Batanes: the Philippines’ Last Frontier of the North.
When looking into places to visit in the Philippines I came across Batanes a couple of times. But noticing it was so far up north and seeing it was rather expensive to fly to, I decided to skip it. Like almost all foreigners. But later when I was looking for ‘hidden gems‘ I came across it again and again. Once I started looking into it, I realised this was a place I hád to visit. It made its way to the top of my bucket list, together with Patagonia and New Zealand. I decided to start my trip here and create my first time lapse movie.
Batanes conists of 10 islands, 3 inhabited, a total population nearly 17.000 people. 12.000 live on Batan island, nearly 2.000 at Sabtang and 3.000 at Itbayat. It is the country’s northernmost and smallest province and is also named ‘Nature’s Playground’. It is also name ‘the Schotland of the Philippines’, the landscape here is very different from the rest of the country. The archipelago is declared by the government as a Protected Landscape and Seascape because of its rare flora and fauna, undulating terrain, diverse marine life, limestone cliffs and panoramic views.
The most famous tourist attractions are:
- the Ivatan indigenous stone houses (made up of coral, wooden windows & floors and cogon roofs)
- the lighthouses (farolas)
- Spanish-era churches and green grazing hills with stunning views
- the viewpoints and view decks the Honesty Shop where you write down what you take and put the money is box; no one works there.
- Mt Iraya (a dormant volcano, 1009 feet above sea level) dominates the view from most of Batan and is to be seen from all islands
- the Rolling Hills
- the Marlboro Hills
The sites are nice, but the landscape is the true attraction here, and going from one location to the other just seems a resting point while enjoying the stunning scenery along the way and at the gorgeous Rolling Hills and Marlboro Hills.
Batanes is way out there in the ocean and is actually closer to Taiwan than The Philippines ‘mainland’. Located right in the middle of the typhoon region, it makes it a hard place to go to. You could go throughout the whole year, but July – December is prone to typhoons, which hit the islands about 3 times a year. A fast typhoon might last only a few days, while a slow typhoon might last a few weeks. During these times no boats or planes are allowed to travel and you might find yourself stuck for weeks on any of the islands. I think this might actually be a good thing! Your employer might not agree though. See more at the ‘planning your trip’ section for when to go.
About Batan island
Batan island has lots of sights and you’ll need days to explore them. Mahato, Ivana and Uyugan are the other 3 main towns, but don’t expect any restaurants here, there’s only a few in Basco. Most people come on a tour, which includes everything, so you won’t find many people at the restaurants. There’s nice villages, churches, lighthouses, old stone houses, a nice old Spanish bridge and other Spanish remnants, ruins, a fortress, museum, beachfronts, rocks, cliffs etc. to visit. But the scenery along the way is what is truly amazing. You can climb Mt Iraya in 5 hours if you want, but a tour guide is required for safety. What proves the islands honesty (crime rate is extremely low here) is the Honesty Coffee Shop near Ivana where you help yourself, and pay for the goods yourself, as no one works in the shop!
About Itbayat island
Famous for the coconut crab (largest land crabs (and arthropods) in the world), which even climbs coconut trees to get them and simply cracks them open with its claws. As they were so easy to catch and there wasn’t much food around during typhoon season, most have been eaten and now they are protected. You might be offered a coconut crab, but you shouldn’t accept. There’s no hotels, bars, or restaurants here, food is served at your lodge/homestay only by reservation. You’ll find volcanic rock all over the island, proving it was once created by 2 volcanoes, but none remain.
There are about a dozen sights and viewpoints, such as Torongan hill and cave (settled 4.000 BC), vernacular houses, an ancient settlement, sinkhole (witches used to be thrown in), a church etc. But again the main attraction is the island itself and the gorgeous scenery while riding around the island. Which by the way is completely surrounded by cliffs: no beach-time here, unless you make it to one of the 4 islands in up north.
The main roads are cemented (no cars here, just a few trucks) and you can easily explore these. To get to certain sights, you really need a guide. Some of the roads are really dangerous, a few cemented ones are extremely slippery and dirt roads become inaccessible after rain. Unless you are an experienced driver and drive carefully, it is advised to hire a guide to drive you around. You can also stay at the farthest island Mavudis Y’ami island (php12.000/€240 max 10) or nearby Siayan (php4.500/€90 max 10), best for its beaches.
About Sabtang island
Sabtang is the closest you’ll get to the traditional Batanes experience, you’ll find traditional houses in the villages Chavayan and Savidug Barrio. Also an ancient Ivatan settlement which served as a fortress against invaders, named Savidug Idjang. A gorgeous stone arch, Ahao, is one the most iconic/photographed site, a great location at the beach, good for swimming, snorkeling and camping. Duvek Bay is where remnants of Ivatan houses are being restored. Most people visit the island for only part of a day (ferry back to Batan leaves at 1:30pm), but if you have time, stay at least 1 or 2 nights at one of the schools or homestays. The weather might suddenly get really bad, so the boat back might not go, but you’ll be able to stay somewhere. During my stay this happened once for 2 days.
My Batanes experience
I went without booking anything, looking at the accommodation overview outside of the airport I was approached by Carmen, who invited me to stay at her homestay (php500/€10 per night). I really couldn’t have asked for a nicer place to stay, it was basic, but I enjoyed being with the family and stayed for all 11 nights here. Her husband Ireneo (Neo in short) is a former policeman and now a guide. He spoke English really well and I had many talks with him about everything, really. They were some of the kindest, caring and sharing people I have ever met. They really were the golden edge to my Batan experience and I highly recommend staying with them. Find their details below at ‘3-Planning a trip to Batanes’.
Batan was a amazing, and although I liked the other islands, Batan is definitely the most beautiful and there’s much more to see. The Rolling Hills and Marlboro Hills are some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. So pure and so quiet, at times I was there for hours as the only visitor. It was winter season, so the temperature was between 10 en 25 degrees, pleasant on most days. But it was extremely cloudy, windy and rainy unfortunately, more than I expected really. It made it quite hard to go around and do time lapses, but nevertheless the quietness was worth it to me. I just extended my stay for another week to get the footage I after for my time lapse movie.
March to May are high season and attract much more tourists, 99% of which are Filipinos. They know the secret! Barely anyone else does. I hired a motorbike for 9 days (7.500/€180 for 9 days), which was the biggest expense of my trip. But the freedom of exploring the island on it, was priceless.
While driving around people would give me a curious look, but always replied with a big smile when I greeted them. Everyone greets each other here, it is unkind not to. One night I went out with a local for a few beers at some of the videoke bars (they love that in the Philippines!) and chatted with some guy, first thing he says is ‘yeah I’ve seen you driving around twice, you didn’t greet me!’. I’m like ‘yeah, every now and then I do need to focus on the road, especially near construction and sandy parts!’. Funny, but everyone seems really cool. I had read about this before, but it seems true so far: Philippine people are some of the friendliest and welcoming people you’ll meet.
The locals were surprised, but pleased, to see me go around the island on a motorbike, no other tourists do. The last few days people were laughing to see me again, ‘you still here?!’ some said. Other visitors only come for a few days, so they were delighted to see someone taking so much time to spend at Batanes. I wasn’t too impressed by most sights to be honest, I’ve seen enough lighthouses and churches to stay interested, so I just kept cruising around looking for those beautiful spots, hoping the light and sky would be better this time.
What is nice as well, not just in Batanes, but in all of the Philippines, is that people speak English quite well and use many words and short sentences in their own language. So it is easy to chat with most of them, ask directions or anything. This is sometimes a real challenge when you travel.
My homestay owners kindly dropped me off at the dock (even picked me up when I came back!). The boat left at 6.30, starting off quite calm, but getting rougher along the way. Some people were getting sick and throwing up at the back of the boat. I’ve never been seasick, but made the mistake of starting to read my map, bad choice. I started to feel horribly sick, but felt better as I laid down like the locals.
By the time we neared Itbayat, waves were up to 2m high. Getting off the boat at the port was one of the scariest things ever and I even considered going right back to Batan, but I couldn’t let Daniel let down, so I went for it. The front of the boat was going up and down for than a meter, creating massive gaps and smashing into the concrete dock. Timing had to be perfect and a fall would be fatal. It took several minutes before the boat was still for a few seconds and I was able to do ‘the step’, my knees trembling like never before… But even the locals agreed today was a rough day, I heard the boat actually needed to be repaired after that.
My guide and host Daniel was waiting for me at the port with his motorbike. Booking ahead is necessary here. Usually I just find accommodation once I arrive, hire a motorbike and explore the area myself, but it was strongly advised to book ahead and hire a guide (php1500/€20 a day, lodge php250/€5, food php200/€4) and for good reason! There’s no transportation at the port, some of the roads are barely or not accessible and some locations can’t be found without a guide. You really need to book ahead, if only for your accommodation and food.
The first day we had nice weather, went to some viewpoints and one of the viewdecks, a fishing port, newly build lighthouse etc. The main town Mayan is a pretty maze of steep roads and basic homes with friendly people. Next morning we went to the Torongan cave and hill (expect a 1,5h round walk), but it started raining that morning and barely stopped for days. We couldn’t go to any of the sights (roads become too dangerous on a motorbike and there’s no cars here) and I was stuck on the island for 5 days. Boats aren’t allowed to leave in this weather. Daniel and his daughter treated me as a king, but I was pretty much stuck in my room for the first 2 days. The other days I was able to go out on the motorbike myself a few times, in between rainshowers.
There’s 4 guides and 5 lodges on the island, but I highly recommend Daniel De Guzman (cheapest as well), I could not have wished for a better or friendlier guide. Born and raised on the island and a guide for more than 30 years, he knows this place and speaks English well, he cooks almost all meals and does a great job at it. Together with his wife Levina De Guzman they run their company Levinda (Levina + Daniel). The town’s main shop is located in their building, which is convenient, especially when it’s pouring down. Find Daniel’s details below at the ‘Planning Your Trip’ section.
Most tourists spend a half day here, but I took my motorbike with me on the ferry (php75/€1,5, motorbike php100/€2). I stayed 2 nights at the elementary school, which has one 4-bed room and a single-bed room (php200/€4), basic, but clean. There’s no guesthouses at Sabtang. Cruising around the island was wonderful, the landscapes are awesome and there’s only 1 main road. It’s easy to navigate, but the nicest are the small roads in the towns that lead into the island. There are only a few towns, you’ll find the old stone Ivatan houses here. Many are ruins now, which belong to people that have moved away.
There’s a Conscience store at the church in the main town, across the port. Like at the Honesty Shop, you take what you want and pay for it yourself. I would drink my coffee and have my noodle meals here. I met and chat with father Dany, who kindly invited me for dinner the last night. He cooked me a wonderful meal of papaya in coconut juice, with rice and omelet. Another kind and typical gesture of the people at Batanes.
Planning a trip to Batanes
This is ‘Mother Nature’s playground’, weather is very unpredictable and storms may delay your trip. Boats and planes can’t go in these conditions. So planning is fairly important, especially if you have limited time. Storm season is July to December, the coolest months are December to March (rain season) and the dry months are late March to June. Best months are March to May, although booking ahead is required in these months.
If you are planning on visiting Itbayat, keep in mind that the 2 boats might not leave due to weather conditions (March – May seems ok), so it’s wise to plan it at the beginning of your trip to not miss your flight. But it would be a shame if you miss out on Batan and Sabtang because of this, they are the true jewels, Batan especially. The boat ride to Sabtang might be implicated by the weather as well, but does go more often as it is only 30+ minutes.
Tours are recommended for most things here, but the only tour I booked was on Itbayat. You can hire a motorbike and get around the islands quite easily (except for Itbayat), if you are an experienced driver. If not, or if you’re short on time, it is advisable to organise a tour. You can hire a guide at the island for a custom tour, join another (if the guests don’t mind), hire a tricycle to take you around, or get one booked at a travel agency beforehand.
A Batanes trip does not come very cheap: only Skyjet and Pal offer flights at php 5.000-7.000/€100-140 per way. Your best deal is a package tour, but you’ll need to be with a group of 3 minimum. Sometimes there are special offers for php3.000-4.000/€60-80 including everything, which is an incredible deal. IF you can get your hands on these. Apply to travel agency newsletters and/or follow them on Facebook and act immediately when a deal becomes available. But ask yourself if you really want to be in one the many mini buses, personally I much prefer going around myself and not find yourself at crowded locations constantly. The vans follow roughly the same route, so certain times it gets really crowded, after that it’s quiet.
I highly recommend staying with Carmen and Neo at Basco, Batan: Carmen Asa 09202237361, Ireneo Asa 09491299914 (php500/€10 per night). They live right next to the airport in Basco, so that’s very convenient and it’s a short walk into town. If you’re going to Itbayat, staying at Levinda Lodge with Daniel as your guide and cook is also highly recommended (guide php1500/€20 a day, lodge php250/€5, food php200/€4); 0939-9173953 or 0921-5668269 (Levinda Lodge, San Rafael, Itbayat, Batanes 3905, [email protected]). They are also supposed to be your cheapest option. Rooms are basic and clean, shared bathrooms, a bunk bed room is available as well for groups.
Things to know about Batanes
Basco is where you’ll arrive by plane and has plenty of accommodation. A homestay being your cheapest option, but there’s at least 1 lodge and a couple of hotels. Ask for a map and overview of the island accommodation at the Basco airport registration counter. Homestays are available from php300-400/€6-8, although I paid php500/€10, but did get a discount for staying 11 nights. You can also get a map at the tourist office, across the blue police station in Basco. The friendly policemen like to go on the photo with you, it’s to show they take of tourists. Batanes is so chill, even the cops will tell you it’s no problem to sleep at the side of the road! Batanes knows no crime!
Atm’s are available in Basco only. Convert your dollars (no Euros) at the bank in Basco. Paying with a creditcard is not possible. Both banks did not accept my Maestro/Mastercard bank- and creditcards. So make sure you have enough Pesos or Dollars.
There’s no wifi or internet cafe’s in Batanes. The only way to have access to internet isto buy a Philippines SIM card for your smartphone. But only at Batan will you find a connection. You can buy a SIM card for php50/€1 at many shops. Locals can add credit for you.
No taxi’s are available, you must call/text for a tricycle or motorbike. Ask around to hire a motorbike, php1.000/€20 a day or get one from your homestay probably. Bicycles are also available for rent, php20/€0,40 an hour for a simple bike, php50/€1 for a proper mountain bike (discount up to 50% for a full day rent). But as the hills are very steep, it’s a real challenge! Check the breaks beforehand 😉
There’s a few restaurants in Basco, a cheap option is the kanteen next to the church. Beehan (take street left of the blue police station) seemed the best deal in town, great food for a good price and very friendly staff. They serve a great hamburger (php50/€1 or get a special for php100/€2). After eating rice almost 3 times a day in Itbayat, I was never happier to find a burger. Try the Halo Halo, here or anywhere, it’s crushed ice with milk and jellies and all sorts of surprises.
Going to Sabtang
To get to Sabtang from Basco, you’ll have to travel to San Vincente or Ivana first. A 30-40 min motorised ferry (php75/€1,50) will take you to Sabtang, first one leaving at 6.30. The best Sabtang experience includes an overnight stay, if you have the time.
Going to Itbayat
To get to Itbayat, get on the 6.30 am boat from Basco (+/-3h, php450/€9). Boats leave only when the weather is good. Tablets for seasickness might be a good idea and are available at pharmacies. From Itbayat they leave at about 10:30 am.
Conclusion & rating
What a place to start my trip! Expectations were high, which is never good, but what a true beauty Batanes is. I doubt I’ll ever find a place like this. I only saw one other backpackers in the 18 days I was there, that was a welcome experience. Almost every smile or hello is met with a similar gesture. I could not have asked for more, despite the bad weather for a couple of days. Many thanks to Daniel and Neo and his wife Carmen for accommodating me and taking great of me.
What was really special to me, is that there is hardly any crime on the islands. People don’t feel the need to steal, and they would never harm their family’s name. If anything ever gets taken, it’s the kids that do it out of curiosity, but it is always returned. If you loose something, say your wallet or your camera, the people will make sure it is returned to you. The place is small, so people know each other and only have to make a few phone calls to find out where you are staying. They leave their keys in their motorbikes and some even hang their doorkeys on the outside of the house! Honestly I felt safer here than I do in my own house.
In a way I have rather mixed feelings about writing this blog. I like Batanes just as it is and don’t want it to change because of tourism. It should remain the secret it is. But the people want tourists to come and need the money it brings. And I do believe Batanes is well aware of its beauty and taking care of keeping it as it is. So looking at it that way, if this is the kind of place you can appreciate, you should go and support the people any way you can. I really don’t think there’s any place like it anywhere on this planet. I am sure Batanes will always be one of my dearest trips.
Rating (out of 10):
OVERAL EXPERIENCE: 10
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK: 9
EASY TO TRAVEL: 7
Links to check out!
See the full Batanes photo series at my portfolio.