Catching a first glimpse of the rugged rock formations, I feel like I’ve been catapulted from the lively streets of Manila to Jurassic Park in only two hours. This is Batanes, the northernmost frontier of the Philippines surrounded by nothing but water.
The mountainous landscapes in the Batanes province reminded me of untamed Scotland, but including palm trees and bicycle cabs. The calm vibe, fabulous sceneries, hospitable locals, the unique Batan culture and habits made me fall for this tiny piece of the planet. Batanes has several honesty stores — shops without staff but a piggy bank instead — which symbolises the friendly and relaxed atmosphere here.
After travelling Luzon and many major islands in the Visayas region, it’s hands down my favourite place in the Philippines.
Batanes is located exactly between Taiwan and the major Philippine island of Luzon. All flights to this remote archipelago arrive in Basco, the capital of the province and the largest town with around 8600 inhabitants.
Upon arrival in the tiny airport terminal, you’ll have to register and pay a 100 Philippine pesos tourist fee and a 350 pesos environment fee. The purpose of this fee is to preserve and improve the abundant natural and cultural heritage of Batanes.
Explore wild Batan
It’s time to hit the road on the main island Batan, or more accurately: the tiny winding lanes. The first thing you’ll notice is the abundance of sturdy stone houses made of limestone and coral. This flock of small islands takes severe hits by typhoons every year, so the people of Batanes – called Ivatan – have mastered the art of building rock-solid homes. Basco itself is a pretty sleepy town, but fortunately, nature seems to be Batanes’ middle name.
Just a few steps away from Basco you’ll find Basco Lighthouse, which can be climbed for your first peek of the impressive coastal cliffs. To reach the lighthouse, you can arrange a tricycle in Basco or ask your accommodation to arrange one. Ask the driver to wait, for the road to the lighthouse isn’t exactly jam-packed and it might be hard to get a ride back to town.
Actually, Batanes invented Uber before Uber existed. Arranging a tricycle requires a phone call to the ‘tricycle centre’ Basco Toda. Their phone number is +63 929 703 8404. Due to the high fuel prices, it’s hard to flag down a tricycle, because drivers won’t be driving around without a purpose.
Besides riding a tricycle, there are several fun ways to get around Batan Island. The best way to explore Batan is by motorbike, but as mentioned fuel prices vastly exceed the wage you pay on bigger islands of the Philippines. Several guesthouses in Batan rent out bicycles as well, giving you the opportunity to roam around at a laidback pace. Another option is to rent a tricycle including a driver.
As soon as you leave Basco, Batan opens its treasure trove. Passing by forest and the typical stone houses you can visit Valugan Boulder Beach, where the endless waves have polished volcanic stones to an almost bowling ball shape. You might as well want to see the lush hills of Marlboro Country, where free-ranging cattle grazes peacefully, and the full scenery of Batan reveals itself.
The charming beauty of Sabtang
Around 19 kilometres south of Basco there’s a quay where ferries depart to Sabtang, the island west of Batan.
Tickets for the 45-minute boat ride cost 100 pesos. Pay attention to the captain, who will skilfully steer the boat with one foot while overlooking the sea. Upon arrival, you’ll proceed to the tourist board, where you’ll have to register and pay a 200 pesos tourist fee.
Sabtang has the best preserved traditional stone houses of the entire archipelago, especially in the charming settlement of Chavayan. Besides that, Sabtang has steep cliffs, scenic roads and a few mesmerising beaches. At Morong Beach, you can strike a pose under a natural arch, while a stop at the beach near Chavayan is mandatory for its clear waters and offshore rock formations.
There’s no public transport available on Sabtang, but there are tricycles to drive you around. For a full day of sightseeing with a driver, you’ll pay about 1500 pesos per vehicle, which fits up to three passengers.
Discover wild Itbayat
If you thought Sabtang is remote, think again. Itbayat is literally the last inhabited frontier of the Philippines, being the northernmost municipality of the country.
Itbayat barely has any beach but does have a fascinating geological story. Itbayat is basically one of the biggest coral reefs in the world, because the bottom of the sea has been uplifted for countless years. Tortured by typhoons and volcanic eruptions this island is a rocky wonderland, consisting of a cave and a bunch of extinct volcanoes.
The only way to reach rugged Itbayat is by boat from Basco. A one-way ticket for the boat costs 450 pesos. Keep in mind though that the weather in this region is extremely unpredictable. Ferry services are often cancelled due to sea conditions, so ask your host for the latest update before you attempt to go to Itbayat. Being stranded on Itbayat is a common thing, so it’s recommended not to visit this island at the end of your trip in Batanes.
Once you’ve made it to Itbayat, you can enjoy the views from the top of Mount Karoboban, explore the mysterious Torongan Cave and challenge yourself with an intense hike to the jaw-dropping Rapang Cliffs. You’ll need a guide — 1000 pesos per group — to reach the cliffs, as you cross private property during the hike.
One downside of Itbayats’ remote location is the price for any goods. A tricycle for a day will set you back 3000 pesos, and a motorbike with driver costs 2000 pesos. Only 25% of Batanes tourists get to visit Itbayat, which contributes to the castaway feeling.
How to get to Batanes
As of December 2018, three airlines operate flights to Basco Airport. Cebu Pacific and Skyjet have direct flights from Manila’s Ninoy Aquino Airport, while Philippine Airlines operates flights from Clark Airport. Clark is an hour drive away from Manila.
Where to stay
Guesthouses and homestays are the way to go if you don’t want to empty your wallet. Unlike many destinations in the Philippines, most accommodations can’t be reserved by online booking, but by texting the owners.
If you’re not the planning kind of person, you can just show up at the guesthouses, knock on the traditional wooden doors, and most likely you’ll figure out that you just got the entire homestay for yourself.
Here are some nice places to stay in Batanes:
Nanay Cita Homestay, Batan: This laidback guesthouse in Basco is run by a friendly mother because that’s what nanay means in the Filipino language. She can arrange everything during your stay in Batanes, even accommodation and transportation on the other islands. Furthermore, there’s a shared kitchen, and this homestay has a rooftop terrace as well, making this place stand out compared to others.
Lighthouse Guesthouse – Sabtang: On Sabtang you can find several cheap guesthouses, but there’s one unbeaten location that will be printed in your brain for quite some time. At the foot of Sabtang Lighthouse lies Lighthouse Guesthouse on a scenic hill, from where you can marvel at the mountainous horizon and do stargazing during black nights.
A Sinadumparan, Itbayat: Sleeping in a so-called Sinadumparan is as close as you can get to a full-on Ivatan experience. These comfortable homestays have a roof made of native cogon grass, and the stone walls have white plaster, which was the traditional style before the Ivatan started to build stone houses. Ask Nanay Cita or the tour offices for the possibilities.
Batanes sightseeing tours
Thanks to many homestays and bike rental possibilities it’s pretty easy to just dive into Batanes and arrange everything yourself.
If you want to get toured around the islands, you can opt for a fixed itinerary provided by tricycle drivers or tourist offices. The most exciting sights during the North Batan Tour are Valugan Boulder Beach, the Basco lighthouse and Vayang Rolling Hills. The price for the North Batan Tour is approximately 1100 pesos per vehicle.
South Batan Tour covers a larger area, including the fishing village Diura, Marlboro Country and the historic San Jose Borromeo church. The price for this full-day trip will be around 2200 pesos. If you travel in a group larger than 5 you might want to rent a van. The well-known company Bisumi provides vans that fit up to 9 people, making it a more affordable way to get around in groups.
Day trips per van cost 2500 pesos for North Batan, 3500 pesos for South Batan and 3500 for a Sabtang Island tour.
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1 GBP = 70 pesos
* updated automatically at today’s rates
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