The ordinary Filipino experiences Batanes only as a constant reference for the positioning of the Philippines’ numerous typhoons. “The tropical disturbance has intensified to a full-blown typhoon 80 kilometers from the Batanes Islands and will head out to China Sea in the next 24 hours.” End of topic.

Until recently, this was all we knew of this extremely remote group of islands at the northernmost tip of the country. In fact, the islands are so far flung that for places like Itbayat, Batanes's farthest inhabited island, Taiwan is closer than mainland Luzon, which is 280 kilometres away to Taiwan's 170.

But Batanes has been flung into the tourism limelight recently, along with Bohol and other up-and-coming destinations such as Camsur and Siargao. More and more people have fallen under its enchanting spell, traipsing in the vast open fields, negotiating the curving and scenic coastal roads, mingling with the simple and friendly natives, and generally living the unstressed life, free from the sometimes-invasive communications technology.

Not convinced? We’ve put together a guide to this culturally and environmentally rich area, complete with a slide show (with photos courtesy of Joy Jesena-Barcelon and Vicky Barcelon) that’s bound to leave you breathless. Read on to learn more about this simultaneously bucolic and dramatic cluster of islands.


ITS PEOPLE—THE IVATANS

Part of Batanes’s charm is in its extreme remoteness, which has allowed it to maintain its simplicity and purity. The Ivatans, natives of the three inhabitable islands—Batan, Sabtang and Itbayat—still consider themselves as unique and cohesive as compared to those of the mainland provinces. The latter, because they live on a land mass easily traversed, have intermarried and blended their cultures with others’.

Not so with the Ivatans. Their architecture and dialect are so unique and distinctive that it’s a rare outsider who can glean even part of what’s being said when the locals chat in the vernacular. But the natives are so charming that their smiles are more than enough to transcend any difference in language.

Visitors will be met with shyly smiling faces or openly curious looks, but none of the suspicious guarded attitude one gets use to in the city. The children and old people in particular respond openly and readily to friendly overtures. Staff in the resorts and inns are, more often than not, willing to go out of their way to please you. You will get none of the haughtiness and uncooperativeness that sometimes plagues the hotel industry.

It's interesting to note that 93 percent of the Ivatans are educated, and the majority of them speak fluent English. These mostly are the elders who grew up during the American Occupation and are well versed in the Western manner of speaking and life.

Lola Unday, all of 85 genteel years old, can still relate stories regarding her Negros Occidental origins and eventual settling in the islands with her Ivatan husband. She lives in the oldest Ivatan house in Ivana, popularly known as the House of Dakay. Built in 1897, the house is now 113 years old, but has never been renovated and has survived through the legendary typhoons and earthquakes Batanes is known for. Lola Unday has been featured in Readers’ Digest and other lifestyle magazines and television feature shows.

When visiting Batanes, take the time to get to know the natives; talk to the vendors, passersby, and jeepney drivers. Old people are usually very gracious and pleasant. Children are irrepressibly curious and friendly. Even the police are smiling!


FLORA AND FAUNA

The flora of Batanes is so divergent that even the lowly thistle seems to take on a whole persona when hit by the pristine rays of the setting sun. The humble gourd, or patola, achieves a round shape, making it ideal as a lamp and a container! The zinnias, the morning glory, the wild grass—these are much healthier and definitely lovelier than their mainland cousins. The pygmy banana plant bears fruit at six feet high, as opposed to the mainland variety which fruits at ten feet high. This is ideal in this storm-swept landscape; any taller, and the banana plants would be blown down in the next typhoon!

Even the faunadomestic cows, sheep, goats, and carabaos—have developed an agility that defies their bulk and weight. What is a lumbering bovine in the Luzon mainland is here a delightfully lissom figure of grace and dexterity! It is quite amusing watching these creatures make their way over the craggy hills and rolling terrain.

As for the wild animals, it is a privilege to witness the annual migration of the whales, flying fish, and birds! One feels honoured to be in the presence of such majestic and untamed creatures! The Batanes Islands and the nearby Babuyan Islands are about the only places in the Philippines where one can reliably see humpback whales, which migrate to the Philippines to breed during the harsh winters of Alaska.

The Batanes group of islands is a prime ecotourism hotspot because of its natural charm and the diversity of its wildlife. You can snorkel, bike, hike, photograph, fish, trek, swim, dive, surf, kayak, spelunk, explore, whale/dolphin/bird watch, and do countless other activities. Just because there isn’t much of a nightlife does not mean that your trip won’t be filled with fun and adventure!


FOOD AND OTHER PRACTICALITIES


Food is quite simple but familiar. The usual pancit, fried chicken, chopsuey, and the like are readily available. There are also crabs and lobsters (depending on their availability), while more adventurous tourists can try the local exotic cuisine like turmeric rice (a simplified version of the paella valenciana), uvod balls (coconut ubod with ground meat), and adobo (much like lechon macau). Gabi, cassava, kamote, and other root crops are fried, boiled, and broiled. These root crops are the hardiest ones, sturdy enough to withstand the inclement weather. Even if you’ve a hardy stomach, though, you should stick to drinking mineral water or soda, just to be safe.

When in Batanes, dibang, the day-old dried flying fish, is a definite must-have. I made sure to order it for breakfast one day, and the lady server went out of her way to source some extra rations for me.

Security is not an issue here. Movie stars and politicians coming here for a break can safely go about their leisure. The locals may raise their heads in curiosity but, otherwise, they’ll respect the personage’s privacy and return to their business. Our typical urban attitude of guarding our belongings and valuables relaxed after a few days of basking in the simple easy-going lifestyle here.

Walking will take you around the whole town in a matter of hours. The streets are well-marked, and locals are more than happy to give you the right directions. And we found that getting lost can be fun!

Traversing the serpentine coastal roads is another experience in itself, and one not to be missed. Enjoy the never-ending panorama of beach, caves, and shore as you turn each corner. Enjoy the sea air. Even just looking up at the overhanging cliffs or looking down the sheer drop beside the road is enough to thrill even the most adventurous red-blooded teenager! The hairpin curves necessitate the blowing of your vehicle’s horn to warn any oncoming traffic, not that there’s much of that. The ubiquitous bright yellow “Blow ur horn” sign is mostly for outsiders, as locals already know what to do on these roads, though some of the mischievous drivers like to give others a thrill by cheerfully neglecting to "toot" their presence.

To fully appreciate Batanes’s bucolic charm, though, you should put away that laptop, iPod, cell phone, and anything else electronic for the duration of your trip. It may take some getting used to, but you may just find being incommunicado an incredibly liberating experience.


GETTING THERE AND GETTING AROUND

SEAIR flies twice a day to Basco, the capital. These are always morning flights, arriving at 9:00 and 10:00 AM because strong afternoon winds in Batanes make it impossible to maneuver on the very short airstrip. It is said that only pilots of high caliber are assigned to this destination for the very same reason. Be prepared to be very limited when it comes to packing your luggage, though. The 32-passenger turbo propeller plane cannot be overloaded, and the 10-kilo maximum limit rule is very strictly imposed.

Land travel can be by public transportation like tricycle and jeep. Jeepneys may be hired for P1,600 to P2,000 per day. For families and big groups, you can rent air-conditioned vans (with sunroofs!) for P1,800 to P2,000 for the whole day. Backpackers and budget tourists can rent motorbikes and bicycles for a song!

Sea travel to neighboring islands is by motorized bancas that can accommodate up to 30 passengers. Sabtang is about 30 to 40 minutes away, while the trip to Itbayat lasts three to four hours. Once there, rent motorcyles or bikles to go around. It’s best to plan an overnight stay to really absorb the ambience, but be prepared for very simple accommodations. If you are invited to stay in a residence, don't be afraid to say yes.


WHERE TO STAY

Many of the resorts and inns allow online booking, so this may be the most convenient way to secure accommodations. Just do it six week in advance for the peak season, which is February to June. July through October may not be the best time to go since this is typhoon season, and November through January sees high winds and cloudy weather. September usually has a two-week window of beautiful clear weather and respite from the typhoons, but this can be very elusive and hard to predict.

Fundacion Pacita is the top-of-the line resort. It is dedicated to the former governor's artist sister, who has established a following in Asia and the Western countries. Her works are housed in the picturesque museum/resort.

The Batanes Resort, where we stayed, is government-run by an eager young staff of Foreign Service and Hotel and Restaurant Management graduates. The cottages all face the ocean, and a sandy beach is accessible via a short walk down the hill. The restaurant can accommodate food requests.

The Batanes Seaside Lodge is a four-storey structure and has a conference room and function rooms for team-building events and seminars.

These aren’t the only places you can stay, though. There are other pensions and inns within the Basco town itself. Everything is within walking distance—church, hospital, radio station, municipal hall, market, etc. There are several restaurants and cafes with reasonable prices. And for the Net junkie or determined travel blogger, WiFi is also available in some establishments.

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