WRITER & PHOTOGRAPHER Potpot Pinili

Rappang Hills

The homeland of the Ivatans is the Philippines’ most coveted travel destination. Featuring captivating landscapes and unique insular culture, Batanes’ phenomenal rarity will fill your wanderlust to the brim.

There is something about lighthouses that evoke feelings of serenity and refuge. It stands graceful in solitude, unfazed amidst the whistling winds of the sea. In the darkness of night, its warm light whispers you’ve sailed your way home to safety. And nowhere this scene is more astonishing than in Batanes, the northernmost frontier of the Philippines. The Ivatans are the stewards of this paradise whose culture is honed by the sordid seas, tempest weather and somewhat inhospitable lands. Its blissful isolation has created the dramatics of a middle earth enchantment—-emerald hills that roll to the sea, deep canyons, stone dwellings, peculiar language and ancient traditions that are still practiced to this day. Because of these beautiful rarities, no wonder why Batanes tops in anyone’s wanderlust. It is so exceptional that ticking it off on the bucket list is a sweet triumph.

SO NEAR YET SO FAR
With its whooping regular of airfare P18,000, it’s no surprise why desirous travelers even camp in travel fairs for promo seats! Batanes is closer to Taiwan than anywhere in mainland Philippines. Touted as the smallest in land area and population, they are those tiny specks of isles on the northernmost territory bounded by the Pacific Ocean on the east and the West Philippine Sea on the other side.Ten islands comprise the province, of which, only 3 are inhabited—Batan, where Basco, the capital town is located, Sabtang and Itbayat. Direct flight service from Manila is commercially served by small aircrafts of Philippine Airlines and Skyjet. The latest game changer in Batanes airspace is Wakay Air. In partnership with AirSwift, the country’s only boutique airline, Ivatans around the world get special year-round fare.

FINEST CULTURAL FESTIVAL
Women wearing those bulky golden grass headgears are perhaps the most quintessential image that we know of the Ivatans.  Those are called vakul, an all-weather gear used by the farmers in the field. The men wear vests named kanayi and paired with talugong, a hat we know in the mainland as salakot. Made from the shredded leaves of voyavoy or Philippine date palm, this plant is endemic to Batanes and grows abundantly on the island of Sabtang. In the hopes of preserving and promoting this single most defining image of them as Ivatans, the island town of Sabtang created a festival that celebrates the significance of voyavoy in their daily lives. Dubbed as Vakul-Kanayi Festival, it pooled for the 1st time a myriad of elements that shaped their abilities and their identity as Ivatans in a complex cultural milieu, those being resilient and resourceful from the stresses of its weather and land conditions.

For 3 days, tourists and locals from other islands were treated to different surprises like the agro-trade fair, float parade, weaving contests and cultural presentations. A fluvial procession in honor of its titular San Vicente Ferrer was also trumpeted around the fringes of the island.The street dancing competition, a first of its kind in the island, was the most anticipated part of the festival. Clad in patched skirts and pants, vakul and kanayi, the children of Sabtang wowed the audience with curated movements, music and narratives.But what make this very young festival a real standout are its homegrown fun activities like sheep rodeo, chasing piglets, chickens and goats that involved everyone in the crowd including the tourists. They also staged rowing competitions where they showed off their brute skills in paddling through the unforgiving current of the sea. The Vakul-Kanayi Festival may just be the brainchild of a few people but everyone in the island executed it with so much joy. And in the true spirit of cooperation, Ivatan owned companies rolled in their help even without asking for grandstanding mileage. It was also supported by the Department of Tourism and the Tourism Promotions Board. March 25-27 will never be the same again in the coming years as this festival vows to put Batanes on the kilometric list of festivals that we celebrate in the Philippines.The island of Sabtang is the showcase island of the province’s rich and unique cultural heritage. It is the home of the finest weavers and the site of the best preserved vernacular Ivatan houses. Step into the communities of Savidug and Chavayan and be transported back in time with its blocks of traditional houses made of stone and roofed in cogon grass. And they’re not even set-up for tourists like museum tableaus but real homes with people living on it.

CHOOSE YOUR PARADISE
Being one of the very few places in the Philippines that have unique geological characteristics, the landscapes and seascapes of Batanes are protected by environmental laws.
With this, it has kept its province pristinely pretty that would soon probably land them in the prestigious list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. From its verdant hills to cave-like outcrops and wave-tempered cliffs to cerulean waters, there are a lot of beautiful moments here. It’s truly a wonderland for filmmakers and photographers. Batan Island is the gateway to Batanes. Lighthouses on hills crouched by free-range cattle and horses; mountains neatly lain with hedgerows and bucolic townscapes are just among the many things that would tickle your fancies.

Take a walk or peddle on old Japanese bikes around town and experience the time warp like feeling of being in a 1920s silent movie. Cruise down south of Batan Island and be treated to a ride of your life on narrow, dead-curve roads carved from mountainsides. Bask on its white sand beaches or wallow on the blue lagoon. The main island is also a haven for heritage churches like the San Carlos de Borromeo and the San Jose de Ivana; both date back to 18th century. Explore deeper south and you’ll end up in the quiet town of Uyugan bathed in coastal panorama and historical gems. But if extreme outdoor adventure is your kind of game, head to the northern island of Itbayat. In fact, getting there on its traditional boat called the falowa is already half the fun! Be prepared to be tossed by huge waves and to experience its unusual docking style of jumping from the nose of the boat as it levels off with the wharf’s concrete platform. Trekking and spelunking characterize Itbayat’s kind of adventure. Sunrise in the rugged Rapang Cliff and exploring the caves in Torongan and Sarokan are among the most anticipated activities reserved not for the faint-hearted. Sabtang, aside from being its cultural hotspot, is also a host of Batanes’ iconic landmarks. The Ahaw rock arch in Morong Beach and the Wuthering Heights feel of the peaks in Chamantad are just among the images that have landed on many magazines. From Sabtang, one can easily cross to an uninhabited island called Vuhus for quick dip on the beach that is laden with blinding white sand and crystal clear water.

ANCIENT TRADITIONS
Without deserting its pagan traditions even when Christianity was introduced in the islands, the Ivatans have carried on some of its rituals to this generation. Among them is kapayvanuvanua, an ethnic ritual performed during the season of dorado fishing between April to May to honor the supernatural entities of the sea. Arayu to the locals, it is prized specie of dolphin fish harvested only by a special breed of fishermen called matao who thrive on the craggy eastern bend of Batan Island. Like most Filipinos, the Ivatans have a lot of celebrations from birth to death often characterized by local songs and dances. During fiestas, the singing of the laji, inivayvatan, sagala and gosos—-a slew of rare lyric folk poetry in both Spanish and Ivatan are never missed. But among the age-old traditions that are still actively done in Batanes is the spirit
of cooperative work. Especially during summer, the season when cogon roofs are changed, the people in the community gathers in a cooperative work for free called kapanidungan.

HONESTY AND MODESTY
In a world where honesty has become a rare virtue, contrarily in Batanes, this is a natural way of life. Here, most houses are left open even when no one is at home. Some stores like the famous Honesty in Batan and Conscience in Sabtang do not have attendants. Just write what you got and leave your payments on the counter. Because of its survival challenges where there’s lack of arable lands, let alone its extreme weather changes, the Ivatans have come to live on what they have. This led them to value a modest lifestyle tempered by contentment and hardwork. Even to this day, among the youth, the rich and the powerful, it’s not surprising to spot a mayor on a carabao or a doctor freediving for a lobster lunch.

GUSTATORY SPINS
Fresh seafood is abundant in Batanes. Feasting on lobsters and exotic fish is a common thing. They also take pride of their rare coconut crab called tatu—-something you can only eat in Batanes and can never be taken out from the island. Sweet potato locally known as wakay is the staple food here. They are also rich in cassava, purple yam and taro. Must-tries include uvud balls or minced banana core rolled with fish flakes and ground pork, humot, a refreshing seaweed soup and fiddlehead fern salad commonly known as pako. But never leave Batanes without sampling its take on the popular pinoy adobo called luñis. Choice cuts of salted pork go on low fire until it deep-fries to a crispy perfection. Preserved in its own oil using tight-sealed jars, luñis can last for a long time even without putting it on the fridge.

Batanes may be one of the most expensive places to reach in the Philippines but with its stunning panorama, unique time-honored traditions and a simple but wonderful way of life so different from the rest of the country, everything is all so worth it. And just like its pretty lighthouses decked on the hillocks, you’d probably say you’re in a different world but you’re safely home.

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