Native of Spain, Luis San Jose visited Siargao in Surigao in the late 1990s “after hearing of it from friends as a good place to take a break in from the hustle and bustle of life.” He has never left.
Seated on a cushioned rattan chair while languidly sipping the sweet juice of a buko (young coconut), with the wind blowing his long brown hair, he talks about Siargao and the resort he put up there “for people who are bound to fall in love with the place as I did.” Often murmuring as if he is just talking to himself, and even occasionally “losing myself in moments,” as he puts it, all the while gazing at the seemingly endless sea in front of him. San Jose isn’t exactly your ideal interviewee. But even from the little that he says, it is abundantly clear that Siargao—which he now calls home—still has him firmly under its spell.
San Jose’s experience may sound melodramatic, but it is definitely not unique, says 68-year-old Surigaonon Virginia Nuñez in the vernacular. “There are many of them like him here,” she adds with a toothless grin as she waits for clients who want a massage (she used to be a hilot,a native healer, but now works as a masseuse in San Jose’s resort). “Not that it is in any way bad.”
A former resident of Cebu City, Nuñez understands why Siargao “has that hold on people.” “Mura’g lahing kalibutan (It’s like another world),” she says in Cebuano.
And everyone who has visited Siargao can, and probably will, attest to that.
THE HIGH SEAS
The most popular attraction of Siargao are, of course, its gigantic waves which have been drawing surfers from different parts of the world, particularly during the rainy season (May to July and October to December) when they swell to even more humongous proportions.
The discovery of Siargao as the Philippines’ surfing capital was supposedly accidental. Locals relate that some foreigners ended up on to the shores of Siargao after losing their way while traveling around the Philippines. But they found the waves so challenging that they have been coming back since. Over the years, the locals themselves learned how to surf from these foreigners, using the surfboards that the visitors usually leave behind when they return to their respective countries.
But not everyone visits Siargao to brave the waves.
Offshore, a different encounter with nature can occur. Men and, occasionally, women, as well as some children go deep-sea fishing to slug it out with gigantic tunas or blue marlins. But catching a game fish is by no means easy, and, even when one does bite, reeling it in and getting it on the boat is an exhausting undertaking that can go on for hours.
“This is one of the hardest fights anyone can engage in,” says a visiting Cebuano businessman, who spent hours trying to reel in a swordfish, only to lose it when it somehow managed to swim under the boat where the reel string was cut by the propeller.
“And it may well be one of the most satisfying,” quips his friend, who successfully landed a huge tuna that ended up as the night’s feast, making for a delicious kilawin (raw fish served as side dish or with salad) and sinigang (fish broth).
Island-hopping is another favorite activity of many visitors. A kayak is usually towed by a bangka (dinghy) to tour nearby islands. This is actually the safest way to tour the islands, most of which are rarely visited, thereby becoming breeding grounds of prickly creatures such as sea urchins and sea anemones.
Visitors can choose the islands they want to visit. There are the islands with sand dunes that disappear when the tide is high. Some islands only have three to five coconut trees, although a number are covered with thicker foliage. In fact, the mangrove-enveloped islands serve as nurseries for migrating marine life. And, of course, there are the most frequented islands where the exclusive resorts are.
For the adventurous, a visit to the Sohoton Lagoon will more than satisfy. Over three hours by bangka from Siargao (a little shorter by speedboat), the lagoon is only accessible through a small opening that appears when the tide is low. In so many ways, it is a trapped enchantment. A natural wonder, the lagoon is dotted by islands where plant species that are not only rare (they grow only in the area) can be found. The Sohoton Lagoon is also a source of amazement because of the tall tales the locals tell about it, magical yarns about mythical characters that supposedly play in its waters.
Mythical or magical, Sohoton Lagoon is an ideal venue for long swims between islands. Farther from its shores, its blue waters turn to the darkest green, betraying the sudden drop in depth. With its surface mostly calm and almost without ripples, it looks like a lake instead of a nearly landlocked part of the sea.
In between swims, intrepid visitors can savor hearty meals that feature delicacies harvested right from the waters around the islands. This is, indeed, going back to—and being one with—nature in its truest sense.
But while the adventurous will never run out of things to do in Siargao, Nuñez notes that many visitors simply choose to remain idle. “They simply do nothing,” she says.
San Jose looks at it in a different way. “It’s a reclaiming of peace—with nature and everything around you, with yourself,” he says. “When you are here, you actually can listen to yourself.”
“Sitting on my favorite rattan chair that overlooks the open seas, or lying on the sand gazing at the stars, or walking by the beach when the tide is low to pick hermit crabs, or falling asleep in a hammock—these, for me, define what taking a break is,” San Jose says. “Away from the different to be in a different world.”
He gazes at the sea again as he loses himself for yet another moment. Then he smiles, more to himself. “Who knows, when I get tired of doing nothing, I may decide to go back to Spain,” he says. He admits though that he does not know when this will happen, adding that he certainly does not want to set a date yet.
Nuñez laughs every time she hears this. Asked why, she laughs even more, covering her mouth with her hand, as if embarrassed by her own laughter.
“Because whatever they say, they come back, they always come back,” she finally utters.
It isn’t hard to understand why.