Batanes!
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - January 24, 2020 - 12:00am

Our country’s northernmost province had always been in my bucket list of places to see. But it was only this week that I found the time to do so.

My daughter is visiting with her American husband and we were running out of places to take them. They were in El Nido the week they arrived. They found El Nido simply marvelous and I was wondering if Batanes can compete.

I think Batanes did compete, but in a different way. El Nido is a well-developed resort that took advantage of the beauty of nature in the area. Batanes is awe-inspiring too, but in a raw and different way.

Batan, the main island of the province, is a paradise for sightseeing. Nature’s sheer beauty and wonder is everywhere. The majestic vistas of land and sea simply impress visitors.

And the points of interest to visitors are well kept… no ambulant peddlers of souvenirs that normally bug you in other tourist sites. Because it is also not peak season for visitors, it is easy to take good shots of the sights without obstruction from other selfie-taking tourists.

But the sightseeing tours can be done in two days. It is a pity that current tour operators generally miss out on what really makes Batanes unique and important to every Filipino: the Ivatans.

The Ivatans are a friendly, hardy people who have through the centuries learned to live with typhoons, earthquakes and other natural and man-made challenges. Then there is the culture of the Ivatans that you can feel in the streets and the old stone houses and churches.

Jonathan Coo, a former music instructor at the Ateneo de Manila fell in love with both the natural wonders of Batanes and the culture of its people. He came for a visit and never left. He is now teaching at a local Basco college and is obviously enjoying every minute of it.

Jonathan observed that the Ivatans are fiercely self-reliant. After a strong typhoon, he said, they clean up the debris quickly so that when the delayed aid from Manila eventually arrives, little is seen of the typhoon damage.

It will be a mistake if the budding tourism industry in Batanes develops along the commercial lines of tourism sites elsewhere in the country. The basic attraction of Batanes is that it still doesn’t have a Jollibee or an SM mall, if you know what I mean.

Mandy Navasero, who many Ivatans acknowledge as having placed Batanes in the tourism map, recalled that when she first visited Batanes with a group of 24 photography enthusiasts in 2006, there weren’t very many tourists. Official figures say there were 2,331 tourist arrivals in Batanes in that year. Last year, there were 45,419.

Everything is still homegrown. There are only 603 hotel rooms in all of Batanes, 530 of these in Basco. I am told there are a lot of places offering homestay, which is a good idea if one wishes to immerse oneself in the local culture.

Of course, one can choose to rent a room or a house on top of a mountain with a 360-degree view of everything awesome that nature has gifted Batanes and be a hermit for a month or more. Any harassed city dweller battling traffic and breathing bad air daily can be tempted to try a long-term Batanes retreat. Or do a Jonathan and actually transfer your roots there.

We were lucky to bump into Jonathan while we were having halo halo after a day’s tour. He gave us a good idea of what life is like on the ground in Batanes. Then he led us to the house of an amazing woman a short walk away.

Tess Vargas Castillejos, 70-year old retired former DTI official in Batanes, greeted us at the gate of her hundred-year-old home. A widow, she is now into organic farming and gardening.

Tess is known for cultivating clitoria ternatea—a perennial evergreen climber that produces blue flower that she turns into tea. She’s also a farm-to-table entrepreneur, cooking and serving meals right at her centuries-old home. Her ingredients for cooking are straight from her farm.

It was too early for dinner, but after we talked about and sampled her blue tea, she served us bulalo with blue rice, ordinary jasmine rice cooked in her blue tea. She also served us an interesting salad of Batanes root crops. Best of all, she talked endlessly of the joys of living in Batanes.

Tess walks everyday to her 897 sqm farm, not far from her home. There are rows of bushes peppered with blue flowers.

She and her flower pickers are able to collect seven to eight kilos of flowers a day, barely enough for the growing demand for her blue tea. It is such a hit it is now fetching at P3,000 ($60) per kilo of the tea-ready dried version.

The other Ivatan I would have wanted to meet is John Lorenz “Vorz” Portez, a young acrylic painter whose work is all over Basco. Actually, there are many equally talented artists in Batanes whose works are quite impressive.

There is an art gallery at Fundacion Pacita, and the paintings exhibited there are top quality. Of course, Pacita Abad whose family owns Fundacion is the world-famous artist credited with among others, designing a bridge in Singapore into an artistic masterpiece.

Next time, I will ask Jack Lord Labrador, president of the Batanes Tour Guides Association who showed us around, to include a visit to the studio of some Batanes artists. So much talent on display in hotels, restaurants and other public places in Basco!

Tourism is the top industry in Batanes and I see its potential for growth. The roads and other public infrastructure are ready for the visitors. Then again, growth can affect the very thing that makes Batanes an interesting place to visit.

The locals must determine for themselves how much more visitors they want. Batanes is an experience for the senses… and must remain such.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco.

BATANES EL NIDO
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