The Batanes Group of Islands are only a destination for the real traveller, but when reached are a magical mystery tour of a unique kind, blissfully suspended in time. One quirk of nature somehow reflects the uniqueness of this space, where, on Itbayat IsIand, the coconut crabs are even keen enough to climb the trees.
The classic, and the most visited, old Spanish lighthouse in the Philippines (there are 32 of them) sits on a hill overlooking the most north western point of Luzon Island at Bojeador. But in the exposed seas between here and the southern tip of Taiwan 210 nautical miles to the north lie the two most northerly groups of Philippine islands. Amianan island is the closest to Taiwan lying 80 miles to the south in the Batanes Group beside the Bashi Channel. The Babuyan Group lie to the south.
This area takes the full brunt of the Amihan (NEasterlies) winds that generally prevail from November to May. Currents here can run up to speeds of 5 knots which makes boating very challenging in this open area sometimes known as the ‘Land of the Howling Winds.’ In the early part of the Typhoon Season, these islands are regularly hit by the full brunt of these destructive forces.
The islands are a mix of rugged volcanic outcrops with craggy rocky coastlines, and separate flat coral islands. The coral lands of Itbayat Island lie 16 miles to the north of the most habitable island of Batan, and can be reached by boat, in good weather.
In terms of travelling to these isolated and unique islands, the best time is in April and May, at the cusp of the two seasons, when the Amihan winds subside, and the Habagat (SWesterlies) winds start to prevail. However there is often an Indian Summer in late September or early October, when the weather is settled and the charm of the place can be well appreciated in the calm. This is also the opportunity for migratory birds passing through going south to escape the northern winters.
There again, it must be very impressive to be a traveller there, safely bunkered down, while the full force of a typhoon howls and whistles and whips its way through en route to Taiwan or on to the Asian mainland. During the typhoon season the travellers time must be fluid and flexible, naturally ruled by the weather gods.
These Batanes Islands have often been likened to the Scottish or Irish islands, and the open grasslands and rolling hills on Batan definitively give this impression to a Scotsman like myself. The old traditional stone houses resemble the Scottish and Irish stone crofts. These old stone houses have walls sometimes three feet thick with thick flattened thatching to resist the winds.The people have ancient links with Chinese and Japanese beginnings, as well as Malay, and even the British sailor and freebooter, William Dampier was a visitor in a past century. Cows roam freely on the common lands, and the gentle lands are ideal for hiking. They are also a landscape-photographers dream come true. In fact, these islands are indeed a totally different experience from anything else in the Philippines.
Volcanic Mount Iraya is a dominant backdrop in the north of Batan Island, and Mount Matarem to the south, The SE coast has a village abandoned since the 1950s when a tidal wave flushed out the area. Indigenous fortifications called Ljang are to be found on Batan and also Sabtang Island.
The Ivatan people, who also live on islands in the south of Taiwan, are a tribe unto themselves. There are stone ruins here that are mysteriously only found in one other location, in Okinawa in Japan. There is no crime here in the Batanes islands, and the story goes that if you go in to a shop and find no-one there, it is accepted to just leave the money on the counter….that is just how laid back these people are.
As far as boating goes, all anchorages here are tenuous, and exposed to one or other of the prevailing winds. There fishing boats are small enough to drag onto land as needs be, or are able to be transported overland pulled by a Carabao. Their boats are quite different from those in the rest of the Philippines, looking like European-style dories, although their sophisticated building methods pre-date European arrivals. Single hulled carvel planking is used for their rowing, sailing and motor boats.
There are a few resorts, and travellers can be housed in private homes, but the most interesting is to rent an old Ivatan stone cottage, and be looked after by the neighbourly owners, particularly on Sabtang island, close to Batan. Basco is the main town, but needless to say is simply a small village. The Batanes islands are a Province in their own right, and boast a total population of some 6,000 souls.
The pace of life has a timeline all its own, and a fisherman will only go to sea when the weather is settled, and it is time to catch his family’s evening meal…such are the stresses of life when island bound far from the madding crowds.
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