Beautiful Batanes: 10 things to do
MANILA, Philippines - To escape to Batanes is to escape to a different world.
Geographically, this description is not that far off. The Batanes Islands are almost as close to Taiwan as they are to Luzon with Taiwanese radio stations only a knob-turn away. Its 10 tiny islands are in common possession of craggy cliffs pummelled at the feet by angry waves, emerald hills perfectly manicured by a legion of cows, and boxy, cobblestone-walled houses topped by cogon-thatched roofs.
Indeed, these 3 features form a typical picture of Batanes — a picture of Batanes that rises from the sea of clouds as the plane dips for touchdown in the only airport in the province.
But the adventure begins when you take that first step on solid ground.
Batanes is an overwhelming combination of majestic, imposing landscapes and quaint lifestyles. The cliffs are larger than life, the hills seem to roll on forever; the houses tend to be small and the Ivatans — the natives of Batanes — are a close-knit, (mostly) friendly bunch.
Because of Batanes’ natural features, expect to be outside 80% of the trip. Prepare for this by bringing along a wide-brimmed hat, shades and sunblock. But don’t expect perfectly sunny weather, even in summer. Batanes is infamous for its moody weather. Bring at least one jacket and an umbrella regardless of the time of year.
Like any destination, no standard itinerary can fully capture the Batanes experience. There are limitless ways to get to know Batanes because Batanes itself is a bottomless trove.
But first-time visitors may benefit from these suggestions:
1. Rent a car
The best way to get around Batanes is by car. Most tour packages offer van rentals with a driver. The major islands of Batanes — Batan, Sabtang and Itbayat — may be small, but getting around them is difficult because there is no major form of public transportation. Renting a car for your entire trip is hassle-free and saves time since many of the must-see sites are found in different towns.
Having your own car also gives you more freedom to request for a stop-over whenever you see something interesting (you’ll see plenty). You won’t have to worry about traffic because there is virtually none, except for those caused by herds of cows or families of goats.
2. Ride a bike through the hills
That said, you can devote one day and all of your energy to biking through a specific locale. The steep, rolling hills of Batanes mean this is no small feat. Only do this if your body can handle the exertion. But all the sweat will be made worth it by the view and the freedom.
You can stop any time to catch your breath or take photos of a beautiful sunset. Each hill gives you a unique view of the East Philippine Sea, whether pierced by a lighthouse or underlined by a row of stone houses.
Best of all, you can indulge in the urge to burst into song. Cue — “The hills are alive…”
3. Step inside a traditional Ivatan house
In many ways, the Ivatan house is perhaps the one artifact that reveals the most about Ivatan culture, history and life. The limestone walls were a Spanish addition to strengthen native homes against earthquakes that often ravaged the land (Mt Iraya, the highest peak in Batanes, is an active volcano).
Like the bahay kubo, the Ivatan home is composed of a major space shared by the entire household. Its cogon roof is constructed and repaired through a bayanihan system called kayvayvanaan orkamanyiduan.
The Dakay House in Sabtang Island is widely-regarded to be the oldest house in Batanes, built in 1887 and the lone survivor of a major earthquake in 1918. Eighty-seven year-old Florestida Estrella (or Aling Ida) still lives there, greeting visitors with a gap-toothed smile and many stories to tell.
Abandoned due to a tsunami in the 1940s is an old village now simply called Ghost Town, also in Sabtang. Far from being creepy, the town is criss-crossed by cheerful hedges of pink, orange and yellow flowers and traversed by the friendly Ivatans who have now begun to re-inhabit it.
But one can easily admire the variety of traditional houses by simply walking through the villages and towns. Many Spanish-period homes are still used by the Ivatans. Some of the newer structures stay faithful to the traditional elements, combining the stone walls with modern sliding windows.
4. Walk to a lighthouse
Nowhere else in the Philippines will you find so many lighthouses. There are recently constructed ones, such as the Basco lighthouse built in the 2000s visited for its spectacular view of the sea and the restaurant beside it.
There are two lighthouses in Sabtang, the new one built right beside the sea and the first one, built during Spanish colonial times, a tiny stone structure standing far inland from the shore because when it had been built, no other structure rose above it.
5. Visit World War II memorials
Though Batanes seems cut off from the rest of the world, it was also touched by the ravages of war.
Traces of this time in history can be found in the concrete remains of the American radio center and the old Japanese hideout, a tunnel dug by Ivatan hostages as their Japanese captors tried to escape from the victorious Americans.
6. Step into an old church
Visitors of any faith will find that a tour of the many 17th- and 18th-century churches in Batanes is worth their while. Aside from being a place of worship, they are beautiful structures with their large, bright-colored wooden doors, machuca tiles and cogon-lined high ceilings.
The Mahatao church was where Katipuneros raised their flag to claim Batanes during the Revolution in 1898.
Many villages also maintain their own ancient church, smaller than the town churches but more cheerful-looking than imposing. Some of these quaint structures have been painted in happy yellows, blues and pinks, yet manage not to look garish.
Another vestige of the Spanish times are the Old Spanish bridges. There are one or two in every village because they were used by the Spanish to encourage Ivatans to attend mass.
The bridges linked villages together and made it easier for Ivatans to travel to the church. Incredibly, bridges built as far back as the 17th-century are still used by Ivatans today.
7. Try on Chavayan-crafted goods
Those lion mane-like wigs of dried cogon grass worn outdoors by Ivatans are woven in Chavayan in the southern-most tip of Sabtang. Sadly, the craft of weaving this traditional headgear is in danger.
The aged weavers I met there told me that young Ivatans do not bother with the craft anymore and they have difficulty passing on their skills and knowledge. Aside from these hats, sandals made of twisted cogon — fondly called Chavaianas — are also found in this far-away village.
8. Revel amidst majestic natural features
"Dramatic" is one word you can use to describe Batanes' natural features.
Valugan Beach, piled from end to end with gigantic boulders textured like quail eggs, is one of the most distinctly Batanes shores. The boulders are spewings from a 15th-century eruption of Mt Iraya. The green cliffs that rise in the distance complete the picture of a land before time.
The Nakabuang Natural Arch that rises above a white sand beach is an ideal picnic spot (as long as you clean up after) that is doubly visit-worthy because of the Batanes cuisine restaurant just a few steps away.
9. Eat Batanes cuisine
Perhaps the two most famous Batanes dishes are coconut crab and flying fish. While availability of coconut crab is seasonal, there is always flying fish. Some Ivatans complain that they eat too much of it!
Uvud balls, a native version of meat balls, and bukayo, a dessert dish made of strips of meat from young coconuts are also must-tries.
10. Visit Pacita Abad's home
Pacita Abad is one of the most famous Ivatans, being an internationally-acclaimed painter who brought her art all over the world and even painted a bridge in Singapore before dying of cancer. She also belongs to the powerful Abad clan, a family of Batanes governors and congressmen (several streets are named after them).
Fundacion Pacita in Basco, once her home and studio, is now a premier hotel, the proceeds of which go to her foundation for young Ivatan artists. The young artists of her foundation painted the ceiling of Mt Carmel church in Basco.
Visiting Pacita's garden-ensconced grave a few steps from Fundacion Pacita allows visitors to contemplate the life of a great Ivatan. If it is within your budget, I fully recommend that you stay a few nights in Fundacion Pacita.