On the left side of the road was a towering rock wall. On the right was a cliff that plummeted down into the sea, complete with dramatic waves crashing into the rocky coast. The winding road carved into the hills narrowed into one lane as it made its way around a sharp bend. Yellow “Blow Ur Horn” signs painted on stone markers signaled blind spots in the road, leading to landscapes that wouldn’t look out of place in a fantasy film.
Every person I know who has been to Batanes seems to have been enchanted by it. While motorcycling solo around the mainland of Batan Island, it was easy to see why. With postcard-worthy landscapes everywhere you look, friendly people and well-preserved culture, the place just breathes magic. Images of Narnia and Middle Earth flashed through my mind as I drove, trying to keep my eyes straight on the road. I kept sneaking glances at the spectacular scenery and wanting to stop every few meters to take photos.
I was really raring to rent a motorcycle or bicycle to explore the island DIY-style. However, during my first day there, I was dissuaded from doing so. Locals said that I was not familiar with the roads and might have a hard time navigating it alone. They suggested I hire a guide instead who would drive the motorbike, while I could ride pillion and take photos. They didn’t seem convinced that I drove a scooter back in Manila, and even so, they said that the roads in Batanes were different.
As for the “biking the whole island” option, they told me stories of guests who had to be rescued after getting cramps or meeting accidents on the road. Mas ok kung may kasama ka kung sakaling may mangyari (It’s better if you have a companion with you in case anything happens), I was told. I was advised instead to join a group tour which some other guests booked in the same lodge had signed up for. So I gave in, thinking it would be a good opportunity to take photos without worrying about being weighed down by gear. While solo travel can be fun and you can take your time at the sites you want to, the only downside is that you don’t get a lot of good photos with you in them.
Taking the South Batan Island Tour the previous day was really very helpful. I got to assess the terrain and realize that I would not be able to cover a lot of ground on a bicycle, get Facebook cover photo worthy selfie shots (very important), and meet fellow travelers. On the second day of the trip, I got my wish. Tour guide Ryan Cardona of Discover Batanes was nice enough to lend me his scooter, a cool-looking black and red Yamaha Vega. While I ended up revisiting most of the same sights we went to during the van tour, it was still worth it. There’s really no better way to soak up the scenery than to ride right through it.
From Marfel’s Lodge, I headed first to Basco Lighthouse in the main town proper. The lighthouse, which sits atop Naidi Hills in Barangay San Antonio, is just 1.2-km away from the Port of Basco, and is near enough to walk or bike to from town. This is one of the three lighthouses of Batanes (the others are in Mahatao and Sabtang). The stone structure with its blue door is very distinctive and perfect for photo ops. I had the place all to myself for about 20 minutes, but I managed to sneak in a few selfies on timer mode.
The 66-foot high Basco Lighthouse has a gallery or viewing deck on the fifth floor, which you can climb up to through a winding staircase. The wind was howling as I stepped out on to the viewing deck. From here, you can get a clear view of Sabtang Island in the south of Basco and Itbayat Island to the north and a good view of Mount Iraya with the town and cemetery in the foreground.
Towering over Basco at 1009 meters above sea level, this dormant volcano is ideal for mountain climbers. I heard hikes up to Mt. Iraya through forested trails will take the whole day (around 3-4 hours going up the same going down). Expect to hike through steep trails, through lots of foliage, and meet snakes on your way up. Unless you can speak parseltongue, guides are a must. I’d like to try hiking this when I get a chance to go back to Batanes.
The white structure with bright blue doors right beside the lighthouse has been converted into Bunker’s Cafe, a restaurant ideal for dates or group dinners (reservations required). The lush green hills and the open sea provides a beautiful backdrop for the lighthouse. From here, you can walk further up to the Vayang Rolling Hills.
The main landmarks around Basco are Casa Real, the site where the provincial capitol now stands, a pleasant looking plaza and the Basco Church. Tourism has really boomed in Batanes since budget flights were offered, and you can see it in the number of new lodges and homestays around town. There are also a few modest eateries to choose from. The art scene seems pretty vibrant as well. There are a lot of colorful murals and paintings outside several buildings and at the airport.
The Yaru nu Artes Ivatan is a small cooperative and gallery art center featuring Ivatan art in town. They also sell some souvenirs like Batanes keychains and magnets with Ivatan art. The art gallery was was still closed when I passed by, but I got to visit it the next day while biking. (Gallery hours: 10 am – 5 pm Mondays to Fridays, 1 pm-5 pm Saturdays and Sundays. For inquiries, contact: 09399585165). While taking pictures here, I met Falk, a German dude who had just rented a bicycle, who asked directions thinking I was a local. He had a list from a friend of “must-sees” in Batanes and I gave whatever advice I could based on the previous day’s tour.
The great thing about driving around Batanes (whether you’re in a van, motorcycle or bicycle) is the number of roadside attractions. There are several viewdecks right by the side of the road, all offering spectacular views. After passing a “Welcome to Basco” arch on the side of the road, you’ll encounter the Chawa View Deck, located along the steep mountainside on the way to Mahatao. From the viewdeck, you can climb down more than 100 steps leading to a small rocky beach and lagoon.
While stopping here, I caught up with Falk again and we ended up having a longer chat. He was currently touring the Philippines after doing volunteer work teaching special kids. He just booked a ticket to Batanes upon the advice of a friend, and had no definite plans for his stay on the island. I mentioned that the tour group I joined the previous day was planning to go to Sabtang Island the next day and he might want to join us. He went ahead by bike, while I made a couple more stops by the road to take more photos.
Driving further down the winding road, I passed the Mahatao Shelter Port, a dock where small fishing vessels and motorboats which we had also stopped by during the van tour. From Mahatao, you can either pass through town, visit the small town church and blank library and take a long scenic drive towards the town of Ivana, or go straight and take a shortcut directly to the most scenic spots. I went straight and eventually reached the junction that forks to Diura Fishing Village and Imnajbu road cliffs in Uyugan. I encountered only a few locals by the side of the road as I drove. Some were pushing old-style bicycles uphill. A few others passed me by from the other direction on motorcycles, nodding their heads in greeting.
The Diura Fishing Village is a tiny, sleepy village facing the Pacific Ocean around three kilometers east of Mahatao town. It’s said to be a village where local fishermen perform rituals to signify the start of the fishing season. There wasn’t a lot of fishing activity going on when I visited, and I had the beach to myself again.
Pebbles lined the rugged coastline of the beach and strong waves crashed in the distance. The beach offers a great view of the Pacific Ocean and the rugged mountains cliffs facing the South China Sea. If you want to an isolated spot to stay away from town, you could opt to stay the night here as the local government manages a traditional house here that guests can rent. From the beach, you can also get a view of the Tayid Lighthouse in Mahatao.
Since it was nearing lunchtime, I stopped to ask some locals in one of the few thatched huts that make up the village if there was a store nearby where I could buy food or get a bite to eat. They said the nearest eatery was back in downtown Mahatao. In true Batanes-style hospitality, they invited me to partake in their meal. I really wanted to join them, but didn’t want to impose, so I just thanked them and made my way up.
Of all of the sights in Batanes, I was especially smitten by Racuh a Payaman (Marlboro Country), and ended up going there 3 times during the 3 days I was there (by van, motorcycle and the next day by bike after our Sabtang tour). It’s the kind of place where you can just sit and marvel at the scenery. Rolling hills, wind-swept pasturelands for cattle and horses who graze on the slopes, the coastline of the fishing village below, the lighthouse to the left and Mt. Iraya in the distance all in one frame. When I first saw it the previous day, part of me wanted to run around singing “The Hills are Alive” (from the Sound of Music) as horrible as my singing voice is, while another part of me just wanted to sit down and weep at the sheer beauty of the place. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect view.
There were a couple of vans with tour groups having lunch, and I stopped to ask at the store near the entrance if I could also order lunch. Unfortunately, they don’t accommodate walk-in guests and had prepared enough for the tour groups who had reserved meals beforehand. Oh well.
Since everyone was busy eating, no one was on the hill. I headed there and just sat down on the far end, not bothering to take a lot of photos since I had already gone trigger happy the day before. There’s really something about this place. “Heaven on Earth” is often used to describe Batanes, and with views like this, I have to agree. I’m not really a religious person, but being alone on the hill feels like a spiritual experience. It also reinforces the belief that the Philippines is such a beautiful country. You forget this when you live in Manila.
Photo by Falk. Thanks for this photo (and the bread), dude!
Before long, Falk arrived. It was nice to have some company to prevent me from flinging myself off the cliff in a moment of pure emo-ness. It was hard to hear each other over the strong wind, but I remember random conversations about the different places to visit in the Philippines, beer drinking in Vietnam, why it’s not good to go to Germany during Oktoberfest, volunteer work, and vegetarianism. I really envy people who get to travel all over the world right out of college. It makes me wish I had been bitten by the travel bug much earlier.
Screams as the tour groups did jump shots came from the top of the hill. They obviously wanted to have the hill to themselves and we were probably photobombing their photo ops, so we decided to go ahead. Falk decided to head right to the fishing village, while I went on to road on the left to make a South Batan loop.
On the way back, I asked again at the store by the entrance for a recommendation of where to have lunch nearby. The manager seemed to take pity on me when I told her I was traveling alone. Luckily, they still had food leftover from the group tour, which they let me have. I enjoyed a really filling lunch of cabbage, beef steak, chicken curry & rice (for just P100) with the best view.
“Ingat sa biyahe,” (ride safe), some of the tour van drivers greeted me as I left on the motorcycle. Since I didn’t need to bactrack to Mahatao for lunch, I turned towards the coastal road going to Uyugan and Ivana.
While most of the national highway is paved, a good portion of the road going down here is still rough road. Gravel and loose rocks from landslides line the road, so I drove very slowly. I encountered a few bikers (obviously tourists too) making their way up slowly the steep uphill road to Marlboro Hills. They gave weak “what did we get ourselves into” smiles as they passed and I mentally patted myself on the back for renting a motorbike instead of a bike.
The coastal road passing Uyugan and Ivana are the longest stretches of roads in Batan island, where you can just enjoy the long drive. A lot of construction seems to be going on as the road is being paved fully, but in some areas, there’s no barrier between the road and the cliff below. I thanked the motorcycling gods for the fair weather, because I wouldn’t want to drive through this if the roads were muddy and slippery.
Eventually, I found myself passing by the House of Dakay, the oldest house in Ivana and Honesty Coffee Shop, a self-service store that showcases the honesty of the Ivatan people. The famous store is in front of the Ivana Church near the Radiwan Port, where you can ride a boat going to Sabtang Island, so it’s an ideal place to stop for coffee, a snack or restroom breaks during your road trip. It’s funny how all tourists deliberately make it a point to buy something here no matter how small, just to say they’ve been honest :p (Guilty of this.)
The honesty store concept also happened to be the system at Marfel’s Lodge where I was booked. The kitchen was conveniently stocked with everything we needed (chips, coffee, eggs, rice, etc.) with price tags on them, and we could just get and pay for whatever we used. It’s a refreshing concept. I’m sad to say, that this would probably never work in Metro Manila.
I wanted to get back to Basco before sunset, so I headed back on the same winding coastal road, passing through the Alapad Rock Formations and Imnajbu Road Cliffs in the town of Uyugan.
Photo by a tour guide from a van tour
All in all, the ride may not have been that long. Batanes is the smallest province in the country, measuring 20 kilometers end to end. But journeys are not always measured in distance. The experience of riding through the open road through such beautiful scenery and the kindness of the people I met make this an epic ride in my book. Huge thanks to Ryan for trusting me with his scooter.
I found out later that I missed a few sights that were included in the North Batan Tour (such as Fundacion Pacita, the Japanese Tunnels & Valugan Boulder Beach). Thankfully, I was able to catch the sunrise at Boulder Beach the morning of my flight back. Thanks to Ate Fe of Marfel’s Lodge who was drove me on her scooter to the airport and obliged the last side trip before going home. I’ll definitely be back 🙂
TIPS & USEFUL INFO:
- Motorcycle rental in Batanes ranges from P500-1000/day depending on the number of hours you use it, type of motorbike and the general condition of the motorbike. Those that are new or well-maintained will cost you more.
- If you’re a solo traveler who doesn’t know how to drive a motorcycle, you can still take a guided tour aboard one as a backrider. If your group is 2 or more, you can hire a tricycle to take you around. If you’re in a big group, the van tour is really the most convenient option.
- It is possible to DIY the North and South Batan Island Tour on a motorbike in one day, but I suggest allotting 1.5 to 2 days so you can spend more quality time at each site.
- Suggested itinerary for DIY motorbike tour:
- SOUTH BATAN: (whole day) Welcome Arch, Chawa Viewdeck, Mahatao Shelter Port, Spaniard’s Lagoon, Downtown Mahatao, Diura Fishing Village, Mahatao Lighthouse, Marlboro Hills, Lunch at Vatang Grill, Ruins of Songsong, Ivana, House of Dakay, Honesty Store, Uyugan, Imnajbu Road Cliffs, relax a bit at one of the beaches (White Beach in Maydangeb) before heading back to Basco, Catch sunset at Basco Lighthouse or beach near port
- NORTH BATAN: (can be half day) Basco Town proper, Airport, Sunrise at Valugan Boulder Beach, Tukon Hill, Basco Lighthouse, Naidi Hills, Vayang Rolling Hills, Japanese Tunnels, Tukon Hill, Pag-asa Weather Station, Fundacion Pacita, Tayid Lighthouse, backtrack and catch the sunset at Chadpipan Boulder Beach
- You can also explore the whole of Batan island by bicycle, but this is recommended only for those who are used to mountain biking because the terrain is challenging. I’d suggest you allot 2 days for biking around Batan island if you want to maximize the experience.
- If you plan to bike to Marlboro Country, be sure to rent a proper mountain bike and not the “kring-kring” bikes with baskets used by locals around town. Speaking from experience, biking uphill on those can really sap the energy out of you.
- Mountain bike rental ranges from P25/hour for the old style bikes, to about P500 a day for good mountain bikes.
- Most bicycle and motorbike rentals are based in Basco but you can also bring them aboard the ferry to explore Sabtang Island.