I started backpacking in Bangkok where I met two German travellers that had recently returned from a month-long retreat to a surfer’s wet dream, Siargao Island in the Philippines. I drank up their recommendations as they spoke of an unspoiled countryside, glittering rock pools and beachfront parties. It was settled. I decided to visit this spectacular island for one week.
Well, one week turned into two and then two weeks turned into three and by the end of the month I nearly had to be dragged on the plane out of there.
Siargao is what I imagine the humble beginnings of Bali may have looked like before the Hard Rock Cafes, McDonalds and luxury resorts. White sandy beaches, palm trees blanketing the island like carpet and idyllic surf spots for beginners mounting their first boards to seasoned vets on 10-foot barrels. Visiting Siargao is like winding back the clock on one of today’s most renowned vacation destinations. Life on this island feels simple, yet significant.
Development is happening. There are construction projects underway and large beachfront properties with crooked real estate signs begging your attention: “Build your own resort!” There are westernized restaurants and bars and there are media outlets sinking their teeth into this scrumptious new “up-and-coming” location. But, Siargao is still a relatively small and untouched island. Drive your scooter 10 minutes outside of General Luna and you’ll find a road lined with lazy pigs sunbathing, modest villages and an unbelievable number of palm trees speckling the horizon in every direction.
One of the greatest offerings of Siargao are the people. The first day I arrived I marvelled at the people with long wind-tangled hair falling from dark to a shock of blonde, a sign that most of their days had been spent in the unforgiving sun. Their noses were coated in variations of colourful zinc and their feet were bare, hanging carelessly off scooters and grazing the side of a surfboard that bounced in its cradle. The people were adorned with shells and decorated in equal measure with reef cuts, carving patterns down their legs and feet. Best of all, no one seemed to mind. The feeling of this place was unadulterated, authentic and purely enjoyable. The friends I met were quick to smile and hard to upset, unless they were late to a particularly good surf session at Cemetery.
I stayed at a hostel Paglaom, translated to mean “hope”. This place was equally special and unassuming. I dodged potholes freshly filled with rain water and stopped in the parking lot to find a retired surfboard with the words Paglaom Hostel scrawled across the front in faded paint. After crossing the barrier into the grounds I was greeted by Paolo, the spirited employee who felt more like an essential glue of the hostel that bonded everyone together in an instantaneous family. People were reading worn out books in hammocks and curled up with cats on cushions tossed across the floor. I scanned the walls to find both fresh and faded paint in a rainbow of colours, they were quotes presumably left behind by people like me that had passed through and promised to come back someday.
There was something about that place, I didn’t find myself focussed on how big my bunk bed was, how many bathrooms were provided or how equipped the kitchen was. Everything just felt perfectly as it was meant to be and it felt like home. My first week went by. The days were long but the weeks were short and my immediate impression of Paglaom continued to hold true, this was my temporary home and my far away family. We would start the day early, applying SPF 50 and leaving our shoes packed away as we rolled to the beach. The afternoons were lazy and the evenings were either laid back or far from it, drinking rum and Cokes at a beachfront and ending the night drowned in the neon lights of Baile, the local club.
People don’t visit Siargao, they stay in Siargao. I met countless people who came back more than once a year. I could tell by their hungry tone that they would be back for more and longer, if only their life at home allowed. This place became more than a place to most, it became a feeling that you craved in the same way a smoker itches for that first cigarette. Everything will be alright once you inhale. Siargao was a deep inhale of salty air and the peaceful feeling that came rolling in right after. I’ve already found myself tracking flights to go back because even after checking out, you never really leave.