Batan and Sabtang Island are amazing enough. But then I got to Itbayat, the northernmost inhabited island of Batanes, and I was floored. While Itbayat is more rugged and more difficult to explore, it has a unique charm of its own. Hiking over rough roads, hills and steep paths can be grueling, but you will be rewarded with amazing views of caves, cliffs and coasts.
Poverty incidence in Itbayat is high, yet the people are friendly, honest and generous. Itbayanons pride themselves on having no casualties when typhoons hit, since their stone and lime houses were built to withstand calamities. And just like their vernacular houses, the people are strong, resilient, and hard-working.
Their economy is mainly agricultural. I was told that everyone in town, even the mayor, is a farmer. Many families maintain small patches of farmlands, and their houses, no matter how humble are always decorated with blooming plants and flowers. With just a population of 2,914 (as of 2013), they’re also a tight-knit community, where everyone knows everyone else. Itbayat is one of the most off-beat places I’ve been to in the country, and my solo trip here was both an amazing and humbling experience.
WHERE EXACTLY IS ITBAYAT?
Itbayat is the northernmost municipality of the Philippines, located only about 200 kilometers (120 miles) from the southernmost tip of Taiwan. It is the largest of the three inhabited islands of the province of Batanes. Itbayat is an Ancestral Domain with a CADT, the first municipality in Batanes to have such a title. Itbayat also includes several small and uninhabited northern islands including Dinem, Siayatan, Ditarem, A’li, Misanga and Mavulis.
HOW TO GET THERE:
As of April 2014, there are three motorized boats that ply the Basco-Itbayat inter-island route: M/B Itransa, M/B Ocean Spirit and M/B Veronica (new), which ferry all manner of cargo (from bags of cement to live pigs) and passengers as well. Of the three, M/B Veronica is the largest and the most stable. Waves are especially rough in these parts and boats don’t travel in inclement weather. In good weather, there are daily boat trips, except for Sunday. The fare is P450/person for a one-way trip.
The boat trip from Basco used to take roughly 4 hours long, which locals say has dissuaded many tourists in Basco from visiting. Since boats have upgraded to faster engines, the travel time is roughly 2.5-3.5 hours in good weather. There are no seats on the boat, so passengers usually lie down on the boat’s floor to counter seasickness and to sleep through the trip. Boats leave Basco daily at around 6 am and arrive at Itbayat at 8:30 to 9am. The same boats leave Itbayat for Basco at around 10 or as soon as they have unloaded all the cargo. You should be at the port around 30 minutes before your time of departure to sign up in the manifesto of which boat you want to ride.
M/B Ocean Spirit: 0939-9186580. M/B Itransa: 0908-5022814. M/B Veronica. Ivatan Transport and Services. Tel. No: 0939-5023494
It’s also possible to travel to Itbayat by plane from Basco. NorthSky Airlines is an 8-seater plane that travels every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Elite Aviation (which started operating just April 19, 2014) is a 5-seater plane that offers daily flights. Fare for both planes cost in the range of P1,800 for a one way trip that will take 10-12 minutes long. Both aircrafts will only fly if there are enough passengers to fill all the seats. The Itbayat airport is an hour away from the town proper by land.
NorthSky Air. Basco: 0949-1550100, Itbayat: 0920-9651495. Elite Aviation c/o Batanes Travel & Tours: Contact persons: Basco: Mrs. Luz Cartano: CP: 0928-5250818. Itbayat: Ms. Gina Ponce: CP: 0999-7190410
There are only 3 tour guides and 4 tricycles on the whole island of Itbayat.
Solo travelers can ride with a guide aboard a motorbike (P1000/day) while groups of 2-3 can opt to hire a tricycle (P2000/day). For larger groups, the guides usually borrow a truck or bigger vehicle to get around. There’s also a standard tourist guide fee of P1000/day. Tricycle fare from the port to town center is P100. As of my visit, there were no motorbike rentals available, though the owners of Levinda Lodge mentioned they had ordered some XRM units that they were planning to rent out to guests.
You can bring rented motorcycles or mountain bikes from Basco (additional cargo fee: P360 for motorbikes, P50 for MTB, P40 for ladies bike), but I wouldn’t recommend it, since the terrain in Itbayat is steep and a bit tricky to navigate. Even if you rent a vehicle, the only option to get to many sites of interest is to go by foot. Expect to walk a lot.
Allot a bigger budget if you plan to go island-hopping from Itbayat. Boat trips to the uninhabited Northern Islands can be arranged, but can cost you from P6000-8000/day (boat good for a group of 10), weather permitting. The boat trip to Yami can take another 4-6 hours.
Tour Guide for main sites: Jason Asa – 0999-9327744
WHERE TO GO / WHAT TO DO IN ITBAYAT:
Itbayat is one of the world’s largest uplifted coral reefs, and thus has no shoreline to land on. Chinapoliran Port is the port where you will dock when you arrive from Basco.
Instead of a flat platform, you will find a steep road and set of stairs built into the rocky coast leading up to small sheds that serve as offices for the different boat operators. Loading and unloading passengers and cargo is a feat in itself, since everyone needs to time the boat and jump when the water is level with the landing. A pulley system attached to a truck is used to pull up and lower cargo and motorcycles that will be transported on the boat.
Itbayat has 5 barangays, namely: San Jose (Raele), San Rafael (Idiang), Santa Lucia (Kauhauhasan), Santa Maria (Marapuy) and Santa Rosa (Kaynatuan). The town proper where most homestays are located is in Barangay Sta. Maria, which is also known as Mayan Centro.
The town center is a marked by a large plaza. with a grassy field and basketball court, surrounded by a row of modern and vernacular houses, the municipal building, and the Sta. Maria Inmaculada Church, which was built in 1845. In the mornings, you can watch locals playing basketball and baseball in the plaza and people attending morning mass.
Lake Kavaywan is the landmark pilots use when landing in Itbayat. Guides say that when pilots see the lake, they can start to descend. The lake itself, which is surrounded by hills, is not really ideal for swimming, since it’s frequently used by the cows that graze in the nearby pasturelands.
Mt. Karoboban View Deck
Mt. Karoboban is the highest point in Itbayat, with an elevation of about 280 meters above sea level. It is one of the island’s foundations, being an old settlement for the early settlers of Itbayat. You can get to the view deck by tricycle, though the path is mostly unpaved and rocky. The view deck is currently being reconstructed since the old one got damaged by a typhoon. From here, you can see the four uninhabited islands North.
Torongan Cave is a massive cave, said to be an ancient dwelling place. It’s believed to be the first landing place of the Austronesians from Formosa, 4000 BC. The entrance to the cave is reachable by a 45 minute – 1 hour hike through dense forest from the jump-off point reachable by tricycle.
Same photo zoomed (in case you didn’t see the person in the first shot)
There’s a section at the end of the cave that looks out into the sea. The temperature inside the cave is quite cool and pleasant, as the wind blows through this hole.
From Torongan Cave, you can hike up to the top of Torongan Hills to get a view of the surrounding islands. Along the way, you’ll encounter stone boat-shaped burial markers. The area is believed to be the burial ground of the ancient settlers of the Torongan Cave.
A port where fishermen dock their boats. The platform here is really steep, and fishermen all pull together to raise the boats up to the platform.
Around the cliffs, you can see little windows and sheds built into the rocks where fishermen keep some supplies. It’s best visited during mid-late afternoons so you can watch the sunset.
The small lagoon is a set of several swimming holes at the foot of the cliffs of Paganaman Port, where locals go to swim. Several shallow, natural swimming pools are formed in the rocks surrounded by towering rocky cliffs.
A natural park and grazing area for goats comprised of forest, cliffs and rocky hills where bonsai arius tree abound. If you want to hike to Rapang Cliffs, you will need to hire a separate guide since the area passes through private property. The only way to get here is to walk from the town proper.
The hike takes about 5-7 hours (back and forth) depending on your pace. The hike will take you through several hills, through forests and clambering up rocky cliffs before you reach a high point overlooking the island. Allot one day for this activity (with free time in the afternoon). Alternatively, you can start your hike at 3am, catch the sunrise there, and get back to town by 8am if you need to catch the boat back to Basco the same day. Bring lots of water and light snacks and/or packed lunch.
Guide for Rapang Cliffs: Jose Valiente – 0949-6200184. Guide fee: P1000/day (regardless of size of group)
At the base of Rapang Cliffs, you can find the stone bell, a flat stone which lies naturally upon another stone, which produces melodious sounds resembling a bell when struck with stones. Striking the stone bell served 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.
The Beach of Kaxobcan
Since Itbayat is one of the world’s largest uplifted coral reefs, it does not have any beaches. However, we did come across a beach formed from a calamity. We made our way to another area where a natural beach was 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.
According to our guide, Jose, we were only the second group he had taken to that site. Locals haven’t been to this spot either, and it doesn’t seem to be in any tourist map or guide yet. The water here looked so enticing. I only wish I could have gone down the cliffs to take a swim.
Other tourist attractions:
- Mt. Riposed – one of the two volcanoes considered to have been the foundation of Itbayat, from where you can get a panoramic view of the island.
- Nahili Votox – an ancient settlement with boat-shaped burial markers.
- Komayasakas Cave and Water Source – an underground stream on the Northwest of Itbayat which flows to the sea.
- Manoyok – a sinkhole that serves as a giant drainage of the town of Itbayat. Manoyok is believed to be a haunted sinkhole because ancestors used to throw witches there as punishment according to local justice system during the ancient times.
- Other Caves: Northern Sarokan, Eastern Sarokan, Pevangan Cave, Do’tboran Cave
- Agosan Rocks – a rock formation north of Itbayat
- Port Mauyen – alternative port south of Itbayat
- Siayan – an island north of Itbayat, said to have beautiful white sand beaches.
- Dinem – an island southeast of Itbayat with boulder beaches
- Ditarem – an island behind Siayan
- Misanga – North Island
- Yami – known locally as Mavolis, the northernmost point of the country.
WHERE TO STAY IN ITBAYAT:
There are a few lodging houses in Itbayat, mostly located in the town center around the plaza and near the church. Most charge a standard rate of P200/night for fan rooms. There’s one hotel that has air-conditioned rooms, but since electricity is turned off from midnight to 6 am, I suggest you just book a fan room.
I stayed in Levinda Lodge, a two-story house converted into a homestay, which has several rooms on the second floor, a balcony with a good view of the plaza and church where you can take your meals, a spacious kitchen, and two well-maintained bathrooms. The lower floor is occupied by the owner’s family, a small computer shop and a convenience store, where you can buy supplies. The owners are very accommodating and friendly. Elaine, Levinda’s daughter, is a TESDA-accredited therapist who offers massage services to guests, which is great if you’ve been hiking all day. Since I was traveling solo, they also offered free pick up and drop off service from the port (so I didn’t have to take a tricycle).
Levinda Lodge, Itbayat, Batanes. Mobile number: 0921-5668269
Cano’s Lodge is another well-known homestay in Itbayat, run by the friendly Faustina Cano, a retired teacher who serves as Itbayat’s tourism officer. She can give you a good orientation of the history of Itbayat prior to your tour around the island. The rooms at the lodge are quite large, with an open air gazebo outside and a handy map showing some of the sites of interest.
Cano’s Lodge, Itbayat, Batanes. Mobile Number: 0919-3004787
Others places to stay:
- Guest House c/o Municipal Mayor (capacity 4) – P150/pax/day
- Brgy. Sta. Lucia c/o Brgy. Secretary (capacity 6) – P150/day
- SM Island Lodge Homestay (capacity 11) – First class/aircon – P1300/room
- Fernando Dierra Homestay (capacity 8) – P200/pax/day
- Faustina Cano Homestay (capacity 10) – P200/pax/day
- Maria Gordo Homestay (capacity 4) – P200/pax/day
- Levinda Lodge Homestay (capacity 15) – P200/pax/day
- Domnena Gaza Homestay (capacity 2) – P200/pax/day
WHERE TO EAT IN ITBAYAT:
Larez Carinderia in the town center is one of the few places you can eat out in Itbayat. Nanay Laura serves a variety of home cooked dishes and Ivatan specialties, with meals costing P200/each. Other eateries such as Danevelle’s Canteen, Jasser’s Canteen and Yvette’s Canteen are no longer operating (as of April 2014).
You can also arrange to have home-cooked meals delivered to your homestay every day from the Itbayat Caterer’s Cooperative for P200/meal. The meals I got usually consisted of rice, 2 viands and 1 vegetable or soup dish. The servings were pretty generous. One meal could have easily fed 2 people or could last the entire day.
If you’re going on a day hike, the caterers can pack meals for you in Tipoho leaves, so that it’s lighter to bring and you can just dispose of the leaves easily after eating. The rate of P200/meal may seem expensive at first glance, but you have to remember supplies on the island are limited especially if boats can’t make trips.
If you want to save some money, you can also buy canned goods or noodles as most homestays have their own kitchens where you can cook meals. Antas Family Enterprise (the convenience store on the ground floor of Levinda Lodge) has a wide selection of supplies. They are open Monday – Sunday 7:00 am – 12:00 pm and 1:00 pm to 10:00 pm.
WHAT TO BUY:
Most people in the town are farmers, and garlic is the main produce. While the bulbs are very small, they are really tasty. It’s worth buying strings of garlic to take home as useful souvenirs. The garlic sold in Basco comes from Itbayat.
You can also buy other Batanes souvenirs like Ivatan headdresses and baskets at Larez Carinderia and souvenir t-shirts, bags and hats at Larez Carinderia and the convenience store.
TRAVEL TIPS AND USEFUL INFO:
- According to locals, the best time to visit Itbayat is from the month of April to June and the coldest months are from November to March.
- Tourists, visitors and researchers are required to pay first their tourist fee (P90), which covers Torongan and View Deck, to the office of the Municipal Treasurer before visiting the sites.
- Bring warm clothing like jackets during the cold months: October to March.
- It is prohibited to gather/extract corals, orchids and other endangered flora and fauna.
- Wear light, comfortable clothes, shorts or jeans, rubber slippers or sandals during the tour. Tourists are advised to wear decent clothes.
- Electricity is from 6:00 am to 12:00 midnight. Voltage is 220 volts.
- Water is non-potable; mineral water is available for sale.
- You will need to hire different guides depending on your itinerary. The 4 accredited tour guides can take you to most of the sites around town, but you need a separate guide if you want to visit Rapang Cliffs & the Stone Bell.
- Smart and Globe communications are available for text and calls. No Wifi (that I know of) and poor 3G signal in Itbayat.