Kiki Deere, co-author of the Rough Guide to the Philippines, heads off the tourist trail to Batanes. This cluster of islands, located almost 150km off the northernmost tip of Luzon in the Philippines, sees just thirty or so foreign visitors a year.
“Batanes? Batanes? Up there?” was the reaction of most Filipinos when I told them I was catching a plane north to the remotest province of the country. This was coupled with a puzzled expression, followed by a long “Oooooooh”.
Only 190km south of Taiwan, the islands of Batanes are closer to the Taiwanese coast than to the Philippine mainland. The archipelago was created following a series of volcanic activities when Mount Iraya erupted around 325 BC – today a dormant volcano that stands 1517m above sea level.
The province comprises ten islands of which only three are inhabited: Batan Island, the largest in the group; peaceful Sabtang Island; and the less accessible Itbayat. Their isolation has resulted in a unique culture and distinct traditions; the language, cuisine and climate have little in common with the rest of the country.
Rolling hills, windswept massifs and sheer cliffs
Our little six-seater plane rocked back and forth as we struggled to land on wind-swept Batan Island, whose capital, Basco, is named after Governor José Basco y Vargas who brought the islands under the Spanish Crown in 1782.
Below us stretched verdant rolling hills, windswept massifs and sheer cliffs rising 70m above sea level. The topography of the islands varies dramatically from the mainland – with grazing cows, undulating hills and strong winds. I felt I could have easily been in Ireland, not in the tropical Philippine archipelago I had extensively travelled, with its powdery, white-sand beaches shaded by coconut trees.
“Today we will visit Marlboro County, and then on to Sabtang Island” my guide announced as soon as I’d settled into Fundación Pacita, the former home of artist Pacita Abad today a surprisingly upmarket hotel. His voice was calm and composed; he spoke in musical tones, rolling his “r” in a pleasant lilt.
Like Filipino, the Ivatan language is peppered with pidgin Spanish words. The Ivatan are the native inhabitants of these islands, and trace their roots back to Formosan (Taiwanese) immigrants as well as Spaniards who travelled here in the sixteenth century.
A testament to the trusting nature of the locals
We drove up and down the island’s many hills, the engine of our little car calling out as it climbed a slope, letting out a groaning sigh of relief as we reached the top and zoomed down the other side, only to grate again as we clambered up the next.
As we came over the brow of the first hill, there before us were green pastures being grazed by horses and bulls, with Mount Iraya and the roaring Pacific Ocean as backdrop.
Locals make a living by raising goats and cows, and plant root crops that are able to cope with the islands’ harsh environment, including yam, garlic, sweet potato and onion. Fish, livestock and root vegetables form the mainstay of the islands’ cuisine. During most of the year provisions are flown in or shipped over from the mainland, but during typhoon season ships and planes are often unable to reach the islands.
We continued south along the coastal road to the Honesty Café, an unmanned coffee shop selling t-shirts, beverages and snacks where customers drop payment in designated boxes, serving as a testament to the trusting nature of the island’s inhabitants.
Life has changed little over the last few centuries
A rocky thirty-minute boat ride across the treacherous waters of the Balintang Channel took us to Sabtang Island, home to steep mountains and deep canyons where life has changed little over the last few centuries.
This peaceful island is peppered with Ivatan stone villages, and the picture-perfect town of Chavayan is home to some of the best-preserved traditional homes in the Philippines. Unlike in the rest of the country where nipa huts are a common sight, the houses in Batanes are made of limestone to withstand the destructive force of typhoons that so often strike the islands.
I strolled along the town’s streets, my guide encouraging me to occasionally pop my head into the stone houses, whose wooden floors are traditionally polished with banana leaves. Their cogon-thatched roofs are sturdily built, lasting up to two or three decades. Street names are chiselled in stone plaques.
At the Sabtang Weavers’ Association, women sold small artefacts and offered me homemade biscuits that they had lovingly prepared in their humble homes. Intrigued and surprised at the sight of a foreigner, they questioned me as to my provenance, proudly showing me the small trinkets they had painstakingly made.
An elderly lady with a mustard yellow cardigan wore a rain cape called vakul, traditional Ivatan headgear made from stripped leaves of voyavoy palm to protect her from the strong sun and frequent rainstorms that so often hit the islands. Her coarse hands fingered a small hand-woven souvenir that she encouraged me to buy.
When I flew back to the province of Luzon a few days later, where thick jungles and bustling beach resorts justifiably attract their fair share of tourists, the far-flung islands of Batanes, with their thirty or so foreign visitors a year, suddenly seemed like a distant dream.