Experience Dinagat Island's Raw Beauty Before It Changes Forever

Would you like to visit some of the world's most beautiful tropical islands? Is exploring lesser-known parts of the Philippines on your bucket list? Have you ever dreamed about swimming in a turquoise lake surrounded by wild jungle? Do you want to know more about island-hopping around Dinagat's islands? How about getting some restaurant and hotel recommendations for the area too? If so, read all about our three-day whistle-stop exploration of Dinagat's islands to help plan your own escape to these unbelievable hidden treasures.

Raw Beauty

While a number of western and domestic tourists visit Siargao and Camiguin in Northern Mindanao, very few venture to Dinagat. Limited infrastructure, lack of viral coverage on Instagram and restricted transport links don't do the island's tourist potential any favours. But if you want to truly get off the beaten path, Dinagat is the ideal destination. One day, when tourism has destroyed the rest of the world, the Shangri-La chain might just occupy a prime spot on one of Dinagat's stunning islands. For now, you can enjoy its raw beauty all on your own. 

An Unspoken Dinagat Memory 

Twenty-one years ago, I visited San Jose, Dinagat with my girlfriend at the time. She was a Dinagat local and wanted to show me around her place, so we spent a couple of days touring sights on the main island and meeting her family. It's a very touchy subject with my wife Miras (I guess Filipina girls are kind of jealous), which is why it took me so long to revisit Dinagat. Anyway, two decades later it seemed safe enough to ask Miras for the go-ahead to visit these beautiful islands together with a convenient excuse: to escape Siargao's increasing tourist crowds. She happily agreed!

Towards San Jose

Our family journey to Dinagat began on a beautiful, calm morning in the now famous village of General Luna, Siargao. From our home there, we took a tricycle in the darkness to Dapa, then hopped on a slow boat to Surigao City just as the sun began to rise in spectacular fashion. Along the way, I chatted to Gboy from Siargao Corner Cafe, who surprisingly recognised us from our Instagram account; the second person in the Philippines to approach us in this way!

Upon arrival in Surigao, we immediately took a tricycle to Jollibee for a quick fast-food taster before boarding the conveniently timed 9.30 a.m. boat to San Jose. One hour later, after an uneventful trip across the Surigao Strait, we pulled into San Jose's relatively rustic pier. It didn't take too long to organise some transport to a nearby lodge, which became a perfect base for the land-tour and island-hopping adventures which followed.

Places to Stay and Eat in San Jose, Dinagat 

In contrast to neighbouring Siargao, accommodation and restaurant options in San Jose and nearby towns and villages are extremely limited. Remember, Dinagat hasn't been developed yet so experiencing its raw beauty comes with a price: no high-quality restaurants or hotels/resorts.

The first place we checked, a new, unnamed small hotel right on the seafront just outside of San Jose, was definitely the best place in town. Offering sweeping sea views, western spec bathrooms, large double beds and polished concrete floors, you might decide this place is worth a splurge. However, the owner's refusal to reduce the P2500 nightly rate at all for a two-night stay (despite his place being empty) made us decide to push on and look for something more reasonable. It wasn't like we had planned to spend a lot of time in the room anyway.

The Pink Lodge

Next stop was the Pink Lodge, a four-storey building in the heart of town with lovely sea views and basic rooms. Definitely the ideal place to stay if you're on a budget; we quickly decided it was good enough for us - just 1200 pesos secured two nights in an air-conditioned room on the fourth floor. Minutes after checking in, we flagged down a modern tricycle and found our way to one of the only restaurants in town: Mabuhay Dinagat Restaurant and Catering Services.

San Jose's Food Options

Although Mabuhay Dinagat Restaurant's small balcony had spectacular sea views, it didn't look appealing with the harsh midday sun shining down. Therefore, we stayed inside and picked out a range of seafood, meat and vegetable carinderia-style dishes. I guess it filled us up but definitely wasn't anything special. In fact, as we quickly discovered, there aren't many options for eating out at all in San Jose.

After we had finished a land tour on our first afternoon, we found a roadside chicken barbecue place - incredibly cheap but not that great either. Seems like the best way to enjoy memorable food is to go to the market and buy fresh seafood. Then, get it cooked as part of an island-hopping tour - that's what we did on our second day and the result was a scrumptious fish, fruit and rice feast.

A Simple Choice

If you've been paying attention up to now, you'll probably realise you won't be able to get a caramel frappuccino on any of Dinagat's beautiful islands. But can't that wait until you get home? It comes down to a simple choice: either fly to an established destination like El Nido, Coron or Siargao for paradise islands with heaps of tourists, restaurants, coffee houses and resorts or choose Dinagat for something a lot more low-key. Thankfully, there's plenty to do - take your pick of eight awesome things detailed below or go exploring uncharted territory along the east coast.

Eight Awesome Things to Do in Dinagat

1. Sayaw Island, Cagdianao Region

If you want to feel like Robinson Crusoe, Sayaw Island is the spot for you. Situated about 2km off the coast of Cagdianao, it's easy to reach by a hiring a small pump boat (300 pesos) from the concrete pier to the north of Cagdianao itself. Once you get there, you'll feel a real sense of isolation at the edge of the deep Pacific on your own beautiful paradise island. Don't forget your snorkel and mask - the coral and rocks offshore are quite beautiful and worth investigating too!

2. Dinagat's Lush Interior - San Jose to Cagdianao

Don't hesitate to explore Dinagat's lush, hilly interior! If like we did, you arrive around midday, it makes a lot of sense to take a land-tour from San Jose to Cagdianao on your first day. It's easy to hire a tricycle or habal habal motorcycle in San Jose. Expect a combination of coastal vistas and rolling hills for about an hour before you get to Cagdianao itself. If you'd like a quick swim, continue along the coast to Tagbirajan (small resorts catering to Filipinos who like karaoke are available) or hire a boat to Sayaw Island for a more peaceful experience.

3. Bababu's Beautiful Beach

A logical first stop on any Dinagat island-hopping adventure is small, beautiful Bababu Beach. Surrounded by quite high cliffs and tropical vegetation, it's an ideal spot for a picnic, long swim or sunbathing session. If you want a scenic vista either across the beach or over the next bay, hike up the concrete steps to the north of the beach. Of course, the main reason most people come here is to visit Lake Bababu, a 45-minute hike directly behind the beach itself (see number 4).

4. Bababu's Mystical Lake

In order to visit Bababu's mystical lake, you have to register at Bababu Beach, hire a guide (300 pesos) and hike over a fairly strenuous footpath up and down the mountain behind the beach. However, once you spot the lake's amazing colour through the trees on your descent, you definitely won't regret making the effort. This wonderful lake, totally unspoilt and unchanged since the beginning of time, is absolutely spellbinding. Go for a long swim or just sit back and enjoy the natural beauty and serene lake - you might even spot an eagle swooping down for a fish. Whatever you see and hear, you'll love every minute at this incredible place.

5. Majestic Limestone Cliffs at Cabacongan Beach

Hidden away on the other side of the group of islands directly opposite San Jose is majestic Cabacongan Beach. The enormous limestone cliff at one end makes you think you're in Palawan and not Surigao Del Norte; it's so spectacular and perfect for drone photography. Of course, the turquoise waters are just perfect for swimming and the swaying palms offer plenty of shade from the sunshine once you get out of the sea. Don't miss the chance to visit this incredible beach - it's awesome!

6. Aga's Fascinating Rock Formations

If you're looking for something a bit different, the rock formations around Aga Island might be just your thing. It's easy to swim around the rocks and survey their uniqueness up close. Or you can just spend your time jumping off the deep water mooring point. There are a few more beaches in this area to visit like Sundayo or push up the coast to the Blue Lagoon, Libjo.

7. Duyos Beach Panorama

While Duyos is easily the most commercial beach in the area, its brilliant white sandbar jutting out into the ocean makes it well worth a stop. Filipinos who love singing karaoke won't be disappointed because you can do it here - therefore avoid visiting Duyos at weekends if you prefer beaches quiet and natural. Although you get lovely panoramic views from the sandbar itself, even better ones are available from the higher ground behind the beach huts.

8. Bitaog's Pristine Beach

The dramatic, high, limestone cliffs behind Bitaog's tiny beach really make you feel like you're faraway in Palawan. Its proximity to San Jose itself make it a popular beach for locals keen to escape the town or day trippers from Surigao. So while it's a perfect spot to have a quick swim or an all-day picnic, go outside the Philippine summer holidays (March to May) and on a weekday if you want the beach to yourself.

Follow in our footsteps

– If you want to stay overnight in Dinagat, it's easy to find somewhere on arrival For cheap, basic accommodation follow in our footsteps and take a tricycle to the Pink Lodge. However, if you need something more comfortable, ask the driver to take you to somewhere more expensive and upmarket - he'll know somewhere for sure!

– If you'd prefer to book your accommodation in advance, check San Jose's Airbnb offerings. 

– It's pretty easy to arrange an island-hopping tour - (i) ask your hotel/resort (ii) go to Dinagat's tourism department in San Jose (they'll recommend someone but won't advise on price!) (iii) ask your tricycle driver, or (iv) go to the pier area and ask around for a pump boat operator. Expect to pay P3000-P5000 for the pump boat depending on the size of your group and boat. 

– In order to visit Bababu Lake, you must hire a tour guide from the area once you get to Bababu Beach - this costs an additional P300. 

Video Highlights - Rafsworld


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