Above: A farmer riding his water buffalo in Batan Island’s Vayang Hills.
The Batanes Islands may be the smallest province in the Philippines, but with a windswept landscape akin to the Scottish Highlands, distinctive cultural traditions, and gregarious inhabitants, they’re bound to loom large in the mind of any visitor
By Ian Lloyd Neubauer
Photographs by Francisco Guerrero
The 32-seat Dornier turboprop shakes like an old blender as it drops through the clouds. A few moments later we break out of the opaque mist and the sea—a maelstrom of monstrous white-tipped breakers—reveals itself though the scratch marks on my window. I clutch the headrest in front of me as the plane whips and jerks, recalling the pilot’s last communiqué: “… expect light to moderate turbulence due to strong winds.” I shudder to think what heavy turbulence might entail.
Above, from left: High school students on a field day in Mahatao village; cart wheels; a Parish priest.
Out of nowhere a sheer cliff appears, and behind it a grassy headland where a herd of horses graze. We hurtle over their heads toward an airstrip sandwiched between a jumble of stone houses and the foothills of a thickly forested volcano. Without warning, a crosswind snatches the plane and angles it violently to the left. I half expect the pilot to abort his approach, turn around, and fly us back to Manila, 860 kilometers to the south. But he stays his course, landing the aircraft smoothly on its rear wheels before smacking the nose gear into the tarmac with the finality of a judge’s gavel.
We’ve arrived: Basco, provincial capital of Batanes, the Philippines’ northernmost island group.
The propellers quiet as we taxi toward the terminal and a new sound fills the air—a shrill, howling gale that bends a row of coconut trees as if they were bamboo. Situated roughly midway between the top of Luzon and the southern tip of Taiwan, Batanes lies in a typhoon-prone region where the Pacific Ocean meets the the South China Sea, and where two treacherous channels act as breeding grounds for the cold temperatures and low-pressure zones that create gale-force winds. Not for nothing is this far-flung archipelago known as “the Home of the Winds.”
I’ve spent the last five weeks touring the Philippines, hopping from one sun-kissed tropical idyll to the next. The 11 islands in the Batanes chain seem to inhabit a different world. Only the largest three—Batan, Sabtang, and Itbayat—are populated, and present landscapes of steep cliffs and rolling, hedgerow-laced hills that are often likened to the Scottish Highlands. It’s a rugged, elemental place that has forged an equally rugged people, the Ivatan, whose beanies and woolen sweaters make me think of Bolivia.
Sturdy and leather-skinned, the Ivatan are also among the most neighborly people I’ve ever met. To prosper in this climate, you have to be. Traditionally, they build their houses of stone and lime mortar, with meter-thick walls and roofs of net-anchored cogon thatch. Such solid construction is proof against the strong northerly winds that buffet the islands—but it’s also beyond the means of most families. Thus a system of communal labor known as payuhwan has evolved to build and repair houses. Pasturelands are also collectively managed, as are a host of other activities, everything from fishing to funerals.
Geography, in short, has made the Ivatan a very cooperative bunch. It’s also made them remarkably hospitable, as I discover on my wanderings around the capital. Set at the foot of Mount Iraya on
Batan Island, Basco—named for the Spanish colonial governor who annexed the islands in 1783—is a curious amalgam of modern concrete buildings and Flintstones-esque houses. Glass windows are scarce, but wooden shutters abound, painted baby blue or seaweed green. Round-bottomed boats called fallowa bob alongside the wharf. As harbor towns go, it’s disarmingly friendly. “Hello, sir,” I hear again and again. “How is your day?” My inner cynic tells me it’s a masquerade, but when I sneak a backward glance, their smiles have not waned. “Good luck, sir,” one lady calls out.
I’m lost for words but my guide replies for me, thanking her in Ivatan, the local tongue. Romeo—or Romy, as he prefers—works for the privately owned Batanes Cultural Travel Agency. He’s scheduled an action-packed itinerary for my weeklong stay, kicking off with an interview with the governor.
The meeting takes place at Basco’s town hall, in an office furnished with comfy sofas and an oversize mahogany bureau. The governor arrives and introduces himself as Telesforo Castillejos. He’s a soft-spoken man in his sixties with pensive eyes and a grandfatherly demeanor. I like him immediately. He tells me his is the smallest province in the Philippines in terms of everything, including population, land area, and budget. And he says that apart from agriculture and fishing, the only viable industry Batanes has—or wants to have—is tourism. Ecotourism, to be exact.
“Historically, this was the place where the central government banished officials who made mistakes. But now everyone wants to come here,” Castillejos says. “They are intrigued. The Batanes Islands are the talk of the Philippines.”
He’s right. Over the past few weeks, eyes would light up whenever I mentioned my impending trip north. Just about every single travel and lifestyle magazine in the country seems to have featured the place, promoting it as a Philippine Brigadoon devoid of pollution, crime, poverty, and excess.