Have you ever had that feeling that you belong in another time and space? That you belong in a place far from the context of where you are today? I have. It’s a place I believe was from the 19th century Philippines: with a central plaza near the town hall, dim-lit houses all around, and everyone was happy even without the comforts of 21st century technology.
I have found and experienced this place, in the northernmost habitable island of the Philippines, in Itbayat Island, Batanes. However, before we even start romanticizing the whole fantasy, let me just say that before anyone can experience Itbayat, hardships must be endured. It means that travelling this route up north is not for the faint heart. The travel alone from Batan Island, Batanes’ mainland, to Itbayat already requires guts. Imagine 3-4 hours of boat ride without deluxe amenities just sitting on the floor of the boat, facing the strongest waves imaginable. Almost everyone vomits, that eating the free snack of Zesto and Sky Flakes seems unimaginable.
Reaching the port is another challenge, as the port does not look like the usual ones. More than a fairy tale experience, the entire travel to Itbayat appears more of a challenge. Going down the boat is a test of faith. It’s about trusting your instincts, that you will not fall without anyone to catch you.
You would know the adventure begins after seeing no signal on your Globe phone. Unless you are a Smart subscriber, you would have no means of external communication.
I was able to explore all three habitable islands of Batanes including Sabtang and Batan. However, if you ask me, the most treasured experience I had was in Itbayat. It was in this place that I felt a sense of what Batanes is fundamentally about.
And, yes, after all, I would never trade the experience because had I not visited Itbayat, I would not be able experience the 19th century aspirations I always have since I was a child. If you wish of visiting Batanes, too, never eliminate Itbayat on your itinerary. It’s a bit expensive, but trust me, it’s worth every single centavo.
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I could endlessly talk about the experience. But these ten reasons are the main motivations why I would save to be able to visit Itbayat again.
10) Oral traditions are real and felt, all thanks to Itbayat’s local historian Nanay Cano.
During our stay in Itbayat, Nanay Cano, a retired history teacher, provided free discussions about the geography, history and culture of Batanes. Of course, she emphasized the uniqueness of Itbayat Island. In her discussion, she explained that the difficult waves were brought by about Itbayat being sandwiched between Balintang and Basi Channels.
It was pleasant to hear how Itbayat managed to maintain its cultural integrity mainly because it is still widely untouched by mainstream metropolitan societies. It’s actually great for Itbayat to stay that way as it allows the place to maintain its purity, with its rich culture intact.
In terms of intercultural encounters, the charm of Itbayat relies on the mixture of indigenous culture with the influence of Spanish colonization. The small-town charm of Itbayat can be attributed to the central institution in the island, the church.
In Batanes, if you are from big cities, you would be suprised of people’s genuine hospitality. They said it’s an unwritten rule in Itbayat to greet everyone you see along the way.
9) You will realize how imperfect your life is.
I always joke my friends about not going to Batanes, especially in Itbayat, alone and brokenhearted because you would feel a sudden realization that everything else is perfect other than your life. That is how beautiful Itbayat is. It will make you realize how temporary wordly pleasures are nothing like the natural beauty of the world.
Imagine yourself in an island far from home. You could see nothing but the ocean, the rolling hills, and the flora all around. It is in this experience that the emptiness of being smothered by petty things would come to mind. It would make you yearn for more travels, to find the sense of deep satisfaction you so long for. It is in these times when you would realize that there is nothing more glorious than the purity of the world, in the absence of capitalism, imperialism and feudalism.
8) Stone houses are not just attractions. You could experience it.
Batanes is popular for its stone houses. However, it feels fake when you only pass by it. In Itbayat, the hospitality of local people would even take you inside their homes where you could actually see what is inside a stone house, as well as you could experience how it feels to be actually stepping inside. And, oh, a few nice pictures in it would not hurt too.
7) Before stone houses emerged, there were cogon houses.
Our team was fortunate to have been given a truck where we could comfortably explore Itbayat’s major attractions. One part of the itinerary was a trip to Barangays Raele, Yawran and Varayvayan. These are places where the first cogon houses in Itbayat were built.
6) It’s challenging, but Torongan Cave is worth the hike.
Few kilometers of hiking would take you to the cave’s prized possession, which is a formation that leads to a chamber that opens to the sea. History enthusiasts like me would definitely enjoy this. It was theorized that this opening was once the home of our Austronesian ancestors who entered Batanes, probably through Taiwan as the country is just 200 kilometers away.
5) Itbayat is important in pre-colonial Philippine studies.
Itbayat is a place where ijangs (castle-like structures) and burial markers can be found. These are structures similar to those found in Scandinavian countries. Therefore, it is highly possible that there were intercultural encounters as well as localization processes that happened between Europe and Itbayat.
These could be experienced if you go further Torongan Cave and explored Torongan Hills. By the way, it’s no easy task because travelling to Torongan Cave requires 45 minutes – 1 hour of hiking in a dense forest.
4) Living the small town life is beautiful and simply happy.
In the town proper of Itbayat is the Sta. Maria Imaculada Church built in 1845, and situated near the stone houses and the Itbayat Central School. It was a remarkable experience for me because here I got to experience my fantasy of 19th century Philippines. I don’t know, my soul just belongs here I am sure.
3) There is a local market unlike any other.
Nothing really spectacular here, but just the thought of being in a market where the local language is spoken already felt like heaven to me. The language in Itbayat Island is not Ivatan (the language spoken in Batan and Sabtang), but Itbayaten.
Perhaps the Department of Education can do a thorough research on this because all year levels speak their mother tongue, and it does not seem to negate their culture.
2) You could see the best 360-degree view in Itbayat in Mt. Karaboboan.
Mt. Karaboboan is the highest peak in Itbayat, standing 280 meters above sea level. The viewing deck would allow you to see not only the entirety of Itbayat but also surrounding islands like Mavulis and Siayan.
1) Itbayat Island is in the ever so beautiful Philippine archipelago.
I believe that the Philippines is a very underrated country because its natural beauty is overshadowed by issues of corruption, war and poverty. It is also degraded by environmental issues related to foreign relations. I mean, Canada dumped their waste in our country. With breathtaking views like these, we should never settle for less and continue to assert our rights and fight for our sovereignty as Filipinos.
Photo credits: Luz Balingit, Mildren Penales and Lois Yasay
Crazy about popular culture, pre-colonial, and Spanish-era studies. Fan of Christina Aguilera and Katrina Halili.