Bracing ourselves on a hillside with strong winds barreling down from the South China Sea, we were convinced that the previous things we’d read about Batanes were true.
This looks nothing like the typical Philippines. The scenery looks more like the photos we’ve seen of Scotland or Ireland – rugged coastline, rolling green hills of pastures, and overcast grey skies. The fresh cool wind that forced us to wear long pants and light jackets was such a refreshing change from the heat and humidity of Manila. This vacation away from the hustle and bustle of our lives in Manila was exactly what we needed.
Batanes, a group of three islands located on the northernmost oceanic border of the Philippines, are halfway between the large Philippines island of Luzon (where Manila is found) and Taiwan. As you can imagine, the small islands’ population of 16,000 is quite isolated and remote from just about everything. The capital of Batanes, Basco, is more like a small town with no traffic lights and little in the way of tourism arrangements. This is off the beaten track for most travelers; however with daily flights from Manila that started this past year and infrastructure improvements, its isolation may dissipate in the years to come.
One of the main highlights from the trip was where we stayed. The Fundacion Pacita Nature Lodge (www.fundacionpacita.ph) was the former residence of Philippines artist, Pacita Abad. From what we learned about Pacita during our stay, she traveled the world and incorporated vibrant colors in everything that inspired her modern artistic styles. Both Charles and I were inspired by her life story and how she seemed to make the most out of life by exploring and experiencing different cultures. In 2001 at the age of 55, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. For the next three years she continued pursuing her passion for art in Singapore, Batanes and Manila amidst ongoing radiation and chemotherapy treatments. The main house of the Lodge was a studio/home she had built in 2002. Following her death in 2004, the land and home were donated to her family’s foundation. Proceeds from the hotel support local Ivatan (the name of the indigenous people in Batanes) artists and the construction of traditional Ivatan houses. If you want to read more about Pacita, I encourage you to explore www.pacitaabad.com/about.asp.
The setting of the lodge was equally as inspiring as Pacita’s life. We spent many hours on our room’s balcony, taking in the scene of the main house/studio overlooking the Pacific Ocean and a bay surrounded by small cliffs with waves crashing on the shore. What a relaxing spot for morning coffee and afternoon beers with a cigar. In the evenings we were so ecstatic about only hearing two things– the fairly constant breeze and the waves from the shore below our temporary abode. With the cool temperatures and a warm comforter on the bed, we were in heaven. I haven’t slept that well in ages. Quite different from the white noise of our A/C unit in Manila or the noisy streets of Chengdu! During our first afternoon at Fundacion Pacita, we hiked down to a small stone beach and enjoyed a coastline that reminded us of the Pacific Northwest,
the setting of our wedding five years ago. I even took a brief nap while lying on these stones and listening to the sea. The setting of this hotel was by far one of the best places I’ve ever stayed in…and I’ve been to many a hotel around the world.
A co-worker of mine set us up with a tour guide, Romy who toured us around on his three-wheeled motorcycle, aka tuk-tuk in other places. Seeing Batan Island on his motorcycle was a great way to explore and get to know it. Romy would frequently stop and have us walk out across pastures to cliff sides to fully appreciate the views. One of our
favorite spots was Marlboro Hills, located just to the south of Fundacion Pacita. As you might suspect, the name is derived from someone seeing this place and it reminding them of a Marlboro advertisement. Despite the somewhat cheesy name, the Hills were gorgeous and the view of the bay with the extinct volcano of Mt. Iraya in the background was a wonderful spot to take in for about an hour. Romy also called this spot the “Sound of Music” hills. Charles and I had recently watched this movie to introduce it to our Italian friends who’d never seen it, and we had to laugh when Romy mentioned it. This was in fact the third spot we’d been to in two days that reminded us of where Fraulein Maria twirled and sang. I ask you, does it get any better than a place that reminds me of the best movie of all time? I can see my brothers’ shrugging their shoulders and shaking their heads after that last sentence.
As we traveled around the southern coast of the island, we stopped at the Honesty Café. As the name implies, this small store that sells bottled drinks, snacks, Nescafe, and a few souvenirs runs on the honor system – people list what they purchase and deposit the appropriate amount in a locked money box. Best to have exact change! There are no store keepers to attend to customers. What a great concept, although it wouldn’t work in most places. But we also noticed that people wouldn’t lock their bicycles so I guess with such a small community where everyone knows everybody, there is sufficient trust among its citizens and the occasional tourist.
By this time, the sun was out and it remained fairly sunny for the next few days. Romy told us that we were incredibly fortunate to have this type of weather as December can be quite wet. I really enjoyed the low speed of the motorcycle and the chance to take in views either from sitting behind Romy or in the small compartment attached to the right side of the bike. While this small compartment offered limited views, it was an interesting perspective of the streets and villages we passed through. I really liked the back seat though, especially to take in views of coconut lined streets or overlooking the cliffs and rock formations just off the coast. Charles and I were both reminded of Tonga and Samoa in terms of isolated, coastal villages situated by themselves in small bays and connected to other populated areas by a narrow road that has been carved out of the rocky cliffs that jut against the ocean.
The following day Romy took us to the island of Sabtang, a 30-minute boat ride away from the southern coast of Batan Island. The nickname for the type of boat that we rode is “pumpboat”. It is called this because one of the 5-man crew is constantly pumping out the ballast (the water that collects at the bottom of the boat). Sabtang is a smaller island and the Ivatan culture and stone house architecture is more intact there than on the main island. We traveled by van to go from one end of the island to the other – probably a total distance of 20 miles or so. On one end, we walked around the small village of Chavayan where the oldest man in Batanes lives. We went to his house and talked with him and his family for a few minutes. He’s 103 years-old and seems to be in good health. The secret to his lon gevity? His family mentioned his main diet of fish and vegetables and that he only drinks coconut juice and never drinks water or alcohol. Note to self – drink more coconut juice.
This town is also the location of the Sabtang Weavers Association. Two adorable old ladies showed us around their home and small store front before Charles tried on and purchased the traditional rain/sun hat that Ivatan women wear. With green mountains rising just behind this coastal town, the old stone houses of Chavayan provided us with a pleasant place for a stroll before hopping back in the van and heading to the other side of the island.
Our next destination included lunch by a beach – lobster, grilled fish and seaweed soup! The beach was beautiful with a natural rock arch located right on the shore. The only problem with this idyllic setting was that oil blobs were scattered around the beach from a ship that had sunk nearby earlier this year. And it was supposedly a tiny ship…can’t imagine what folks in the Gulf of Mexico had to deal with the oil spill earlier this year. As you can see in the photo, the beach still looked nice; you just had to be careful where you stepped.
After returning to the main island we stopped at a cove called the Blue Lagoon for a swim; no Brooke Shields though. The water clarity was amazing… so clear. Maybe too clear as the first thing I saw after entering the water was a sea snake. The snake and I agreed to keep a very healthy distance from each other. The water was cold though. Charles and I never really warmed up so the swim didn’t last too long.
We got back to Fundacion Pacita to enjoy our last afternoon/evening. The sunset was beautiful followed by a nearly full moon.
The dining room served us a really tasty and filling sinagang, which is a typical Filipino tangy soup made from tamarind. Our last breakfast the next day was an egg over rice with fried flying fish. Yum! After nearly four years in Asia, I can’t imagine most meals without rice!
Our plane was delayed on the way back, which gave us some extra time to take in the sunny but not hot weather. We went back to a lighthouse located just outside of town and soaked in the views one last time. Although we had only left Manila three days earlier, it felt like it had been much longer. The slow pace of these tranquil islands and the frequent opportunities to just sit and stare at nature resulted in a perfect vacation. Batanes is just another example of all the wonderful places in the Philippines for us to explore. I wonder where we’re headed next?