Breathtaking Batanes, 1

Considered as one of the most inaccessible tourist destinations in the country, Batanes has long been part of my bucket list. When my mom first went there in 2010, she came back looking all starry-eyed and told me that when I graduate and find a stable job, I should tuck some away for a trip to the northern most province of the Philippines.

She had talked of green meadows and hills like those in Julie Andrew’s Salzberg. Her descriptions nabbed me and my imagination, so it’s no surprise that six years later, I went to Batanes with her.

Batanes is composed of 10 islands — Batan, Itbayat, Sabtang, Dinem, Siayan, Ditarem, Misanga, Mavudis, Dequey, and Vuhus — the first three of which being the only ones inhabited. The other seven are chunks of unarable land spurting forth from the sea. They make for good photos, but hardly for anything else. The farthest island is Mavudis, and it is said that if you stand at its shores at dawn, you’ll be able to see the first beams of the sun as it hits Taiwan.

The locals of Batanes are called Ivatans and number about 17,000 as of 2015. It’s a relatively small community, and every one knows almost every one else.

The basic tour packages for Batanes are divided into four: North Batan, South Batan, Sabtang, and Itbayat. Since tourists stay in Basco, tour itineraries start with North Batan.

A standard tour package consists of one guide, one driver, and a van. One can always opt to DIY, but the weather is oftentimes not agreeable to excitable tourists who want to stay dry.

It’s a bed of rocks…. a bedrock.

Valugan Boulder Beach

Our itinerary for the first day consisted of the normal items that one usually has in touring — churches, more churches, government buildings— but the first we ever came to that took our breath away was the boulder beach. The Valugan Boulder Beach is a long stretch of rocks spewed out by an eruption of Mt. Iraya from 400 AD. Overtime, the rocks were smoothened by waves from the Pacific Ocean, and the spot became popular for its scenic view.

The rocks here range from the size of a pebble to the size of a person. I risked concussion many times in trying to secure the perfect spot for a photo. Once I found a good steady boulder to sit on, I spent a few minutes just staring out at the sea and listening to the waves. The boulders act as a deterrent to the waves so we didn’t get wet, and it was nice to gaze out and listen to the rhythmic smashing against the bay.

Stone is one of the many natural resources that Batanes is rich in. Our guide Rommy told us that some, if not most, of the infrastructure projects in Batanes source rocks in the islands for concrete. By sourcing locally, the contractors for roads and bridges are able to save money (read: kickback).

My sister and I trying to find our balance amongst the boulders.

Mt. Carmel Chapel

Our first actual stop was a quaint church called Mt. Carmel Chapel. While it was in itself rather lovely, the tourists of Mt. Carmel go there for the view. The chapel overlooks hills of grass used for pasture, and despite the treacherous wind ruining our hair, we devoted a significant time to capturing those hills on camera.

(1–2) The chapel from various view points, (3) Our first sighting of green hills. There will be more of this.

Radar Station

Less than five minutes away from the chapel is the now non-operational Radar Station. I forget which typhoon caused the huge satellite dish to disconnect from its base, but this pitiful tableau is the result.

It does have a lovely view.

Dipnaysuhuan Japanese Tunnel

Our next stop was a bunker that served as a lookout spot during the Japanese occupation. When one thinks of Batanes, warfare doesn’t really come to mind, but apparently this five-door tunnel with multiple chambers was used as a defensive position during the second World War.

There’s nothing in the tunnel now but empty hallways of rough rock. Most of the stairway to the innermost chambers had already eroded so we couldn’t go very far, but the feeling of walking in pitch black with nary a gust of wind was a bit exhilarating.

Get your dirty mind out of the gutter.

Basco Rolling Hills

Here is where it gets really, really good. When I first stepped out of our van to look at the expanse of the Basco Rolling Hills, I stood still, felt the weight of my camera on my hands, and thought, “Where do I start?”

The Basco Rolling Hills are a literal sea of green. It is wave upon wave of pasture ground and roving cattle and tree hedges and manure piles. I can’t express enough how beautiful this place is. Some have compared it to the green hills of New Zealand, and having never been there I can’t verify, but I can say that it’s breathtaking enough to make one seriously consider leaving home and staying for good.

They say the rolling hills are best explored on foot, and while it was impractical to get out of our vantage point to scurry down the hills, we did climb up the pathways to get a better view of Mt. Iraya. It was a good thing the sky had cleared up, otherwise, the ground would be too muddy and slippery for safe trekking. There was a light stench of manure, but that hardly dampened our spirits.

There was a bit of construction going on to extend the road deeper into the rolling hills so people won’t have to trek too much, but in my opinion, the accessible parts of the hills are more than enough to acquiesce whatever deep soul searching one is going through.

(1) Mt. Iraya is right beside the hills. Its peak is hidden by clouds today, but we’ll see it properly in the coming days, (2) Beware of manure piles, (3) My sister and Aunt Josie climbing up one of the peaks, (4) When hit by the wind, these tufts of long grass look like moving waves, (5) I couldn’t resist.

Fundacion Pacita

The Fundacion Pacita Nature Lodge and its restaurant is not really a part of the standard tour itinerary, but our group insisted that we stop by there to ebb our curiosity of this well-known place. We asked our guide to bring us there on the pretense that we were going to eat in the restaurant. Any other reason, especially mere sightseeing, wasn’t allowed unless you were a Fundacion guest.

We did eventually end up eating at the restaurant. Our guide had built up in our heads a very classy image of the lodge as he regaled us with stories of Php 170 coffee and Php 23,000 rooms. This is not entirely false, as the Fundacion’s restaurant is essentially a Manila cafe in the heart of Batanes. The menu offered Lavazza coffee, panini sandwiches, and hamburgers, along with more local food like fancy kamote fritters and fancy tsokolate. It’s not an overly deep plunge into one’s pocket.

(1–3) Our order of kamote fritters with chocolate dip, burger with fries, and bread pudding, (4) Restaurant interior.

To be honest, I was partial to the food because I was expecting it to be more local. Batanes cuisine consists primarily of meat as they are abundant in cattle. Bulalo, tapa, and nilagang baka are specialties. Seafood like coconut crab is served depending on the season. Apart from pechay and mustasa, there are few vegetables, as their homegrown vegetables are only enough for family. Fruits are even fewer, though they are fond of serving oved balls made of grated banana stalk.

I was expecting to find Batanes cuisine with a classy twist that justified the price — like a dash of lime or cinnamon — but I was disappointed. Nevertheless, the restaurant’s interior was interesting. There were a bit of sculptures and installation pieces that caught my eye and made for good sources of inspiration.

Man and woman sculptures made of twisted wire

The highlight of this place however is the lodge itself. The lodge’s guests were out so we had a chance to slip inside and snap a few photos. We didn’t get to the rooms themselves, but the receiving area was open. Overall, it felt very rich and cozy — upholstery, wooden shelves, display cases, the works. I didn’t get to enjoy it much since we had to whisper among ourselves to communicate (Those poor guests!) and it all felt very sneaky, but the place was visually rich so it was, in a way, worth it.

Afterwards, we went to the side garden, where blue benches stood out against the green hedges. It looked like a good place to reflect, which is I guess what people pay for if they book here.

(1) The lodge as seen from the restaurant, (2–3) Receiving area interiors (4-5) Garden finds.

I heard from our guide that the Fundacion used to be part of tour itineraries until guests complained of the disturbance. They went all the way to Batanes and paid twenty grand a night to have peace and quiet, so I suppose they were entirely within their rights.

The South Batan tour has the same number of tourist spots as the North Batan tour but covers far more land mass. To properly enjoy the South Batan tour, one should wear sturdy sandals or well-loved rubber shoes.

I would caution as well against wearing white shoes, even though they seem all the rage nowadays. Those Stan Smiths look well and good on pictures, but they won’t be looking very classy next to a pile of manure.

Chawa View Deck

The Chawa View Deck is one of the many tourist spots in Batanes that Typhoon Ferdie destroyed. Not long ago, the Chawa View Deck used to have a hundred-step staircase leading to a small beach where people could fish and frolic. When the typhoon caused the steps to erode, the upper view deck remained in most itineraries, but the experience was only limited to taking a few pictures.

(1) Mt. Iraya finally shows its peak! (2) Below the viewing deck.

House of Dakay

Said to be the most photographed house in Batanes, the Dakay House was built in 1887 and owned by Luisa Estrella, who passed it on to her nephew Jose “Dakay” Estrella. The house is made of lime, stone, and cogon leaves and is one of the few houses that survived the 1918 earthquake that destroyed most of the town.

Honesty Coffee Shop

A trip to Batanes wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Honesty Coffee Shop, not just because of its novel payment scheme, but because it so embodies the Ivatan culture. The shop sells coffee, souvenirs, snacks, and various knick knacks. Since it is unmanned, it relies on the honesty of its customers to log their purchases and pay.

It is not an exaggeration when I say that the shop embodies Ivatans. When we landed in the airport and met our guide, he offered to take our arrival photo, and when we hauled our luggage with us, he told us to leave it at the side and not to worry about it being stolen. Had it been any other province, we wouldn’t have believed him.

Ivatans are very mindful of their reputation. It’s probably because it’s a small population and every one knows any one’s business. Ill intent ripples throughout the community and damages one’s reputation for a long time. I do think it’s not just this fear of being ostracized that makes them honest. I choose to believe that Ivatans are just good-natured people, plain and simple.