Travel

A First-Timer Went to Siargao in the Middle of the Pandemic. Here's What He Found

One can dream.
IMAGE CYRIAN AGUJO
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By now, most of us have reconciled with the fact that we won’t be traveling anytime soon, at least not anywhere far. Out-of-town vacations? Yeah, let’s move that next year, or the year after even. But by some fortunate coalescence of events, I managed to go on a vacation in the middle of all the chaos. To one of my dream destinations, no less—Siargao.  

Why Siargao? Personally, it was simple. I’ve never been there, ever. I’ve lusted over its serene beaches and longed to surf its world-class waves for more than a decade. Who wouldn’t? This small island of about 200,000 residents in the province of Surigao Del Norte is as good as it gets if you’re after the best of what nature has to offer. 

Not impressed? It bested Boracay and Palawan in 2019, when it was voted the best island in the world by readers of renowned travel publication Conde Nast Traveler.  

Photo by GISELLE CRUZ
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Siargao travel requirements during the pandemic

It also made sense to travel now since it’s guaranteed to have way fewer tourists, though sadly, that’s true not only in Siargao. The tourism industry is one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. Almost all its sub-sectors such as travel agencies and reservations, entertainment, and accommodations have suffered an average decline of 80 percent in 2020 compared to the year prior.  

That’s why in early 2021, the Department of Tourism launched campaigns such as the “Balikan ang Pilpinas” meant to encourage balikbayans to travel to the Philippines instead of abroad. DOT also announced a whopping P6-billion budget for loans and encouraged domestic travel, albeit within the safety guidelines laid out by the government. 

Those safety guidelines, my girlfriend and I reckoned, were going to be the real challenge of our trip.* 

First, travel documents. The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) has its guidelines but as we’ve come to expect with our government’s mashup of a pandemic response, each municipality can still implement their own. We found Siargao’s requirements in the Siargao Tourism Assistance Center Facebook page. 

At the time (July) these were the requirements:

  •     A negative RT-PCR test
  •     Confirmed booking with a DOT – accredited hotel or resort
  •     ID
  •     e-Health Pass (LGU-mandated registration through website or mobile app)
  •     Traze app (DOTr-mandated registration system)

Pro tip: Wherever you’re headed, look for that LGU’s Facebook page. It’s often more updated than their official website. 

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We looked for the most affordable, government-accredited RT-PCR testing facility and found out that the Tourism Promotions Board subsidizes testing for leisure travel. We registered through the TPB website, followed the instructions, and ended up paying only P750 per person. 

From Manila, our flight had a stopover in Cebu. Safety protocols were expectedly strict in NAIA 3, but the entire experience was mostly similar to pre-pandemic days, albeit with fewer people. 

But it was a different story in Mactan-Cebu International Airport. We arrived early morning and there was only one dine-in restaurant open, and almost all shopping/pasalubong stores were closed.  

Protocols were also strict in Sayak Airport in Surigao Del Norte, where we had to fill out at least four different declaration forms before we could leave the airport. No matter, as we were willing to go through them all for a slice of paradise. 

Photo by Cyrian Agujo.

The dream that is Siargao

We can only truly appreciate something once it’s taken away from us, or so goes the saying. And breathing fresh, provincial air (while still wearing masks, of course) after being stuck in Metro Manila for more than a year is really something else.  

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Siargao’s roads, lined with coconut trees and lush forests, certainly evoked that typical provincial vibe we’ve been sorely missing. 

Alas, we didn’t go to Siargao just for the forest or trees. Less than an hour from the airport is the town of General Luna, where Siargao’s most famous attraction is located: Cloud 9. 

Photo by Cyrian Agujo.

On the way to Cloud 9 you’ll pass by the main road of General Luna where you’ll find all the main restaurants, cafes, and pasalubong centers. While most of them are still open, you’d be hard-pressed to find one that has more than a few visitors, with most of them being vacant. 

Going through the entrance to Cloud 9, one would think that the tourism industry here is doing fine, with throngs of people scattered about. But you’ll quickly realize that most of them are locals, not tourists.            

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Surfing instructors will swarm you upon arrival, all of them eager to get what would most likely be their first customer of the day. If you’re lucky, you’ll even chance upon a champion surfer as your coach, as we did. 

While it feels great to have a champion instructor, we also can’t help but think that under normal circumstances, he would’ve been training for a competition instead. 

Photo by Cyrian Agujo.

One good thing though is that with fewer tourists, it’s easy to appreciate Cloud 9 for what it is—one of the top surfing spots not only in the Philippines, but in the world. There are waves even in July, and no matter your skill level, there’s a surfing spot for you. 

Oh, and we also didn’t see any trash or litter. 

To those who prefer sunbathing instead of surfing, you can go island hopping to spots like the Naked Island, which gets its name from a lack of any physical structure, not from what you might expect. Its waters are as clear as any top shelf Palawan island, with fine white sand to boot. 

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Photo by GISELLE CRUZ.

But we realized that the beaches or surfing isn’t the only highlight of Siargao. In the middle of our five-day trip, we also went to Sugba Lagoon. What is it, you ask? Well, just look at the photos: 

Photo by Cyrian Agujo.

Photo by Cyrian Agujo.
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To reach the lagoon, you’ll have to take a 40-minute tricycle ride from General Luna to the town of Del Carmen and another 30-minute boat ride. But it’s worth the ride. We were greeted with one of the clearest bodies of water I’ve seen. It’s so clear, you can literally see shadows of boats in the water.  

Just like in Cloud 9, everything looks normal at first glance. That’s until you realize that the dozen or so people on the lagoon platform are all workers and tourist guides. We were literally the only tourists at the time.  

“Before the pandemic, there can be as much as 500 guests here in any given morning,” said one of the workers. “Now, we’re lucky if we get a few visitors a day.”  

Photo by Cyrian Agujo.

If you fancy more spelunking than swimming, there’s also the Tayangban Cave Pool. Less than an hour away from General Luna, you’d be wading through a deep and dark passage just below the surface. Think Palawan’s Underground River, but on foot instead of on a boat.  

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The experience can be completed in around 30 minutes, but it’ll certainly take you more than an hour because one doesn’t go to places like this and not take photos. It’s worth it in the end, though, because you’ll be greeted by this magical natural pool:

Photo by GISELLE CRUZ.

 

Photo by Cyrian Agujo.
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Photo by GISELLE CRUZ.

Just like in Sugba Lagoon, we were the only ones there. 

“We would take groups of 15 or more down the cave, and there would be several guides at the same time,” our guide tells us. “Now, it’s after lunch and you’re my first customer.” 

The pandemic effect

We were amazed by the many activities and locations Siargao offers aside from its famed surfing spots, but the accommodation options were another pleasant surprise. Compared to other tourist destinations like Boracay, room rates were, on average, 30 to 50 percent cheaper.

“All the resorts here in Siargao had to find ways to be creative with our pricing and promos,” says Kris Lagura, operations manager at Mango Tree Siargao, where we stayed during our trip. “It’s a real challenge inviting tourists over while there’s a pandemic.” 

Photo by Cyrian Agujo.
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Photo by Cyrian Agujo.

Photo by Cyrian Agujo.

Mango Tree, for its part, also had to implement strict health and safety protocols not only for their guests, but also for their employees. Upon arrival, we had to fill out declaration forms and sanitize our hands and shoes. Every employee wore a mask. 

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Even inside the gorgeous, two-floor family villa we stayed in, extra care was taken to make sure guests are as safe as possible from COVID-19. There were free sanitation kits on both floors, and employees had limited access to the villa itself.  

“All our employees are tested every week but even then, we can only serve food outside the villa. We had to adjust our usual way of giving service to clients,” Lagura adds. 

Photo by Cyrian Agujo.

Photo by Cyrian Agujo.
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Photo by Cyrian Agujo.

Not that it detracted from our stay in Mango Tree. How can it when you’re staying in a place that doesn’t have one ugly corner? Every portion of the villa was meticulously designed, from the huge living room to the infinity pool.  

To say that this is one of, if not the best designed resort villa I’ve stayed in so far, would not be farfetched. 

“There are four owners and two of them are really into architecture and interior design, so they wanted a resort that doesn’t just offer privacy and exclusivity, but also the best visual appeal,” shares Lagura.  

Photo by Cyrian Agujo.
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It’s certainly among the higher-end resorts in Siargao, and it’s a wonder Mango Tree has survived, considering they just opened a few months before the pandemic began. The management has managed to keep all its employees, albeit with less work shifts. 

“We’re really thankful for the owners. They could’ve easily closed shop but they decided to keep the resort running and all its employees. They even have plans to expand the resort from our current two villas,” beams Lagura. 

Bittersweet trip

Our trip to one of my dream destinations proved to be just that—like a dream. Siargao is certainly way more than just a surfing destination, and there are lots more cool places we didn’t even get to visit during our short stay. 

Fortunate as we were to squeeze in a vacation, I can’t help but feel the difference this pandemic has made to traveling. Smiles have been reduced to knowing looks, laughs are muffled by masks. Handshakes have been replaced by fist bumps, thank yous are now just nods. 

Photo by Cyrian Agujo.
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Photo by Cyrian Agujo.

Even a paradise like Siargao just doesn’t have the same island energy we’re accustomed to in such a place (literally, because most establishments are closed by 8 p.m.)

Traveling during a pandemic, I found out, is bittersweet. It offers us a glimpse of how having fewer people can let tourist destinations like Siargao heal and regain its lost wonder, but it also makes us realize just how many people depend on tourism for both their livelihood and their lives. One can only hope that when the pandemic finally ends, we’ve all learned how to be better and more responsible travelers. 

*Editor's Note: This trip happened in July, when travel restrictions were more relaxed. Leisure travel from Metro Manila is not allowed during ECQ (enhanced community quarantine).

 

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