Discovering Batanes in the Philippines’ Verdant North

At the top of the Philippines is a clutch of windswept islands where the bonds of community have been forged by the elements. In verdant Batanes, Stephanie Zubiri dances among lighthouses, absorbs lessons from tribal elders and just lets go. Photographed by Scott A. Woodward

Oct 4, 2019

There are places of beauty and then there are places of magic. Batanes is the latter. A place so enchanting, it takes hold of you as soon as you land. A quaint, stone airport, framed by flowering vines and hedges, mysterious Mount Iraya looming in the distance, its peak shrouded by wispy clouds. Absent any of the usual tropical archetypes, Batanes is slightly disorienting. It makes you ask yourself, Are we still in the Philippines?

Our landing was by no means smooth, but it was indicative. Seated in the last row, we felt the brunt of the aggressive tailwinds, whipping us from side to side as the plane abruptly stopped. Strong winds and an unpredictable climate are some of the reasons the province remains isolated. Some 162 kilometers north of Luzon, the islands that make up Batanes are sandwiched between the North Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea, placing it in the path of punishing typhoons. Like everyone on the islands, we found we were at the mercy of the elements; all we could do was surrender to circumstance, trust serendipity and free-fall into the community.

When we arrived at what was supposed to be our first homestay in the capital, Basco, our rooms were still occupied by stranded travelers. Delayed three days, they did not know when they would leave. Here, the Type A in me began to protest that someone should have warned us in advance but Sha, the representative from IBS Tours charged with settling us in, was not worried in the slightest.

Edna and Mike, the friendly hosts at Katuvang B&B.

The brief hassle became a blessing in disguise: Sha led us to the charming white-stucco, blue-shuttered Katuvang B&B, run by the equally charming Mike and Edna. Like a distant auntie, Edna welcomed us with warm hugs—then she injected another hiccup into our original plan: maybe we shouldn’t visit the northernmost island of Itbayat, beloved for embodying an idyllic pastoral past. Rough waves would mean a perilous four-hour sea crossing. “You can go, but we’re not sure when you’d come back,” she said. It was time for yet another Plan B in the mere course of an hour.

So, we set off for somewhere safer. Pulling out of Basco, we snaked our way up pristine roads offering glimpses of stunning sea views and lush countryside, and eventually made it to the top of Vayang Rolling Hills. The bracing winds had blown the rain clouds away and we were awestruck by the sheer beauty of the vibrant, undulating landscape that gave way to coastal cliffs plummeting into crashing blue waves. The long grass rippled with each gust of wind, making it seem that the very hills themselves were living, breathing creatures.

A guest room at Katuvang B&B.

“Of course growing up here, it was like, bundok at dagat lang yan—it’s just mountains and sea, what’s so special about that?” our guide, Jen Baldomar, said. “Then I left the province to study and I realized just how beautiful it was. More importantly, I realized how amazing the people are.”

What I would come to understand on this trip is that the charm and beauty of Batanes is not held solely by its landscape. Its people, the Ivatans, and their thriving culture are at the heart of it all. Their relationship with the land and the sea is the definition of symbiotic: in Batanes you find a geography that forged a people and a people who preserve it. A direct result of the isolation of the province and its geography, the bayanihan spirit lives on.

Unlike in most parts of my country where individual self-determination seems to reign, the idea of working together to achieve a common goal is omnipresent in Batanes. “If you’re building your house or fixing a roof, you don’t even have to say anything or ask for help. By the afternoon, the whole village will be there, helping you, bringing snacks. It’s a real community,” Jen said. B&Bs and homestays are the norm here, with innkeepers often extremely thoughtful and full of stories, making staying with them the best way to immerse in daily life. “We’re proud of our culture. Yung kinalakihan ko—how I grew up—we greet each other all the time. In most villages we don’t close or lock doors. People trust each other,” Jen said. “That’s what the Ivatans are all about.”

The following day we were up early for the first boat out to Sabtang Island. At the port there was a distinct calm as the sun rose and people gathered on the pier. I’m used to chaos, that hot-blooded excitement usually associated with Filipinos. Here, I was struck by how orderly everyone was. People waited patiently, making quiet conversation. A lady named Josie approached us; originally from Itbayat, she had been living in Canada since she was 14 and had moved back to the province with her husband to semi-retire. Within five minutes she had shared her life story, a great place to stay on Sabtang, an open invitation to her dive resort and a few strawberry-yogurt candies. Everything was warm, genuine and relaxed.

On the approach to Sabtang, the early- morning sun bathed the shore and lighthouse in gold. It promised to be a beautiful day. On our way to the famed cliffs of Chamantad- Tiñan, the vistas were so arresting that I asked the driver to stop. I wandered off over a sand dune carpeted in emerald foliage and purple flowers, and into a moment of pure bliss. This was nature at its most sublime. An endless wild shoreline of greenery, sand and jagged rock, the waves of the sapphire ocean powerful and tremendous… I stood as still as I could, taking it all in. The warm sunshine kissing my skin while the wind blew so wildly, I felt that if I just let myself, I’d fly away. I closed my eyes, suddenly overcome with the emotion of a release into pure freedom. Nothing mattered but that very moment, and that the whole coast belonged to me. The magic was palpable and the journey as beautiful as the destination.

Each corner here, if not flat-out stunning, had something quaint to offer: A hidden, overgrown garden behind a colonial church. Baby goats looking for cuddles in the parking lot. Colorful homes with weathered patina. Locals, often shy but always offering their big, welcoming smiles.

Take for example Auntie Fely, a resident of the heritage stone village of Chavayan, who showed us how to make vakul—the traditional headgear woven of palm fronds that protects farmers from sun and rain. The gold earrings she wore were pre-colonial heirlooms that have been passed down through generations, much like the stone houses, relics still very much in use. Time was not linear here; traditions were still an integral part of the everyday.

As we were on the way to visit Sabtang’s traditional fishing village, there was a thunderous clap, the blue skies turned grey and the heavens ripped apart. We weren’t going to be able to make it to the homestay originally planned for us. Frazzled, cold and soaked, I suddenly realized the solution was in my pocket. I pulled out the scrap of paper on which Josie from the pier had scribbled a number, and, fortunately enough, Pananayan Homestay told us they had room. It was clean and simple, but the drenched views of the lighthouse and the angry sea rendered the scenery a Hitchcock movie set. Little wonder that the rain beating down on my window throughout the night caused me to wake up in panic.

Our return the next day to Batan was rough. But at the back of the boat, a man dropped a line into the sea. Unfazed by the choppy waters, he perched on the edge and looked peaceful. Another passenger joined him. The pair trawled, calmly making the most of the roiling whitecaps. By the time we reached the pier, they had pulled out a fat parrotfish and the skies had started to clear. Time and again on this trip I came across people who showed an inherent trust that things would turn out fine, even in adverse conditions. That so long as they cared for her, Mother Nature would provide.

“Being Ivatan means having a certain respect for the environment,” Patsy Abad, the general manager of Café du Tukon and boutique hotel Fundacion Pacita, told me. The Ivatan speak a language related to the Ilocanos from north Luzon, and have been settled on these islands since before pre-colonial times, but their exact origins are unclear. What is certain is that the culture, shaped by the harsh landscape and climate, is built on cooperation, Patsy said, “being able to survive with the help of others, because for many years we’ve been isolated. These values are what make us unique, what set us apart from Palawan and Boracay. There’s a sense of pride in that.”

Talk about pride: there is no litter anywhere. Contrary to most of the Philippines, in Batanes, not one wrapper, sachet or bit of trash tarnishes the picturesque surroundings and the tree-lined roads. The absence of markets also highlights how conscious people are of waste and excess. Local farmers and fishermen only produce enough for the community. There is a real fear that mass tourism will challenge the balance in the ecosystem.

“We like to encourage tourists to keep on coming back,” Patsy said. “That’s when you know they actually appreciate not just the views but also the culture. For such a small island with limited resources, that’s truly what we can offer.” Patsy—who hails from a prestigious Ivatan family, her father a politician and her aunt the internationally recognized artist Pacita Abad—returned from studying and working abroad with the spirit of cooperation in mind.
The 14-room Fundacion Pacita is a piece of paradise in what’s already Eden. Stone structures with azure shutters are ensconced in flowers, vines and shrubs; surrounded by hills and water; and decorated tastefully with local handicrafts, vintage furniture, bronze sculptures, hand-painted patterned tiles and Pacita’s vibrant artworks. I could live here all year round, rain or shine. Especially with access to Patsy’s homey farm-to-table café, where there was a lovely selection of wines to accompany the seasonal food that came direct from nearby communities.

Throughout our stay, we often saw solo fishermen casting their nets out to the sea and people digging for cockles. “It’s just a way of life for us,” Jen said. “The man you saw digging for clams? He’s the head of the Department of Agriculture.”

That afternoon we made our way to a small village called Diura, home of the mataw, a clan of traditional fishermen. Known for the pre-colonial shamanistic ritual called kapayvanuvanuwa, which guides them at the beginning of the fishing season and is meant to bring good luck and a bountiful catch, Diura is another place where the past melds with the present. Felix Fabre, the shaman’s apprentice, was busy sun-drying arayu, or dolphin fish, but paused to invite us into his home for a chat.

“Belief in the tradition is waning. The others with us, they go through the motions but they’re not really sincere, not like before,” Felix lamented. “It’s the worst catch in years. It doesn’t matter if you do the ritual; if your mind and heart is not in it, it doesn’t have any effect.” Another concern is illegal fishing by foreign vessels in Philippine waters—against their modern methods, Diura’s small boats casting with hooks and lines don’t stand a chance.

The Vayang Rolling Hills, a unique landscape for the Philippines.

The Ivatans are protective of their heritage. Which is how photographer Scott and I found ourselves called up to the tribal council of elders to defend our journalistic purpose. The chieftain, Vicenta Hidalgo, was at first very stern in reprimanding me for failing to file a permit to shoot and document our visit. One particularly egregious example of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation that she had for us was that of the French reporter who had spent months with the mataw, and then said in a documentary that they worshipped pigs. It isn’t uncommon in the Philippines for ancestral beliefs to be practiced alongside Christianity, and so for devout Catholics, this was a serious insult. The chieftain soon warmed up after hearing us talk about how much we admired the Ivatan culture. She explained a more idealistic reason for shying away from media exposure. “We don’t want people to just take photos and post them everywhere,” Hidalgo said. “We want to keep some mystery so that when people come here, they can discover the magic for themselves.”

We, in fact, were seeking the shaman. He was willing to welcome us, though I was told this was not always the case. Florentino Galana, fondly known as Kaka Ernie, inherited shamanistic traditions from his father. We sat outside his small shack, amid three well-kept cats with haunting blue eyes and a snow-white dog. It seemed as though they were less household pets than enchanted creatures. Kaka Ernie’s eyes sparkled. “Nung bata pa ako, mahilig na talaga makipagistorya sa mga matatanda,” he began. “When I was a child, I was already interested in the stories of the elders. They didn’t want to share them with me because they were afraid I was too small to understand the importance and in turn it would diminish the power… It’s only when I got older that my father passed on the ritual to me,” he said, then echoed Felix’s assessment. “You have to believe fully or it won’t work.”

Batanes, the paradise of the north

The province is actually closer to Taiwan than Luzon. Best to visit March through May.

GETTING THERE

Fly direct to Basco from Manila and stay for at least four nights to fully experience Batan Island and Sabtang Island at a relaxed pace. If you are planning to visit Itbayat Island, stay a minimum of one week and account for some flexibility in your itinerary in case boat crossings are too difficult.

TOUR

IBS Tours and Travels Flexible and well organized, they are happy to tailor tours to your needs and schedule. They are also good at choosing the right guide based on your interests—Jen Baldomar was excellent. batanesibstravels.com.

STAY

Fundacion Pacita: This charming boutique hotel is set amid lush, green hills and offers spectacular views of the sea. The food is excellent as Café du Tukon serves classic Ivatan food as well as modern interpretations of dishes using native ingredients. They have a great continental selection, too. fundacionpacita.ph; doubles with breakfast from P10,000.

Katuvang B&B: Run by Edna and Mike Acebes, this cozy little bed and breakfast is a perfect place to stay in the heart of Basco. 63-92/0410-8351; doubles with breakfast from P2,500.

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