To an intrepid traveler, it is one of the most difficult places to visit. Time, weather, season and luck must all come together to allow visitors to reach the island.
Itbayat is not just one island, but one huge rock island. In ancient time, it must have been formed by the eruption of a volcano on the floor of the mighty Pacific.
The island belongs to the province of Batanes. At 83 square kilometers, it is the province’s largest island, but compared to Batan and Sabtang, it is the least populated with only 2,000. The number stays that way for centuries. And compared to the other two, it is the less developed.
The land is less fertile. Most part of the island is either rocky or sandy. What’s left is planted with garlic and root crops. The rest is just left for cattle and carabao raising.
Electricity is still rationed. There is no public market, no bank. Cellphone signal is very weak and majority of the population rely on rain for water supply. There is only an elementary school. Should a student wish to continue to high school, he or she has to go to Basco.
But whatever the island lacks in modern convenience, it makes up ten-fold in natural beauty. Batan and Sabtang are awesome, but Itbayat is awe-inspiring.
How to get there
Going to Itbayat is also not easy. First you have to fly to Basco. And from Basco, you either take the small plane to Itbayat or the slow boat. Northsky Air flies three times a week between Basco and Itbayat, but it depends on the weather and if there are enough passengers. The three supply boats – M/B Itranza, M/B Ocean Spirit and M/B Veronica – take in passengers when the weather is good. They are usually docked at the port of Basco and leave at the same time very early in the morning. Prior arrangement is required if you wish to take any of them. Fare is P450 for the three-hour boat ride. Don’t expect to find any seats inside the boat.
The crossing between Basco and Itbayat is not for the faint-hearted. On a good day, you can actually stay on the open deck or even go top load and enjoy the view. On normal days – which are more the rule rather than the exception – you’ll be tossed around on an open sea sweating inside a closed cabin with the smell of diesel fumes. You can end up vomiting.
The landing at Chinapoliran port is legendary. As the boat swings up and down, you have to time your jump when the boat is at the same level as the landing. Actually, the boat crew will be on hand to assist you, but don’t wait for them to shout “Jump!.”
From the landing, you have to climb a long flight of stairs to get to where the road to Mayan, the town center, starts. The center is three kilometers away. Unless you made prior arrangement for transportation, it is a one-hour walk uphill and downhill.
Transportation is very limited in Itbayat. There are only four tricycles in the island. In case these tricycles are not available, the only way to get around the island is by walking.
What to see, what to do
A local guide is necessary to visit many of the island’s attractions and can be arranged through lodging houses.
Among the attractions is the Rafang Cliff, a natural park with several mushroom-like rock formations, believed to be used by the ancient settlers to call a meeting. The nearby Nahili Votox with its own Ijiang boat-shaped burial ground is also worth checking.
But the island’s most interesting attraction is Torongan Cave. The first thing that visitors will see inside Torongan is a pile of stones arranged into a big circle at the center of the cave. This is said to be the original dwelling of the first Austronesian people who came and settled in the island over 3,000 years ago. Inside the cave is a large opening – as high as 20 meters – that goes all the way into the sea.
There are two extinct volacanos on the island: Mount Karaboboan (240 meters) in the north; and Mount Riposet (270 meters) in the south. These two volcanoes are the foundation of Itbayat Island.
Several remote islands belong to Itbayat, including the Philippine northern-most, the Y’ami. Worth visiting are the islands of Siayan for its beautiful beaches and Di’nem for its unique boulder beach.
At the town center in Mayan, visit the postcard-pretty Itbayat Church. It is said to have been built in 1783 when the first Spanish mission arrived on the island. Spread around Mayan and the northernmost village of Raele are many vernacular houses, many of which are at least 200 years old.
The island’s greatest attraction is its people. The Itbayanons have deep respect for the elders. Don’t be surprised if the youngsters of Itbayat will approach you, get your right hand and make “mano.” It is their way of welcoming you to their island.
Where to stay, what to eat
There are several homestays in Itbayat, but the most popular one is Cano’s Homestay. This is owned by Faustina Cano, a retired schoolteacher and the island’s un-official tourism officer. Lodging fee is P150 per person, but prior arrangement is necessary as she only has four rooms available. Bathroom facilities are shared.
Cano also offers full-board meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There is no fixed menu. Her offerings are dependent on the fresh-catch of the day. Each meal costs P200. On unlucky days, it’s vegetables and fried flying fish, but on most days, guests have to contend with coconut crabs and lobster.
Cano also prepares the Ivatan version of pork adobo called Luniz. Pork is cooked in water, salt and lots of garlic, is simmered and then crispy fried. This goes well with turmeric rice and pako salad.
It is not just the food that will make the trip to Itbayat quite memorable, it’s the whole experience. It’s an island where the people are kind and gentle. They may struggle to survive but it is their positive view in life that keeps them contented and happy: a simple lesson that every Itbayat visitor must take back when he or she gets home.