Originally published in What’s On, Nov. 2-15, 1992 & Sept. 5-18, 1994; and reprinted in What’s On in Visayas-Mindanao, June 1996
Not many people have heard of Surigao. Nonetheless, the number of local and foreign tourists who troop to the city is steadily increasing every year. Its sites and attractions remain to be one of the best kept secrets where unspoiled islands and beach hideaways are concerned. Still, enthusiastic endorsements by word-of-mouth have already reached as far as the U.S., France, Germany, England, Australia and Japan.
Many foreign tourists who have gone there have heard of Surigao only through friends. Most are regulars who frequent the beaches yearly, staying for weeks, months even, on each visit. Like satisfied customers who can’t get enough in one visit, they always come back. Hooked to the rural charms of the city whose 17 islands and its surrounding waters beckon to be experienced repeatedly.
Surigao City, gateway to Mindanao and home of some 100,000 inhabitants, is located in the northeastern tip of Mindanao, in the province of Surigao del Norte. From Cebu City, it can be reached by a 45-minute flight via Philippine Airlines five days weekly; by a 12-hour overnight boat trip which departs every evening on weekdays. From the mainland there are motor launches playing the major island barangays daily.
Once in Surigao, adventure-seekers and beach lovers who have only heard of Boracay and Dakak will be surprised to see the wonders of this small city. The truly remarkable sites and attractions are as diverse as the topography of the islands and islets. Most of the activities to be enjoyed while there appropriately begin with a capital S.
For such a small area, Surigao’s islands have the most varied and fascinating shorelines and beaches imaginable. The current favorite is the 27-mile long white sugar-fine sand strip of Gen. Luna, Siargao Island. Others, like Basul Island and Sagisi Beach in Brgy. San Jose are fringed with cream colored coarse sand. The shores of Danawan Islad are richly adorned with colorful seashells sprinkled with coral bits and pieces.
Unique in its own way is the municipality of Pilar, also on Siargao Island. Its beach is situated in a cove facing the Pacific, surrounded by limestone and granite sculptures. At low tide its pockmarked limestone floors reveal pools of assorted shapes and sizes.
SNORKELING & SCUBA DIVING
Some islets hardly have any sand at all; only boulders and rocky beaches where marine life flourish. In clear shallow waters a diving mask will easily reveal starfishes, sea urchins, mollusks, crabs and schools of fish in various shapes, colors and sizes.
The Zaragoza rock formation in Sibale Island has a one-hectare beach park of dagger-shaped structures as high as 20-feet arising from waist-deep crystal clear waters. Nearby are two white-sand beaches and an underwater maze of rock and coral formation favored by scuba divers.
Marlins, tuna, groupers, crabs … even squids, rays and octopuses can be bought fresh and cheap from the fish vendors and fishermen. Many who have tried game-fishing and spear-fishing were not disappointed by the bountiful seas of Surigao. Game-fishing competitions are held every August along the city’s coastal waters.
Part of the fun is island-hopping using any of the available modes of sea transport: motor launches or bancas fitted with sack-cloth sails. A handful of habitues who like to stay for months have their own sailboats built here. Yachts usually operated by Australians are not an unusual sight in Surigao either. There are also a few catamarans and kayaks for rent.
During summer the waters off Gen. Luna is colorfully dotted with sailboats and sailbancas, especially during its fiesta celebration when the GL annual regatta or sailboat race is held. The coast is conveniently fenced in by several miles of reefs. This natural barrier keeps the inlet waters placid even during bad weather. At high tide only the giant waves from the Pacific can be heard and seen. At low tide, when the reefs are exposed, people can leisurely wade amidst its shallow waters.
Surigao also has several caves and tunnels in its islands. Some are submerged in water most of the time. Such is the Suhoton Cave at Bucas Grande Island. Others, like the Silop Cave in the mainland are cathedral-like caverns glowing with luminescent spires of stalactites and stalagmites. The Buenavista Cave in Hikdop Island has three tunnels leading to a cavernous tunnel three kilometers long. It has a knee-deep pool inside and a palatial chamber replete with a “king’s throne.” The Suy-ang Cave in Quezon, Dinagat with its high Gothic interior is another must-see for cave explorers. The mainland caves of Mapawa are actually a labyrinth of several caves interconnected by tunnels and hallways.
Surigao’s bigger islands are usually mountainous and rich in minerals as well. Nonoc Island has one of the world’s largest deposits of nickel, while Dinagat Island has major reserves of chromite. The smaller ones either rest on sand and gravel, or have a limestone base bounded by boulders, reefs and sandbars.
Some islets like those in Del Carmen, Siargao are actually nothing more than a cluster of rock formations jutting out from the sea crowned with shrubs and coconut trees. Sculptured by the wind and water, some are as big as and even look like ships. Rock formations in San Roque and Hagakhak in Dinagat resemble a melting candle, a duck and an eagle.
There are also springs, lagoons, coves, waterfalls, mangrove forests and whirlpools which make Surigao more appealing to all nature lovers. The more popular waterfalls are those of Sta. Monica in Siargao, and the 70-ft. Buyho Falls in Brgy. San Jose, Bayagnan Island.
On the same island is the whistling whirlpool of Bitaugan, an awesome maelstrom that appears and disappears at intervals accompanied by a distinct whistling rumbling sound. Visible only during low tide, the whirlpool has been known to suck bancas although it is only 10 meters from the shore.
Needless to say, outdoor photographers will have a grand time in Surigao’s marvelous settings. For everyone else, a vacation in any of these islands is nothing less than an exhilarating break from life in the city. It is communing with nature minus the comforts of modern living.
Only the major island barangays have electricity, and in most cases, only enough to light their homes. Water is obtained from springs and wells. There are no telephones, restaurants, supermarkets or hotels except in the mainland. Fishermen and scuba divers will have to bring their own equipment.
Thanks to the efforts of local government officials and some enterprising Surigaonons, the major tourist destinations like Gen. Luna at Siargao Island, Zaragosa at Sibale Island and Bgy. San Jose in Bayagnan Island can already accommodate out-of-town guests. There are modest nipa huts in GL which can be rented for P50 per person a night. The city’s Tourism Assistance Center operates a tourist cottage in both Zaragosa and San Jose. This is a house by the sea which can be rented for P300 per night. It has two bedrooms, a toilet and bathroom, a kitchen and living room.
The TAC is likewise offering guided tours to the above-mentioned places as well as to the Suhoton Cave in Bucas Grande Island, Buenavista Cave in Hikdop Island and the Marinduque Nickle Mine and Refinery in Nonoc Island. The average cost of a day tour package is P500 per person covering meals and transportation.
Still, the more adventurous tourists prefer to camp and spend the night sleeping on the sand or rocks on parts of the islands and islets which are uninhabited.
Surigao’s vacation spots are not commercially developed yet; but then, nobody is really complaining. And so it shall remain to be a special hideaway of rustic charms and beauty.
* This article was written in 1992, details about rates, transportation and accommodations have changed since then