Breathtaking is an overused adjective associated with Batanes. At least to the lucky few who get to go there, being largely isolated from the rest of the archipelago. The northernmost Philippine province boasts jaw-dropping landscapes: rolling hills, jagged cliffs and rocky shorelines.
However, even with vistas not found in the rest of the country, isolation has been a challenge for the small province (both in terms of population and land area). But its remoteness has given Batanes a rustic charm that never fails to win visitors over.
Instead of posh, five-star digs, you’ve got indigenous stone houses; instead of fast-food chains, you’ve got fresh local food; instead of endless shopping malls, you’ve got the sprawling, unspoiled outdoors.
Its former governor, Engineer Telesforo Castillejos, who is now director of the Batanes Cultural Travel Agency (BCTA), a privately-owned company that aims to promote the cultural heritage of Batanes, shares with us the challenges and the opportunities that the province has and in the process, helps define what makes it special.
Batanes weather and stone houses
Like the rest of the country, Batanes gets its fair share of typhoons during monsoon season. But the Ivatan people, resourceful as they are have adopted ways to live; take their traditional lodging—stone houses are made of thick limestone walls to withstand strong winds. One dates back from 1887.
Presently, BCTA has been actively encouraging owners of stone houses to develop their properties as bed and breakfast facilities to accommodate the increasing number of tourists in Batanes. So if ever you find yourself with the option to join a home-stay program in one of the stone house, do so. You get a slice of Ivatan culture and help the Ivatans to retain ownership of their stone houses in the process.
Taking its cue from its rural surroundings, traditional Ivatan food is rustic and unpretentious. Root crops like sweet potato and yams, and dibang (flying fish) are staples in the Ivatan kitchen.
While dining choices are limited, there are cafes and bed-and-breakfast that take the modest Ivatan cuisine to mouth-watering heights.
Try the lunch spread of boutique hotel Fundacion Pacita Batanes Nature Lodge: start with the freshest seafood with lataven or Batanes’s own version of kinilaw (ceviche), roe-rich coconut crabs, lonyes (Ivatan fried pork) and some sweet potatoes.
After you visit the Basco Lighthouse to watch the sunset, walk over to nearby Bunker Cafe for dinner.
Wondering what to bring home or snack on? Take the locally-grown kamote (sweet potato) chips.
But since a lot of food production in Batanes is still geared towards individual household consumption, the market place (if ever it is open) is not spilling with produce. In fact, Castillejos points out, that up to now in some of the islands of Batanes, a cow is only slaughtered until every kilo of it is already pre-sold. Now that’s eco-conscious consumption!
Heritage and cultural preservation
In 2003, Batanes was declared by the Philippine Congress as the Batanes Protected Landscapes and Seascapes, making it the only province in the country to be declared in its entirety as a protected area. Castillejos adds, “The whole province is also nominated as a World Heritage site.”
No wonder, the once very isolated part of the Philippines is gaining recognition among adventurous and culture-hungry travellers. Castillejos admits that the challenge now lies in preserving their cultural heritage amidst the developments. So if you get to go to Batanes, count yourself among the lucky few to witness the little island province’s endeavour to stand by its heritage.
For more information on Batanes sites and tours, visit www.batanestravel.com.
Photos by Orlando Cajigal