BATANES ISLANDS – What’s It Like Up There

It was at the edge of the closing of summer when I flew to this enchanting island group found at the northern-most tip of the Philippine Archipelago.  I’ve heard so much about this quaint province, small at it may seem, but with a big heart.

Onboard an early morning Philippine Airlines flight from NAIA’s third terminal, my journey to Batanes began.

Flying high above rivers, cities, mountain ranges and some islands, and through a column of clouds, the islands of Batanes finally came into view.  It’s like those theatre stage curtains, they slowly parted and went up and there I was, in the capital town of Batanes – Basco.

Basco being the capital town of the Batanes group of islands is the commercial and government center of this small province.  It has a few shops, banks, and restaurants.  There are a lot of accommodation options credited to its must-see and must-experience culture, which witnessed a spike in tourism of late.

After dumping all my stuff in my hotel room, I immediately explored Basco.  My first stop was Yaru Nu Artes Ivatan, the one and only community art gallery (a cooperative as well) in the whole province.  It’s a small four-walled space, filled from floor to ceiling with artworks produced by its local artists.  I checked some artworks which piqued my interest, did a random list in my mind, said good-bye to the gracious artist-cum-sales person for the hour (the artists run the gallery and take turns in manning the small gallery), and went my way.  Walking through narrow streets with a mixture of old and new houses and some commercials shops selling wares from agricultural produce to toys and fashion, I stumbled upon Phil’s Brew.

Phil’s Brew is set in a nice shed which was built by its friendly owner at the corner of her property facing the intersection of two narrow streets.  The main house, still in its traditional Ivatan architecture/structure has been revived by her father upon their return to Basco after years of living in Southern Philippines.  The rest of this interesting story is much enjoyed when you engage with the owner over a cup of coffee and some of her home-made goodies.  Not to worry for she probably is one of the most hospitable café owners you will ever meet!  And don’t forget to buy some of her delicious home-made bottled sardines!  I bought five, but regretted by not getting more!

The tricycle service that I arranged with my hotel’s reception arrived to pick me up.  Just a heads up for those who are planning to visit this place, it is much convenient to arrange for your airport transfers and at the same time your transportation in the island.  You have choices ranging from air-conditioned vans (for those who are in a big group or those who prefer a much spacious seating area), smaller cars, tricycles (with its unique thatched-roof design) and bicycles (for those who prefer to sweat it out).  The drivers of any of these modes of transportation will double up as your tourist guides because they were trained by the local government unit to do such work – so much for adding value to these people’s daily job (and they earn more from it)!

Our first stop was a relatively new chapel (Tukon Chapel), built on top a hill a few kilometres outside of the town proper.  The walls are finished in round smooth stones, giving it an interesting texture.  A canopy of bougainvilleas greets you by the main entrance.  The interiors, with its open frame ceiling, accords an airy and rustic ambience – a chapel which will make you feel closer to our Creator.  The exposed beams are painted in a certain warm wood tone, with its pitched ceiling alternating between panels of religious paintings of saints and panels of timber planks terminating into a painting of a blue sky with little angels at its apex.  The walls are painted in plain off white colour thus highlighting the main altar’s tableau of the crucifixion, with a round window at the upper part of the mural-painted wall.  The chapel’s floor is done in octagon-shaped clay tiles with small square clay tile inserts.  The arched side windows and doors are bordered with framed green and yellow tinted glass, thus giving you a picture-perfect view of the outside gardens and lush foliage.  This is probably a popular wedding venue for those who opt for destination weddings!

Then we proceeded to an unmarked hill where I was shown a tunnel complex which is believed to be built by the Japanese during the Second World War.  Its called the Dinaysupuan Japanese Tunnel.

And one of the most breath-taking views was my next stop – the Valugan Boulder Beach.  Located in a cove-like area, flanked by grass-green rolling hills, this beach is lined not with fine white sand but with smooth and round stone boulders!  What made it such a unique experience for me was that Alice-in-Wonderland feeling wherein she shrunk and everything around her turned massive and much bigger than they truly are – this was what I felt upon laying my eyes in this beach!  It was deserted, which added to that feeling of being eerily wonderful!

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It was a return to Basco Poblacion afterwards to drop by Basco’s Town Church.  Its exterior’s cream and brown paint colours are replicated in its simple interiors as well.  One interesting feature that I noticed in its sides is its use of bamboo ceiling panels.  A centuries-old tree just outside the church guards an old grotto – a perfect place to meditate.

Then the tricycle driver brought me to enjoy the panoramic vistas provided by the Vayang Rolling Hills just at the outskirts of Basco.  Nearby is the lighthouse overlooking the town of Basco, where the Naidi Hills are located.  It was filled with locals and tourists alike, taking photos (selfies and groufies alike, of course!) and enjoying the sunset.  The top level of the lighthouse gives you a better view of the island – faint flickering of electric lights meeting the slow darkening of the day’s dusk, the sound of vehicles going about their business replaced by the children’s laughter as they frolic about by the rolling hills.

I had my dinner at the Octagon Restaurant, a restaurant located along the highway between the town proper and Batanes Hotel (where I stayed).  The restaurant, welcomes you with its tall timber door-like gate with paintings of local life on it.  A few descending steps after, you are led to an octagon structure, their main restaurant pavilion.  I opted to enjoy my dinner by the wrap-around porch, facing the open sea.  I was lucky to still witness the last light of the sunset while enjoying my dinner of local delicacies.

An early morning breakfast of locally-sourced sun-dried flying fish, fried eggs and rice and a cup of hot coffee was all that I need to start my day.  The sun was just about to rise when my tricycle driver picked me up and sped off towards the southern part of the island.  I had to catch a boat ride to the island of Sabtang where most of the well-preserved old Ivatan towns are still in existence and still being utilized!

An hour after, our boat arrived in the town of Sabtang.  I was welcomed by my pre-arranged tricycle driver, who happened to be a village councillor as well!  Past picturesque seaside with coconut trees lining and framing the view, we arrived at the village of Savidug.  Since it was still relatively early in the morning, the narrow streets were still deserted giving me a serene view of the whole village on the verge of waking up.  I walked its narrow streets lined with thick stone walls with small windows and doors, supporting simple thatched roofs.  It is noticeable that these houses are clustered close to each other and rarely have I seen fences built separating each house from another.  My feet led me to a wide open space that is occupied probably by the village’s open air basketball court, and its own chapel.  Beside the chapel is an empty shell of a traditional Ivatan house.

I was lucky with my tricycle driver because he has a lot of stories that he shared with me, thus making those in-between villages trips not so boring.

We passed by and he showed me the ruins of the largest “on-ground” vats which were utilized to churn lime being used for house-building.  He also pointed out a hilltop where an ancient fort is located, built by the natives for their protection.  Halfway to the next town that we are about to visit was a short stop at Chamantad – Tinan Cove, to refresh ourselves with some cool drinks, a quick photo-op while wearing the traditional raincoat (Vacul) and hat (made of cogon grass leaves) and their version of a back-pack (made of weaved bamboo strips).  Before we left, I was led to the edge of a cliff which has a commanding view of a beautiful inlet down below, and from what I gathered, is a favourite spot for some memorable scenes in a couple of local movies.  I would expect more movie productions to choose this province for its breath-taking natural sceneries!

A slow, winding and descending drive led us to the next old town of Chavayan.  What make this town interesting are two things, one is its chapel having cogon grass for its thatched roof and two, it has a group of elders who makes those must-have traditional Ivatan raincoats!  Unfortunately when I checked with them, all their raincoats were sold out and the ones that they were making were all pre-ordered.

Our next stop was a long drive from the western side to the opposite side of the island where the famous natural stone arch of Mahayaw is located.  Past shrubs and trees, we emerged a few meters from Morong Beach where some local staff are busy preparing our lunch.  I kept myself busy by exploring the area, taking some photos and checking a small cave-like structure at one end of the beach.  I settled under the shade of some stone cliff, and took a nap. Probably after half an hour I hit the beach and had a good dip.  It was roughly a total of two hours before I headed back to the open pavilion for my lunch.  After which, it was time to head back to the port for my boat trip back to Basco.

 

The remaining part of the day was spent having coffee again at Phil’s Brew.  This un-hurried life was taking its effect on me, and I wasn’t complaining at all!

I developed a liking for their dried fish so, for the third time, I opted for this type of breakfast over corned beef hash, and their other offerings.  It is always good to try the localities most popular dishes, which I think, is a reflection and a snippet of the local’s culture.

My tricycle driver warned me that is going to be a long day for me since our day consists of long in-between trips.  I had to apply sun-block, as a precaution.

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Our first stop was the Chawa view deck.  It gives a better view of the jagged rocky edges of Batan Island.  I even challenged myself to descend the very steep sets of staircases to the bottom where I got a closer view of the coral stones and the crashing waves.  Getting to the bottom of the view deck was easy. But climbing up was next to impossible, I was mentally cheering myself on as I struggled to get on top!

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Then we passed by a small village where there is a small inlet wherein most of the boats of the whole island are being kept in case there are typhoons to protect them from the big waves and strong winds.

We dropped by their church (Mahatao Church) where they installed a library with blank pages.  Anybody and everybody is invited to write something in its pages.  How interesting is that!

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We dropped by a small inlet which was believed to be a popular bathing spot for the Spanish priests of olden times.  Nearby is another town which has the oldest bridge that still exists.  This is also the town where the most popular Ivatan house is located – House of Dakay.

The House of Dakay is roughly around 5 mts wide x 7 mts long.  Its wide timber-planked flooring is elevated.  It is a one-room affair having one opening on each wall – two doors and two windows all in all.  Looking up you will see the exposed A-framed roof support with thatched roofing.  Exiting the other door, one will be led to another stone structure which holds the family’s kitchen.  Another structure is located at the far end, which serves as the bathroom.

It was the town of Ivana that is next on our list.  We checked out the town’s church first before walking towards the nearby, now famous Honesty Coffee Shop.  It is set in a more modern structure made out of CHB (Concrete Hollow Block) walls but it retained the traditional cogon-thatched roof.  Brightly painted in white and blue, and surrounded by a quaint side garden filled with red hibiscus and its rear side with fermenting jars and hanging decorative globes.  The shop has an interesting way of making business – it is all based on honesty.  Nobody is there to attend to your purchases; instead a blue logbook is placed on the table placed in the middle of the room.  On all four sides of the shop are displays of different local delicacies and other products with their prices visibly displayed.  I picked those that I fancy – some local cookies, sweets and other food stuff, wrote an entry in the logbook by making a list of all my purchases with their corresponding prices and the sum total.  I dropped my payment inside a box by the counter near the back door.

And we resumed our trip towards Marlboro Country or Racuh A Payaman, a place located right smack in the middle of lush rolling hills.  We passed by another church in the town of Itbud.  We also got a glimpse of the soon-to-open Batanes Branch of the National Museum, which is located between the mountains and the sea.

Traversing winding roads through mountains and hills, we finally arrived at our destination.  I immediately made a dash for the rolling hills towards the edge where you will find a sweeping view of the cove with its blue waters that seem to stare towards the blue skies, with a lighthouse as a witness from a distance.  What made it much more worthwhile was an impromptu choral singing which ensued when a group of tourists engaged themselves with some religious and inspirational songs.  I knew I’ve found a piece of heaven here in Batanes!

Walking back, I witnessed a group of men building a small hut, probably for a new couple.  It’s been mentioned to me that it has been a local practice for people to pitch in and help when building homes for their family, siblings, relatives or friends.  Money is never an issue because in return for such, the owner of the new house will just have to prepare drinks and food for these kind-hearted volunteers.  It may end up as a costlier alternative, it is the camaraderie of having everyone helping out that counts.

After our hearty lunch, I requested that we check out the lighthouse which I saw awhile ago.  It’s not crowded yet, so I was able to take more photos.

Then my tricycle driver drove me back to Basco Town Proper where I spent the remaining hours of the afternoon.  I witnessed a religious procession, I got to take a closer look at Kenan Aman Dagat, Batanes’ local hero’s statue created by no less than one of our National Artists for the Arts – Abdulmari Imao, I also got to stroll around town for the last time.

For the last time, I enjoyed the serene golden Batanes sunset.  And as I went my way, back to my hotel for my last night, a nagging feeling inside confirmed what I felt in the past few days that I have spent in this quaint island province – that life as we know it is not measured through the accomplishments that you have achieved but by the laughters that you have shared and the happy thoughts that you have imprinted in the hearts of people you have met along the way.

 

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