Our plane landed in Basco, the provincial capital, with a slight thud on the short tarmac (stuck between a mountain and a sloping hill, there’s just no room for a runway expansion). Batanes is the smallest, northernmost and least populated province in the Philippines; but it has the most in terms of breathtaking open space, rolling hills and rugged coastline.
Life in Basco is unhurried and tranquil; light traffic flows through its narrow streets lined with small but sturdy homes built with thick stone or concrete walls to withstand frequent strong typhoons. Small shops are tucked among the houses; the town has no public market under one roof. Locals greet us with a welcoming nod or a polite smile, as we make our way to Amboy Seaside Resort, a few minutes drive from the town proper.
After checking into our bungalow room, we arranged for a van and a three-day tour of Batanes.
Our young guide began his tour at Mt. Carmel chapel built on a hill in the Ivatan style of rock walls but topped with bricks instead of traditional cogon. Inside the small chapel, religious icons fill the walls and the ceiling has been painted by local artists with the Pacita Abad Arts Foundation. With a commanding view of the ocean, it is easy to understand why it is a popular setting for weddings.
We continued on a long stretch of narrow concrete road (originally a dirt agricultural trail to the hillside farms) connecting the curving, hilly terrain. From a distance looms cloud-shrouded Mt. Iraya, a dormant volcano whose last known eruption dates back to 500 AD, which threw gigantic boulders over the islands, like those found at Valugan beach.
We drove to nearby Fundacion Pacita, the town’s fancy restaurant and boutique hotel belonging to the Abads, of the political clan and of the late internationally acclaimed painter Patricia Abad. A bronze likeness of the artist greets guests leading to her former residence and studio on the edge of a cliff, with an ocean view on the back and a lovely garden in front. It is the most expensive place to stay in Batanes, but part of the proceeds goes to support local artists and historic preservation.
On another hill, the PAGASA Weather Station monitors daily weather conditions in the region. Its sphere-shaped tower appears on the peak, next to a viewing platform that let us and other guests enjoy a 360-degree view of Batan.
Our next stop, the Dipnaysupuan tunnel, was used by Japanese soldiers in WWII. Armed with flashlights, we navigated the narrow passageway leading to carved-out living chambers, taking precarious steps down to the exit that loops back to the street.
Soon we were on our way to Valugan Beach where gigantic boulders litter the entire length of the seashore. These enormous lava rocks were spat out by Mt. Iraya’s fury eons ago; centuries of splashing ocean waves polished these smooth, giant, dinosaur egg-like boulders.
There is no shortage of open space in Batanes. Not far from Basco town proper lie acres of lush, green pasture on rolling hills with panoramic ocean views at every turn that would prompt one to sing “the hills are alive… “
We hiked uphill to get to Basco Lighthouse, which no longer functions as a beacon but serves as a popular photo op site and a great vantage point to view the island from end to end. On a clear day, one can see the neighboring island to the south.
Day Two: Sabtang
With a new tour guide, we headed to the Ivatan dock for an early morning boat ride to the island of Sabtang. The one-hour journey proved to be as thrilling as the destination – we sailed on a faluwa, a sturdy wooden boat built without outriggers and designed to navigate turbulent, crashing waves where the Pacific Ocean meets the China Sea.
A van was waiting at the shore to whisk us off to Morong (also known as Nakabuang) Beach, before crowds gathered at perhaps Batanes’ most photographed landmark, Mayahaw Arch. The arch is a nature-carved limestone formation that gracefully arches onto the beach. It didn’t take long before others showed up for their must-have photo op.
All guests to the island register at the Visitor Center where we sampled locally grown brewed tea, tried on the wig-looking cogon grass hat and cape traditionally worn by Ivatans for sun protection. We examined the backpack basket and other souvenirs that were hand-made by a group of local weavers still practicing their endangered, vanishing craft.
Our tour guide took us to a stroll around Chavayan, and we actually walked in to one of the occupied Ivatan houses. We were amazed at how compact and well preserved these houses are.
Sabtang has more preserved traditional Ivatan houses than Batan. These homes were originally built of bamboo and cogon grass until the Spaniards introduced the use of corals and rocks put together with lime for building thick walls. Our guide would later show us the original pits where corals were baked into white lime powder for hours on end underground (no longer practiced today for environmental reasons).
These sturdy stone structures have withstood time and strong typhoons that frequent the area, and they continue to be lived in today, some with added modern amenities inside. Yet they all seemed rustic, as if time had stood still in the villages of Chavayan and Savidug.
Tricycles topped with bamboo and cogon roof drove alongside our tour van on the narrow, hilly street that wends it way up to the end of the road disappearing to nowhere. The Chamayad-Tinyan viewpoint offers an unbelievable vista, revealing one gorgeous hill after another as one climbs the many lookout points to enjoy postcard-perfect views of the picturesque coastline and ocean.
Cooling huts by the roadside offer refreshments and souvenirs. It is a welcome respite from the hike and the awe-inspiring scenery we just experienced before heading out to lunch.
A grass hut roadside restaurant by the ocean served us local fare such as Uvud, ground fish balls cooked in sour broth. Others enjoyed lobsters, which I understand are as common and inexpensive here as chicken would be elsewhere. We watched a local fisherman bent over while fishing on the huge swath of corrals as we enjoyed our lunch.
The trip back to Basco was no less bumpy; we had to move from our seats for cover from splashing waves. I caught glimpses of flying fish darting like birds–a common sight and local staple (in fact, we had it for breakfast that morning).
We made our way back safely and transferred to a hotel located in the heart of the town (the seaside hotel was only available to us for one night). We lost our sea view but gained access to local shops and restaurants. We enjoyed strolling around the church and exploring the town plaza, shopping for souvenirs and a good restaurant to get dinner that evening.
Day Three: Mahatao, Uyugan and Ivana
We started our third-day tour in the morning driving around the Southern scenic coastline of Batan, on a narrow, winding, two-lane street all the way to our tour destinations. In Batanes, drivers are encouraged to honk with “Honk UR Horn” signs posted at every blind curve on steep, winding, two-lane roads for good measure.
Our first stop was at the Chawa view point where a long concrete staircase hugs the cliff below, leading us a long way down to corrals and tide pools exposed by the morning low tide. We marveled at tiny black fish squirming among seaweeds in the crystal-clear turquoise water at our feet, and took in the stunning ocean view and the cliff towering before us in living color.
A few feet further down is a stretch of pure white sand beach with a huge rock sitting at its far end. The water was calm and nearly deserted except for a handful of fishermen. We also took a quick look at a walled-in port where fishing boats can take refuge from the strong typhoons that frequent Batanes.
We then took off to the next town of Ivana, slowing down just enough to take a snapshot of the oldest working Spanish-style stone bridge in Batanes.
Our next stop was Vajay ni Dakay (house of Dakay), one of the most photographed Ivatan houses in Batanes, occupied by generations of the same family that has owned it for centuries. We peeked inside the living, dining and kitchen areas in the compact room with souvenirs for sale in a corner.
Not far is Honesty Café where you can buy local delicacies and handicrafts, paying at the unmanned counter before leaving. Honesty is still the best policy in this neck of the woods.
At the town’s edge is Ivana’s busy port now getting a major expansion of its sea walls. It is the island’s major hub for boats taking travelers to and from the neighboring islands.
We reached the town of Uyugan where housing gets sparse and the landscape changes to greenery as far as your eyes can see, down to the rock-framed sea. Along the way, we drove by the ruins of Sitio Songsong, a ghost village devastated by a tidal wave in the ‘50s and abandoned, although some houses have been restored and rehabbed.
Miles of forest and iridescent hills that slope down into the ocean below provided us plenty of postcard-worthy moments. Our van entered a metal gate to cow-herding territory referred to as Marlboro Country for obvious reasons.
We had our scheduled lunch atop a hill overlooking the ocean and Mt. Iraya at a distance. After a satisfying lunch under a grass shack, we headed to our final stop, the southern hexagonal-shaped lighthouse (Batanes has three to four lighthouses of more recent vintage except for the small Spanish-era tower sitting next to the Mahatao church).
We were soon back in Basco, and after a short stop in our hotel, we called for a tricycle Uber-style (tricycles rarely drive by in Batanes) to take us to the beach at the Marine Sanctuary, near the town’s edge. We soaked in the serenity of this haven called Batanes one last time, savoring every bit of a glorious vacation that was coming to an end. But I heard Itbatan Island in the north already calling for our return.
How To Get There
PAL flies daily from Manila to Basco and back; and JetAir flies thrice weekly. Regular plane roundtrip tickets cost anywhere from $200 to $350. Look for promotions to get cheaper deals on flights and tour packages.
The average hotel costs from $45 to $100/night. You can get around Basco town proper by tricycles for less than $2. Packaged tours (tour guide, van, boat fee and meal included) can be arranged through the hotels. Or you can save a lot, as we did, by just renting a van for $70/day. Hire your own freelance tour guide (referred to you by a friend or from the internet) for $45/day.
The boat ride to Sabtang is $3 each way. You can spend $7 to $12 for lunch at designated stops on the tours.
Omar Paz, a San Francisco Bay Area graphic designer and former art director at Filipinas Magazine, is happiest when traveling in the Philippines which never ceases to amaze him with new discoveries and places to visit.