A chain of 10 small islands floating in the far reaches of the northern area of the Philippines is a province collectively known as Batanes, part of the Cagayan Valley region. It is the smallest island province and the last to be added to Philippine territories. Of the 10 islands, only 3 are permanently inhabited namely, Batan, Itbayat and Sabtang. To step into this place is to step into a different world, a wonderful world that is. Characterised by rolling hills, mountains, volcanoes, boundless ocean, lighthouses, thatched-roof dwellings, it could easily be a pretty rural town in Europe, including the unpredictable weather. In place of grazing sheep are cows, carabaos (water buffalo) and horses adding to the serene beauty of the Batanes’ picture-perfect landscape. Situated in the vast expanse of the Philippine Sea merging into the China Sea, it is closer to Taiwan than to mainland Luzon.
The sheer drama of the island, in all its simplicity and grandeur (seldom goes hand in hand) defies any trace of the distant past and the ravages of WWII. Entrenched somewhere the endless rolling hills is “Dipnaysupuan”, a Japanese hideout; “Little America” is what used to be a Long Range Naval Station; and the ruins of what used to be a radio and communication centre of the Americans. Centuries-old Spanish bridges and baroque style churches remain standing with barely any modification except for roofing that is made of cogon grass. San Carlos Borromeo Church (also known as Mahatao Church) is recognised as a cultural icon in the preservation of its original structure.
The best spot is really just any spot rewarding visitors with stunning frame after frame of multi-dimensional geography. Racuh a Payaman (Marlboro Country) is beyond breath-taking, a natural wonder of creation. Even man made creations aren’t short of inspiring like the traditional house in Sabtang, the Dakay House. It is the oldest dwelling in the island built in 1887 and has weathered numerous typhoons and survived even the strongest earthquake. In the deep quiet of the night interrupted by the rumbling sea waves, gazing into the clear skies of twinkling stars is yet another awesome sight to behold.
Just as the sceneries in Batanes are so unique and nowhere to be found in other parts of the country, the unassuming Ivatans (local people are called) remain devoted to their culture and traditions which are hugely influenced by the environmental conditions of the island. One of the most important rituals is the Kapayvanuvanua, the start of the fishing season where a sacrifice is offered in exchange for calm seas and bountiful harvest. Marriage and house-building are an island exercise rather than a family occasion.
It is no surprise that the entire province is in the tentative list for inscription in the World Heritage List by UNESCO and hopes to make it in the official list of 2018-2019.
A trip to Batanes is like being transported back in time where you can either walk, cycle, get on a falowa (motorised boat) to get from one island to another and walk into an ‘honesty shop’ for a unique shopping experience.
Regular scheduled flights from Manila, Clark, Tuguegarao and Vigan fly to Basco (BSO), the provincial capital. Travel takes approximately 70-110minutes. A small aircraft has thrice weekly flight to Itbayat airport from Tuguegarao. From the airport, you can walk or take a tricycle to your destination.
*As a reference point for all typhoons entering the Philippines, it is not unusual to have downpours even in the middle of summer. So, please don’t forget your brolly.
*Warm clothing is recommended during the coldest months, December to February, when temperature can drop to 10degrees and below.
*Try the local cuisine using all fresh, locally grown produce like gabi (yam), coconut and catch from the sea. Get a pair of ‘Chavaianas’, sandals made from twisted cogon grass or hats and wigs that are all painstakingly hand made.
*The island of Itbayat is a protected sanctuary and home to a very tight-knit community that some sights are not open to the public.
What else to see?
Once was home to a most famous Ivatan, Pacita Abad, an internationally acclaimed painter. The large complex has been turned into a boutique style hotel.
Basco Lighthouse and Bunker’s Café
Standing aloft in Naidi Hills, this lighthouse is probably the most iconic structure and one of 3 that can be found in the province. A viewing deck on the 5th floor offer spectacular views of the Philippine Sea and the town proper. Catch the sunset while enjoying a cosy dinner in an old bunker (Bunker’s Café is only open from 6pm onwards).
Unlike most lighthouses, it’s built with a hexagonal shape and keeps watch of the Pacific Ocean.
Chawa View Deck
The view from Chawa deck is a glimpse of what awaits visitors in Batanes.
Spanish Lagoon (Hamoron Blue Lagoon) and White Beach
These are 2 areas of refuge in the vast ocean where swimming is allowed by the gentler waves and shallow waters.
Houses in Itbayat are different from the stone houses in Sabtang and Batan. In this island, it’s mostly made from corals to withstand the frequent typhoons. However, the most indigenous type is called ‘jinjin’ made from grass and is still common in Sitio Yawran.