Batanes e-book author Ferdz Decena takes us to the right spots in Batanes for an even more memorable experience of the northernmost Philippine province, and for them fantastic Instagram snaps.
Batanes is an island of superlatives but its natural wonders are only a portion of what it has to offer for its people called the Ivatans are what make it even more beautiful, and the chance to immerse with them the one to give meaning to...
We draw attention to three Ivatans who show us their way of life, their quirks, and why to them Batanes will always be their home. More so, they give us a glimpse of the Ivatan character—respectful and kindhearted, family-drawn, God-loving, holistic, creative. The list goes on. We follow each of them for a day.
Here’s our tale.
When Tess Vargas Castillejos retired from her post as Department of Trade and Industry Batanes provincial caretaker in 2012, she made the big leap, switching into a full organic lifestyle. She’s turned to organic farming and gardening, which makes her feel connected and happy.
Tess has been famous for cultivating clitoria ternatea—a perennial evergreen climber that produces blue flower—and being the first in Batanes to turn this blue flower into tea. She’s also making waves as a farm-to-table entrepreneur, cooking and serving meals right at her
centuries-old home. Her ingredients for cooking are straight from her farm.
Tess looks exceptionally energetic for someone who only had 30 minutes of sleep—visiting friends came over for dinner and stayed until past midnight. She wakes up at 3am to prepare for her lector duties at the Sto. Domingo Parish of the Immaculate Conception Church, where daily masses start at 5am.
Like many Ivatans, Tess is a devout Catholic and one can tell by the religious items in her home. After the dawn mass, she heads back home for breakfast. Today, it’s chayi (local lychee) salad, lunyis (pork slowly cooked in salt and garlic and fried in its own fat), mashed
sweet potato and a mug of coffee.
Tess’s lack of sleep barely registers as she happily chats about her plants. It brings her joy knowing that whatever she cultivates will benefit the environment and her neighbors for she likes sharing her harvest.
Every day, Tess walks to her 897sqm farm, which she and her two staff tend. It’s where you’ll see rows and rows of bushes peppered with blue flowers. She’d pick the mature ones.
Tess and her flower pickers are able to collect seven to eight kilos of flowers a day, and such amount can be attributed to the growing demand for her tea.
Tess’s love affair with blue flowers started when her late husband, who used to gift her with blue orchids, passed away. In his passing, she found a way to cope with her loss through
gardening, and found the blue flowers most fascinating.
In no time, her organic blue tea became an instant hit especially for tourists, fetching at Php3,000 (USD60) per kilo of the tea-ready dried version.
Harvesting eight kilos of flowers is tedious so Tess usually finishes at noontime. There are days when she eats packed lunch at her farm when her early morning check requires more farm work like clearing pathways, pruning the shrubs or spreading organic fertilizer.
Today, the task is only to pick blue flowers and produce to cook for lunch.
Back at home, Tess whips up a healthy homemade meal—beef broth with blue flowers, green rice, cucumber sesame salad and the leftover from breakfast. Dessert is boiled cardava topped with mango cream made from scratch. All these are served in beautiful plates—part of her chinaware collection. After the hearty meal, she serves us palek (Ivatan wine), which she concocts too.
After lunch, Tess takes out her babies—the newly harvested blue flowers—and spreads them out on an improvised bed. This is her version of curing so that the flowers do not entirely lose their color once she places them under the sun. The process of drying blue flowers includes overnight curing, sun drying until the petals are crisp, and winnowing to remove small dirt and small particles.
In between, customers stop by to pick up their orders. A couple swings by to discuss with her their wedding’s catering arrangement as Tess also caters for intimate events. She opens her home to host private dinners but with three days’ notice.
Finally, Tess gets some shuteye.
At 4pm, she gets up, takes the sundried blue flowers back into the house, and spends the rest of the afternoon packing the winnowed flowers.
At night, Tess’s routine includes saying a short novena prayer, preparing dinner, and watching TV or meditating in her garden. At dinner, she gives us a taste of her magic by serving us
slow-cooked beef, blue rice, green rice, crispy adobong pata (pork thigh cooked adobo-style then crisp-fried) and squash soup. Dessert is millet pudding topped with cream and orange slices and it’s the yummiest that you’d have.
When she was young, Carlotta Borromeo-Charbonney, Bing to family and friends, had learned to live independently especially when she went to college in Manila—hundreds of miles away from home. But when she got married, even her adventure-loving self still had to adjust to six years of traveling to different parts of the world due to her husband’s line of work. She met all kinds of people, experienced different cultures, and had a fair share of rough times that came with living from country to country. When they settled down in Switzerland was when she decided it’s time to come home to Batanes every year no matter what. Batanes is home and there’s not a single place quite as special as it.
Bing loves spontaneity and does not want to confine herself to plans. Whenever she’s home in Batanes, there’s never a routine that she sticks to. There are days she wakes up late because of a previous night out or she’s up really early excited to explore the island.
Today, she’s off to an early start, waking up at 6am to prepare to hike Mt. Matarem. She boils saba banana, buys hot pandesal (local bun) and brews her coffee. On ordinary days, a steaming mug of coffee is enough for her morning fill but today is an exception for she’s set
to climb the second highest peak in the island albeit not her first time to do so. She’s already summited Mt. Matarem thrice in the past years but the promise of great views from the summit always calls for one more.
On the road, Bing talks about why she would always come back home to Batanes every year. She says it’s the warmth of her fellow Ivatans, the joy of being able to decompress and relax, and the much, much simpler way of life—a stark contrast to her life in Switzerland.
She likes to refer to herself as an island girl who will always be captivated by beautiful sunrises and sunsets, rolling green hills, the crisp mountain air. As a child, she would spend her weekends on the beach with her friends or have picnics in their farm. They would cook
root crops, climb mabolo trees to eat fruits or pick alunot (local plum).
Growing up on an island, which was once isolated with no electric supply, means they rarely got to taste ice cream. She recalls how, as a student, she would travel by foot from one town to another because transportation was almost nonexistent.
When she finally reaches the jump-off point, Bing gleefully walks along the first part of the trail that opens into a pastureland that leads to a section where you’ll think fairies may magically appear. She pauses to take in the view of wild trees. This part is dense with greenery, and flora and fauna. Aside from the surreal views, Mt. Matarem also gives her a chance to switch off from the world and immerse herself in the beauty of nature. As soon as she summits, she marvels at the island’s fragile beauty, making her fall in love with Batanes even more.
After a fulfilling hike, Bing grabs a quick lunch in preparation for her next activity: hiking up her favorite spot in idjang this afternoon. Bing’s grandparents own an idjang—her aunt inherited it later on— in the southeastern side of Basco, an ancient hilltop fortress once used by her ancestors to protect themselves from tribal wars and Japanese invaders. It’s one of the places where she has fond memories of growing up.
From up until where the van can manage, she takes a 10-minute hike on a trail leading to the mountain fortress. She reaches the base of the idjang—the spot they were allowed to go play and have a picnic as kids for the top of it were deemed sacred grounds.
Bing caps her day with a nice dinner with her mother and sisters. Her mother, who is already in her nineties, regales with stories about their life during the Japanese occupation era.
One of Bing’s goals is to write her mother’s memoir thinking that it would be her way of paying tribute to how her mother gave so much to secure her future.
After dinner, Bing gets a text invite for a get-together As expected, she’s not one to pass.
John Lorenz “Vorz” Portez is a soft-spoken 20-year-old acrylic painter who dreams of following the footsteps of Austrian artist Voka and Ivatan artist Randalf Dilla. He likes exploring colors thoroughly, oftentimes resulting in dynamic, spontaneous and bold strokes
reflecting in his works. He calls his art spontaneous realism and is fond of showing the depth of human emotions through portraits of Ivatan elders.
Vorz wakes up towards noon and he has his reasons. After having his morning cup and the light is better is when he picks up his brush and canvas.
The Portez’s family room is Vorz’s makeshift studio. Noontime is quietest so it’s when Vorz starts painting. But his creative energy peaks at night when everything comes to a standstill.
Solitude, to Vorz, is integral in his creative journey.
As a full-time painter, Vorz enjoys doing his artwork at a leisurely pace—one thing that he’s unable to do when he was in school. He went to college for two years and stopped given that the course he took—drafting—lured him away from painting.
His project for today is Mahatao lighthouse. The lighthouses in Batan Island are also among his favorite subjects because he sees them as a metaphor of hope, light and home. In his current collection are 15 paintings of lighthouses in different interpretations.
The work Vorz is most proud of is his winning piece entitled Abus Pandan A Saray (Walang Katumbas na Tiwala) that shows a young Ivatan taking off the blindfold of his elder in the hope of guiding the latter through the changes that are taking place in the island. This artwork is put on display at Galerie Du Tulaan at Fundacion Pacita.
Vorz dreams of opening his own exhibit one day at the Ayala Museum in Makati, like the other members of Yaru nu Artes Ivatan (Bayanihan of Ivatan Artists), a collective of local artists which he’s a part of.
Although a great part of his day is spent painting at their new home in Basco, Vorz still goes out in some afternoons for a breath of fresh air.
Back in the days when they were still renting a house in Mahatao, his break from painting would be to hang out with friends. And when he wanted a moment of solitude, he would go to the Mahatao lighthouse, White Beach, or trek Mahuruhon to gather his thoughts and conceptualize for his next piece.
His constant companions were a sketchbook and a pen. He would sketch movements, landscapes, life, ideas, and things that catch his attention in one of his many strolls.
One of his favorite stops for inspiration today is White Beach. His attempt is to capture the tumbling of the waves in his sketchbook.
His next stop will be the old Ivatan house in Uyugan, which has always fascinated him. He revels in the traditional pattern of the house but points out that the now cemented facade was once made of stone. The house has always been his inspiration whenever he wants to artistically render Batanes’ old stone houses.
When the weather is good, he would go to the Basco lighthouse after feeding their pigs. From the lighthouse’s view deck, he’d watch the interplay of sunset colors, which he would later on translate into acrylic on canvas.
Life outside art means taking care of his eight dogs and tending the backyard pigs his family raises in Chanarian. He would go to their old house in Mahatao daily to feed and play with his dogs because he couldn’t bring them to their new home in Basco. At home, he helps out in chores as any son would. After dinner, as soon as everybody retires to bed, he’d go back to the company of his brush and canvas and paint the night away.
Words: Photos by Ferds Decena
Bernie’s is a two-storey seven-bedroom hotel inspired by the traditional Ivatan architecture with touches of modern. Its “quaintly” features? The stone-dotted façade with trellis and vertical windows; the stone path leading to the entrance; the homey but bright and airy interiors, and the careful mix of wooden furnishings, kerosene lamp-inspired fixtures, ornamental plants and art pieces. One nice touch at Bernie’s are its books, shelves of them, that are the first to greet guests.
The B&B is logically designed—the social spaces are on the ground floor while the rooms on are on the second floor.
Slip at the small garden at the back for a quiet moment by yourself and take in the sun and Ivana’s peaceful surroundings.
There are queen bedrooms and double bedrooms, all spacious. I stayed in a queen room with whitewashed walls and stone tiles, well-furnished along with mod cons. It has a spacious bathroom with fine toiletries. At full house, Bernie’s can be filled with up to 21 people.
Bernie’s only serves breakfast and it’s typically what’s available like fried flying fish, rice and coffee. The innkeeper may cook a meal for guests.
See Batanes’ famous landmarks close by: the House of Dakay, the oldest stone house in Batanes; Honesty Coffee Shop, an unmanned store that operates solely on trust; the Old Spanish Bridge.
Starts at Php3,500 (USD67) per night
SkyJet flies daily from Manila to Batanes Book a SkyJet flight now.
Story by Jonalyn Fortuno; photos by Ferdz Decena
I started tour guiding visitors in Batanes in 1999. I was working on a World Bank-funded project on environmental protection and conservation at that time.
I’m more of a cultural worker than a tour guide. I’ve always been an advocate of heritage conservation. My goal is to convert as many locals into becoming heritage champions and instill in them that tour guiding is about showing the dynamics of natural environment and cultural heritage that shaped our province into what it is now today.
Something to add to the Mad Hatter’s collection: the vakul, a quirky headgear worn by the local women of Batanes in northernmost Philippines to protect themselves from harsh weather conditions—the scorching heat of the sun, rains, and even strong winds.
Voyavoy leaves (Philippine date palm) are sun-dried and woven to make a vakul.
Nowadays, you’d see vakul-donning locals in Batanes gamely posing for a snap. Help out by buying a vakul from them, which could very well be a good travel token.
SkyJet Airlines flies daily from Manila to Batanes.
Photo by Ferdz Decena