Siargao is one of the Philippines’ last pristine islands and beach getaways, but don’t call Siargao “the next Boracay” within earshot of locals. Siargao’s locals and long-timers like it the way it is, thank you very much: a laid-back island stop where life revolves around General Luna Town on the east coast and its surfing spots facing the Pacific Ocean. A place where expats, locals, and assorted Siargao lifers have come together to build a caring community.
As locals like to say, the less Siargao turns out like overpopulated, overpartied, overpolluted Boracay, the better! So to come along this unique way of life our Siargao travel guide has more than practical information, we gathered some local travel tips. And when the locals share their favorite spots, things to do in Siargao, where to stay and where to eat, you know it gonna be good.
Siargao travel guide: then and now
“When I first visited in 2005, there was nothing, no resorts in Siargao,” recalls Elaine Abonal, a Manila-born transplant who now runs Surfista Travels from General Luna Town. “It was cool because you got to know all the locals, everybody hung out in the same place, so you get to know everyone – even if you come back the year after, people still remember you.”
A popular movie and several surf competitions later, the scene has definitely changed. “There are so much more tourists, there are more resorts, more surf schools in Siargao,” Elaine tells us. The hardcore surfing crowd has been replaced, she says, by “a whole mix: there’re families, there’re yoga people; other people come here for Christmas because it’s a tropical island. There’s a whole mix of different ages already and some families, more parties, and a lot more tourists that come even if they don’t surf.”
How to get to Siargao Island
Elaine’s old Siargao isn’t completely vanished, though you’ll need to stay a little longer to find the island’s native spirit under the added weight of tourists. Travelers visiting Siargao for the first time mostly arrive now by air. Sayak Airport receives domestic flights from Manila to Siargao and Cebu to Siargao. If you are traveling from outside the Philippines, now it is quite easy to connect flights as there are over 10 flights from Manila to Siargao daily, the same for Cebu to Siargao.
Before the airport opened, Siargao surfers would fly to Surigao Airport on Mindanao Island, then catch the ferry from Surigao to Siargao Dapa Port. This is still available, and the locals’ preferred method to get to Siargao.
Transportation on the island boils down to rented vans for large groups, or the motorcycle taxis called habal-habal. It’s is fair easy to get around Siargao, the former costs PHP 800 for a shared ride to or from the airport, or upwards of PHP 2000 for a chartered ride; the latter costs about PHP 20-100 per ride, depending on the distance.
Most Siargao tourist spots and establishments stand within walking/boating distance of Siargao surf spots on the east coast, in General Luna town, some 30-40 minutes’ van ride from the airport. If there’s one place that exemplifies Siargao’s scene, it’s the place that started it all, the ferocious surf break known as Cloud 9.
Discovered by a surfer fleeing from Balinese authorities – and subsequently named after a local chocolate bar beloved by visiting surfers – Cloud 9 quickly earned a following thanks to perfect barrels experienced by anyone brave enough to take on its forceful waves and sharp reef bottom. A gangway leads from the beach to a surfing tower where spectators assemble to watch surfers enjoy Cloud 9’s right-hand waves.
Where to stay in Siargao Island? Resorts, hotels or hostels?
The first Siargao beach resorts sprouted up next to the Cloud 9 surf break – in the early days, Elaine recalls, “there were only two places to go: either somewhere super expensive, which was Sagana, or super cheap, which was Ocean 101.” [click on the hotel names to check out the rates]
With expanded options now available to the growing number of Siargao tourists, travelers seeking a room can just search for ‘the best places to stay in Siargao Island’ on Booking.com or Agoda and take their pick. And there’s plenty on offer, from luxury resorts to cheap accommodation in Siargao – as explained by Jof Sering, owner of local art and crafts store Felice. “It depends on what your budget is, what kind of person you are, and then what kind of activities you like to do.”
Jof recommends Greenhouse Siargao for budget travelers – “It’s nice, small, quaint, there’s no signage, they don’t have aircon,” she says. Travelers who want more creature comforts might prefer staying at Isla Cabana, as “they have a swimming pool,” she says. “If they have kids, Isla Cabana is their type of place.” Finally, travelers looking for a social hostel in Siargao might want to try Paglaom Hostel: ideal “if you’re on a budget and you want instant friends,” Jof says. [click on the hotel names to check out the rates]
Speaking for myself, on my last trip to Siargao, I stayed at Turtle Surf Camp, just off the Tuazon Point surf break. It’s a cozy one-story building with air-conditioned rooms, a small pool and a laid-back vibe that captured the best of the Siargao surf-dude spirit.
Things to do in Siargao and around
Surfing is still one of the main things to do in Siargao but more and more, “a lot of people are doing other things that are not related to surfing,” Elaine Abonal tells us. “Some people come for the parties here, [or come to do] standup paddleboarding.”
Let’s start with what Siargao is best at the surfing scene. Beyond Cloud 9, surfers can visit other, less crowded surf spots like Tuason Point, Cemetery and Matanjac. Hire a local surf instructor, or join a Siargao surf camp like Surfista, to find the best surf breaks given the day’s weather conditions.
When is the best time to visit Siargao? “There are waves all year round, but they’re not great all the time,” says a local resort owner (who prefers to stay anonymous). “Siargao’s surf season is September, October, and then Holy Week. Sometimes from December to February, you get some onshore waves, and in June and July, it’s relatively small – good for beginners.”
The reef-floored beaches on Siargao Island are no good for casual swimming – if that’s what you’re after, you’ll need to join a Siargao island hopping tour that visits offshore islets with cleaner white sand and friendlier waves. The island hopping tour covers the “Naked Island” sandbar; Guyam Island; and Daku Island; the last one has cabanas to relax in. It’s definitely a must thing to do in Siargao for surfers, non-surfers and anyone dreaming to visit the island.
There are plenty of things to do in Siargao for non-surfers, so the whole family or group of friends can come down and enjoy. Some 30 minutes drive from General Luna and you’ll find the tidal pools, known as Magpupungko Pools, carved into the reef bed, perfect for swimming and relaxing in. About an hour-and-a-half from town, you’ll come upon the hidden Sugba Lagoon tucked away between mangroves. From Dapa Port, you can take a twice-daily ferry to Bucas Grande Island, a nature reserve with innumerable caves, sea inlets, mangrove thickets, and a lagoon full of stingless jellyfish.
The list of what to do in Siargao is not finished yet. Believe it or not, tiny Siargao Island has a golf course you can tee off of: “It’s just a five-hole golf course; we play a combination of the holes to play nine holes,” one resort owner tells me. “It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a pretty difficult course, to be quite honest.” The course is located off Maya Siargao Villa in General Luna.
Travelers with kids can visit Jof Sering’s shop Felice for hands-on activities like painting lessons, or shop for artisanal finds like hand-crafted bags and locally-made swimwear. “Our mission vision is, to spark joy and happiness in your everyday life,” Jof says.
Siargao travel guide to drinking, dining & socializing
The casual, come-as-you-are surfing community defines local society. The locals have an unusually egalitarian relationship (for the Philippines) with outsiders; you’ll find Siargao-born women riding the waves and flaunting string bikinis (unthinkable elsewhere in the country), and local surf legends tossing back beers with expats and moneyed local settlers. The burgeoning Siargao restaurants and bar scene provides a great excuse to meet and greet with locals.
Try visiting places like Harana Surf Resort, whose open-air bar is a popular meet-up spot for Siargao society. Little conversational groups sit on mats or beanbags on the floor around low-slung tables, sharing San Miguel Beers and a menu of Filipino fusion food like adobo bibimbap and halo-halo in a half-coconut-shell.
Diners looking for a louder, cheaper alternative go to Mama’s Grill, a rustic open-air affair serving up freshly-grilled pork, marlin, and chicken. We eat here on our last night at Siargao, sitting side by side with our surf instructors and somehow understanding each other despite the local din and the language gap.
Grilled food, good company: this is Filipino surf culture at its best, easily accessible on any night chilling in Siargao. It won’t be Boracay for a good while yet – and you should come on down while the going is good.
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Travel writer, dad, putterer, not necessarily in that order. Worked in advertising from 1995 to 2008, served as About.com’s Southeast Asia Travel writer from 2008 to 2017, survived About.com’s transition to Tripsavvy, now serving as the latter’s Southeast Asia correspondent. You can check his blog Southeast Asia Time Traveler and follow him on Facebook and Instagram.