The mesmerizing video clips of Laswitan have been making the rounds in social media in the last few months. You know what I’m talking about—it’s these thunderous waves of water crashing against the craggy rocks filling up tidal pools with foamy seawater and soaking the tourists bathing in it. It’s a powerful epitome for the forces of nature, if you ask me.
It’s incredible to think that this magnificent scene was happening right in our backyard, and even more incredible to realize that I (and probably a good chunk of the local population) didn’t really know much about Surigao Sur. I was familiar with its northern namesake, of course — discovering Siargao two years ago had made it my new favorite local destination. But even the Enchanted River, arguably the province’s most famous landmark, is more associate with Surigao del Norte, a funny fact considering Surigao City was more than a five-hour drive away.
We live in an archipelago of 7,107 islands, so yes, it’s inevitable that some destinations don’t enter the common tourism spectrum of Boracay, Palawan, Bohol or even Cebu. But it bugged me that I had previously never heard much about this province that was just a short plane ride away from my hometown, and a quick Google search revealed that it had much to offer.
Off the bat, though, I realized that Surigao Sur was a place that you need to visit with a sense of adventure. Here, the tourism industry is just stretching its legs — flights to the capital city of Tandag were only three times a week, there isn’t much choice for accommodations, and moving from place to place involved drives that could be as quick as 30 minutes or as long as four hours (something that the oft-motion sick me didn’t much appreciate).
It didn’t come easy, to be sure. A lot of the places we’d visited in Surigao Sur presented naturally beautiful sights, but also a challenge that we had to surpass to really get there.
Tinuy-an Falls, for example, had gotten its name from the Bisaya word tuyo meaning with an intention — the only reason you’d be on the road to Tinuy-an is that you were on your way there. The rough road went up and down hills, before finally dipping into a valley where, even from the parking lot, you could hear the cacophany of falling water.
We were lucky enough to have been visiting in the middle of an incredibly rainy week, which meant the river was practically overflowing. The current was so strong that the volunteers at the site had to remove the wooden bridge that connected the entrance to the other side of the river—but because the overgrown playgrounds and picnic benches over there were more picturesque, we agreed to crossing. A wooden canoe looked like it would topple over quickly, so instead we go through the knee-deep water and the most forceful current ever.
A person slipping on the wet stones and one lost action cam later, we found ourselves on the other side, enjoying the refreshing mist created by the crashing water and the mostly untouched trees surrounding us.
This sort of delayed gratification was something that Surigao Sur had in spades. An early morning call time for island hopping in the Britania Group of Islands promised us a beautiful view of the sunrise over the open ocean, but being on the edge of the Philippine Sea made it feel like the waves would throw us overboard any minute. Even trying to dock was a challenge — the boat bobbed up and down against the sloping terrain of our first stop Hagonoy Island, and we eventually had to just leap down onto the sand.
Not that we were planning on complaining. The sun was slowly rising into the cloudy sky, casting the island’s three coconut trees into a dramatic light. After all the necessary photo ops, we retreated to Hiyor-Hiyoran Island for breakfast on seafood that had been caught just hours before.
The sea plays a very big role in Surigao Sur’s tourist offerings. In Lanuza, the beach scene is one of action — locals are constantly paddling out to meet the waves, learning to ride them at an early age. The vibe was a lot more laidback than that of Siargao, although a lot of foreigners are now frequenting the spot. In fact, the town is now host to the different international competitions, and the local Surf Camp offers packages that allow you to spend weeks at a time mastering the sport.
Although I had originally wanted to surf, it wasn’t exactly the best season to ride the waves — you had to ride a good distance out to get good swells, and I was much too content settling into the cottage on stilts we had rented out, listening to music and digging into the bag of cooked shellfish I’d bought at the local market. The afternoon was spent watching the more skilled surfers cruise the choppy seas — Debbie, our unofficial guide for the few days we were there, was the amazing surfer I hope to be one day.
A spot that I had tried to lower expectations for was the Enchanted River — it had garnered massive popularity for its beautifully colored, crystal-clear waters, and for the mystery of its seemingly bottomless caverns. I was honestly a little worried that the actual place wouldn’t live up to the hype.
Thankfully, I was wrong. We were lucky enough to have visited when swimming wasn’t allowed (and I’d recently read that swimming in the mouth of the river is now permanently prohibited), so there were no crowds to distract from the scenery. It looked like someone had turned the saturation up in the area, the lush greenery of the canyon framing the vivid blue hues that got darker as the water got deeper.
It’s unsurprising that people attach supernatural meaning to the place — even the fish were peculiar, traveling alone or in pairs while peering up at you intently from beneath the surface. No wonder they decided to call it enchanted.
Quite fittingly, our last stop for the trip was Laswitan, the very spot that had gotten me interested in Surigao Sur in the first place. Much like a lot of the places we visited, getting there took some time — from the highway, you had to take a narrow dirt road that snakes through farms and wooded areas before leading to a clearing that dropped into the water. From there, a steep staircase led to sea level, where helpful volunteers told us to sit in a cottage and wait.The waves hadn’t been as strong lately, they said, so maybe we’ll get luckier as the afternoon got later.
And wait, we did. February was the tail end of the stronger squalls and cold fronts, so the waves we saw only produced a light spray as it crashed onto the rock formations.
It’s interesting to note the sheer number of people who were there — social media had truly done its job. We’re told that people from other provinces drive for as much as five hours just to see the sight they’d seen online for themselves.
As the day got later, we had begun to resign ourselves to the fact that we might not be able to see a wave big enough to cause a massive splash. We were just talking about packing up when the sound of a steadily growing roar was building up from beyond the rocks, and a gust of water slammed into it, bringing an enormous gush into the tidal pools. Pretty soon, they come in regular intervals, making me think that somewhere, Mother Nature was thanking me for deciding to come.
Photography by Arnauld and Chester Baldicantos