From the port of Ivana, we spotted a small wooden boat loaded with passengers approaching the shore. The boats called faluwa are the main means of transportation between islands in Batanes. They’re quite small and don’t have outriggers, so they can easily navigate the strong waves at sea. This was our ride to our destination for the day – Sabtang Island, the smallest of the three inhabited islands of Batanes, the northernmost province of the Philippines.
After passengers alighted, the boatmen unloaded all manner of cargo including bicycles, motorcycles, and the occasional goat. Having just motorcycled around Batan Island the previous day, I thought it would have been great to ride around Sabtang Island as well. However, for economic reasons, I opted to take the Sabtang Island package tour organized by Discover Batanes (BISUMI Tour and Services), who had handled the South Batan island tour I joined on my first day there.
I had been warned by a couple of other passengers that the boat ride would be rough. The waters between the two islands is where the Pacific Ocean meets the South China Sea, so waves can be pretty intense especially for those who get seasick easily. I really wasn’t too worried when I heard that the ride would just take 30 minutes. The ride there was smooth sailing.
As we arrived in the port of Sabtang, we got a peek at the Sabtang Lighthouse, one of 3 lighthouses in Batanes. We boarded a chartered jeep to the Sabtang Town Proper to register as tourists and then we were off! Some of us in the group chose to topload on the jeep to get a better view. If you’re riding a jeep, I recommend you try this since you can great views of the coast from the top.
Our first stop was a tour of the traditional stone houses in Savidug Village. The stone houses are often compared to the resilience of the Ivatans, who are among the most honest and resilient people in the country.
While you can see stone houses in Batan island, a lot of them have already been repaired or have become modernized over the years. While a couple of houses had been battered by waves and a recent typhoon, some of the stone houses in Savidug village have been preserved. Savidug is a simple village with a sign marking the National Highway carved into concrete on the corner of one house and doors left wide open without fear of theft. The streets were clean and quiet, with locals just going about their work.
The town was preparing for a local fiesta the next day and colorful streamers strung around the houses added a festive vibe. A welcome arch was decorated with palm leaves and fruits that resembled pineapples. Except for a few vans on the street and the electric wires, the place really has this old-world character that is becoming increasingly rare to find. A few kids peeked out shyly from doorways and windows while others passed by riding vintage-looking bicycles.
Group photo courtesy of Roxanne
We stopped at the St. Thomas Aquinas chapel, a quaint structure painted in white. Next to it was another old stone house with two wide windows that were perfect for photo ops. Actually, everywhere you look are just doorways and windows that are perfect for photo ops.
On the way to back to the jeep, we saw some locals smoking out a cow in preparation for the fiesta. They were also butchering up meat to prepare meals for the next day. Sayang hindi tayo umabot sa fiesta, noted our tour guide Ryan. I have to agree. I’m not sure how they celebrate their festival, but I assume it’s not with hordes of tourists, street dancing, and obvious product placement, which seems to be the norm now in many popular provincial fiestas. It’s the small fiestas where you can witness traditional rituals and true hospitality from locals.
We boarded the jeep again going to the Chamantad-Tinyan Viewpoint. It was a bumpy ride along a dusty, steep dirt road that cut through the hills. We eventually reached a stone arch in the middle of a cemented portion of the road, where a mother with kids was selling fresh coconut juice and kamote cue (sweet potato). This made a great morning snack.
If Batan has Marlboro Hills, Sabtang has Chamantad Viewpoint, a breathtakingly scenic spot with rolling hills and a small trail leading to a dramatic seascape. This spot is said to be one of the highest points on the island. Standing on the rocky cliffs overlooking the ocean with the fierce wind blowing can leave you in awe. We took a while here just enjoying the wind and the view.
Photo by Miguel of GoMiguelGo!
Our next stop was the village of Chavayan, reachable by a narrow coastal road carved into the cliffs, which offered a stunning view of the coast below. Cattle grazed on the slopes and goats were perched above us on the hills, bleating back in reply to our attempt to make goat noises. Those of us on the top of the jeep had to duck and lie down as we crossed a low hanging electric wire that almost scraped the roof of the jeep as we approached the village.
Chavayan offers a step back in time with its rows of traditional stone houses. Chavayan is also where the Sabtang Weavers Association can be found, a group of local women who weave the vakul, the traditional headdress made of dried palm leaves, worn by locals to protect themselves from the sun, wind and rain. For some reason, posing wearing a vakul has become sort of a “thing to do” while in Batanes. For a small fee, you can borrow the vakul and talugong (the counterpart for men) which resemble vests and hats here for photo op purposes. You can also buy them as souvenirs.
It was pleasant to walk around the small village and just observe the simplicity of daily life here. If you have more time, you can actually spend the night on Sabtang Island. There aren’t any inns or hotels yet, but some locals have opened up their homes for those who want to homestay. Beyond the typical tour stops, this will give you a chance to explore the beaches and interact with the locals, like the Ivatan women who continue to weave the vakul to preserve their indigenous traditions.
Too bad we didn’t have the luxury of time. It was nearing noon, and our time was short since we had to catch the 2pm boat heading back to Batan island. Boat trips are sometimes cancelled given the weather conditions, and traveling later in the afternoon is not advised. So, we headed off to our lunch stop at Morong Beach.
The freshly cooked lunch was served at a small hut near the beach, with dishes laid out on wicker plates lined with leaves. There was steamed fish cooked with tomatoes and onions, a vegetable dish, soup, and the star attraction – coconut crab. I’ve read that coconut crab has been declared a threatened species, but it is still a very popular delicacy in Batanes and many tour operators serve this to guests if it’s in season. Regulations are now in place to help protect the species. Coconut crab can only be consumed while in Batanes and can not be brought out of the province in any form (live/raw or cooked). For dessert there was bukayo, a very sweet delicacy made of grated coconut and sugar.
Our last stop was Makabuang, a natural arc formation on the beach. With the waves crashing against the white sand beach and the rocky cliffs in the distance, and no other people crowding the shore, the water here looked really inviting. This spot is where you can swim if you have time (which we didn’t). It also happened to be bitterly cold and windy, which dissuaded most of us from taking a dip. Still full from lunch, we just lazed around and walked on the beach.
Then it was back to the faluwa for the ride back to mainland Batan. While I had thought that the boat ride going to Sabtang was fairly serene, it was a different story going back. The boat was going fighting against the waves the whole time, and got tossed and turned like a roller coaster. It was amazing how the boatmen were able to navigate through the waves. I got a good view of the driver deftly steering the boat with his foot while checking out the waves.
Rain started to pour as we got into the van heading to Basco. But by the time we got back past 3, the skies had cleared again. Since I wanted to make the most of my trip I thought I’d squeeze in one last adventure by biking around. I ended up biking to Marlboro Hills and back and tried (but failed) to catch the sunset at the Basco Lighthouse to just reflect about the whole trip. I’ve been to a lot of provinces in the Philippines, but Batanes is really special. It’s one of the most amazing places in the country and definitely deserves being bucket-listed. I really have to thank to Brenna of The Philippine Travelogue, without whom this trip would not have happened.
Time seems to move at a slower pace in Batanes, yet the three days I was there were not enough. Places like these are best savored slowly and I look forward to exploring Batanes at a more leisurely pace. Given more time, I’d like to visit Itbayat and hike up to Mt. Arayat. I also foresee a lot more biking around in my next trip, especially since Outside Slacker will be traveling with me.
- For Sabtang Island tours, contact Ryan Cardona of Discover Batanes (http://www.discoverbatanes.com/)
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- Mobile numbers: Smart: 09192795963, Globe: 09158034582
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