I wrote the entry below almost two years ago with the intention of documenting the details of our Batanes trip. I never finished it. It ended with day 2 of our Bataned trip. Anyway, I will try to complete my entry here. Quite a long read but I want to remember every single detail -it’s one of our best vacations after all – so bear with me.

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Here it is. My long-delayed documentation of our Batanes sojourn last April 2006. As I always do, I meant to share our pictures through Kodak Gallery. However, since this vacation is so different from our usual Anniversary Beachcapade (for one, we didn’t go swimming, and our snorkeling gear never got out of our backpacks), I thought it deserves more than just the expected brief description of the picture. Our Batanes adventure, as I would aptly call it, is a story that deserves to be told in detail.

For our 5th anniversary this April, we decided to explore a new beach destination and we already had one in mind. As most of you already know, it is our mission to visit every single beach destination in the country, and, as I am beginning to discover (thanks to Beaches of the Philippines, a magazine issued every summer), there are so many of them. Indeed the Philippines is blessed with thousands of Edens waiting to be discovered, and at one to two beaches a year, it will probably take us a lifetime to see them all. Anyway, our target destination this year was Malapascua, an island paradise 3-4 hours from Mactan, Cebu. People who have been there described it as Boracay 20 years ago. We already had visions of the long stretch of fine white sand, hours on the beach, having a golden tan, getting our diver’s certificate and gaping in awe at the wonders of the ocean. Alas, our Malapascua dream was not meant to be, at least not this summer. As of February, the few comfortable accommodations in the island are already fully booked until end of May.

Disappointed but not defeated, we were still keen on having a great Anniversary vacation this summer. We thought it may be the best time to go to Batanes. Initially, we set a 5-day trip. The Batanes Resort contact person – Gemma Castillejos – recommended a four-day stay instead as she said it would be enough to experience Batanes. That includes a 3 day tour of Batan Island (the most developed and populated of the Batanes Islands) and a day tour to Sabtang Island (the smallest among the inhabited islands). At first, she had us convinced. We thought we’d just spend the rest of our vacation leave at home in Cavite. Then, we heard about Itbayat – the biggest but least populated of the Batanes islands. I read that this island is surrounded entirely by cliffs and there are numerous trekking and caving opportunities. We decided to explore that on our own. We booked a 7-day trip – the longest vacation we had in a local destination. We will stay at Batanes Resort (a government-run resort, said to be the best in Batanes) on days 1-4, with a day trip to Sabtang. Day 4-5 will be in Itbayat, and Days 5-7 back in Basco but this time we will stay in Ivatan Lodge, another government-run lodging.

Thus began an unforgettable journey to the beautiful land of Batanes.

Day 0

We had to go to the office the day before our trip to finish off some last minute work. Then we did some last minute shopping –medicines, toilet paper, other basic supplies. Finally, we finished packing, making sure that we have our swim gear – goggles, snorkeling gear, bathing suits, sunblock lotion, etc. Then we called for a home service massage for a relaxing night and dreamless sleep.

Day 1

Our plane was scheduled to depart at 9am and will fly for about 2 hours before reaching Batanes at around 11am. We will have an hour to rest before lunch at 12, then off to our tour at 1pm. We arrived at the airport at 7:30am, a little early since we want to beat the Monday morning rush hour traffic. The line to the Domestic Airport was so long, with a mix of Filipinos and Asian visitors, mainly Koreans. We guessed that these people would be going to Boracay, Cebu and Palawan.

At 8:30 am, there was still no advise as to which gate we would be boarding through. I had a strong feeling our flight would be delayed. At 9am, it was confirmed, most flights, including ours, going to various destinations were delayed. To kill time, Ariel and I amused ourselves playing spot the Korean couple. Ariel observed that most Korean couples were wearing matching outfits. True enough, when I looked around, we were surrounded by them. Some just wore matching shirts, jackets or caps. But others wore identical outfits from head to toe – cap, shirt, shorts and sandals!!!

Finally, at around 10:30, we started boarding. We took a direct flight to Basco, Batanes via Asian Spirit. The 68-seater plane was fully booked. I was a bit disappointed because I didn’t want to spend our vacation in an area crowded with tourists. I looked at the other passengers and thought that we would probably bump into some of them during our 7-day stay in Batanes. I knew there was another couple joining us in our Batan Island tour – a German guy married to a Filipina, but I didn’t expect to see a full flight.

The flight was uneventful, albeit quite long for a local trip. We landed smoothly and quickly deplaned. I was expecting a man holding a board with our names on it, the way we are normally greeted in airports during packaged tours. I was surprised to see that the arrival area is just a small tent outside of the main terminal. As we neared the tent, a man woman asked me if I was so and so and I said no. Then, the guy beside her asked me if we were Mr. and Mrs. Laran. The guy, I found out, was Nards, our tour coordinator for the next 3 days. We then met the other couple, Mr. and Mrs. Geiger, senior citizens who wanted to see a new destination for the summer. While still waiting for our bags, it started to rain. We had to run for cover, inside our tour van. The van is a government-issued vehicle, since we are staying in a government-run resort. It’s second-hand Mitsubishi Delica imported from Japan or Korea, converted to left-hand drive. The sliding door is on the wrong side of the road. ☺

It was already late and we were hungry. Fortunately, Batanes Resort is just a few minutes away from the airport. We were greeted by a picturesque view – rolling hills on one side, the beach on the other. From the outside, Batanes Resort is exactly how I imagined it to be. The lobby looks ok. There was one television with a cable connection. Surprise! Surprise! I found out that cable TV is available in the island through Dream Cable. Internet access is also available! Upon checking in our rooms, we discovered that the gardens are not well-maintained. The rooms are a bit dilapidated with the doors barely locking (I can easily kick it open), paints peeling, screens torn at the sides and the rooms having a musty smell. I checked the closet and found a cockroach hidden in the hanging rod, which we immediately “took care of”. We didn’t have time to unpack so we headed straight to the dining hall for our late lunch. Our meal is very simple – pako salad (fern), soup which I thought was cream of mushroom, and fried chicken. Despite the meal’s simplicity, it was very satisfying, and was enough to sustain us through our afternoon tour.

Nards met us at the hotel lobby after a quick trip to our rooms for a few minutes of freshening up. We soon found out that our tour guide for the day is Mang Romy, a local tricycle driver. At first I worried about how he could properly lead the tour with a German guy in our group. I soon realized that it was nothing we should worry about since Mang Romy was not only very fluent in English, but he also knows Batanes by heart.

I initially planned to bring a small travel diary with me so I can record all our destinations in Batanes. However, with my busy schedule leading to our vacation, I quickly forgot about it. I cannot remember the names of the places we’ve visited but I will try my best to describe them. We first stopped at the Municipal Hall of Mahatao where we paid a tourist fee of P50 each. We went to see a couple of Churches including San Calros Church. We went to Ivana where we saw the only remaining vernacular house in Batan Island. An old lady lives there. She was very warm and friendly, and just like the many locals in Batanes, she speaks English well and is able carry very interesting conversation with anyone. We also saw the San Jose De Ivana Church which at that time was under renovation. A few meters from the Church, we walked to Honesty Coffee Shop. It’s a small unmanned store, all products are labeled with the price. All we had to do was drop the money in a small locked box. If we require some change, we just need to write it down and the change will be available the next day. I took two bottles of Viva mineral water. Then we went to see SongSong ruins. It was a small community whose dwellings were destroyed by giant waves during an earthquake decades ago. All that remain are some walls of vernacular houses. It was drizzling when we got there which added to the eerie feel of the place. The ruins are situated along scenic hills facing the Pacific Ocean. The highlight of the day was our trip to the “Marlboro Country”. It is located in a restricted area, where wild cattle are free to roam around. The view was breathtaking – rolling hills, carpeted by a calming sea of greens. The grasses were perfect, as if they were mowed regularly. From our vantage point, we can see a lighthouse, a beautiful speck of white in the midst of the greeneries. I took advantage of my camera’s zoom lens and took a picture. We can also see the houses of Pacita Abad and Sec. Butch Abad. We will visit them on day 3. The beautiful landscape was so soothing, the fresh air so invigorating. It felt like all the stress I’ve accumulated from months of hectic lifestyle were washed away. And it was just our first day!

For dinner, we had beef stew (Nilagang baka), steamed fish, coleslaw and one other dish that I can’t seem to remember. Because it was so dark all around, we decided to retire early. And besides, we were scheduled to start early the next day – breakfast at 5:30! – so we thought it best to go to bed after dinner. We were dismayed to see thousands of insects flying around in our room. We unscrewed the bed lamps since there was only one light switch for all the lighting fixtures and turned on only the one near the entrance. That drew the little cockroach-like insects away from the bed. We also closed the windows beside our bed to prevent more insects from getting in. It wasn’t cold that night, but I slept under the covers for fear of having the insects fly all over me. Other than the insects, it had been altogether a great day!

Here’s a collection of our Day 1 photos plus the wreck on day 2

Day 2

We woke up early today. This was our 5th wedding anniversary. Ariel and I greeted each other and prepared for our trip to Sabtang Island. Our breakfast was late. We were supposed to eat at 5:30 but was not served until almost 6am. Our German friends were a bit irked by this since we all made the effort to wake up early. By 6:30, we were already driving along the winding roads by the mountainside. We where admiring the view when we were hit by a jeepney. For a fleeting second, I thought we would spin and fall off the cliff but thankfully, we were not driving fast. The tires veered a little to the left and quickly came to a stop. The door of the van was ripped as the jeep hit us mid-way. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Our driver, Nards, was visibly upset since he may have to answer for the wrecked vehicle. It wasn’t our fault though. The jeepney was too far to its left with about 2 feet of clearance to its right side. Our van, on the other hand, was at the far right-end of the road. Because of the mishap, we were delayed by an hour. We had to wait for a policeman and then we transferred to another jeepney to continue our trip to San Vicente Pier where we would board a “Falowa”, a motorized passenger boat.

We soon learned that news travels fast in Batanes. We missed our boat because when the boatman heard about our little accident, he assumed that we will be late, which indeed we were. So he left on schedule with his other passengers. While waiting, a backpacker couple said hi to us. They were actually in the same jeep we took going to the pier. They arrived in Batanes the previous week and they were on their way to Sabtang to spend two nights there. They already climbed Mt. Iraya, Batanes’ extinct volcano, and spent a night there. Soon after, our guide to Sabtang, Chris, arrived also. After a few minutes, another boat arrived and we were to take that one to Sabtang. A man, who looked like a fisherman, alighted with a few bags. We were surprised to hear our guide greet him “Good morning Mayor”. We learned that he’s the Municipal Mayor of Sabtang. He was all alone, no body guards, no helpers. Another indication of how different life is in Batanes.

Having heard that Batanes has some of the roughest seas in the country, I was a bit nervous about our boat ride. Our itinerary specified “mandatory wearing of lifevest” during the boat ride. However, since we missed our original resort-accredited boat, the boat we took had no life vest. Well, we saw some life vests on the roof, but they were never offered to us. And besides, they looked old, dirty and smelly. A few minutes into the ocean and I thought it wasn’t so bad. However, our guide told us that it will get rougher as we near Sabtang. We will sail through that part of the ocean where the Pacific Ocean meets the South China Sea. True enough, after about 20 minutes, the waves got bigger. I closed my eyes to quell my fears. I prayed silently for the Lord’s traveling mercy, that we would reach Sabtang safely.

We reached the shores of Sabtang safely. However, getting off the boat was tricky. The waves were so strong that the boat was going up and down rapidly, as if in a giant seesaw. Jumping to the shore should be timed perfectly to avoid injury. It took us a couple of minutes before we were able to walk on solid ground. A jeepney was waiting for us with our driver. Our first stop was at the Municipal Hall where we registered as tourists. We paid P100 each to the policeman on duty. I also had to use the CR located at the back of the office – a bit dark and musty in there but I wasn’t complaining.

As we went around, we learned that Sabtang only has electricity from 12 noon to 12 midnight. The population is too small (about 4,000) to cover the cost of 24 hour electricity in the island. There were also no inns for overnight staying. Tourists who wish to spend the night will have to sleep at the local school.

We went around Chavayan, a community where most houses are still made of stone and lime. We went to see the local church and had our pictures taken in the adjacent vernacular house. The houses were cool inside due to the thick stone and lime walls (about 3 feet thick) and the 1-foot think thatch (cogon) roof. The structure of the house was designed to withstand the strong Batanes typhoons. While going around, we saw some old folks wearing a “vakul”, a handmade headdress used for protection against the sun and the rain.

We also stopped by the lime pit where our Chris explained the process of preparing the lime for the construction of the vernacular houses. Limestones where placed at the bottom of the pit. Then wood is dumped over them and burned for several months. Because of the tedious preparation of the lime, locals nowadays choose to use hollow blocks and cement with steel support instead of rocks and lime.

I would say that the highlight of our Sabtang trip is the white sand beach near the main town. A long stretch of white sand awaited us, with natural rock formations at the shore. One beautiful formation was an arched rock looking very much like the welcome arches when you enter a town or Barangay. The beach was also very clean, save from a few garbage washed from the ocean, obviously from Taiwan as the marking on the bottles are in Chinese. We were itching to take a dip but it was a bit scary due to the strong waves.

We drove back to the main town, were a sumptuous meal was prepared for us. Mouth watering lobsters, steamed Lapu-Lapu that’s super fresh, tender and flavorful, freshly-picked, crunchy vegetables cooked chopsuey style, and of course, nothing beats ice cold cola to refresh our weary bodies. Super soft, fried banana was the sweet ending to an already fabulous meal. It was the perfect anniversary lunch!

While having lunch, we were told that our boat will have to depart at 1 pm, much earlier than scheduled due to the strong current. The return trip will be much rougher. O dear! We had a full stomach this time!

Fortunately, this time, we boarded the resort-endorsed boat. We were given clean life vests each. As expected, the sea was a bit rougher going back to Batan island. Looking at the waves only made it much more scarier. The waves seemed higher than our own boat, and I couldn’t help thinking that our boat will be crushed by the waves. I had to close my eyes to rid myself of those bad thoughts. After a while, we saw some flying fish, well, flying, alongside our boat. I thought flying fishes were called as such because they can jump long distances. Just like a flying squirrel which glides from tree to tree. I never imagined to see fishes with wings fluttering. But that’s exactly what flying fishes are. They looked like giant humming birds with wings seemingly fluttering a hundred a minute, and they normally fly in groups. It was a sight to behold.

The shores of Batan Island were much calmer. When we got off the boat, I was so tempted to take the plunge right there and then. I just stopped myself because I didn’t want to take the van in wet clothes. Since we got back earlier than scheduled, we had to wait a while for our van at a sari-sari store across the pier. Nards picked us up after about 30 minutes of waiting, this time in a new government-issued AUV – blue Toyota Revo.

Here are some photos taken at Sabtang Island.

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That’s where my original entry ended. Now, continuing it will be a bit tricky since I’ve forgotten most of the tiny details. All I can remember now is the great feeling of being around nature’s stark beauty. I’ll try my best to fill in the details.

I don’t remember much about what we did after getting back from Sabtang. We must have taken a nap and had our anniversary dinner afterwards. I remember eating at the Batanes Resort with the Geigers in another table. I remember we ordered the yellow rice which Batanes is famous for (the rice is steamed with turmeric and some other spices), and Uved (don’t know the spelling, I just spelled it the way I heard it) – a local dish that looks like meatballs. It is actually made of flying fish, Banana core (ubod) and bits of meat. There were actually two versions – fired and steamed (or stewed?) – but on that night, we ate the steamed version. We tried the fried version a few days later. I enjoyed both but I prefer the steamed one.

That’s it for now. Details of the next few days to follow.

Written by Alby Laran

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