There’s always too much to say about Batanes, and never enough words
WRITTEN BY MONIQUE BUENSALIDO
PHOTOGRAPHED BY ED SIMON AND DAZZLE NG
A trench coat is one of my travel essentials when I go out of the country, but I found myself hurriedly stuffing it into my luggage on my way to Batanes. I imagined my friends scoffing at my jacket choice. After all, the Philippines is a tropical country, but it was late February, and I was headed to Batanes during winter. Unknown to most people, Batanes has four seasons— winter, spring, summer and fall—and you can visit year-round to enjoy each one.
“Can’t you only visit during summer?” inquired my skeptical friends. Like an old house haunted by ghost stories instead of actual ghosts, Batanes is shrouded with a lot of stories that keep people from visiting. It’s perpetually plagued by strong storms, say the worried whispers. The planes that fly there are tiny. Flights get canceled all the time. Tourists get stuck in the province for weeks. But Batanes is not the storm-battered province that people think it is. The weather has drastically changed here (the last major storm was back in the 1950s), and weather reports simply use it as a point of reference as the northernmost post of the country. (When weathermen say there’s a storm in Basco, they actually mean that it has left the area of responsibility of the country. Locals are always baffled when weather reports say it’s storming when they’re actually enjoying bright blue skies.)
Knowing all of this, I was determined to experience winter in the Philippines. While snow doesn’t fall (obviously), temperatures do drop from October to February. This is a wonderful respite from Manila’s heat and humidity—and an opportunity to wear my trench coat in the country.
When we landed, Batanes was as beautiful as ever. I happily jumped into the open coaster of Batanes Cultural Travel Agency (BCTA), excited to take in the nippy, fresh air. In any other place, I would prefer an air conditioned car, but the cold, crisp wind was refreshing. I was no longer in Manila.
All provinces in the Philippines have a tendency to look like each other— you’ll always see dusty roads lined with small bakeries, drugstores and hardware shops, all with wooden signages with painted names—but Batanes is completely different. Their carefully paved roads are in the middle of lush greeneries, farmlands, mountains, and dramatic shores. It feels like you’re in another country (New Zealand? Scotland? Ireland?) or even another world, like a setting of a movie or a book (Middle Earth? Narnia? The Yorkshire moors in Wuthering Heights?). You end up saying “Wow, that’s beautiful” everywhere you go. (In fact, I’ve never heard straight, adult males say it so much as when they are in Batanes for the first time.)
Another one of my favorite things about Batanes is its locals, and as we drove through the town, locals would give us shy but sincere smiles.
As we prepared to explore, I threw my trench coat on. The skies were overcast, and while gray skies tend to make beach trips look sad, they gave Batanes a more majestic face. We started going around Batan Island, the biggest island in Batanes, heading to Chawa View Deck, where we took a long stone staircase down to sea level, to get a closer look at the waves crashing on the rocks, then moved to the boulder beach at Valugan Bay. The winds whipped the waves harder, producing large, rolling barrels, the kind that surfers would rejoice over. We were hundreds of meters away from the waves, but we could see how incredibly clear and clean the water was. We also got our fill of the-hills-are-alive moments in Rolling Hills (rows and rows of undulating hills we would have loved to run over) and Naidi Hills Lighthouse (a popular romantic spot).
A DAY IN SABTANG
We started the next day in Honesty Coffee Shop, right beside the Port of Ivana. It’s renowned for being a small shop that doesn’t rely on shopkeepers, but the honesty of its patrons, who pick up their items and leave their payment. Before it was a full-fledged store, its owners would get surprise visitors at 4 AM, sheepishly requesting for something to eat or drink before getting on the boat to Sabtang Island. Instead of waking up at those ungodly hours, they decided to leave the goods there instead with a list of prices. When I asked if they were afraid of not getting paid, they shrugged and said, “Tulongnalangnamin yon sakanila.” (“I guess that’s our way
of helping them out.”)
Armed with Honesty Coffee Shop souvenir shirts and snacks, we nervously gulped down Bonamine and headed to the port. We were on our way to Sabtang Island, 30 minutes away, but my friends who had been there before warned it was usually a rough boat ride. There were no large ferries, only a simple motorized fishing boat, and having watched the waves on the way to the port, we knew they were angrier than usual. The sight of the large waves, which had drawn gasps of awe and admiration earlier, now made our stomachs churn.
We survived the boat ride to Sabtang, and as soon as we got our land legs back we piled into a jeepney and drove to Chamantad-TinyanSitio, an incredibly breathtaking site with a panoramic view of the coast. As we walked in a straight line to explore the land and the view, I realized we looked like the fellowship from The Lord of the Rings. From the hilly slopes, we could see gorgeous secret coves hidden far below. After our hike, we enjoyed some hot tea and camote cue.
Our next stop was Chavayan Village, where we found an entire row of stone houses still intact. Batanes is known for their gorgeous stone houses with thatched cogon roofs, perfect for their weather. While a lot of these houses in Batan were sadly not preserved, Chavayan’s stone houses proudly still stand. The same village is the only one with a church with concrete, painted façade but a thatched cogon roof.
Later, a few of us clambered on top of the jeepney. Except for a few branches slapping you on the face if you’re not careful, it was a surreal experience— very Jurassic Park, as my friend noted, and I swear to God, if a T-rex had popped out of nowhere, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised. From our seats, we could see how high we were as we drove through Cliff Turn Road, and we gripped the rails a little tighter.
We stopped at Nakabuang Beach to have an incredible lunch of seafood and lobsters. Yes, lobsters. We could barely contain our excitement, especially because lobsters are very expensive in the city, but the locals seemed to consider it as just another viand. (We heard a lady ask excitedly, “Is this lobster? What is this called here?” The waiter shrugged and just said, “Ma’am, bastalobster.”) Later, we walked on the beach barefoot, hardly believing that there were beaches in Batanes. Fine white sand, beautiful waves and a natural rock arch that made it seem like a hidden cove.
Suddenly, our tour guide Chris came up to us and hurriedly ushered us back to our jeep. The sea was getting testy, he said, and if we waited a few hours more, the waves would be too much for the boat to handle, and we’d have to stay overnight at Sabtang Island. While we weren’t against spending a couple of nights with some of the locals, we drove back immediately.
When we arrived at the pier, the sea looked a little more than testy. It seemed positively pissed. The docked boat was swaying violently, despite the fishermen’s efforts to keep it still. Large waves crashed against the breakwater, and the dark blue sea was dotted with angry white waves. We all grabbed our lifejackets, strategized where to sit, popped a couple more Bonamines (at this point, it was like candy), and prayed.
As we pushed off, we spotted a wall of water heading our way, and for a second I thought it was going to hit us, and my seatmates and I started screaming. Instead, it crashed against our boat, and our shrieks dissolved into (relieved) laughter. The boat went up and down, and swayed left and right, as it rode each swell to avoid capsizing, and it felt like a crazy roller coaster ride, and we all just kept yelling, “Whoa!” and laughing. It infused a little action and excitement into our otherwise serene vacation.
The next day, we finished seeing the rest of Batan Island. It was even colder, and I put on a thick cable-knit jacket to keep me warm, the kind I never use in the Philippines. We joked that this must be a wind vane’s worst nightmare. True enough, our guides brought us to Sumhao Wind Turbines, a row of wind mills, but instead of majestically standing in line, they were all lying down on the ground, as if they got tired of spinning and decided to lie down. It was hilarious. (The truth is, they’re just waiting for additional parts so that they can function properly.) But while we were there, we got to enjoy a weather 360-degree view of Batanes, as the island’s two highest peaks stand on opposite ends.
Then we visited the Mahatao Lighthouse, which I found even more beautiful than the one in Naidi Hills because it had retained most of its old Spanish character.
Later, we stood on Rakuh-a-Payaman, more popularly known as Marlboro Country, and were overwhelmed at the vast expanse of undulating hills—and strong winds. We held on to each other as we walked farther in. All the girls’ hair were in the air, and no amount of product or pat downs could keep our strands in place. But no wind could keep us from doing group jump shots, and we fearlessly leapt in the air for each one. No crazy poses or failed jump shot attempts could take away any beauty from the place.
Alapad Hill is famous as the “burol” (hill) featured in the 1991 hit Hihintayin Kita SaLangitstarring the eternal love team Richard Gomez and Dawn Zulueta. (“Dalhinmoakosaburol,” is Dawn’s dying wish. This is the burol.) Instead of re-enacting the Dawn Zulueta-Richard Gomez running-into-each-other’s-arms moves, we all ended up sitting down at the edge of the hill to watch the waves crash against the shore. Wrapped in our jackets, sweaters and scarves, we were completely silent, save for a few “whoas” we would blurt out when a particularly large one hit some rocks. It was too incredible not to watch carefully, and before we knew it, Chris was calling us back.
This, pretty much, sums up our Batanes experience—at one point, we would run out of words (except for the few “whoas” that I mentioned) to describe the place. There’s a beautiful library of blank books in Mahatao called Living Library of Batanes, where people are invited to write to form part of the province’s heritage, and most of them remain blank. Even I had a hard time writing in the books! No words seem worthy enough to encapsulate Batanes; you’ll never understand them if you weren’t there, and you’ll know they’re not enough if you were.