All’s swell in Siargao, Philippines’ surf central

Our whirlwind tour of the Philippines so far looks a little something like this….

Admiring Lake Taal and hiking Taal volcano in Tagaytay…singing karaoke in a Manila shopping mall with my musically gifted (plus pint sized and straight haired) Filipino cousins….breezing around Bohol on a motorbike to see the world’s smallest primate plus getting drenched en route to visiting the Chocolate Hills….dolphin spotting and HD, crystal clear snorkelling off Balicasag….getting the Mag Asi waterfall all to ourselves….plus drinking in a gritty street art bar in Cebu. 

Phew. It’s been a busy couple of weeks, so we’re ready to call a single place home for a full seven days. We decide that place should be the Filipino surfing mecca of Siargao. 

The business of surfing

Even at Cebu airport, we can see that some people mean business when it comes to Siargao, judging by the amount of people checking in surfboards: old, young, families, singles. We’re practically the only ones who are board-less, and we feel a little under packed. 

But luckily it doesn’t take long to embrace the surf culture in Siargao, especially when you stay at the Sagana Resort, founded and owned by Aussies Susan and Gerry. It’s primely positioned in front of the well trodden boardwalk that leads the way to what everyone has come here for: the world famous surf break, Cloud 9. You could even call it the surfer’s catwalk, such is the daily parade it offers up of boards, bodies and sun bleached hair. 

And soon it is us making our debut down the catwalk/boardwalk, for our first surfing lesson. Phil is to be instructed by local surfing legend Sonny, while Milo will look after me. Both are small, dark and lean, with their hair striped in orange tones as seems to be the signature look for Filipino surfies. 

Still not having quite mastered the ‘pop up’ (think of a nasty hybrid of push up, plank and burpee), we make our way out onto the water amongst the other newbies and stay well out of the way of the real surfers. 

The first wave is about to roll in, so Milo tees me up. And off I go, except my body refuses to do the pop up as the wave feels like it is traveling lightning fast. What was I expecting? I don’t know! So we try again, each time failing to make it up, some attempts qualifying as near misses, others are pure bombs, all of them unfortunately wipe outs. Milo patiently gives helpful tips like not to be afraid, to look ahead and not down at my feet, use my upper body more (but I can’t!), place my feet further apart, etc. It’s too much for my water-logged brain to remember and Milo is kind enough to demote me to the baby waves to try and increase my chances, but no luck.

The relentless pace of surfing is not for those lacking in energy – no sooner do you come off than do you need to get straight back on to try and catch the next wave. Phil, of course, is more successful than me and manages to stand up a few times, and even surf for several seconds. After a fruitless hour for me, I’m grateful to scramble back to the comfort of our cottage at Sagana and get some lunch on dry, unmoving land. (There are purposely no pictures of me as post surf lesson I would have made a drowned rat look glamorous.)

I’m definitely more suited to spectating, and there’s plenty of that to go round, especially on the Boardwalk joining the crowds with their massive lenses. Siargao is gearing up to host its annual national and international surf competition so there are lots of surfers on the water putting in some practice time. It’s mesmerising watching them spiral effortlessly round, seemingly floating under a cloud of rolling white foam. 

In lieu of more surfing I take up yoga in the garden at the nearby Buddha resort, Phil dutifully dropping me off on the motorbike we have rented while he perseveres with more surfing lessons. In the evenings we end up hanging out with Aussie surfers, one who is a Siargao first timer and now wants to move here; another who laments the days gone by when Cloud 9 was an elusive secret that only die hard surfers went to the effort of finding, before the resorts were built and roads constructed, heralding the arrival of the backpackers and the crowding of the waves. There’ll be no going back once the Siargao airport is expanded, that’s for sure. 

Peaceful Pacifico

To experience a different side of Siargao, we head off on the bike up north to Pacifico, where the waves are too big for beginners, but that’s fine with us as the water is gorgeous to swim in nonetheless. We settle for the night at Jafe Sail Camp and Resort, where we are greeted by owner, loudly dressed former New Yorker Jack (Jack + wife Ferelyn = Jafe). He takes us on a tour of the main building, which is something of a cross between man cave, teenager’s bedroom and sport trophy cabinet. There’s not an inch that isn’t covered by some sort of paraphernalia, which is a mix of his own collection of stuff he was ordered to clear out after divorcing his first wife, and items people have made and/or contributed, like the stilettos on skiis.

After indulging in the food, swimming to our heart’s content and taking advantage of a massage in the garden, we’re Jafe’d out. So we head back to Cloud 9 and Sagana, stopping at riverside villages with stilt houses, and taking an unforgettable dip in the jewel-like Magpucpungko rock pool, that like a kind of princess in a tower, is only revealed at low tide. 

The day after we leave Cloud 9 is set to be the first day of the national surfing competition, with the top 12 automatically qualifying for the international tournament the following week. But taking our last view of the waves, we run into Sonny, who says the surf isn’t big enough and they may have to postpone until it is. 

We leave feeling a sense of suspense, not knowing whether the competition will go ahead or not. But we’re about to board a connecting flight to India, and haven’t got time to find out….!

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