I’m not much of a traveller, but thanks to Batanes and Kia Philippines, I’ll admit I caught a bit of the bug… in more ways than one.
So when Kia sent us the invite to get a chance to see northernmost point of the Philippines, you can bet many of us jumped at the invitation for the True North drive and write event. After all, how many of us can really say they’ve been there?
The winds of winter and spring
I was actually expecting a choppy flight, but this new regional airline, Skyjet Air, utilized the BAe 146; a plane that had an apparent reputation for quiet and smooth flights. The approach to Batanes had many of us excited, looking out the window and saw the Batanes group of islands. The landing itself was a little rough, but I really can’t fault the pilot, as we realized how rough, erratic nad powerful the winds actually were the moment we stepped off the airstairs.
Our group of 40 media, plus top executives from Columbian Autocar Corporation (the official distributors of Kia in the Philippines) led by their President, Ms. Ginia Domingo, were met by Kia’s marketing team already on the ground in Basco, Batanes.
One thing became clear on the tarmac: we should have had our jackets on hand. Some of us forgot to Google what the weather was like and didn’t bring a coat, the more fortunate of us (myself included) had it in our checked luggage, while others already had it in hand. Batanes, after all, is the only group in 7,107 islands that experienced 4 seasons, and right now we were experiencing the tail end of winter and the beginnings of spring.
Piece of advice: Bring a thicker jacket. After 3 days, I got a bit of a cold.
There can only be one
We made our way to our home for the next three days: Fundacion Pacita. Owned by the Abad family, the hotel is actually a series of buildings and rooms built onto the ridges on the property, with various views of the impeccable scenery that Batanes had to offer.
So scenic was it, that everyone started taking photographs the moment we arrived; some for Facebook profile pics, some for cover photos. Didn’t really matter much at the moment though, as we couldn’t get a decent data signal anywhere on the island. This really is as remote as it comes.
The rolling hills, the cliffs, rocky coastline, the bluest sea ever and the lush greenery definitely provided a photo buffet for anyone with a camera. Really, Batanes has such great scenery that they could have filmed Lord of the Rings or Braveheart here.
Highlander will do.
Quick briefs and numbers out of a hat
We settled in and got acquainted with our surroundings for the next few days. We were also briefed on the drive, which would involve a photo contest around 10 signature locations around the island.
Kia had brought in every model they had to Basco, and we were to draw lots to see which one we’d get. The Picanto and Rio were on hand, something that would be well suited for the narrow roads and blind corners that are normal fare here. The Sorento and Sportage would also do well here, given the ground clearance and all wheel drive for some variants.
The cream of the crop, however, had to be the handsome Optima with its low slung, high tech look; and it’s a hybrid too. And, of course, there are several of the updated Kia Carnivals available with the 2.9L CRDI motor, 7-seats and a soft, comfortable suspension set up that would be great to ride in, but probably not the best for these tight, winding roads with cliffs and steep drops on either side.
You guessed it: we drew the Carnival.
Dinner with the Gov
Batanes is a small province, actually the smallest in the Philippines in both land area and population (thanks, Wikipedia), so the arrival of many press people and company executives is a big event, so we actually had dinner by the Basco Lighthouse with nearly the entire political leadership of the area with us, including Governor Vicente Gato.
Most of the governors tend to be very strong men and women whose reputations command respect and even a bit of fear; after all, you wouldn’t want to cross a sitting (or even former) governor in his territory. Governor Gato is different.
The Gov is actually a very down to earth man to talk to, speaking very frankly about the troubles that he has to deal with on a daily basis like the quarterly boatload of supplies his province gets, acricultural problems given the weather, an apparent brain drain and underemployment due to the lack of opportunities, economic growth, to even the rising prices per kilo of pork and per liter of fuel. Diesel here is PhP 60 per liter. Unleaded is PhP 72. Ouch
Right now, the main commodity the province can offer is tourism, but as it stands, the volume isn’t close to what it should be for economic growth. What did we motoring enthusiasts suggest, assuming they be able to meet safety standards? Hold a motorcycle race… Isle of Man-style.
Up bright and early
I like cold mornings, but Batanes is something else. The actual temperature is about the same as Baguio, but with strong gusts of wind from every single direction at any given time, clattering teeth and shivering was the norm.
We then boarded our Kia Carnival, with myself in the driver’s seat. The Carnival has undergone a bit of a facelift, and it looks quite good with that signature tiger grille up front. This particular variant is the manual version, and frankly the three-pedal arrangement suits me just fine, as I know I won’t be driving in traffic today given that the island only has 14 jeepneys total. Oh, and they’re all subject to a number coding scheme as well.
My iPod was plugged in, and we were ready to get started.
Misguided, hills, a house and a lighthouse
The previous night, we were briefed by some non-Kia people on what was claimed to be “the best GPS navigation system available” in the market: Papago!
Well, after we plotted in our first destination and got going, and right on the first turn the GPS system already tried to lead us onto an imaginary road. Okay, that’s an exaggeration; it led us to a road best left for 4x4s, as not even the Sorento or Sportage could take that trail I was looking at.
Once we did get on the right path, the GPS then experienced some kind of digital schizophrenia, saying things like “7 kilometers to destination… Recalculating” or “Arriving at destination on the right… Recalculating” over and over again. After kilometers of frustration, I asked my co-driver, Inigo, to tell the GPS to go recalculate itself, and referred more to the routebook to get a general location as to where we needed to go.
So we finally got to the main road and on to our first stop: the House of Dakay. It’s actually the oldest house in Batanes, having been built in 1887 and owned by the Estrella family.
Made of the traditional materials in the area such as stone, corals, limestone and cogon for the roof, the simple house has small openings for the doors and windows, keeping the inside relatively warm. It’s current owner is a nice old lady, Florestida Estrella, and gladly welcomed us into her little home, even if she couldn’t really walk anymore.
We then continued on our way in the Carnival, this time to the Tayid lighthouse, though the route is quite narrow for the minivan. Sitting on top of a ridge amidst the lush greenery, the lighthouse is actually quite new, built in this millenium. It’s fully functional, and serves to guide ships and boats on their way.
When we left the lighthouse, we then kept on the road, even though it turned into a compacted dirt trail. Much of the inland roads of Batanes are still in the process of being paved with concrete, so you have to be a little careful coming out of corners, as you could find yourself face to face with a dozer.
The roads then got better, and soon we found ourselves on our third stop: Marlboro Hills. Much like the classic tobacco ads, this is cowboy country, and you would actually enter a gate warning that the animals in the area are all undomesticated, and could charge at will if threatened. The rolling hills provide a perfect backdrop for countless photos, though you’d also have to be careful about stepping on one of thousands of “landmines”: cow dung.
A view, a church and Honesty
We then made our way to Alapad viewpoint with its naturally sculpted cliffs. The scenery here is just breathtaking, if it wasn’t for the strong winds trying to blow us away. So strong were the gusts, that this big, heavy Kia Carnival was shaking quite vigorously.
Once we got moving, just around the corner was an even more breathtaking view, though as a driver, you’d best off keeping your eye on the road, as just a few inches to the left of the road is a straight drop to the sea. If you’re in it for the thrills, imagine what it’s like to drive this place at night.
One thing you’ll notice about Batanes is the abundance of Blow UR Horn signs carved onto the cliff at blind corners. It’s not text speak, as the locals say, because the signs have been there well before then. Here, it’s best to avoid taking “racing lines”, though given the width of the road, there seems to be only one line.
Afterwards, we pushed forward, this time to visit Ivana. Nope, not Trump, but the town. A seaside municipality, Ivana is about as quiet as they come. We visit the church, located right across the town’s port; the jump-off point if you wish to visit the original settlements in Batanes province on the island of Sabtang across the sea.
What’s interestingly unique in Ivana is the Honesty Coffee Shop next to the port, as it has no tindera to speak of, and operates on the principle of total honesty. Get anything from a cup of instant coffee, instant noodles, chips or a Coke, and all you do is list it down on the ledger and drop in some money through the slot. I have doubts if such a store wouldn’t go bankrupt in a place like Manila, though in a province of 15 thousand people, with little or no crime as the Governor told us, it’s a different story.
In fact, the cops here, including the Governor’s own chief of security, do not carry firearms. How’s that for reassuring.
Lunch, a church, the weather station and a beach of boulders
Batanes is blessed by fantastic, picturesque vistas, excellent weather and pristine air, but it’s not a place to expect much from if you’re a foodie.
It’s the bane of being an isolated place. Being so far from Luzon means that Batanes only gets their primary supplies off a ship that docks into port every 3 months. Pork and other goods from the mainland are quite expensive even by Manila prices, and given that they travel by ship, they’re not very fresh either.
The fish is fresh, along with the lobster and the crab, but they need a little flavor. Some joked that they would bring bacon and Spam should they visit again. Given this weather, I would be perfectly happy with a cup of Seafood Cup Noodle… at the Honesty Coffee Shop.
With lunch done, our Kia Carnival trudged on. I was actually starting to enjoy driving this minivan, despite the presence of the more fun models around like the Picanto, Rio (including the one with the auto start/stop system), as well as the Optima Hybrid. The best bets really were the Sportage or the Sorento, as the passenger cars did have a challenging time on the rougher roads around Batanes. We’re fine, and I’m sure Ira Panganiban (PowerWheels), Inigo Roces (AutoIndustriya.com/PowerWheels) and Lester Dizon (PowerWheels) were enjoying the ride.
Our next stop was the Mahatao Church. We were told it was the oldest church in Batanes, though it didn’t look like what we expected, as it seems to have a fresh coat of paint. Then, we hopped back in and kept on the way to the DOST weather station.
Being so far north of the Philippines, Batanes is actually home to one of the Department of Science and Technology’s weather and radar stations, and was formerly operated by the United States. Thing is, it’s abandoned, but being on top of a hill, it offers a 360 degree view of Batan island and a majestic view of Mt. Iraya.
With that done, our next stop was Boulder beach. The sea looks inviting from here, but as the name states, the beach has little in the way of sand, as it is lined with rather large, rounded rocks. Nope, no sunbathing here, and not in this weather.
After we left Boulder beach, then plotted our next destination: the Rolling Hills. The exit from Boulder Beach is actually a town with rather tight streets, so my priority was to get to the main road straight ahead as soon as possible so as to avoid getting stuck between a rock and an Ivatan house… which was made of the same thing.
The Papafail, err, Papago GPS navigation system was telling me different, indicating that we should turn right and merge with the main road about a kilometer or two down the way. We were warned beforehand of a road that has an unusual “elbow” when viewed on the GPS, but based on what we were told, this didn’t seem like the one they were referring to, so we decided to take it.
It didn’t take long for the road to get narrower and narrower, until the wide Kia Carnival could barely fit with inches to spare on each side before dropping onto a small plantation; right now, I really didn’t want to be chased around by an angry farmer with a machete for ruining his crops.
Then things took a turn for the worse, as the “road” suddenly went uphill. The other guys got off to scout the route ahead, and it didn’t look good: it’s tight, steep, and there is a turn tossed in between. What made it worse was that we can’t backtrack anymore.
After the guys cleared away any obstacles on the route (i.e. bikes), I inched the Carnival forward, guided by my three spotters; one mistake and the wheels are in the gutter. Forward the Carnival crept, but then the road got steeper still. I had no choice, I was committed to taking it up there.
I give the Carnival some power from the 2.9 liter CRDI motor, and the guys up ahead -realizing that I had to get it moving fast lest it get stuck- made a run for it; there was about 2 tonnes of Kia coming their way.
Thankfully, the Carnival made it up and onto the main road. We tried to give the GPS system to some locals, but they refused.
Finally, two stops to go. We kept to the main road, ignoring what creative routes the navi tried to take us to.
Soon after, we found ourselves driving a road to the famed rolling hills; about 2 feet to the left was a 300 foot plunge, while another 2 feet to the right was about 500 feet straight down. Once we got there, you really did see rolling hills for miles, while the friendly locals went about their day, taking their carabaos to the fields.
Our final stop was where we had our dinner the night before: Basco Lighthouse. During the day, however, it’s a much grander place, and a fitting end to our drive of the island in the trusty Kia Carnival.
This place is not your typical tourist destination. We didn’t see many bars, nor did we hear loud music or see any pretty ladies tanning it up on the beach. There are no condos, mini malls, billboards, Ministops, Starbuckses, Mang Inasals or any new development by SMDC. Thank God.
Instead, we saw skies so unbelievably clear, breathed air so impeccably fresh, basked in peace and quiet unlike anything we’ve experienced before, and looked upon a land so immaculately green and pristine. Such is the allure of Batanes.
Next time, I’ll bring a better camera. And a can of Spam.