Just a decade ago, Batanes was just a small, unpopular island at the northernmost tip of the Philippines.
Some would remember Batanes from the elementary textbooks as a place frequently hit by typhoons. Some would associate it with Ivatans, the indigenous tribe from the north who built the vernacular stonehouses. Either way, just a few years ago, Batanes would only be just another province in the map: a place almost nobody visits because of the harsh weather conditions and difficult accessibility.
But not anymore.
From a meager 5,000 visitors in 2013, the number of tourists in Batanes is now 12,800. The Department of Tourism attributes the sudden increase to improved transportation and communication in the province. From a staggering P20,000 airfare, one could snag a two-way promo ticket from Manila to Basco and back for P2,000. A fair number of tour agencies have also popped up, offering sightseeing packages and homestay inns. (For more information, watch my TV report about the island’s booming tourism)
For the curious traveler, Batanes offers sights and surprises you may not see in any other tourist destination in the Philippines. I visited our hometowns in Basco and Mahatao to pay homage to my Lola’s land. Here’s a quick roundup of the places you should not dare miss when visiting “The Land of the Winds.” These are all my personal favorites with some notes and tips I’ve learned from the locals and tour guides.
If you need help in exploring Batanes, I highly recommend BISUMI Tours. They offer affordable and very informative tour packages. You may contact Ryan at 0919-2795963 or visit www.discoverbatanes.com.
1. Honesty Coffee Shop (Ivana)
Only honest people can dine here. There is no vendor to collect payments but the prices are indicated on each item. The owners of the place trust the tourists and locals to pay for what they consume.
This quaint shop started operating in 1995, purposely to serve travelers from Sabtang island. In the original structure, you would find coffee, sugar and hot water ready to be served every morning. The proprietress, Elena Castano-Gabilo, comes early to prepare these everyday and would return to check on it at noontime. She would collect whatever was left as payment by honest consumers and would come back at 5 p.m. to clean the shop. In the corner of the shop, there is a pile of rocks with names of tourists written on it. I took the liberty of leaving my own rock here.
Tip: Bring exact money and coins because you cannot find change here (or you can donate the change, if you want to!)
2. Alapad Rock Formation (Uyugan)
Naturally sculpted by ferocious waves and whistling winds, the Alapad rock formation is proof that nature always, always wins. Little by little, the sea creates a hole into these solid rocks and as water starts to seep in through the cracks, it molds and creates another thing of beauty.
Tip: Watch out for goat dung. There’s plenty on the hills.
3. Valugan Boulder Beach (Basco)
You cannot swim here. But if you’re looking for the perfect view of the Pacific Ocean, this is probably the best place to go.
The rock bay is popularly known for its long stretch of boulders formed from Mt. Iraya’s eruption in 400 A.D. The rock formation, smoothened over time by strong Pacific Ocean waves, offers a panoramic view of the horizon.
Tip: Wear footwear with traction. The rocks could get pretty slippery. My wounds can attest to that.
4. Blue Lagoon
You can swim here. Deep in the cliffs lies a secret blue lagoon visited only by a few. The water is clear and cool. Instead of sandy coasts, the shore is teeming with corals and shells of different colors.
When I was a child, my Lola used to warn us against swimming in the seas of Batanes. The water could get pretty unpredictable and waves could reach as high as a house. But on that day, the skies are clear and the air is humid. Thank you, ocean, for allowing some curious trespassers to experience your beauty.
Tip: Tell your guide personally if you want to swim in this place. Organized tours don’t normally offer this. Our tour guide, Kuya Teng, was very kind to accommodate our wish. Dios mamajes, Kuya.
5. Naidi Lighthouse (Basco)
This is my favorite out of all the lighthouses we visited in Batanes. Standing 66-feet tall, the climb to the top can be very exhausting but the view is definitely exhilarating.
From the top of the structure, I saw a miniscule version of Basco. It’s amazing how modernization has caught up with a province once called a “paradise stuck in time.”
For the first time, I also got a clear view of Mt. Iraya, often seen in pictures with clouds kissing the peak. Mt. Iraya is a dormant volcano standing at 1,517 meters whose last eruption was recorded in 505 AD. Mountaineering, trekking and trailblazing are recommended sports activities on the mountain. The top of Mt. Iraya can be reached in about three hours. Tip: Do not be lazy. Go up to the lighthouse. The view is worth it.
6. Yaru Art Gallery (Basco)
During one of my bicycle rides around Basco, I have come across a small shop displaying Ivatan art. Most of the artworks displayed are made from mixed media: bottle caps, oil paint, shells, watercolor, metalwork and the likes.
This tiny nook is home to struggling Ivatan artists. Saludo po ako sa inyo. (I salute you.) Tip: Check out their paintings and metal crafts. They are wickedly good! Check out their website too!
7. Tinyan Viewpoint (Sabtang Island)
A local said this is the perfect place to take a picture. I concur. But no picture could capture what it was like to be standing on these hills, with the vast ocean waves hollering below and the sky changing from blue to grey as clouds obstruct the sun’s rays. It was a liberating feeling, almost like I’ve been put in a trance I couldn’t escape.
Up on the hill, tourists and vendors gather to buy and sell souvenirs. For P20, you could take unlimited pictures with the Ivatan’s improvised raincoat: the vakul (headgear for women) and kanayi (vest for men). These are traditional farming gears of Ivatans. Made from buyaboy grass, these gears protect locals from the strong rains and violent sun’s heat.
In a nearby barrio, I met Lola Emilia, a local weaver who has been making vakul and kanayi since she was 10 years old. Since there is a big demand for these native gears both from locals and tourists, she has to work doubly hard to meet the orders.
Tip: When buying vakul and kanayi, please don’t bargain too much. They would gladly give discounts but try not too push it too far. The Ivatans earn little from making them and it takes them three days to dry the grass and a day to weave them all together. I think they deserve every peso.
8. Chavayan Barrio (Sabtang Island)
A visit to this old village is like walking through a big museum. This is the cradle of Ivatan culture and heritage. Dating back to the 1500s, this city is a living testament to the resiliency of the Ivatans as typhoons ravaged their towns.
In pre-Hispanic era, Ivatan houses are built with thatched grass and wood. Upon colonization, the Spaniards introduced more sophisticated materials to the Ivatans. Vernacular stonehouses, built from boulder rocks and corals, protect the locals from strong storms and earthquakes.
In the recent years, however, these stonehouses are quickly deteriorating. As we roamed around, we saw roofless and damaged stonehouses which were never repaired. Some houses were already made from concrete bricks and contemporary materials.
Because the local government controls the use of natural materials like boulder rocks and corals, locals could not just build stonehouses just as easily. Likewise, locals have started renting their stonehouses for P150 a night due to poverty and the rising demand of tourists for accommodations. For more information about the stonehouses, watch this report I produced for Assignment Pilipinas on State of the Nation with Jessica Soho.
Tip: Talk to the locals. They are very friendly and they have so many stories to tell. This is also the best place to buy stonehouse souvenirs.
9. House of Dakay (Ivana)
Built from lime and stone in 1887, this is said to be the oldest stonehouse in Batanes. It survived the destructive earthquake in 1918 which has destroyed much of the town. Its shutters and floor, however, have not been changed and has retained its authentic look throughout the centuries. The kitchens of the Ivatans are separated from the main house. This architectural design prevents the whole house from burning down if the kitchen catches fire.
Tip: When visiting, look for the owner of the house to know the building’s history straight from the descendant. They also offer their house for rent.
10. Ahao Natural Arch / Morong Beach (Sabtang Island)
This is one of the most iconic and photographed spots in Batanes — almost as if the rock had purposely formed a bow for its visitors. The beach boasts of white sand, shells and corals drifting ashore.
Tip: Do not take shells or corals. It is prohibited in the airport. Save yourself from humiliation and just leave them be where they belong.
11. San Carlos Borromeo Church (Mahatao)
Built in the 19th century, San Carlos Borromeo Church is the first church in Mahatao. Near the church is the oldest and smallest light house in Basco. Locals use lamps to fire up the lighthouse which served as a guide for offshore fishermen on their way home. The church is considered as one of the National Cultural Treasures by NCCA because of its cultural significance and architecture.
Inside you can find the Blank Book Library. The books here have blank pages except for those which contains scribbles and notes from visiting tourists. I wrote a love letter to Batanes in Book 148. Someday I’m going to return to my hometown and read it again. Tip: Take note of the number of the book you wrote in. You’ll never know when you’ll come visit again.
12. Chawa View Deck (Mahatao)
This is a perfect spot to see the West Philippine Sea. For those who fancy some trekking, you can descend more than a hundred steps down to the adjacent cliff to fish, take pictures and frolic in the blue-green natural pool.
The steps were built for fishermen. The vast sea offers a bounty of fish for the locals, along with varieties of shellfish and snails.
Tip: Bring water. Nakakapagod (It’s going to be tiresome).
13. Marlboro Country (Mahatao)
Remember the strapping cowboy on the Marlboro cigarette ad? American tourists called it as such because of its contours reminiscient of the ad. I prefer to call it by its local name though: Racuh Apayaman. It is a privately-owned communal pasture where cows and water buffalos freely roam and graze on the grass.
My little brother asked: Don’t the grasses grow any taller? Is there someone pruning them? Tour Guide: The cows do. They grow a little bit taller during the rainy season but the animals eat them anyway.
One of the items I wanted to cross out of my bucket list was to roll on these hills. I made it happen with a few scratches on my leg and elbows. I stood up, quite dizzy in the head, but as I opened my eyes, I forgave the hills for its steepness because what I saw was just perfect. Tip: Try the restaurant built on top of the rolling hills. Wear sunscreen.
BONUS: Must Try Food in Batanes
Fish is never scarce in the island. On our first day we had tanigue steak, fish lumpia and escabecheng lapu-lapu, all fresh from the ocean.
But what really made all the flavors perfect was this paco salad (fern salad) garnished with tomatoes and onions. On our second day, we also feasted on authentic Ivatan cuisine uvod (meatballs made from saha ng saging and milkfish), being my favorite. We also tried venes (dried gabi leaves cooked in coconut milk) and lunis (pork fried from its own oil, yum, I know!). Tip: You can ask for an extra soup of uvod for free! It tastes really good!
In my few days of stay in Batanes, I have experienced some of the best things in my life. I have seen the most beautiful horizons, entered century-old houses and churches, experienced firsthand how it’s like to swim in the Pacific Ocean, and tried some of the most unfamiliar cuisines. It is a dream come true for any traveler.
But writing this article, I’ve come to realize that it is not the memories that I made that mattered in the end; it is the promise of return, the anticipation and the excitement of another journey to my hometown that completed my visit.
“Balik kayo ulit,” my uncle said as we bid goodbye at the airport. He promised we would go to see our relatives in Mahatao on our next visit. “Miripirwa ta.” (See you soon.)
About the Author
Hon Sophia Balod is a storyteller. She is currently a News Producer of special reports and features for Balitanghali, Saksi, and State of the Nation with Jessica Soho. She is also a media fellow of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism for Basic and Advanced Investigative Reporting. Journalism 2010, UP Diliman. Read more of her articles here.