This is not a vacation. Batanes, for all its natural beauty is one of the most challenging destinations in the Philippines. But every rock climbed, every mile traversed and every wave conquered yields rewards that make all the hard work worth it.
After reading about tales of stormy nights in the province, I had clung to images of Batanes with cattle being swept away by the wind and landing on huts. So when it was finally time for me to board the plane to Batanes after being cancelled 10 days prior due to Typhoon Odette, part of me was raring to find out if any of its resident cattle had been swept off their feet. The man just laughed and shook his head.
“But the winds can get very strong here,” he qualified.
Typhoon Odette turned out to be the strongest they’ve had to deal with in nearly three decades, leaving the province with bent, leafless trees and bare, brown earth.
“The hills are usually lush and green,” local people would quip, as I looked out into the vast lands giving way to an even vaster ocean. It had been like this everywhere I looked, but while residents apologized for the barren landscape, it was difficult to understand the need for apology. Even after a storm, Batanes looks staggeringly beautiful.
Out of 10 islands in the Batanes Group, I have been to four: Batan, Sabtang, Itbayat, and Vuhus. Only the first three are inhabited, and it would take two visits—each four months apart—to visit all of them. But after spending more than two weeks around the province, I still feel I have barely touched the surface. I also saw no flying cows, although a lot could be said about my crossings at sea.
Chasing sunrises, lighthouses, and rolling hills in Batan
When it was time to go around Batan Island—easily the one with the most people and infrastructure, as it is where the capital municipality of Basco is located—photographer Owen Ballesteros and I realized that we only had two options: tricycle or bicycle, whichever was cheaper and more convenient for our destination.
So it was on two, sometimes three, wheels that we got acquainted with the island’s roads. They are cemented but mercilessly endless. We zigzagged past narrow roads teetering on slopes, whose views of the West Philippine Sea were so expansive no camera would have given justice.
The road from Basco to the next town, Mahatao—an eight-kilometer stretch—snaked along the mountainside and revealed deep ridges, unnamed stony shores, and waters crashing on ragged cliffs at every turn. Each spot was as jaw-dropping as the one before, and the one next to it.
Everywhere, our three-wheeled drive climbed, swerved, and went downhill, emerging on high places where we could admire the ocean, the setting sun, Mt. Iraya, and the countless cattle grazing on sloping fields.
After our second day, it was clear that we weren’t on vacation: we would get up before dawn to catch the sunrise and go home tired from walking, biking, or both. When somebody said Batanes was a photographer’s haven, he or she was probably saying it both as praise and as a warning: days and nights will be long from shooting landscapes and people, all of which look so beautiful it would feel like a sin to not even try to capture them.
There was a day when Batanes really tested my resolve. Armed only with the knowledge that the whole of Batan Island can be traversed by bike, Owen and I headed south at 7 in the morning to the towns of Mahatao, Ivana, and Uyugan, passing by churches, villages, unmanned stores, and even more cliffs, beaches, and cows. It was late afternoon—nearly 11 hours after we had set out—when we started what would turn out to be an hour-long climb along muddy tracks to get to Racuh-a-Payaman or Marlboro Country, a communal pastureland and one of the most photographed spots in Batanes. We reached it just after sunset, and although a bit disappointed that we didn’t get there in time to take a good photo, we resolved to come back by tricycle the next day. In consolation, we did enjoy a steady four-kilometer downhill ride from Marlboro Country back to Mahatao, where, since it was already dark, we clambered onto a tricycle and strapped our bikes to get back home.
Fiestas and sick boat rides in Sabtang
Meanwhile, our visit to Sabtang Island was one that was timed very well: one of the barangays was celebrating its fiesta, which meant everyone opened their homes to anybody who wanted to celebrate with them. And just like all other celebrations in the Philippines, this meant food for everybody, even strangers and tourists.
We spent half the day on an ingeniously crafted tricycle with a cogon roof, passing by whole villages with Batanes’ iconic squat coral stone houses. Made to withstand strong winds and rains that batter the province during rainy season, these vernacular houses have meter-thick walls, small windows, and thatched cogon roofs. Children and old women would peep from their pastel-colored windows, curtains billowing in the steady breeze. Walking along these streets felt like moving inside a photograph, each turn revealed something so perfect it didn’t look real at all.
On our second visit to Batanes, we slept on the floor of a traditional stone house in Chavayan to the whistling of winds, and woke up to a windy and gloomy weather that sent the Balintang Channel into a frenzy. The boat ride that followed was one I would probably never forget: we approached waves higher than our boat, rode those same waves, and plunged back down with such force I would close my eyes until it was over.
After nearly 45 agonizing minutes (and a couple of people on the boat barfing and praying the rosary), we finally made it safely back on solid ground, shaking knees and all. The adventure didn’t stop there, though, because we soon found ourselves hitching on a truck back to Basco shortly after, because we missed our van service—the only thing we pre-booked on our trip.
A different kind of island life in Itbayat
Although Sabtang’s faluwa ride was too eventful for my taste, the one that we took to Itbayat Island, the northernmost inhabited island in the Philippines, was on a whole new level. It was here when I really felt like I have left the Philippines, a land so far away it takes another three hours in the open seas, on a seat-less cargo boat, to get there.
Usually, there is only one trip per day, and sometimes, none at all when the waters are too rough to cross. Everything on the island is shipped from Basco, and most everything from Basco comes from the mainland. LPG, eggs, rice—everything, except the winds and the seas, comes with difficulty in Itbayat. It has no coastline to speak of, and their ports are concrete slopes carved out of the mountains, rolling all the way down to sea. Cargo has to be transferred manually from boat to port, from hand to hand, including boat occupants. In my case, I had two men holding on to both my arms and two more were at the receiving end of the port. We would wait for the waves to propel the boat at level ground with the concrete, at which time I have a split second’s chance to hop from one pair of hands to another, unless I want to be swallowed by the crashing waves.
The most isolated of all Ivatans, the people of Itbayat are initially shy of strangers, but as I learned, they can be quite welcoming. And because of this, I ended up learning more. Those who are fishermen are also farmers, those who can do more also build roads, which are extremely lacking on the island. Of its almost 3,000 population, there are only three tour guides and as much tricycles.
Having already seen my fair share of undulating hills, sunrises, and sunsets, I decided to just take Itbayat slowly. After all, the island was much more bucolic than Batan and Sabtang, the spots of interest less accessible because of the bad roads.
I spent Valentine’s Day here, in the middle of nowhere, watching a group of fishermen get back home from the rough seas with the help of 30 other men pulling the boat to the port. By evening, we dropped by the local high school for their prom night. We were a bit amused to see all the girls in white and pink silk dresses, all appearing to have been made especially for the occasion. That night, I also couldn’t help myself from thinking how bad the traffic might be back in the city, how couples must be exchanging pricey gifts and dressing up for fancy dinners. And then I looked back at these lovely people and how such things as Valentine’s Day and the Internet are nearly non-existent in their lives. It’s a fascinating world, one I wouldn’t mind getting lost in for longer periods, although whenever I remember the three hour boat ride to this island, I’ll probably just swallow hard the next time and cough up for the 12-minute plane ride instead.