Country Nook (Basco, Batanes)

Country Nook

On the day prior to my departure, I was invited to joined a picnic at Country Nook hosted by youthful Basco Mayor Manuel Viola, again feasting on true Ivatan seafood fare.  Country Nook had a couple of magnificent rock formations just offshore.  Joining us was Ms. Carol Pobre (of DOT Region II) and Francis “Chico” Domingo, a certified PADI divemaster and A.D.S. instructor.  They were to dive deeper portions of Batanes’ marine environment which is rich with marine resources.  Batanes is one of the few remaining sites where pink and red corals (Corallum sp.), some of the rarest sea corals in the world, are found.  Chico has a vast knowledge of the province’s dive sites.

Carol and Chico take a dive

I could only watch in envy as Carol, accompanied by Chico, explored the offshore marine sanctuary’s beautiful underwater scenery and marine life.  I was offered and wanted to join them but, according to Chico, diving wasn’t allowed 12 hours prior to my flight (I was leaving 8 AM the next day).  Carol was leaving a day after my departure.  However, my disappointment was later dispelled by a beautiful Batanes sunset. 

A beautiful Batanes sunset. Carol is in the foreground

Country Nook: Sitio Vavayat, Brgy. Chanarian, Basco, Batanes

Church of Sto. Domingo de Basco (Batanes)

Come Saturday late afternoon, I decided to attended mass at the lovely Church of Sto. Domingo de Basco, the oldest in Batanes.  The church was just walking distance from the inn I was staying in. The mass was held in the unique Ivatan dialect.

Church of Sto. Domingo de Basco

First built from 1787 to 1796 (one of the first limestone buildings to be built under the Spanish regime), it was destroyed during a typhoon and rebuilt in 1812 by Dominican friars. Its façade fell to the ground during the 2000 earthquake.  The present white Baroque church, built in the espadaña style, has massive pilasters buttressing the thick walls from foundation to top.  It incorporates the original front and north walls while the rear and south walls are inside the original ruins.  The convent beside the church was built in 1814.

The church interior

Morong Beach (Sabtang, Batanes)

After that filling and unique lunch, I found out that I still had time to spare before taking the last falowa back to the mainland, so I decided to make a quick visit to Brgy. Sumnanga.  Inaccessible by the Toyota Revo, I hired the services of Mr. Alex Habana, hitching on his motorcycle to get there.  I had no time to explore, on a walking tour, the barangay proper, a portion of which used to be called “Little Hongkong” because of the cobblestones that used to cover its pathways.

Morong Beach and Ahaw Arch

I, however, visited the white sand Morong Beach (often mistakenly called Nakabuang Beach), with its sea-sculpted cave and its landmark Ahaw Rock Arch.  A number of tourists were swimming along the beach but I didn’t have the luxury of time so I made my way back, dropping by the new lighthouse along the way for some photo ops.  We arrived at the port in time for last (4 PM) boat trip back to Ivana.

Sabtang’s lighthouse

A Unique Ivatan Feast (Batanes)

Back at the town proper, I was invited by Mayor Caballero to join Gov. Gato, Cong. Abad and his other esteemed guests in a true Ivatan feast at the municipal hall.  The Ivatan fare spread before us, though simple, was hearty, filling, ingenious and nutritious, using  ingredients that are rich and unusual. Its taste and texture distinguishes it from the country’s other regional cuisines.

Spiny lobster (payi)

The prepared fare consisted spiny lobster (locally called payi, here I got it at just PhP250/kilo), tasty steamed coconut crabs (tatus), flying fish (dibang, plentiful from January to June), Spanish mackerel (tanigi) and the local meatball dish called tabtab (called uvud in Mahatao).

Uved

Uved, a staple food in every Ivatan’s dining table, is a mixture of the minced or finely grated core of the banana stalk pith (the big rhizome), ground pork or beef, minced bits of deboned dibang or tanigi, sweet potatoes, ube, some pig’s blood and other rootcrops, seasoned with local herbs, garlic, onions salt and pepper, molded into small balls, steamed and then served with a salad of tomato, onions and seaweed. 

Yellow rice on kab”baya leaf

Instead of the usual white rice, we were served fragrant, delicious supasvery sticky cooked yellow rice colored and flavored with and extract of yellow ginger or turmeric (locally called nihaman). Instead of plates, we ate this unique fare on the green leaves of a local breadfruit tree called kab’baya

A Tour Around Sabtang (Batanes)

Church of St. Vincent Ferrer

Once through with the blessing, Mayor Caballero allowed me the use of the municipality’s Toyota Revo plus the services of driver Rolando Fidel, to tour the island’s many sights.  Before leaving, I dropped by the St. Vincent Ferrer Church, a relic of the island’s tumultuous Spanish past. Started in 1844, this church was built in the espadana style (having two round arches at the roof level for the bells).

The Savigug idjang

Along the road to Savidug, Mr. Fidel pointed out, from a distance, a picturesque idjang, a pre-Hispanic mountain fortress where the natives sought refuge during tribal conflicts.  This idjang is distinctly different from all the others in the province because its sides were carved to make entry more difficult.

Chavayan village

Upon reaching the showcase barangay of Savidug, our Revo had to negotiate a narrow road between rows of traditional lime and stone cogon thatched houses.  Alighting here, I explored the village on foot, espying one of the barangay’s two (there are only three left throughout Batanes) animal-driven sugar mills that churn out a native wine called palek.

A carabao-driven sugar squeezer

A scenic, winding road next leads us to the equally rustic village of Chavayan and its landmark Chapel of Sta. Rosa de Lima, the only house of worship on the islands that is still in its traditional form.   The southernmost community in the province, Chavayan faces the northern tip of Luzon Island. Here, I observed, on another walking tour, the traditional detached Ivatan kitchen as well as glimpses of the Ivatan way of life including the making of the vakul or canayi.  

An Ivatan woman wearing a vakul

Serving as protection from the scorching heat of the sun or the wind and rain, these are woven by the womenfolk from carefully stripped and dried banana or voyavoy leaves. I also observed, up close, 99-year old Ireneo Hornedo weave an alogong, a men’s headgear that normally goes along with the canayi.  Before leaving, we were requested to looking up into the cliff and make out Mother Nature’s most perfect sculpture; the phallic-looking Monument of Satisfaction.

Irineo Hornedo (left)

A Sabtang Welcome (Batanes)

The third day of my 5-day stay in Batanes was reserved for a visit to the 40.67 sq. km., beautiful, mountainous and extremely rugged Sabtang Island.  According to a coffee table book published by the DOT in 1994, Sabtang Island was chosen as one of the 12 best destinations in the country.  I wondered why.  Having left Mama Lily’s Inn very early in the morning, I was able to hitch a ride, via Batanes Gov. Vicente Gato’s van, to Radiwan Port in Ivana, the gateway to the island.   I was to travel with distinguished company.  Joining me in the falowa (a round-bottomed boat) for the nearly 1-hr., 5-km. and fairly rough crossing across the Ivana Channel was Gov. Gato himself and Congresswoman Henedina Razon-Abad (wife or former Education Secretary and Congressman Florencio “Butch” Abad), both inaugurating a school library on the island, plus guests Ms. Carol Pobre and Ms. Bing Talla, both of DOT Region II, and Ms. Margarita Garcia, a Fil-American Fullbright scholar teaching art to Ivatan schoolchildren (I later found out she was living at the lighthouse at Naidi Hills in Basco).

The scenic, winding road to Chavayan

Sabtang’s beautiful shoreline is similar to Batan Island, having intermittent white sand beaches, deep canyons, sand dunes that rise up to a hundred feet and steep, 200 to 350-m. high mountains that run down the island’s spine, making the island slope outward to the coast.  Small level areas are sporadically found along the northeast coastline and mountains have to be terraced to accommodate communities.   The only town, the picturesque Sabtang (also called Centro or San Vicente), is located on the island’s eastern seaboard.  The waters around the islands are said to have one of the richest fishing grounds in all of Batanes.

Church of St. Vincent Ferrer

It seems one half of the island’s 1,678 Isabtang population came out to greet our party upon our arrival.  I, however, mistook the town’s parish priest for the mayor but soon corrected myself and paid my respects to the boyish-looking Mayor Juan “Johnny Caballero, smartly attired in a Hawaiian-style polo shirt. The blessing soon got underway.  

Uyugan and Back (Batanes)

Songsong Ruins
Old LORAN Station

Entering Uyugan, we passed by the old LORAN (Long Range Aid to Navigation) Station, in Alapad Point in Brgy. Imnajbu and the ruins of Songsong, a cluster of roofless old stone houses of a once thriving community of fishermen that was abandoned in 1955 after the inhabitants experienced severe famine as a consequence of the strong typhoons and tsunami in 1953 and 1954. The villagers resettled to Maramag, Bukidnon. Some of the ruins are now being restored while others are already inhabited.

Entry to Dipnaysujuan Tunnels

Along the Vajangshin Road, we passed by one of the 5 openings of the the Dipnaysujuan Tunnels, an abandoned Japanese-built World War II network of 8-ft. high and 6-ft. wide bat-filled tunnels. Too bad, we didn’t have kerosene lamps or flashlights to explore the dark tunnels.  Finally, on the way back to Basco, we also passed by an idjang (one of 17 throughout the province), a rocky castle-like natural fortress where pre-Hispanic Ivatans lived.

Basco idjang

Florestida Estrella and the House of Dakay (Ivana, Batanes)Iva

Posing beside the House of Dakay

During my 1.5-hr. tour of Batan Island with my 2 guides Ms. Joy Gabaldon and Mr. Jose “Boging” Astudillo and Toyota Revo driver Mr. Luciano “Anong” de Guzman, we passed by many of the Ivatan’s small, quaint, squat and low but ingeniously designed and typhoon-resistant houses, liken to those in the Scottish Highlands or France’s Provencal region. Locally called sinandumparan, these squat, low, solid stone and lime cottages are found all over the province and nowhere else in the country, as the lowland bahay kubo simply could not survive the harsh Batanes environment.    

Ivana

First built around 1795 by imported stonecutters, masons and carpenters from Cagayan, they have meter-thick lime and stone walls (sometimes with wood reinforcement for earthquake resistance), are built directly to the ground and are laid out on narrow, cobbled streets that follow the contour of the land.  They are cool during the warm season and warm in the cold months.  The gabled roofs have foot-thick cogon (which keeps the house cool in the hottest weather) tightly bound and woven together to make it water proof and fastened with reeds to sturdy wooden rafters.  The roof is held down by a panpet (a thick rope roof net) fastened to strong pegs on large, half-buried stones. The small, narrow door faces the east or northeast, away from the worst typhoon winds.  The tiny, square windows are located on three walls only.  The wall that doesn’t have it faces the direction of the strongest winds during typhoons. 

Sinandumparan ceiling

We made one long stopover at one such house, the Vahay ni Dakay (House of Dakay).  The oldest sinandumparan in Batanes, it is included on the UNESCO Heritage Building list and expected for grading.  Now resided in by octogenarian Florestida Estrella, it was built in 1887 by Elena Estrella, cobbled together with corals washed from the shore and stones that are abundant in the coastal town of Ivana.  Elena later bequeathed it to her nephew Jose Dacay (Florestida’s grandfather).  This traditional house withstood the September 13, 1918 (one of only 5 houses that survived in Ivana) and the July 16, 2000 (magnitude 7) earthquakes.     

Lola Ida

The friendly Florestida, fondly called Lola Ida, has an easy smile and weather-beaten face.  She was formerly only used to a quiet village existence. During the early years, her family moved the Visayas, returning to the area when she was 12.  She had stayed ever since, never marrying and many of her childhood friends have since died. Now, her tiny world has been opened to many foreign (including Australians and Canadians) and local tourists who give her donations and take her picture (she is the most photographed Ivatan in Batanes), making her the subject of many articles, postcards and promotional calendars. These same tourists also urge authorities to help preserve her house. Lola Ida keeps a blue logbook containing the names of visitors (mine now included) over the past years.  Like Lola Ida, the Ivatan’s tiny world may soon be open to tourism.  Let’s just hope it doesn’t destroy the very character that made it known in the first place.

Tour of Batan Island: Ivana (Batanes)

Church of St. Joseph the Carpenter

The next town we visited was Ivana.  In front of the town port is the Church of St. Joseph the Carpenter, built in 1785 and renovated in 1844. It has 3-m. thick walls and is the only church not built in the espadana style. Its separate fortress-like campanile, the only one in the province, has a crenellated top.  Here, Filipino revolutionaries hoisted their flag after renouncing their loyalty to Spain on September 1898. Due to its elevation, the church offers a panoramic view of the sea and the surrounding countryside.

Honesty Coffee Shop

Near the church is the Honesty Coffee Shop, opened in 1995 and owned by retired public school teacher Ms. Elena Gabilo.  Perhaps the only one of its kind in the country, Elena still believes that people are generally honest and therefore leaves nobody to tend to her store, concentrating, instead, on farming and cane vinegar production. A plaque inside is inscribed with the words “The Lord is my Security Guard.” The store sells snacks, candies, soft drinks, bottled water, souvenir items (vakuls) and Batanes T-shirts.  Here, we picked out soft drinks and snacks from the shelf, listed them in a logbook and dropped our payment into a drop box.  

Radar Tukon
The hilltop Radar Tukon, about 300 m. above sea level and 2.75 kms. from Basco, was formerly a pre-war U.S. weather station that presently houses the PAGASA Radar Station (the last weather station in the north) where typhoons (Basco is a reference point for all typhoons that enter and leave the country’s area of responsibility) are monitored. Its huge satellite disk was ripped off by gale-force winds even before it was put to effective use.  The hill offers a magnificent view of Batan Island, the South China Sea, Mount Iraya and the magnificent pastoral beauty of hedgerows and fields on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other side. Also nearby is the beautiful house cum gallery-museum of the late great Ivatan artist Pacita Abad.

Tour of Batan Island: Mahatao (Batanes)

 

Batan Island circuit road

On my second day in Batanes, I paid a courtesy call and asked for assistance from Gov. Vicente S. Gato and Tourism Officer Elmo Merin at the Provincial Capitol (built from 1794 to 1798 as the Casa Real or Spanish Governor’s residence) in Basco.  The Capitol fronts the grassy plaza leading down to Kanyuyan Port and Beach in Baluarte Bay.  Gov. Gato, a keen promoter of Batanes’ tourism potential, gladly allowed me the use of a Toyota Revo to be driven by Mr. Luciano “Anong” de Guzman.  He also assigned Ms. Joy Gabaldon and Mr. Jose “Boging” Astudillo as my guides.

The Provincial Capitol

Our route around the 35.5-sq. km., generally mountainous Batan Island skirted the west coast through Mahatao and Ivana to Uyugan. The winding circuit around the island took nearly 1.5 hrs. This included stopovers for photo ops and a longer wait to replace a flat tire.  All throughout, I was rewarded with a vista of sheer limestone cliffs alternating with gently rolling hills, great boulder beaches and some black and white sand beaches hemmed in by a broad fringing reef.  

Reliving the “Sound of Music” at Payaman

The wind-swept, vast and sprawling Racuh a Payaman, at Mahatao’s outskirts, is a huge track of communal pastureland preserved by the villagers.  Popularly called the “Marlboro Country of Batanes,” cattle, carabao and horses grazed at its endless array of rolling hills.  A photographer’s and nature lover’s delight, the hills have a breathtaking view of Mt. Iraya, the Pacific Ocean, the Mahatao Lighthouse and nearby fields hedged with trees that break the wind’s full fury, allowing root crops to grow.   They say this the place to catch a breathtaking Batanes sunrise.  Here, I can’t help but do a “Sound of Music  pose. 

Church of San Carlos Borromeo
At Mahatao town proper is the venerable San Carlos Borromeo Church, in Mahatao, one of 26 churches listed as National Cultural Treasures by the National Museum.  First built by Dominican friars in 1789, the present church dates to 1873.  It has an espadana-style façade (with two round arches at roof levels for the bells) and massive buttresses at the outer walls (which serve as stairways for servicing its then cogon-covered roof).    At the church courtyard and at the elementary school grounds are Spanish-era stone lampposts used as guiding lights to guide fishermen and early mariners safely to the anchorage just beyond the town’s seaport.   The town’s Spanish-era bridge also retains its centuries-old features.