Among the 7,107 islands that make up the Philippines you will find no shortage of water activities. From island hopping to diving to my personal favorite, surfing. In the ten years that I have lived here, I’ve had the chance to explore many different provinces. Ultimately I find myself gravitating towards the surf towns. My favorite part about these surf towns is how laid back everything is. The locals are welcoming and reflect the lifestyle so well. Your baristas will be showing off a glowing tan that can only be the result of spending hours surfing. In fact, a little after lunch you will see most establishments close up shop and hang a sign that says, “Surf break, will be back later!”
A lot of you might be interested in surfing but wonder if it’s a sport that you have to be trained for. Not to worry, I’ll be sharing options for any surf level. Here in the Philippines you can hire an instructor, or “Kuya” as the young men are called. Not only will they teach you the proper form and safety precautions but they’ll be with you every step of the way. During my first time, I was a little scared to be out in the water alone. When you’re with an instructor he’ll help you paddle out and then tell you the exact time to stand on the board so that you can catch a wave. If that’s not enough help, they’ll even go get your board for you when you wipe out. At what price you ask? Surf instructors on most beaches can be hired for about 7USD (or 350 Philippine Pesos) per hour. Just make sure that they have the proper certification and come from respectable establishments. Now on to the main event, the top 5 surf towns in the Philippines.
Before surfing became a trendy weekend trip for millennials, there was Pagudpud. Pagudpud is a small town on the north side of Luzon, one of the main islands of the Philippines. If you’re up for a road trip you can get there in 8 hours from Manila. But if time is of the essence, you can take an hour flight there. Growing up, it was one of the first places we visited here. It’s not as commercialized as other islands in the Philippines. I would say it’s a budget friendly place where you get what you pay for.
The town is most known for Saud Beach, a long stretch of budget hotels. But the real gem is Blue Lagoon Beach, a quieter spot not filled with tourists. I definitely recommend this place if you’re not too fussy about accommodations and just want to enjoy some good waves. The level of of waves are for beginners, especially during summer time when the tide can be quite low. It’s relaxing and away from the bustle of the city. You’ll be charmed by the sparkling blue waters. A great plus is that you won’t find any rowdy college students here. Pagudpud is also a great launching point to explore the region of Ilocos North which is popular for its old Spanish towns. A popular one is Vigan. So if you’re ever in the area, catch some waves at the Blue Lagoon Beach and then make some time to explore the old cobblestone streets of Vigan.
Second on my list is Zambales, another town that can be found on the island of Luzon. It’s a smaller location but rising on the bucket lists of many young travelers. Mostly because of the affordability and variety of activities available. It’s a 4 hour bus ride from Manila or 3 hours from Clark, where the country’s second international airport is located. While Zambales was originally known as a surfing location, it has also made a name for itself as a prime glamping spot.
What’s great about Zambales is that there are many beautiful coves that have been transformed into camping spots. You pay a small fee, usually per person, and then you can pitch your tent there. That will give you access to their restrooms and water resources. A few friends and I drove down one long weekend. It was a different experience for us since it was our first time camping. I would recommend staying in a cove versus one of the smaller islands if it’s your first time. The reason being that if you are staying at a cove, you are closer to the town centers. If you have a car it’s just a quick drive to the nearest store but if not, you can take a local tricycle for about 1USD (or 50 Philippine Pesos). If camping isn’t for you then you can always stay right where the action is, Crystal Beach Resort. Named one of the best places for surfing, it certainly lives up the reputation. It’s a great option for accommodations but fills up pretty fast. So if you find that it is fully booked, rest assured that you can still visit during the day. You can rent out a bamboo hut for your group and set up there. They also have their own surfing instructors to insure you are well taken care of. A lot of beginner to mid-level surfers venture out to Crystal Beach Resort because you can surf all year round. Another spot that is well known is Liwa Liwa Beach. While many know about it, you will find that it isn’t as crowded just because it’s a little off the beaten path. All in all, Zambales is a great place to go with a group for some surfing and camping.
Up next is Baler. One of the most popular destinations because of the variety of accommodations available. Whether you’re on a backpackers budget or are willing to splurge on a beautiful boutique hotel, Baler has it all. Baler is a 5 hour drive from Manila but might feel a little longer because of the uphill and winding roads leading to it. What really sets it apart for me is that such a small town is so rich in history and activities. You can surf, visit a nearby waterfall, and tour the local museum, all in a day (if you’re an early riser that is.) The people are welcoming and the town is easy to navigate, even for a first timer.
One of the most popular resorts there is Costa Pacifica. You can enjoy their beach front view front the lovely infinity pool. You get clean and comfortable rooms and their restaurant is one of the town’s most popular. If you’re looking for a more budget friendly option, there is always Circle Hostel. It’s a popular chain of hostels here in the Philippines with beds starting at 20USD (1,000 Philippine Pesos). It’s a great place to meet new people since they often have community yoga classes or night time mixers.
My absolute favorite from this list: La Union. Hailed as the ‘surf capital of the north’, this little town has made quite a name for itself, especially among young people. It’s a 6 hour bus ride from Manila. Most people leave around 6 am, so they can arrive to a good lunch and just around check in time. What makes La Union different from the other towns on this list is how present and alive you will feel the community there. You will always find familiar faces there. All the business owners can be found serving your meal or chatting with you at the bar, which is definitely part of the charm. On top of that, almost every corner is Instagrammable. Just search the geotag “San Juan, La Union” on Instagram and you’ll find a never ending supply of surfing and food photos.
La Union is perfect for beginner to experienced surfers. I’ve talked to some of the people who moved there. They say that even though they’ve been surfing all their lives, they still enjoy La Union’s waves. If you’re in the area, I suggest you stay in Vessel Hostel or Flotsam & Jetsam. Both offer unique and fun hostel experiences. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to book Vessel’s renovated Camper car.
Last but not least is Siargao. Without a doubt, one of the most talked about destinations in the Philippines. It is also the only surfing town on this list that you won’t be able to drive to. Siargao is located on the island of Surigao del Norte, which is a 3 hour flight from Manila. Believe me when I say that 3 hours is small price to pay for this little piece of paradise. Pristine beaches and crystal clear water are descriptions that simply can not do justice to this dreamy island. Because it wasn’t accessible by direct flights until very recently, you will find that this is a place not over run by big developments.
While some people say that Siargao is the perfect place for surfers of all levels, I would warn beginners and young kids to proceed with caution. This is because Siargao isn’t as organized as other cities and there are a lot of uncertified instructors roaming around. For your own safety, be extra careful and try to get a surf instructor directly from your resort. It is also notable to mention that Siargao does not have a lot of hostels, so accommodations verge more on the pricey side. This is the destination with the most surfing areas so it will be the main activity available. Just a heads up, that you will be truly living the island life if you visit Siargao. So don’t expect large shopping complexes or taxis. It is a common practice to rent your own motorbike but that makes adventuring through the island all the more fun.
I hope this list has been helpful, in truth it is just the tip of the iceberg. The Philippines has so many islands still undiscovered. Each of these towns has it’s own unique charm but what is the same through out is how welcoming the people are. Regardless of how old you are or where you come from, you will always find new friends here. Whether you’re a beginner or experienced surfer, nothing beats the high you get from surfing these Philippine waves. After visiting just one of these towns, you will be looking for a new excuse to visit the next.