Island Hopping & Surfing in the Philippines

My First Trip to Southeast Asia

Where to go, what to do, how do we do it? Im sure those words were used multiple times when the Philippines trip became an idea. We had to find a common ground between hiking and surfing, so a simple google search was done, and the Philippines picked out of a list of 10 destinations. A place that is new to both of us, my first trip to Southeast Asia, and a really long flight. The price alerts were set and the research began. The northern areas of Luzon and Banaue interested both of us. It was mountainous and lush. We could hike to some incredible views of the rice terraces, high summits, and spend a week doing it. Nope. The monsoon period rendered many trails dangerous, so we settled for some island hopping and surfing instead. We changed up our plans to reflect our new research. We were off to Bohol, Cebu, and Siargao. 3 islands that would give me a new perspective. 3 islands out of 7,107 islands. How many trips will it take to visit all of them?

We arrived in Manila late on a Friday. The first thing we needed was food. We asked the doormen, the taxi driver, and both said 7-11. I was quick to find out that Filipinos really enjoy 7-11 and that it is open 24 hours for food. You can get cups of noodles, warm Asado steamed buns, and a sim card. Yep. 7-11 was my first meal in the Philippines. Ramen noodles in a cup. It was epic after traveling for 22 hours straight, and so was the hot shower and comfortable bed. We put our legs vertically in the air for some relief of the flight. The next morning we are headed off to a photoshoot that I had arranged with a local photographer.

We met up with local photographer Mark Cruz (PHOTOS ABOVE) and his wife Michole at the National Museum of Natural History in Manila on Saturday morning.  The museum really felt like a smaller version of the Natural History Museum in New York City.  We ventured around the museum with Mark placing us in different spots throughout the session.  He used the elements of the building to create some very unique portraits, and at the same time I learned from the exhibits.  The Philippines have a very similar climate to Key West, Florida, so that means many of the same species of plants and animals of their ecosystem are the same as mine at home.  After the museum we headed off to lunch.  Mich and Mark took us to a SM Mall.  We dined at a place called Localvore, which served us some gastropub styled interpretations of local fare.  Things were starting off well on the taste palate. After lunch we attempted to take in a few more historical spots but the monsoon kicked in and gave us rain.  We still were able to capture a few images with the children of Intramuros playing in the rain.  We scrapped our ideas and headed for some Filipino coffee.  We ended up at a local spot called Habitual.  A nice little spot hidden off the road with a Crossfit gym next door.  Western culture has definitely set into metro Manila.

Sunday morning we grabbed some coffee, ordered a Grab(Filipino version of Uber), and we were off to the Manila Airport domestic terminal (oh it’s interesting) for a flight to Cebu.  Our first island stop.  From there we would hop on a ferry to Bohol, where we would spend two nights at an amazing AirBnb on the side of one of the hilltops.  The host of the AirBnb Eliza, and her driver Pedro, picked us up from the ferry terminal.  We wound around the winding roads of Tagbilaran on our way to Dimiao.  Fishing boats littered the waterfronts that were adjacent to the road.   I got my first taste of the driving and transportation of the Philippines.  3-4 on a motor bike, stand wherever is free on a Jeepney, and the use of a car horn.  The Filipino drivers always honk as they are about to pass you.  An early show of respect towards others, something I put together at the end of my trip.  We settled in for dinner, a view, and some much needed rest.

We woke up the next morning to breakfast prepared by the host Eliza and Di-Ding.  Eliza was our guide for the day, so we jumped in the truck with her and Pedro. That day we hiked in the Chocolate Hills, saw the man-made Mahogany forest, the Tarsier monkeys of Bohol, and had an amazing riverboat lunch on the Lubok river.  The river cruise was a perfect end to a day of exploring.  The food was delicious and came along with great service. Noodles, seafood, pork, vegetables, rice, etc etc.  As we floated downstream we were greeted with smiles from the shorelines, locals swinging from trees, and kids swimming and enjoying the water.  I began to really notice the amount of children who played in the water.  The joy it brought them.  I realized that in my short stay so far of 4 days in the Philippines everyone is smiling. Genuine smiles.  I was in a country full of  people who showed true feelings of happiness and joy.

From Bohol we headed back to Cebu City via Oceanjet ferry.  Our awesome driver Noli picked us up and we departed south to Moalboal.  Noli was a Cebu local who drives to Moalboal every day and runs a car service.  He rents the car, organizes trips with AirBnB hosts, and was such a delight to have as our driver.  Super friendly, knowledgeable, and was so easy to converse with.  He made a pit stop for some of his favorite Chicharon’s in Cebu.  I was super excited, Irie not so much.  We found her fruit instead.   We arrived in Moalboal late that same evening.  The next morning we were to hike Osmena Peak, Cebu’s highest peak.  We were meeting Jing of the Cebu Highlands Project. He was to be our guide for the day, and also was the architect of the Cebu trail system.

Jing met us at our rental with our transport.  A motorcycle with a fabricated side car with plywood for seats.  At first I was a bit nervous at first, but it provided a great experience.  A couple tricycle rides and we were at the trailhead.  It’s not a marked trail head like we have in the states.  It’s more of an access point to some 150 year old farming trails, of which he stitched together to create a trail.  If you plan to hike in Cebu, make sure its with a local guide.  Without Jing we would still be lost in the mountains with the goats.

It was rugged and not what I was expecting.  Many times I questioned if I would make the entire trek.  It seemed to never end.  This presented us with a good amount of time to learn about Jing and his trekking experiences.  Jing grew up learning bushcraft, what many of us call survival skills.  He would show us different plants, tell us what not to touch, and gave us history of his life and trekking in the Philippines.   Super knowledgeable and informative.  It really made the hike more authentic.   You started to get a sense of what people do in the region.  How they farmed; why there were full bball concrete courts (Filipinos love basketball) in remote mountain top villages; the daily walk to and from school.   One of the coolest views in Cebu.  12.5 miles well worth it.

That night we went out to Panagsama Beach for dinner. We found a nice little spot to slam some pasta, and met a cool couple from Denver. They are traveling Southeast Asia for a year, and you can follow their travels on Instagram @dessertandadventure. At the time of this writing they are finishing up their second week in Bali. Talk about an epic honeymoon!

Our last day in Moalboal was to go on an diving excursion. We headed out with some primitive dive gear, some peanut butter sandwiches, and lots of fruit. I think we always had about half a kilo of fruit in our bags no matter where we went. It was our daily fuel and snack. We got lucky on our trip and had our own boat that day. Our guides were the Ocean Brothers: Gerald, Jasper and Junil. First stop was Pescador Island. An amazing limestone rock island, with a reef that was alive. It extends out about 25 feet then dropped down to 236ft. The first thing we noticed was the ease of diving. I could get deeper faster than I can in the waters off the Keys. I wondered why, but then found out it was due to the salt content. Less salt in the water made you less buoyant.

There was life everywhere in the water. Parrot fish, tuna, grouper, eels, dolphins, blue starfish, and turtles. Each dive spot we stopped at was alive with coral life and animals. It was the first time in my life seeing a reef so alive. Irie also got her wish to swim with turtles. A completely epic day!

Moalboal treated us so nice. The waters and views were exactly what we wanted. We left on a rainy morning with a pit stop at Kawasan Falls. Many people go canyoneering there, and it’s something I will do on my return trip. I definitely would like to do some more freediving in those waters. It was very clean, and there was life. I hope that it stays somewhat protected by the local government, and is not exploited to the point that it’s no longer. We departed back to Cebu for our flight to Siargao. Noli stopped along the way for some grilled rice cakes, which hit the spot on a rainy morning. It was awesome to have him introduce us to food items that were regional. It was a quick trip but my taste buds were happy. Tomorrow we are off to Siargao. The surf report is looking solid. I’m a little nervous.

When we arrived in Siargao the swell was just starting to show. Chest high waves at sunset, but the buzz was all around town. We settled into our camp at Buddhas Siargao. They have an awesome Thai restaurant on property, so dinner was close and relaxing. Our surf guides met up with us at dinner. We talked about what breaks would do what we were looking for, and planned our first day. We met up at 7am that next morning. We hopped on the motorbikes and rode towards the boat launch. Pulling up we could hear the power of the swell. A typhoon was sending us swell. Big! Big! sections, and many unmakeable waves. We made our call and headed to a more mellow break for the first day. We boarded our boat, and headed to the break. Big waves with a mellow shoulder. Perfect warm up waves.

That was the plan each day. It was always a game time call for waves. Surfing in Siargao was some of the best waves I have surfed in my life. Next year maybe I will surf there for a month. It’s easy to do, the people are awesome, and the waves world class. There are also some talented photographers on the island too. I met up with local photographer Yann Gilbert one evening for some shots from the water. It was fun to be on that side of the lens enjoying another one of my passions.

Our last three days on Siargao Island were full of excursions. We headed north one day with some friends we had met a few nights earlier at dinner. We all rented a car and drove from General Luna to Alegria Beach. After a few wrong turns we made it to Alegria Beach. White sand and nobody for miles. We ordered lunch from the bbq stand at the beach. We ordered what is called a Boodle Fight. Rice, noodles, fish, roasted chicken (from the next town over), vegetables, and fruit all placed on a large banana leaf. Best part is that you get to eat with your hands, and the chicken is roasted fresh from the next town over. When we ran into some car troubles after lunch, but luckily the locals were so helpful. The restaurant owner and her husband borrowed a van and drove the five of us back to General Luna. Just another show of hospitality and care by the Filipino people. One thing that always stuck out to me, was the willingness and care that the Filipino people showed to foreigners. They always tried to help you as much as they possibly could.

We signed up for the island hopping excursion through our resort. A full day of outrigger boat trips to islands for some fun and sun. We explored Daku Island, Naked Island, and Guyam Island. At Daku we had another Boodle Fight for lunch. That seems to be the big celebratory meal for friends. We enjoyed our food under the sun shelter of our beach hut. It was a super relaxing day, and it was great to spend it with Gareth and Andy who were also staying at our resort.

For our last full day in Siargao we organized our own trip to the Magpupungko Rock Pools. Janna, the concierge at our resort, found another couple from a different resort who wanted to go, and had a van to pick us up that morning. After a quick surf we devoured some breakfast and were off on another excursion. We loaded up and drove down the same road we had been 2 days prior. We found 2 locations that I had been researching for some photos, and made our first stop at the Tayanbang Caves. I left the cameras in the van but wish I had them with me. You traverse through some caves and then end up at a lagoon where you can jump 30 ft off the rock sides into a pool that’s about 12 feet deep. Refreshing fresh water first thing in the morning. After the caves we headed to the rock pools and relaxed in the limestone tidal pools. I think I must of made it into 100 instagram selfie posts. Many people would show up, pay the admission, take a selfie, then leave. What have we come to as a world society?

The saying goes that all good things come to an end. To me that just meant that my vacation was over, but I know I will return. I cried as we drove away in the van on our way to the Siargao airport. I didn’t want to leave. I had created friendships with other foreigners and the locals. I felt like I was a part of a community, a culture, a new way of life. I didn’t just feel this way in Siargao, but everywhere we went in the Philippines. People would just smile, wave, and start talking to you. If someone did that here in the states, people would automatically label them a creep, a sketchy dude, or think that person was trying to get something from them. It was another reason I didn’t want to come home.

I had spent 3 weeks in a country where I didn’t hear a complaint once. People with nothing were happier than the people with everything. Life was simple. Nobody was chasing the next big thing, other than the waves each day. People were not impressed with the car you drove. They were impressed by how genuine of a person you were. The people of the Philippines should be the model citizens of the world in my opinion.

When you travel you should always learn something. If your going to a destination just to take selfies for your Instagram/Facebook, because you have seen others do so, rethink why you are traveling. You’re probably rolling your eyes as you read this, but it’s true. Travel is supposed to open your eyes to other cultures, in hopes that you can form a better understanding of how we should all coexist. You should take certain things from each culture and add them into your day-to-day. It’s what the REAL Human Family is all about. Immerse yourself in a foreign culture!

You can find yourself in a country that your government says is too dangerous to go to (i came back alive didn’t I?). You can find yourself in a culture that your supposed to be watching out for kidnappers (didn’t see a single one) rather than enjoying the experience. Instead, when you are kind, sincere, open your eyes, have a clear mind and show respect to others amazing things happen. You create this learning experience that brings you back a better person than you were before you left. You realize that all the crap you complain about doesn’t matter. You realize that all of your priorities are in the wrong place and you’re always chasing something. You realize that happiness is way easier than you thought. You realize the amount you can learn from others, rather than trying to tell them how you should be. You grow! To the Philippines I say SALAMAT!!!! I will see you soon!

A big thank you to Michole, Mark, Eliza, D-Ding, Pedro, Noli, Lisa, Gerald, Jasper, Junil, Jing, Katy, Janna, Kelvin, Faina, John John, Danny, Stephanie, Karina, Moshiko, Eunice, Gareth, Andy, and Joy for every part you added to our trip. A massive thanks to my amazing girlfriend as well. She put up with me for 2 REALLY long flights, and 3 weeks traveling. That is enough to win some type of award!