walk into town. At one of the first shops we stopped in, we asked how long the walk into town was and the shopkeeper didn’t know; that is a testament to how few people make this walk. There is a different flavour of tricycle in Siargao, but even more prominent are scooter drivers that don’t blink at taking 2-4 passengers on a single scooter. Siargao has been a popular surf destination for some time but in recent years it has started to attract a growing number of non-surfers with its laid-back island life vibes and natural beauty. Street names are quite literal in Siargao, with the main drag named “Tourism Road” and a connecting road called “Australian Aid Road.” The surf has attracted a community of expat surfers that settled in Siargao and have played a major role in developing the local business scene—most importantly the food scene!! We finally settle on Bravo, a Spanish tapas restaurant (needed break from rice) for dinner.
The next day we opted to rent a motorbike for the day and head to the Northern tip of the island for one of the highly rated Alegria Beach. Nicks past life as a wannabe dirt bike pro positioned him well to drive us 2 hrs north. Our butts were the only thing ill-prepared for this ride. There was hardly any trace of tourism outside General Luna (the main town around the most famous surfing area). A group of local kids swarmed us when we stopped to stretch our legs at a small fishing town and were eager to take a selfie with the aliens.
We made it to the beach and had a few hours to chill out and dive into our books before heading back ahead of sunset, and the line at Kermits—the town pizza joint we had been recommended to try! Out of a wood-fired oven, the pizza did not disappoint after our big day of scooting around the island.
The next day we booked an excursion with a local tour company. We spent the morning island hopping around Siargao’s three nearest islands—Guayam, Naked, and Daku Island. The clear blue water and pristine beaches were straight out of a postcard, but a personal highlight was the adorable dogs we met along the way—a wiener dog for Nick and a litter of puppies on Daku for me!
After a lovely Filipino spread at Daku for lunch, we headed for Magpupunko Rock Pools. This spot is to be visited during low tide to get the dramatic effect of the pools. This spot was busy by Siargao standards, but spectacular nonetheless, with natural swimming holes full of all the normal marine life and surrounding rock surface for 40m out to the ocean drop off. We swam around for the bulk of the afternoon before heading back to GL.
We enjoyed another standout meal at a local “Italian-Filipino” joint. We ended most nights at our resort restaurant for one last drink or dessert, and also to check in on the resident dogs—especially Naki the pug who spent his day moving from beanbag chair to beanbag chair of the restaurant. The difference in service norms at restaurants irritated us at first, but quickly became charming and laughable. Common occurrences: no knives in sight (you try eating pork with a fork and spoon), Nick would be done eating before my food even arrived, minimum 4-5 menu items were not available, and the most hilarious one was remarks like “oh you didn’t want bread?…ya we don’t have any.”
We started the morning off right, with a Beautiful breakfast bowl at Shaka! Afterward, we rented a motor bike again and headed for the northwest town of Del Carmen, to then make our way to Scuba Lagoon. Unfortunately, we rode al the way to the marina only to find out the lagoon was still closed for maintenance and restoration. We headed back to GL to spend the afternoon at the infamous Cloud 9 surfing area. Before arriving in Siargao, we figured we would put our surfing lessons to use but after arriving we realized that this was more of a serious surf destination. Cloud 9 itself is rated as expert level, recommending 15 years of experience to ride. We weren’t about to end the trip early and get injured surfing and no one gets injured reading, so I continued to pump through more books than I have in years (would recommend Gloria Steinam’s ‘My Life on the Road’)! The interesting thing about Siargao’s landscape is that there is very shallow rock around most of the island for a great distance offshore. Even at Cloud 9, surfers walk out to the line-up in shallow water for nearly 60m; in low tide all of this rock is actually above water and in more sandy parts, the beach ends up becoming astronomically wider.
For our final full day in Siargao, we signed up for a day trip to Bucas Grande—an archipelago to the southwest of Siargao. The trip was a commitment, as it takes nearly 3 hours to get to by Filipino boat; we nicknamed these boats water spiders for their spider like arms. The main issue is that there are 2 motors with no muffler, making them loud enough to leave your ears ringing for days without earplugs. Nevertheless, we committed. The first activity was a cruise through the crystal blue waters to catch a glimpse of the areas infamous stingless jellyfish. They used to allow swimming but have since stopped for environmental protection reasons. As an island, Siargao was doing a much better job on the sustainability front than Palawan. Many resorts and restaurants did not sell plastic water bottles and offered cooler refill stations instead, and almost all restaurants served drinks with reusable straws to reduce the amount of plastic consumption. Maybe we were looking for it, but it felt like the Philippines was more in touch with climate change issues than we are at home and I think it could be because they are among the top 10 countries that will be negatively affected; some communities have already been displaced as a result of rising ocean levels.
We returned to the docks and got on a bigger boat to enter Sohoton cove by boating through a low cave. We had gotten a brief description of the activities for this portion of the tour but it was more or less a blur. As with the whole of Siargao, tourism in Bucas Grande has risen steadily and many activities and logistics have not scaled or adapted to the increased number of tourists. Our local boat guide described the next activity as “you go under water and hold your breath for eight seconds.” Needless to say I was utterly confused; when we pulled up to the limestone cliff and 20 tourists were splashing around near the rock face and the local guides began strapping wooden paddles to their feet, I was still really confused. I began to see guides with the wooden paddle shoes count to 3 and start forcefully dunking tourists underwater; the same tourists were coming back out minutes later gasping for air and I thought to myself ‘gee that’s not 8 seconds, I might be out.’ Eventually I figured out that there was some sort of opening underneath where people could breath but based on the organization of the entrance I was nervous there would be 40 tourists crammed in a small claustrophobic opening gasping for air. My turn was up and I had no time left to debate, my guide dunked me under and we swam under the rock face. To my delight, I emerged in a very cool and spacious cave with lots of room to swim about. Phew. The final activity in Bucas Grande was swimming and climbing up another cave for a big jump back into the lagoon. Definitely made me reconsider getting another GoPro!
Interestingly, Siargao seemed to have a lot more Filipino tourists than El Nido who had mostly foreign tourists. Our guide said this had increased very recently following a domestic film starring local celebrities called Siargao. We dug into a delicious lunch spread again before heading back to Siargao. One of my guilty pleasures that I got an overwhelming fill of in the Philippines was pork belly—I took comfort in knowing an entire country loves this exquisite food as much as me. After consulting with our tour guide, we settled on sunset drinks at Cloud 101 overlooking Cloud 9 and Indonesian food for our last dinner in Siargao and I got to indulge in one of my favourite dishes—laksa—for the first time in over a year, and boy was it good!
The next morning we checked out and headed for the airport for our final stop of the trip, Cebu. Our Airbnb was a couple hr drive from the city centre in the south. The residence is situated on top of a hill with a beautiful panoramic pool deck of the ocean for only $25/night! We chilled out for the afternoon and soaked in a beauty sunset.
The next day we rented a motorbike and set off on a day full of chasing waterfalls. Cebu attracts adventurists of all sorts, from divers, to mountain bikers, waterfall chasers, and more. Whale shark swimming is also one of the top attractions in Oslob, but we had heard too many bad things about the negative impact on the sharks that we opted to pass. We stopped first at Tumalog falls, the largest falls on our tour. The fresh water was a welcome change from all our ocean swimming!
Next up was Aguinid falls. Little did we know, this was also an exercise in free form rock climbing that required us to climb up 5 levels of falls, against waterfalls and around trees. We were assigned an awesome guide who showed us all the tricks and took more pics than we had taken the whole trip—the Instagram photographer I had been waiting for.
We searched for Bindalay Falls which has “(hidden falls)” in the google maps name. Turns out, it really is hidden and we were unable to locate said falls. The guide at our next stop said you had to go to one of the houses along the road to access the falls …lol. Needless to say, we continued to our last falls of the day, Dao falls. Most of the falls, but especially this one, seemed as though the nearby villagers just kind of claimed their local falls, created an “entrance,” made up a nominal entrance fee, and enforced a mandatory guide policy. That being said, this one did need it, with large parts of the trail unmarked and through the water. The hike to the falls reminded me a bit of a hike in Zion National Park called the narrows that I left unfinished on my last visit!
This falls had less than 10 other people, despite being every bit as impressive!
We headed back to Dalaguete, where we were staying, to eat and make plans for our final day in Cebu. We planned for sunrise at Osmena Peak before going on to Kawasan for canyoneering. Unfortunately some morning rain kept us from seeing the sunrise, which turn out to be a good thing for canyoneering. This meant that we were among the first to start that day at 730AM and allowed us to finish at Kawasan Falls before the droves arrived. We had tropical rain throughout the trip that usually only lasted for five minutes before subsiding. This was the only time on the trip where we had rain for a couple hours straight and, lucky for us, this was the only activity where it really didn’t matter. The only dicey part of the journey was the trek downhill to the start of our canyoneering route; Nick was using some subpar water shoes from Jamaica and practically slid all the way down the mud steps. The adventure started with a big jump into the river and floating through a series of beautiful caves.
I hadn’t really been sure of what to expecting but soon realized canyoning and canyoneering are two different things. Canyoneering is a combination of jumping into and swimming downstream, with bouts of hiking in between, while canyoning involves rappelling down canyons. I really really enjoyed the hiking/swimming combo, enough to consider buying Tevas, like the ones our guide lent me, for future ventures (and to relive my childhood). Our journey downstream was beautiful and super fun, complete with a natural water slide, a rope swing, and ending with a 40 ft jump into Kawasan falls. It felt much higher than it looked! Kawasan is the most popular falls in the area and with it being Saturday, the area started to fill up within 20 minutes of us finishing our adventure.
Once again, we had put all our eggs in one basket being the driver that had brought us to Kawasan. We had entrusted him to keep our luggage in his car while we canyoneered before taking us to Cebu city. Of course we had our most important items in our Christmas waterproof Fanny pack, but I reallyyyyyy didn’t feel like taking a 3 hr public bus in soaking clothes to go home with no luggage. Happy to report that faith in humanity was sustained and he was there waiting for us when we finished. We journeyed back to Cebu and treated ourselves to a nice final dinner at the Shangri La before our early flight home at 5am. Although the Philippines was definitely more expensive than other Asian countries I’ve visited—specifically for accommodation and some excursions, it is still super cheap by North America standards. El Nido was most expensive…because they can. But apart from that, we had nice accommodation for ~$70/night for most of our stay, motorbike rental was $8 with fuel refills at $1, and we rarely paid over $25 for dinner for two a drink or two. We became big fans of the DIY excursion via motorbike rental; besides being way easier on the wallet, there is something way more fun about figuring it out on your own—from navigation, to finally realizing that those shelves on the side of the road are self-serve gas stations!
Overall, I can’t recommend this beautiful country enough. But I will caveat that with, you better go soon! Tourism is seriously taking off and I fear it will not be as pristine and relative to most tourist destinations, untouched, in a few short years…at least in these destinations. I definitely want to return to explore some of the other ~7,000 odd islands the country has to offer!