Go around Batanes’ second largest inhabited island, Batan, and find serenity and beauty at every turn
WRITTEN BY MARICRIS D. MARTIN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MARK JACOB
When asked where I wanted to go this year, I said Batanes without batting an eyelash. Months later, I had to learn how to suppress my excitement when I found out that I was actually going there. Since plans can go awry for a host of reasons—missing the clock’s alarm, getting caught in terrible traffic, a sudden typhoon, a canceled flight—I had to train myself to suppress my excitement until the plane touched down Basco.
But all the training quite literally flew out the window soon after the plane took off. The visual treat really starts on the plane. If you get a window seat, make sure you’re awake in the last 30 minutes of your flight so you can finger-trace the edges of Luzon through the round-cornered square of your window. The top view of northern Luzon, with its lush mountain ranges, winding rivers, and roads that are carved off the mountainsides, is just breathtaking.
I honestly expected the airport to be very Spartan, pretty much like the airports of many distant provinces. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Basco Airport is a rather cozy place, somewhat like a wooden cabin where people never seem to get harried—and this is the kind of place where you wouldn’t want to hurry, nor would there be any need for you to do so. Batanes is comprised of 11 islands but only three of these are inhabited—Itbayat being the largest, Batan, the second largest, and Sabtang. I spent three days in Batan exploring the towns of Basco, Tukon, Mahatao, Uyugan and Ivana.
Basco is the province’s capital. It also holds one of my ultimate favorite places on the island (and in the country, for that matter)—the Valugan Boulder Beach. I’ve been told that it’s best to visit at sunrise, which I missed, but was nevertheless blown away by the sight of a beach covered with smooth boulders of various sizes and colors. Even though it’s too rocky for swimming (it’s actually prohibited), I didn’t feel shortchanged by simply sitting on one of the larger boulders and enjoying the calming sight and sound of the endless sea.
The BCTA that organizes Batanes tours can set up a lovely dinner by the Basco Lighthouse in Naidi Hills. They prepare healthy and tasty delicacies of Batanes (take note that almost everything grown in the province is organic), and you can make a request if you want the fish to be prepared in a particular manner.
One of the most popular sights Batanes is known for is its rows and rows of undulating hills. This is exactly what I found in the aptly named Rolling Hills in Basco as well as the Racuh-a-Payaman (more popularly known as Marlboro Country) in Mahatao. Just a brisk walk away from the road and I got the perfect vantage point. I feasted my urban-weary eyes on the sweeping slopes of grasscovered hills, dotted here and there by a few cows chewing contentedly. These freerange cows are the official lawnmowers of the place. Seeing the almost uniform length of the grass in such an expansive place just proves how efficient they are.
The Mt. Carmel Church is more widely known as the Tukon Chapel. It resembles old stone houses, but it wasn’t built until 2003 and wasn’t completed until 2006. The chapel is small, quiet, and its doors and windows are roofed with creeping vines that have small purple flowers. It’s absolutely perfect for a small, intimate ceremony, which is why it’s a popular venue for weddings.
Standing atop a hill by the sea (the sea is never too far away in Batan) is the Fundacion Pacita Batanes Nature Lodge. It used to be the residence of international artist Pacita Abad, but was converted into a lodge-cum-museum by her brother Butch Abad. Fundacion Pacita blends art and nature well by serving as a gallery to both established and new artists in its ideal location surrounded by gardens.
• The Tukon Radar Station is the northernmost station of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical
Services Administration (PAGASA). Their next reference point is located in the province of Aurora.
• The Dipnaysupuan Tunnels were built by the Japanese as a hideout and means of getting around parts of the island during the Second World War. Parts of the tunnels are still open to visitors.
Among all towns in Batan, Mahatao probably has the closest ties to the sea. It’s where you will find the Chawa View Deck which, contrary to what the name implies, is not merely a deck to stand on and gaze at the view from a safe distance. It has a long trail of stone steps that lead all the way down to a platform that’s almost the same level as the sea. The mighty splash of waves against the rocks is a delight to capture with the camera. Word of advice: prepare your legs and lungs for the long climb up.
The Diura Fishing Village is also what ties Mahatao to the sea. The row of low houses made of cogon (it’s apparently also very durable) is inhabited by fisher folk who are said to have learned 20 methods of fishing. There seems to be an unwritten rule against excesses in the island, especially since the fisher folk, like the farmers, mostly work for sustenance and not for commerce. This way, they are able to keep the sustainability of their bounty and the admirable simplicity of their lives.
Uyugan made its film debut in the Wuthering Heights-inspired 1991 film Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit by Carlos Siguion-Reyna. The film featured the Alapad Rock Formation on Alapad Hill as the central setting in the narrative where the star-crossed lovers (is there any other kind?) would meet in secret. Upon seeing the place, though, I thought: secrecy is highly doubtful in a place as beautiful as this. Waves would periodically crash against the oddly shaped rock, yet you would still feel safe as you look out to the sea. I could only wonder how many lovers (star-crossed and otherwise) have met there to profess their love for each other.
A short drive from Alapad Hill are the Ruins of Song-Song. This small coastal town was hit by a tsunami in the 1950s and has since become a ghost town—no one dared live there again after such traumatic destruction. It’s amazing nonetheless to see the roofless structures of the stone houses still standing intact after so many years.
On the southern tip of the island is Ivana, where the House of Dakay is located. Although it has been erroneously reported by past visitors as the oldest house in Batanes, it’s actually just the oldest house in Ivana. This is no simple feat, though, and it has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Building. Drop by for a visit and chat with its owner, 86-year-old lola Florestida Estrella. She will tell you stories of her youth in the Visayas and how she came to Batanes as a young girl and ended up choosing to live there.
Also in Ivana is the legendary Honesty Coffee Shop. I first heard of it several years ago, and like everyone else, I yearned to satisfy my curiosity and disbelief. An unmanned coffee shop (it’s actually more like a sari-sari store that sells everything from coffee and bottled water to souvenir shirts and mugs) with only a price list to guide customers and a wooden box to put their payments in is definitely an alien concept to urban dwellers like myself. But its owner, 77-year-old Elena Gabilo, insists on running the store on the basis of customers’ honesty. After all, she opened the store not as a potential source of income but as a form of assistance to travelers who have nowhere to get a drink or a brief respite from their trip. She is exactly the kind of person you’ll meet anywhere in Batanes. And only a place of serenity, simplicity and beauty could breed such people.
For more information, phone BCTA at (+63 2) 823 3087 or (+63 917) 811 2282, or visit <batanestravel.com>
• Idiang is a place which means “fortress”; the Idiang did serve as a fortress during earlier times when invaders were prone to descending upon the island.
• Ipula is a term used to refer to foreigners or non-residents of the place.
• Dios mamajes is a common greeting among people. It means “God will repay you.”
• Tukon means “to heal.”