The Magic of Batanes Isles
La Isla Magazine, July 2010 Cover Story
Written by Anton Diaz
Photos by George Tapan
I’ve been to Batanes a number of times. I’ve witnessed how people magically fall in love with these northernmost islands of the Philippines. They fall in love not only with its beauty, but also with its cultural heritage, yummy food and the islands' proud Ivatans. The love that is developed is very authentic (not induced by any marketing ploy) and very organic (not forced), to the point that some people want to live in this place. Even my wife who joined me in my recent trip could not stop raving about it to our friends and family.
But what makes the experience magical?
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Batanes’ magic lies in its raw and pristine state. Its beauty is well-preserved and protected from outside influences. It is protected by the Ivatans themselves who won’t sell their land to any foreigner. It is also protected by the high airfare cost (probably the most expensive for domestic travel in the country). The falowa ride protects the neighboring islands, Sabtang and Itbayat, from hordes of visiting tourists. This is one of the few places left where you won’t see any commercial food chains, and you will really get to experience what it is like to live in a rural province.
The Islands of Batanes
Batanes is composed of three inhabited islands, namely, Batan, Sabtang and Itbayat. Batanes comes from the word Batan-es, which means islands around Batan. Ivatan is the name of their local language and the name of the indigenous people, which came from the word I-Batan – meaning “from Batan”.
Basco is the capital of Batanes, located on the main island of Batan. It is the center of commerce and political power. It is also where the airport and main port are both located. The narrow Abad Street is the main street of the town, where the fresh market, souvenir shops and grocery stores can be found.
The town plaza is modest and easy to spot with the Sto. Domingo de Basco Cathedral, the Provincial Capitol, and other government offices around it. The hospital, police station, and Saint Dominic College are also located nearby. It is so safe in Batanes that the only people in their jail are the Taiwanese caught fishing illegally. In fact, sometimes, they are allowed to go around the town because there is literally nowhere to go if they decide to escape.
Near the town is a signature icon of Batanes – the Batanes lighthouse. It was designed by the Abads and it resembles the lighthouses in Denmark. It puts an artistic accent to the vast grasslands and rolling terrain of the area as seen from the Vayang Rolling Hills viewpoint. The lighthouse now has a bunker restaurant where you can enjoy watching the sunset while enjoying a conversation over coffee or beer.
The famous spots to visit around the island would be the oldest inhabited stone house (called House of Dakay) in Ivana town and the Honesty Coffee Shop. At this unusual store, you can get any item you want and drop the payment in a box – it's all based on the honesty system. The prices are indicated near the items, which you record alongside the list of the stuff you're purchasing. Make sure to round it up to the nearest coin or bill value because there is no change.
One of the latest attractions is a secret room beside the San Carlos Borromeo Church of Mahatao. It is like a mini art library containing books labeled 1-99 with empty pages where guests can sign or create artwork on its pages. It is user-generated content (in an offline sense) where each visitor can express his or her feelings about Batanes.
One of the favorite spots around the island is the Valugan boulder beach. The entire stretch is lined with big rocks spewed from the volcano. It is best visited during sunrise. There, you can meditate, commune with nature, or simply rest among the zen-like rocks. There is another boulder beach on the other side of the dormant Mt. Iraya Volcano, which you can clearly see from the Vayang Rolling Hills.
Another unique spot is the tiny village of Mahatao town called Diura fishing village. It faces the Pacific Ocean and is a fishing area for mahi-mahi or dolphin fish (also called dorado in Batanes). The fishing season is usually from March to May and starts with the Kapayvanuvanua ritual.
There are a lot of viewpoints in Batan Island, which include the Chewa Viewdeck and the Loran station with the Alapad rock formation. But the most loved viewpoint of all is Racuh a Payaman. It is also known as “Marlboro Country” to some because the grasslands remind them of the Marlboro commercial where the animals roam freely in a wide area. From this viewpoint, you can see the entire southern Batan island with the coastline of Diura fishing village on one side, the Diura lighthouse with hedgerows at the foreground, and a view of Mt. Iraya towering over the entire island. On a clear day, the silhouette of Itbayat can also be seen from this vantage point. The best time to go is early in the morning when the carabaos and cows wander around to feed. You could also go before sunset, with the sun having a good angle, providing a nice balance of light and shadows.
To be continued: The Magic of Batanes Isles (Part 2 of 2)
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