Some of you may be wondering where we’ve been for the past two months. Detained in a prison in Thailand? Lost at sea somewhere off the coast of Vietnam? Hiding out on a tropical island full of coconut trees and surfers?
Our last month of travel (Yes, the last – for now! Sadly, I write this from New Jersey.) was spent on one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippines. Siargao (pronounced Shar-gow) is a small teardrop shaped island packed with coconut trees and surrounded by amazing surfing waves. It’s an off-the-beaten-path destination for international and Filipino surfers that’s definitely up-and-coming. It’s developing fast as the Filipino government is pushing tourism, even designating the year 2015 as “Visit the Philippines Year.”
We decided to swing by Siargao for a month to see our friends George and Liz before heading back to the USA. They’ve been traveling for six years (yes, you read that correctly. Six years!) and decided to spend six months in Siargao to decompress. Even long-term travelers get stressed-out!
Believe it or not, Todd had to drag me to this island paradise kicking and screaming. I was feeling a bit homesick and my mom just had knee surgery so I was anxious to get home to see her. Plus it would take us four flights over two days to get to Siargao so I wasn’t too jazzed. We traveled from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Bangkok, Thailand; flew over night to Manila, Philippines then to Cebu, Philippines early in the morning. We had to spend one day in Cebu to catch the once-daily flight to Siargao the next day.
When our tiny plane touched down on the runway in Siargao, I was in love. The airport doesn’t have any gates and it’s about the size of a medium-sized house. Surrounding the runway, as far as the eye could see, were coconut trees. I had a sinking feeling that one month just wouldn’t be enough and was soon regretting the homebound flights we’d already booked.
As George and Liz were searching for their own house to rent, they found us a little beachfront bungalow, a stone’s throw from one of the beginner surfing beaches on the island. Made of bamboo with a thatch roof and covered porch, the wind and sound of the waves flowed in and out, bringing peace and relaxation.
Every day, local kids would visit our little beach bungalow, climb trees and pick coconuts for us. Every morning, we hacked a coconut open with a machete and drank the sweet coconut water. A family of stray dogs – a momma and her three puppies – visited us and eventually began living on our front porch. We spent hours playing with them, feeding and grooming them – they became our pets and brought us so much happiness (and we found them homes before we left).
Our lazy days were spent learning to surf on bright blue long boards and touring the island on our rented Honda 125cc motorcycle. We’d ride through lush green hills and coconut tree filled mountains, stopping along the way to swim in the crystal clear and turquoise ocean. As we passed through villages during our long drives around the island, children and adults excitedly waved to us. Although there are a lot of foreigners in Siargao, there are few enough that spotting two on a motorcycle is still a novelty to the villagers.
The islanders are mostly farmers. Acres and acres of coconut groves yield families enough money to buy rice and other staples. They raise pigs and chickens for food, plant gardens full of vegetables and pick fresh tree fruit such as banana, mango and papaya. Flat land in the valleys between mountains is used to grow rice. During the two harvest seasons a year, farmers lay rice on the roads for drying forcing motorcycles and cars to cautiously ride in the center of the island’s already narrow roads.
At night, we’d meet up with our friends – both tourists and locals – at one of the many bars and restaurants in town. It’s a small, tight-knit community of foreigners and locals living in Siargao so nights out were often saturated with alcohol, dancing and singing. Each night of the week brought a different vibe: acoustic open-mic nights, karaoke bars, loungy tapas bars and crazy techno clubs in the middle of the jungle. It was kind of like a boozy summer camp.
I was truly inspired by the people I met on the island. Foreign and Filipino entrepreneurs owned restaurants, bakeries, hotels and surf shops. There are people crafting custom-made surfboards, coconut oil and natural skin care products, professional documentarians filming movies about professional surfers, artists of all mediums and hard-working locals providing services to visitors. This tiny island brought together so many talented people from countries all over the world – a utopic United Nations.
Now that you’ve read this, you probably want to go to Siargao. I don’t blame you, it’s a beautiful place. However, the island is basically one giant reef, so going for a dip in the ocean can be dangerous and reef cuts are difficult to heal (they often become infected by bacteria). There aren’t any wide beaches full of Piña Colada-drinking sunbathers either. Public transportation is hopping on the back of a motorcycle so if you’re afraid of two wheels, you’ll miss seeing the amazing beauty here. The island has also been having a bit of a crime problem with break-ins happening on a regular basis so leave precious valuables at home.
If you’ve got an adventurous spirit, love surfing (or want to learn), enjoy low-key days and wild nights, want to meet super-friendly people and truly want to get away from it all: Siargao may be for you. Just take my advice: book a one-way flight there because you may not want to leave!