Chasing Lakes, Islands, Beaches and Sandbars off San Benito, Northwest Siargao

Would you like to experience something off the well-beaten tourist path on Siargao Island? Do you want to swim in some of the clearest seas in the whole world? Is hiking to a unique lake in the middle of an island appealing to you? How about scouring the coastline in search of sand bars for amazing aerial drone photographs. Well, look no further than the northwest coast of Siargao, where the small village of San Benito provides easy access to all this and more. While a number of Siargao tourists go on island-hopping excursions along its eastern seaboard, very few travellers make it beyond Sugba lagoons on the west side. They really should. The far northwest has mesmerising beaches, beautiful islands and a lake which surpass the quality of the island’s current hotspots. Go there now, before the tourist crowds change the area forever.

First Exploration of San Benito

Twenty two years ago, in 1997, I stumbled upon Siargao Island in search of pristine waves and cheap living. Over the years that followed, I married a local girl, built a home, had a child and spent many years living on the island (read more about my life story here). Anyway, back then I distinctly remember looking out at some beautiful islands off the west coast during a round-island jeepney tour, but it took nineteen years for me to actually visit San Benito's attractions up close. I suppose Siargao used to have so many quiet spots that it didn't seem necessary to look for more. However, by 2016, tourism had already exploded in the General Luna area, enough to send my family and I to look for something new. The result was a day trip off the northwest coast and the first proper blog about the area: "Discover West Siargao - Poneas Lake and San Benito". 

A San Benito Return: First Strike

Three years later, that first blog attracted the attention of local tourism officer Bella Roculas, who subsequently invited us to explore the area again; fully sponsored in a tourism boat with lunch and all fees thrown in for good measure. On a super sunny day this year, we took Bella up on her offer and arranged to meet her early one morning. Unfortunately, our first drone strike on San Benito started a little shakily due to the low tide grounding of all large tourism boats, but Bella swiftly sorted a smaller boat for Miras (my wife), Raf (my son) and I to get out to Kangkangon ahead of her and our other companion: Olga from BeSiargao magazine

Upon arrival, we immediately put our new Parrot Anafi drone into the air and captured the pristine beauty of the island along with Miras floating atop some of the clearest seas in the world. An hour later, Olga and Bella arrived with a large lunch consisting of delicious sweet & sour fish, noodles, meat and rice. After lunch, we chugged over to San Benito's Naked Island, which was far smaller than the famous one near General Luna partly due to the extreme high tide. 

The best had been saved for last: Poneas Lake. The incredible beauty of the lake encouraged me to fly the Anafi drone way over the other side, but sadly a combination of pilot error, low battery and lost signal led to it crashing into the water. It was a big loss: a £500 GBP drone and all the magical images taken earlier in the day.  

Second Strike  

The following day, Cebu Pacific flew me over San Benito en route Cebu City. Looking down over that amazing scenery, the knowledge of those images at the bottom of Lake Poneas bothered me far more than the lost drone itself - I was super disappointed that I didn't have the right images to write a new blog.

Thankfully, I conceived a quick plan which involved a friend from UK bringing out a replacement drone. I got back to Siargao two days later and ordered a new drone and my friend, Rob, flew in a few days later with a brand new Parrot in his hand baggage. Such was my enthusiasm, the next day I arranged a second drone strike on San Benito; by this time Bella had already been replaced (due to local elections) by a new team at San Benito tourist office who introduced themselves, charged us minimal tourism "fees" and exchanged social media contacts.

The morning high tide sent us to Lake Poneas first, where Miras bravely posed on her back way off the pontoon (she was quite scared of the big fish occasionally bobbing at the surface). In contrast to the first strike, I launched the drone from a safer spot and loved capturing the contrast between her tiny figure and the amazing surroundings. En route back to the outer islands, we asked the boatman to stop at a picturesque beach connected to Poneas Island itself - the pretty palms combined with a chocolate hills-like backdrop made for a couple of great aerial shots despite the slightly overcast weather.

Once we got to Kangkangon, the sun gloriously returned and it looked like everything was going to come together. The drone had other ideas. Already slightly low batt, the GPS connection failed a few hundred metres out to sea and it shot into the sky and then thankfully returned and hovered over its home position. A cell phone and drone reboot reestablished the connection, but the minimal battery power left over at this point meant the shots I could get in the final minute or two weren't quite what I was looking for. Therefore, much to Miras' annoyance, I announced we'd have to return to San Benito one last time for a third drone strike over the islands. Her reluctance declined a little when she realised we wouldn't have to trek to Lake Poneas again - the lake pictures were already in the bag!

Final Strike on San Benito

It had been a busy few weeks for us on Siargao; constructing new walls around our Airbnb property, visiting neighbouring Dinagat, and generally enjoying family time on the island. Nevertheless, a few days before returning to Saudi Arabia, we found time to get back on our motorbike and make the fairly long drive from General Luna to San Benito.

To ensure the boatman was fueled up and ready to go, we had called him the day before. Unless you have heaps of patience, it's always worth trying to organise things in advance in the Philippines. Instead of waiting around, we got over to a wonderfully empty Kangkangon Island, flooded with crisp morning light, by 8 a.m. The Anafi took off minutes later and recaptured the same kind of shots lost the month before; probably better shots than last time too.

Next, we moved over to Dahican sandbar, a short hop to the south where a huge stretch of shallow water provided the ultimate floating opportunity for Miras and her bright orange swimsuit. After that, we stopped by Pagbasayan Island for a quick swim and refuelled on coconut meat and juice - exploring paradise is hard work!

About an hour before midday, we landed at our final destination: Santa Monica's Naked Island; a wonderfully isolated mound of sand surrounded by crystal clear sea. Neither the drone's battery or our tolerance for extreme heat lasted very long, so we kept it short and sweet. While chugging back to San Benito, I couldn't help but feel such gratitude for being able to explore its isolated attractions three times on this trip. On a Siargao Island now dominated by tourists, it seems most of them don't want to explore at all. Instead, they're satisfied to wait in line for an instaworthy capture at Sugba Lagoons or Guyam. Perhaps one day quite soon, they'll realise that San Benito is worthy of their iPhone captures too.

Six Must-See Attractions near San Benito

1. Poneas Lake

A magical lake situated in the middle of Poneas Island, located north of Sugba Lagoons and south of San Benito. While it's quite a trek to get there (30 minutes by pump boat and 45 minutes on foot), it's well worth it for the scenery alone. Once you get to the lake, you'll find boats for hire, a swimming area, and rope swings to play around on. Probably Siargao's most impressive attraction, go there now before it changes forever.

2. Kangkangon Island

Located just offshore San Benito, Kangkangon is a drone pilot's dream island. Tropically covered in vegetation and small enough to walk around in five minutes, it looks so impressive from the air. Stop for a quick swim or bring a picnic and stay all day.

3. Pagbasayan Island

Pagabasayan Island, clearly visible from the coastal road, lies directly to the northwest of San Benito. It's quite small and you can walk around the whole island in less than twenty minutes. Surrounded by white-sand beaches and swaying palms, Pagabasayan is great for a day trip or longer stay. Bring all your own food if you want to use the picnic facilities or basic accommodation on offer on the island.

4. Dahican Sandbar

Probably the most spectacular sandbar in all Siargao, Dahican beach is easily reached by a short boat ride from Kangkangon Island. Surrounded by mangrove swamps under environment agency protection, Dahican might not be developed as a tourist destination. However, it's blindingly white sand and incredible mangrove backdrop makes it a must-see if you're in the area, especially if you have a drone.

5. Dakung Buyod Beach

On your way to Poneas Lake, you might notice a remote stretch of beach on the other side of the entrance to the jump-off point for the lake itself. Years ago, Dakung Buyod Beach contained many houses, but these days it's a beautifully isolated stretch of sand punctuated by new mangrove plants and one native shelter. While the backdrop at the northern end makes it ideal for photography, the shallow water and mangrove plantations prevent it from being an ideal swimming beach.

6. Naked Islands (San Benito and Santa Monica)

Situated at adjacent ends of the bay are two islands without any foliage (hence their names); one claimed by San Benito tourism and the other by Santa Monica. Right now, a San Benito-based boatman can take you to either of these pretty mounds of sand which are best enjoyed at lower tides, but in the future tourism department might force you to travel to Santa Monica to get to the one claimed by the town. Don't forget to bring lots of water and sunscreen, especially if you're planning an extended stay on either of these naked islands.

Follow in our footsteps

– If you want to stay in the area, check Airbnb for places in North Siargao including Pacifico, San Isidro and Del Carmen. There's also a fairly expensive hotel at Sayak (13.5km). However, it's an easy drive from General Luna or Cloud 9, so there is no need to stay overnight.

– Staying overnight on Pagbasayan Island is possible, but you cannot book online for the basic accommodation there.

– To arrange a boat to Poneas, Pagbasayan and Kangkangon Islands, just drive to San Benito pier and drop by the tourism office. A tourism official will help you arrange one within a half an hour. Expect to pay at least P1800 for the pump boat plus additional fees of P100 per person to the tourism office.

– To reach the mooring point for the trek to Poneas Lake, you must arrange your trip for high tide. Check magicseaweed surf report for approximate tide times.

– Bring strong shoes or trainers to make the hike up and down to Poneas Lake. It’s a fairly easy thirty to forty-five minute hike, but the path itself is quite steep and very slippery, especially if it’s been raining. Flip flops aren't ideal footwear to reach the lake!

– Use tumblers for water and take all your rubbish away - don't leave trash on any of these beautiful islands.

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