From the breath-snatching, rolling hills of Batanes to the cascades of Lake Sebu, whether you’re a history buff or a sun-kissed beach bum, you will find your bliss in the Philippines. I headed to Siargoa to find mine…
Siargao is a tear-drop shaped island in the Philippines situated 800 kms southeast of Manila. Population about 100,000, with just as many motorbikes. Maybe a touch more.
Heading to our version of paradise, Siargoa before a 7 day dive live aboard in the Southern Visayas.
Flying in from Singapore to Cebu, I recommend a stay in Cebu. Firstly, if only to experience the difference when you do arrive in heaven. Secondly, there are no direct connections to the island paradise from Ahland.
(This is where we stayed – the Prince Henry Hotel, small boutique, and safe)
Cebu City is the main city on the island of Cebu, which is part of a province of 168 islands, known as the Central Visayas.
Cebu is rated as one of the ‘must see’ spots in the Philippines (perhaps by Philippines tourist agencies).
Behind one of its major shopping centres, a slum city has flourished. I am gob-smacked by the number of openly displayed guns. Cebu is in the top 5 Philippines cities for murder, robbery, car-napping, and number 1 for murder (beating out Davao, no mean feat).
Perhaps it is to come and see the whale sharks?
There are two whale shark projects, in two different islands in the Philippines. I have chosen Oslob, home of the world’s greatest concentration of whale sharks.
This initiative has changed the fishing community from one without water, sewerage and electricity, and yearly municipal earnings have grown from $357 to $452,000 annually. It shows. Like all initiatives, it has its downsides, the major ones: a) the changes to whale shark behaviour may have longer term unintended negative consequences (which no one can quite articulate yet), and b) injuries to some whale sharks as they bump the boats that throw the krill for food to bring them in.
I was a little more worried about the fishermen in the boats to be honest. I saw one newcomer young male shark come up to his preferred person (they do choose who they go to for food, and those who have no sympathy for them soon have no one paying US$100 each – you can fit up to 20 people – for the privilege of their boat), effortlessly up end the boat, dumping the young fisherman and his entire contents of tourists and food into the water.
For my two bob’s worth, I would prefer they were left in their natural environment, however, I fear fishing the whale sharks would start up shortly after.
An average-sized whale shark – meaning about 30 – 34 tonnes – is worth about $250,000 at the end of the market trail in China or Taiwan, where consumers pay up to $16 a kilo of meat and up to $744 for a fin. They are not easy to catch, and the fisherman will only get $108 of that total, for any whale shark they kill.
Instead you will pay about $100 a head, to swim and snorkel with them for half an hour. That’s long enough for you to gain a sense of their size and also their extremely curious nature.
Don’t worry if you cannot swim, they supply life jackets, the sea was a-bobbing with loads of tourists in bright yellow ones.
Touching down in Eden
Siargoa is known for its right-breaking reef wave that is the site of the annual Siargoa Cup, a domestic and international surfing competition sponsored by the provincial government, and is part of the Billabong pro circuit. It’s legendary Cloud 9 is on any respectful surfer’s bucket list.
Cloud 9 was named by American photographer John Callahan after a chocolate bar of same name and was featured in the March 1993 edition of US magazine, Surfer. Red Hot Chili Peppers’ front man Anthony Kiedis was inspired to write a song after his 2014 visit to the island.
There is a high and low season for the surfing. May through to October is considered the low season for surfing, with about 10% chance of a ride-able wind or ground swell. I was there in June. Sigh.
But Siargoa is also more than surfing…
What else shines here is its genuine focus on support for local farmers, sustainable agriculture, and environmentally friendly products. And a friendly attitude to go with it.
Siargoa will have the ‘greenie’ in all of us squirming with delight. We arrive at our home away from home for 3 days, the Greenhouse Resort.
Just in time to head to one of my favourite restaurants, the Buddha Surf Resort, for lunch. This place grows produce in-house where possible, or sources from a local organic farm. It has its own free-range laying hens. They personally cut their beef with the butcher and dry-age it in house. Their seafood is sourced locally, is freshly caught, served on the same day. They even use metal straws.
There is lots to do, when the surf is not up. Warning: This is a surfer’s paradise, so most activities involve physical activity, drinking or the combination of both. Or you can do the other thing that surfers love to do – absolutely nothing.
Such as Rock pools, caves, a 9 hole golf course, scuba diving and a drunken carabao tour (the Philippine water buffalo). I did not do but involves water buffalos, a sunset, endless supplies of rum and coke, and a guarantee you will end up with dirt stains on your knees and pants.
Many of the restaurants on the island have an open mike night, where you can play whatever musical instrument you learnt as a kid. Most have long luxurious lounges, beanbags, and hammocks, perfect for just hanging.
You can also hire a motorbike (no licence needed), and spend time checking out the island, meeting the very friendly locals.
And you are spoilt for choice for resorts, there are over 100 resorts and accommodation spots in the General Luna area alone.
I am staying at the GreenHouse, where all bungalows have a magnificent view of the ocean. At the largest of the houses, closest to the ocean, 2 bedrooms with a large private oceanfront balcony with couches and dining table. Cost US$95 a night, including breakfast but not dinner.
All the food at the Greenhouse (and everywhere else it seems) was prepared fresh, with local produce, and each day it varied. Catering for meat lovers and vegetarians and all shades in between.
Andrew, the co-owner of the Green House, greets us. He works in China and Siargoa is his getaway from work (clothing manufacturing for the competitive surf circuit).
He asks whether we would like to go for a surf out front. It is not Cloud 9, but it has a passable wave that can be ridden most times of the year. (and compared to our experience with Cloud 9, was much better). Yes, we say. Great, I will put a couple of bottles of wine and some beer in the esky, meet you down at the beach just before sunset.
This is an island surrounded by reef that comes almost right up to your door. This means that the boat is a walk out on the reef, with you carrying your board, possibly someone else’s, as someone has to carry out the esky and ice, right?
Tip no 1: buy reef shoes.
We are ride out in traditional Philippine outriggers, known as pump boats. The sun sets and as you catch a wave, and then fall off, coming up to see spectacular shades of blue that only the Philippine skies have, I feel like I have come home.
There are several other quality waves on Siargao and nearby islands, but Cloud 9 you can access in the Tuason Point and General Luna area via a long pier from the shoreline (no boat!).
Cloud 9 experiences overcrowding in high season, its nickname is “Crowd 9” among surfers. Not today. The surf was suitable for beginners and people who hadn’t been on a board for while – like me.
We walk along the beach, thinking breakfast might be a good idea.
A belly full of buckwheat pancakes (vegan option available), blueberries, mango and a great organic coffee, we survey the surf, and meander along the boardwalk out to the first break.
The boardwalk is run down, and falling apart in places, so keep an eye on your kids, although the worst that will happen is they fall into the water and have to swim. We pass by a woman teaching Kundalini yoga free for all the regular surfers (there were about 10 of them). Although the surf was small, I felt like a giant as I caught wave after wave. Why had I taken so long to get back on a board?
And after the surfing…
The Magpupungko rockpools are a 1.5 hour ride away on motor bike. Local directions: Turn right up near the local grocery store, and keep going.
Tip no. 2: Hire a local to take you to the hidden spots on the island.
I have ridden motorbikes for years, but never for that length of time. We see a huge boar on the side of the road, lying in a pool of mud, farmers tilling their rice fields, yelling at their carabao.
One very sore butt later, we are at the rockpools. Best time is low tide, allows you to experience the full extent of their beauty. The track has not been maintained, most people walk on the reef to get to it. This constant wear and tear on the marine organisms means the provincial government needs to up its game on maintenance – not put it in their back pockets.
We head back to our resort in darkness, realising our bike lights are a tad dim.
The next day we spend doing absolutely nothing, which our resort is superbly equipped to deal with. Reading, writing, listening to music, checking your FB page, posting photos was hard work (no TV) we head to a vegetarian restaurant in town where everyone was raving about their power food bowls – Shaka Sargiao. Delicious!
And the list of doing nothing, while doing something continues..
Our resort had a yoga sala, I spent most of early mornings and evenings there. A cool breeze, with a view of the ocean, for those of us wanting a retreat without the bells and whistles, this is it.
Our last day was a hard choice between Island hopping or scuba diving. We chose island hopping, starting off early. There are many small uninhabited islands in the area, some are visited more than others. The colours of the ocean and the sky were picture perfect.
Tip No 3: Hire your own personal boat for island hopping, take a packed lunch, an esky.
The next day, we head back to Cebu. As the van drives us to the tiny airport in Siargoa, I watch the one plane a day land. I see the arriving visitors, most with surfboards in covers, getting into waiting resort vans. I am back with them in my mind as my plane takes off.
Recommended Minimum staycation time: 4 days
The WanderingYogi will be taking a small group of interested yogis (and significant others) to Siem Reap, 29 March – 2 April, 2018. We have two spaces left if you are interested. Register here or contact us in the form below.