For first-time visitors, Itbayat Island may seem like a place suspended in time.
An island paradise barely touched by the unrelenting hand of modernization, Itbayat is one of the last regions of the Philippines where man has hardly left his mark on the environment.
It is a place that sometimes feels foreign and wild, yet at the same time, familiar and tame, a place of majestic rolling hills where wild horses roam freely, racing across open fields. It's also a place forgotten by history, where vast cave systems hold the secrets to some of the Philippines earliest settlers.
Most importantly, it's home to nearly 3,000 Ivatan—the original inhabitants of the island.
If you're up for a real adventure and want to experience untouched nature, Itbayat is the perfect destination.
Itbayat is the northernmost populated island of the Philippine Archipelago.
Created by seafloor uplift that has been occurring for over 35 million years, Itbayat is the largest of the islands that make up the Province of Batanes. It has roughly 83km of coastline that consists of steep cliffs with rocky shores. The interior is made up of rolling hills and grasslands with patches of rainforests and a number of caves.
Five main seaports are situated on the coastline and are the main transportation hubs to and from the island. (There is also an airfield that is/was under repair at the time of this writing.)
Itbayat is divided into five barangays, with a total population of nearly 3,000 people.
(A Barangay is the Filipino term for 'village'. Cities and municipalities in the Philippines are typically divided into smaller Barangays.)
One of the most striking features of Itbayat is the red clay that makes up its topsoil.
(The red clay is notoriously sticky under wet or rainy conditions.)
Located near the upper boundary of the Tropic of Cancer, Itbayat has an average temperature of 25.1 °C (77 °F), meaning the island's climate is much cooler than the rest of the Philippines. Itbayat lies directly in the path of northerly typhoons, so rainfall is typical, but the dry season here tends to be much more arid.
There is also a prevailing easterly wind known to locals as Avayat.
The high winds have played an important role in Ivatan society, shaping much of their culture and customs. Their traditional clothing was crafted over the centuries to help cope with the windy conditions of Batanes.
(The nights get pretty chilly so be sure to bring a jacket.)
Flora And Fauna
Itbayat's geographical location has kept it isolated for millions of years. A distinct ecosystem has evolved that encompasses a wide variety of plant and animal species that are endemic to the island.
Vegetation is sparse on Itbayat. Unlike most of the Philippine archipelago, Itbayat is predominantly grasslands and shrubs with patches of rainforest scattered around the landscape.
The Philippine Date Palm is a part of everyday life and can be found scattered all over the island. Ivatan people utilize all parts of the date palm–its fruits are cooked in a variety of local dishes or used to make a type of vinegar, and the dried date palm leaves are what the Ivatan use to make their traditional clothing and headgear, such as the Vakul.
Here a local Ivatan man rides his Carabao (water buffalo) through town, a common sight since cars are rare to the island.
Domesticated animals were first introduced to the Philippines around 200 BC. It's not entirely known when exactly the carabao was first brought to Itbayat.
Cows, goats, horses, chicken, and pigs are also common on the island.
The surrounding oceans are home to a wide array of sea life. Itbayat is also the breeding ground for a number of migratory fish such as Arayu, or what is more commonly known as Mahi-Mahi (Dorado).
Arayu fishing is an important part of Ivatan Heritage. The fish has sustained the Ivatan people for generations. Locals catch Arayu using traditional methods of a simple hook and line.
Ivatan fishing season starts around the end of March and kicks off with the Kapayvanuvanua, a ceremonial ritual that asks permission from sea spirits for the fishermen to leave their ports. A pig is traditionally sacrificed as payment to ensure a bountiful fishing season.
(Tourist are allowed to witness the Kapayvanuvanua. The practice is sacred to the Ivatan fishing communities so remember to respect the local traditions and keep a sensible distance.)
The local economy is agriculturally driven, mostly by farming and fishing.
Root crops such as sweet potato, taro, garlic, ginger, onion, and yam are grown because of their durability to the harsh weather conditions of the island. Naturally, these crops make up a good portion of the Ivatan diet.
There isn't much tourism in Itbyayat, so it has very little impact on the economy.
(Be prepared to spend a little extra on commodities as it is difficult to travel to Itbayat. Shipments are costly so there is a slight markup on common goods.)
People, Culture, and History
Itbayat is home to the Native Ivatan People who are believed to have settled in the Batanes Islands around 2,000 BC.
Ivatan history was passed down through oral traditions prior to western colonization. Much of their legacy has been lost over time or lost due to outside interference as many of their original beliefs and traditions would have been forbidden during Spanish Rule.
Ivatans were once believed to have originated from Luzon. However, recent genetic and linguistic evidence show a closer link to the Yemi people of Taiwan who migrated from South China to Southeast Asia.
(Archeological evidence also points to Itbayat being one of the major staging grounds for the migration of Austronesians to the Philippines, Southeast Asia, New Zealand, and as far away as the Americas.)
An ancient Ivatan Burial Mound points to the sea.
Ivatan burial rituals, the dead were laid to rest under rocky mounds that were fashioned into the shape of a boat. The mounds were constructed using available stone and typically contained the remains of a single person. However, larger mounds have been discovered containing the remains of entire families.
Some of the remains have been carbon dated to around 355 BC.
No one is 100% sure of the cultural significance the mounds had for the ancient Ivatan, but the custom was still in practice well after the Spanish had colonized the Philippines.
Itbayat is littered with artifacts from the Ivatans' past. Stone ruins can be found scattered across the island, and archeological studies paint the Pre-hispanic Ivatan culture as being very sophisticated as well as complex—with the Ivatan living in large communities ruled by Chieftains.
(Burial mounds have been found on all inhabited islands of Batanes. Their full numbers are unknown as many have been damaged or plundered or hidden by vegetation.)
Today, life for the Ivatan on Itbayat is comparable to that of other Indigenous Peoples (IP) in the Philippines—with most living at or below the poverty line.
However, unlike other indigenous groups, the Ivatan have been able to pretty much preserve their cultural identity and lay claim to their lands and heritage. This is in due part to how geographically isolated the region is from the rest of the Philippines and the fact that local Chieftains work regularly with the governing bodies of Batanes.
Getting to see the daily lives of the people on Itbayat seemed almost surreal.
Living conditions are tough and the Ivatan have endured for so long by banding together to help one another in times of need. The sense of community between the locals is strong and you can really feel it when you're there.
We were fortunate to witness an entire community working together (at no cost) to repair a Cogon roof that was damaged during a recent typhoon. We were told that this custom of helping has always been a part of Ivatan society and it is encouraged both by the Tribal Elders and the NCIP.
The NCIP (National Commission on Indigenous Peoples) has worked closely with the Tribal Council of Batanes to set up similar programs that are meant to help preserve the Ivatan communities by maintaining their traditional ways of life as well as ensuring that their rights are protected.
It was my understanding that the NCIP do as much as they can with what little funding they receive from the government.
(If you'd like to know more about the NCIP, click here.)
Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion on the island.
And while the majority of Ivatan people are practicing Catholics, ancestral worship and spiritualism are still observed to some degree.
(Recently, Protestant traditions have been introduced to Itbayat and there is a small Baptist church in the Town Proper.)
Day-To-Day Life and What To Expect
With a population just nearing 3,000, life on Itbayat is quiet. The towns are sleepy and everyone seems to know everyone and everything about…well, everyone.
If you're used to the city life, Itbayat can be a bit jarring at first.
There are no cellphone towers, no internet, and no air-conditioning. Electricity is only available during the evenings and there is no transportation, save for a few vans or motorbikes that are for rental.
Getting around Itbayat can be a challenge, and if you want to see the sights you'll have to rent transportation.
Van rentals can run you a steep Php 2,000-2,500 per day. Prices are negotiable but don't expect much…gasoline is an expensive commodity on the island.
The living conditions are hard on Itbayat and the locals have adapted to a life that is sustainable to their surroundings. You'll most likely come across people sun drying vegetables and fish in town.
Most foods are dried or preserved, a practice that is a result of the unpredictable weather conditions of Itbayat. In fact, a large portion of Ivatan cuisine is made up mostly of preserved or dried meats and vegetables.
Fresh seafood is probably the readiest available source of protein on the island. You can purchase a wide variety of seafood depending on the catch and the season.
Flying fish are common and are also a very important part of Ivatan culture as they are used as bait to catch the Arayu/Mahi-Mahi. The fish is also consumed by locals—either dried or grilled and can be purchased in town.
If you get the chance, try the grilled flying fish. The taste is clean and the flesh is nice and flaky with little bone.
There are a few number of eateries on the island and most can be found in the town proper.
Expect typical Filipino food. If you want to try Ivatan cuisine, you'll have to request in advance.
Take note, a meal will cost you about Php 250/head no matter the size of the portions or what's on the menu for that day.
(For some reason, Sweet & Sour was on almost every menu we tried in Batanes.)
There are also a number roadworks under way. The process has been slow according to our guide, but the project will better connect the various ports and towns of Itbayat.
The sea ports are also where you'll find most of the day's action. Entire families work together in the daily fishing operations of the island.
The ports are also a popular hangout out on weekends. Many locals gather to swim and have picnics.
Things To Do and See
You'll do lots and lots of hiking…it really is the best way to experience Itbayat.
(It's also the only way to reach most of the tourist attractions.)
The hikes are light to moderate in difficulty and worth every single step.
(That's Dinem Island that can be seen in the distance. It's located between Itbayat and Basco. The island is uninhabited but used as a shelter for fishermen during storms or bad weather.)
Pictures don't do justice to how breathtakingly beautiful the island really is.
On our hike, we also learned how the Ivatan use their surrounding for basic survival.
Our guide, Kuya Roger fashioned a Tipuhu leaf into a water container.
(Tipuhu is the Ivatan term for Breadfruit, which is common to Batanes.)
It's around a 1- to 2-hour hike from the drop-off point to Torongan Cave.
The cave itself was carved out by seawater millions of years ago and opens to the ocean on the opposite side. Its main features are small stalactites that hang from the ceiling.
Remnants of an ancient Austronesian settlement can be found in the interior of Torongan cave.
Archeological studies have found pottery and other small artifacts in the layers and sediments of the cave. Unfortunately, weathering, human activity, and the cave's close proximity to the ocean have impeded further research on the site.
Being able to see the ruins up close and stand in the very place that was home to some of the Philippines first settlers was an incredible experience.
There are plenty of swimming and cliff jumping sites around the island. Local kids spend a lot of their free time jumping from the steep cliffs around the port.
For a small fee of about Php 40, you can visit Lookout Point, which offers you the best 360° view of Itbayat. It is also the best place to catch the sunset.
There are a number of other attractions on the island that we were unable to reach due to our schedule.
When you visit Itbayat, it's important to plan ahead so you can maximize your time and take in all the amazing scenery.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Finding The Right Guide
If it's your first time to visit Itbayat, the best and easiest way to experience the island is to first find a local guide.
We went with Bashi Islands Eco-Tours and Adventures, a local tour group run by natives of Batanes. They were very knowledgeable about Batanes in general and knew the islands from top to bottom.
We also appreciated the fact that they offer tours that are informative and educational and the money they earn goes back into the community.
Bashi Islands Eco-Tours & Adventure
Batanes, Batan – Sabtang – Itbayat
Mobile: +63 999 990-7547
Guides: Kuya Roger and Kuya Jojo
Book a Homestay
If you make the trip to Itbayat, it's recommended that you at least stay overnight.
Transport to and from the island is only available in the mornings and late afternoons. As there are no inns or hotels on the island, you'd have to secure a homestay.
A homestay can be arranged through your Tour Guide.
There are a handful of options available for homestays when you reach Itbayat Town Proper.
If you want an authentic Itbayat experience, request for a Sinadumparan, a traditional Ivatan-style home with a Cogon Roof.
Contrary to popular belief, Ivatan-style homes were traditionally plastered. Nowadays, the locals opt for the weathered stone look as they find it more charming.
(Cogan roofs are a type of roofing that has been used by the natives of Batanes for centuries. The thick grass roofing can withstand elemental forces such as typhoons and heavy rain. The cogon roofs are also perfect insulators and keep the Ivatan homes cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Modern-style roofing tends to fare far worse than the traditional types, a testament to Ivatan ingenuity and years of adaptation.)
The traditional-style homes are a lot larger on the inside than they appear from the outside. The design keeps the interior nice and cool even when it's hot outside. This is also because the house is raised from the ground, which helps circulate air.
A homestay will typically run you around Php 350/head per day.
It's important to pay all the proper fees when you first arrive in town. The proceeds help maintain the tourist attractions on the island and are for general maintenance.
Environmental fee for Itbayat is Php 100/head.
WHAT YOU'LL NEED
- Weather-Resistant Bag
- Plenty of Water
- First-Aid kit
- Mosquito Repellent
- Sun Block
- Sun Glasses
- Proper Foot-gear
(Make sure to withdraw cash from Basco as there are NO ATM's on Itbayat. You can purchase food, water, and common goods on Itbayat from local general stores that can be found in Town.)
Getting To and From Itbayat
At the moment, there is only one way to get to Itbayat.
You'll have to book one of the daily boats from Basco Port for around Php 450/person for a one-way trip.
The Boats leave Basco for Itbayat every day, between 6am–9am.
Return trips from Itbayat to Basco are around 11am–2pm.
To be honest, the boat ride is probably the toughest part of getting to Itbayat.
The waters surrounding Batanes are some of the roughest in the world. Strong currents and high winds make for a very wavy ride. As a result, the trip can be anywhere from 2-4 hours.
If you are prone to sea sickness, be sure to take a motion sickness pill before you depart.
A nice tip we learned from the boatmen was to sit on the roof of the boat, as it helps with the motion sickness.
Itbayat is raw and untouched, a frontier land that almost seems forgotten by time. The vast landscape is as beautiful as it is unforgiving. Life on the island isn't for the weak or the timid, yet people have survived here for centuries.
Its people are warm and welcoming, and the history of the island is one that every Filipino alive today shares.
Itbayat is a magnificent place. And if you're a true adventurer who doesn't mind roughing it for a few days, Itbayat should be on your bucket list.
The scenery alone is worth the trip, but if you are interested in history, and want to see firsthand the legacy left behind by some of the Philippines first settlers, you'll love this place.
Congratulations to our good friends at Bashi Islands Eco-Tours & Adventure. Special thanks to Kuya Roger and Kuya Jojo who are some of the smartest and coolest gentlemen we have had the pleasure of getting to know.
Live an Awesome Life,
SEAN NOLAN of Team Our Awesome Planet
Disclosure: We paid for our own travel, stay, and food expenses. Our Itbayat adventure was courtesy of Bashi Islands Eco-Tours & Adventures. I wrote this article with my own biases, opinions, and insights.
P.S. It's best to talk to the people at the NCIP if it's your first time to visit Itbayat or Batanes in general. The people there can help point you in the right direction and help connect you to local leaders and representatives.
Batanes is a protected heritage region and there are rules that should be followed. This is to help minimize and monitor tourist impact on the locals and the local economy.
Visiting the NCIP is also especially important if you are using equipment like drones as there are restrictions, and permits need to be secured. The NCIP main office is in Basco.