Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Itbayat – The Paradise Up North

My second day started very early, like 4 in the morning. I have to drag myself out of bed to make sure I catch the trip going to Itbayat at 6 AM. Going to this last inhabited island up north doesn’t only require extra cash but extra courage. As they say, reaching this far is only for the brave ones and I guess, I have to agree with that statement. Sandwiched between Balintang and Bashi Channels, two of the most treacherous bodies of water in the country, expect nothing but high level roller coaster ride and serious sea sickness would be an understatement. Only less than 10% of the people who visits Batanes dare to venture way up north. 

Few reasons I can think of why:

  1. The waves getting there are gigantic, and this is no joke. I have experienced it myself. No matter how prepared or veteran you are in sea travel, a smooth ride to this island is probably the last thing you’ll experience.
  2. You may get stranded on the island for days. Batanes’ weather is truly unpredictable and that doesn’t spare Itbayat from the list. The ginormous waves aren’t fun even on regular season, how much more when a typhoon hits. A sudden change of the wind direction can cause delayed trips and worst cancelled.
  3. It’s expensive getting in, out and around the island. Just imagine how far goods has to travel to reach Itbayat. Think of the risk a cargo ship takes just to deliver the supplies to Basco and for smaller boats to transport these goods from Basco to Itbayat. This could only mean one thing, most of the things if not all are quite expensive here.   My day tour around the island costs me P2,000.00 per day- this includes the guide and the motorcycle rental. Food is pretty expensive too at P200.00/meal.

Even though I have second thoughts the night before, I guess my curiosity to set foot in this island won. Batan island is wonderful and I am looking forward to seeing more if not the same level of beauty in Itbayat.  One of the reason I can think of, and helped me decide to pursue this trip is that, even though the waves here in this part of the country doesn’t show mercy, not a single Faluwa sunk. I am confident that I made the right choice.  Later on, I learned, that this  motorized boat loads heavy equipment from Basco to Itbayat, amazing isn’t it?. So, I embarked another hard core travel, braving the biggest waves I’ve seen in my entire life to see this rugged and unique island.  Loaded in this powerful boat called Faluwa, we left Basco town past 6 in the morning. 


Cruising the open sea is no joke, but thanks to my positive thoughts, this too shall pass. The vessel has a space on the rooftop where passengers can sit, so I decided to stay there to be diverted by the blue sky. Now, I understand why this type of boat doesn’t have seats coz  you will literally roll when the waves starts to rock it.


The crew of the boat goes line fishing, and luckily caught one! Ulam na!


Fellow passengers toploading the Faluwa



After almost 2 hours of not so smooth ride, I saw the limestone formation from afar. It made me smile, keeping the thought, finally! But wait, the port isn’t there yet. We still need to cruise to other part of the island to unload.

The entire island of Itbayat is believed to be an uplifted coral reef, and that can easily be noticed by the sharp limestone cliffs from afar, I can’t see any beaches along its coast too.




We arrived past 9 in the morning via Chinapoliran port. The port doesn’t have a platform, and you can only find a steep road and set of stairs. Loading and unloading of passengers is a feat itself, since you need to get the perfect timing to jump. A pulley system is used to pull up and lower cargo and motorcycles that will be transported. One welcoming experience.



A man in his forties, wearing a white shirt and a hat to cover his head approached me, “Jason” It was a scorching blue sky morning and as we drive along the rugged roads of Itbayat town proper, I find myself showered in disbelief. Am I really here? I can only smile.

Upon reaching our destination, Nanay Cano warmly greeted me.  A sign of respect to the elders as we practiced in the province “pagmamano” I gently grabbed her right hand pressed it in my forehead and said “Mano po”.  She then offered me coffee as a welcome drink. Just in time when she’s about to share her knowledge of Itbayat, two guests arrived in a tricycle. They looked familiar, and walah! we were on the same boat few minutes back:Izah and Joseph, cool travelers! :)

Nanay Cano, a pure Ivatan and a retired teacher gave us a brief background of Itbayat in front of a slightly faded map. As the lecture continues, we were not only given a history background but a glimpse of Itbayat’s way of life in the present time. According to Nanay, people here depends mostly on farming and as the conversation progresses, I can feel the sense frustration in her voice that with the passage of time, life remains still here. Despite the progress they see in different parts of the country, nothing much has changed. Itbayat remained locked up in the middle of the endless sea.  When a tourist visits their place, they welcome them with open arms.

Kuya Jason (My Guide) and Kuya Pepe (the other guide for Izah and Joseph) received instructions on what to do and where to bring us. Mounted on a motorcycle, we drove to the trail leading to Torongan Cave. From the jump off where   Kuya Jason left his motorcycle, it took us no less than 30 minutes of walking passing by forested fields inside the ranch. This cave has a wide chamber overlooking the sea. It is believed to be the gateway of the first Austronesian people who landed in the Philippine Archipelago several thousands of years ago.


When we enter the cave, getting closer to this opening felt awesome as the strong cold winds blow coming from this hole. We stayed inside the cave for few minutes and then went out to check the spectacular view on top.



Did I just say spectacular? hmm, i guess that’s also an understatement as the view here on top is simply amazing.   Despite the scorching heat of the sun, looking at the blue waters and impressive limestone formation is motivation enough for me to stay.  

Nahili du Votox, an ancient settlement with boat-shaped burial markers


The idjang offers a spectacular view of the nearby uninhabited island, Dinem and the eastern Itbayat.



I can stay here for more than an hour, I can tolerate the heat of the sun just by looking at this picturesque seascape/landscape.

IMG_0364Overwhelmed by the beautiful view I have just witnessed, Kuya Jason and I went back to the Town center so I can grab some lunch prepared by the nearby cooperative.  We then agreed to resume the tour at 2 in the afternoon.

At exactly 2 in the afternoon, we left Nanay Cano’s house and continued our tour, this time we are covering northern side of the Island. A deck constructed in elevation about 280 meters above sea level in Mt Karoboban will give you an unhampered 360 degree view of the entire Itabayat island. It took us no less than 30 minutes to reach the spot.

The islands of Siayan, is the first island you can see from the photo below. Roughly 87 hectare surrounded by beautiful white beaches. It has been acknowledged as one of the most beautiful spots in Itbayat. According to Kuya Jason, a fisherman’s boat called Tataya can be rented for P3000 for a daytrip and you can add P500 to spend overnight.  It will take an hour or so reaching that first island weather and sea condition permits. If you wanted to reach Mavudis, 4 hours to the northernmost uninhabited island, it would cost you P7000-P8000 for a boat with 10 persons capacity passing through Siayan, Ditarem and Misanga.



Enough to enjoy the beautiful view of Itbayat, we went down and proceed to our next destination.  Traversing a downhill zigzag road, I am enjoying the ocean view when Kuya Jason stopp beside the road and told me to look down, and then the most amazing view of the still water made me pause for few milliseconds.  WOW with a capital W-O-W. Then he told me, this is the Paganaman Port.  Are you kidding me? This is a just a port? This is one of the most amazing, spectacular (lack of adjective to describe) view I’ve seen so far. The stillness of deep water made me smile and appreciate this island so  much. I only uttered, “Kuya ang ganda, napakaswerte ninyo at meron kayo nito.” He smiled back at me and agreed.


The platform here is really steep that we have to leave our motorcycle behind to go down. These boats safely docked here because all fisherman pulled and raised it together.


  You can also find a small lagoon formed in the rocks surrounded by towering cliffs and I witnessed some kids swimming and playing around.


Looking at the left side, such a beautiful landscape. I may be biased because it’s blue, but I know you will agree. This is just breath taking.



The road leading back to the motorcycle is quite a struggle.  I can’t help but noticed the little windows and sheds built into the rocks as we pass by. This is where the fishermen keep some supplies.

IMG_0424Our next destination is the Yakan village where you can find cluster of houses predominantly made of cogon. I asked Kuya Jason why they have different sizes in one lot, and that’s when I realized that they have at least four divisions of their so called home: The living room, kitchen, bathroom and the bedroom. Some may have more divisions if they have more children and wouldn't fit in one room.



Moving on to our next destination which is Brgy Raele we passed by Itbayat’s version of Rice Terraces and I asked Kuya Jason if it’s possible that we can also pass by the airport. I just wanted to see how it looks like and how come it’s no longer operational.

Itbayat’s Rice Terraces


Itbayat Airport (sayang!)



Lake Kavaywan – according to Nanay Cano, this is the landmark used by the pilots when landing in Itbayat. The moment they see the lake, they start to descend. This is used by the cows that grazed in the nearby pasturelands. According to Kuya Jason, this gets smaller during dry months but never ran out of water.


Since it’s too early for sunset, we went straight to Brgy Raele, a wedding is being held there according to Kuya Jason. I mentioned I wanted to witness how they are celebrating such an event he decided to take me there. Few meters away from the house of the newly married couples, I can hear the folk dance tune. I smiled when I witnessed people dancing. In every wedding held in Batanes, it is tradition to have the Fundango-Ivatan traditional wedding dance. The host will call the names who will lead it in the dance floor for them to start (I was informed that usually the best dancer is called to lead). At the end of the song, it is optional to give something for the couple. One person is designated to collect/recieve the gift. In exchange of the gift you will be given a glass of drink (gin most of the time), cigarette (for smokers) and pulutan. This is so fun. Tired from dancing, we took a bit of rest b eside the road and again got invited for some drinks by the locals. I was surprised when a lady (relative of the newly wed maybe) handed over something to me. According to Kuya Jason it’s called vunung, a set of meal served during fiestas, weddings and special occasions. It is wrapped in two big kabayas (breadfruit leaves) containing White Rice, Ginger/Turmeric Rice and Beef (i don't know how it’s cooked)

Inuman sa Kalye sa Raele



The day is finally saying goodbye, so Kuya Jason and I headed to our final destination for the day to witness the sunset at Mauyen. This is the southernmost tip of Itbayat.  6 kilometers from Raele and 14 kilometers from the town center.

The steepest port in Itbayat Island, also an alternative port for Faluwa when Chinapoliran cannot unload





It’s past 7 in the evening when we arrived at Nanay Cano’s house, she’s a bit worried already but I managed to smile. I have not only seen the pristine beauty of Itbayat but I have experienced its culture and tradition, that alone is more than enough for me to say, this trip is truly worth the effort.  It’s time to recharge for another adventure tomorrow.

Another must see park where goats and cows grazed freely is a cliff and rocky hills with bonsai trees – Rapang Cliff.  If you want to hike here, you need to get a separate guide since the area passes a private property. Kuya Pepe is the only guide allowed as he is a member of the association here.


The hike takes about 5-7 hours (back and forth) depending on your pace.  The trail will take you through several hills and forests and clambering up rocky cliffs before you reach the high point overlooking the island. This is one difficult hike for me as I am just wearing a rubber slippers. I did not realize that i can still do the Rapang hike given that I am just spending overnight in Itbayat. I am glad it is still possible. You just have to make sure that you leave very early in the morning and make sure to be back by 8 in the morning to catch the boat back to Basco.



At the base of the Rapang Cliffs, you will find the stone bell. A flat stone which lies naturally upon another stone producing different sounds resembling a bell when struck with stones.  The stone bell was used as an alarm for the ancient inhabitants when enemies were approaching. The bell was also used by farmers as a signal for meetings and to gather their goats.

IMG_0543  IMG_0568

I was waiting for the sunrise but the clouds don’t want to cooperate so we move forward.


Kuya Pepe asked me to climb here to see an overlooking view of the entire island. Despite the damages in my slippers, go! How can you resist not looking at the beautiful view from the top



While heading back to town, we come across a beach formed by calamity. The beach of Kaxobcan. A natural beach formed when an earthquake caused a landslide on one side of the cliff, leading to a small white sand beach surrounded by natural swimming holes in the cliffs. There is still beauty despite a calamity!


The water here looked so enticing, but we need to go back to town to catch our trip back to Basco. Gazing this one is enough for me.


Last pause with our host Nanay Cano and fellow travelers Izah and Joseph


I have always believed that several years on the road has taught me a lot of things, but apparently it is never enough. I remembered what Nanay Cano reiterated how poor and difficult  life here in Itbayat is. The unforgiving waters and terrain disheartened me, but they still wanted to live here. During this trip I even saw old men and women walking while carrying heavy loads still manage to smile back, a simple gesture of gratefulness. The Ivatans, specially the people here in Itbayat made me appreciate them even more. Maybe they did not realize how strong and beautiful they are and how much they have taught me in such a short time. My whining about life suddenly disappeared when I realized that these people have to go through hardships just to have something on their plate everyday. The fisherman have to risk their lives and combat uncharted waters to get something to eat, locals need to wake up early and take their cows and goats to the grassland, walk kilometers away from their home to get to their farms but they seemed happy and contented.  They even share even the least they have generously to their neighbors.

There are certain trips that will leave a mark and change the way you perceive things in life, and this is one of them.  Life here might be difficult, but there was something in its simplicity that made it so captivating, so beautiful , and so perfect.  Thank you Ivatans and Itbayat for a wonderful lesson :)

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