Batanes · Philippines · Travel Tales

Sabtang Island, Part 1: The Savidug stone houses

According to rumor (and the great thing about guesthouses is that everyone makes chika there), a famous Filipina actress who went to Batanes alone decided not to push through with her Sabtang tour because, uh, she was disappointed that no one had gone to her feeding program the previous day.

There are two lessons to be learned from this rumor: one, that if you want to do a feeding program, you must coordinate with local authorities; and two, you can never not go to Sabtang.

A tour of Sabtang goes for a little over half a day, the same as the North Batan tour. You have to get to the port of the town of Ivana before 7 AM (6:30 AM is ideal), and Ivana is about half an hour from Basco. Your tour operator will go to your guesthouse as early as 6 AM to take you to the port. It is thus best that you wake up early.

The faluwa is a large boat with a U-shaped body and no outrigger (katig). The faluwa ride to Sabtang Island is another half hour. We had a pleasant ride.

The Sabtang Lighthouse stands on an outcrop on the coast of Sabtang, as though welcoming you.

Sabtang Lighthouse
Sabtang Lighthouse
The land tour began on the dock, where we rode a pick-up truck covered with a roof made of cogon. We first headed to the tourism office for registration. They served tubho tea for free — Ivatans boast that it has medicinal properties and they might talk to you about the 102-year-old woman who reached that age by drinking tubho tea everyday. (We brought some back to Manila–it’s really good, if brewed properly!)

Our first stop was the village in Savidug, which is near the coast, where we could look at Ivatan stone houses. (But first, I made a beeline to the lady who sold ube and buko pandan juice in little cups.)

Stone Houses of Savidug, Sabtang, Batanes
Stone Houses of Savidug, Sabtang, Batanes
One of the ruined houses
One of the few ruined houses

Many Filipinos already have an image in their heads of the stone houses in Batanes: compact, with walls made of cobblestones or coral rocks and limestone, and roofs made of cogon. Contrary to what one might think, though, this is actually a living, breathing village. While a few of the houses are ruined, the rest are the homes of Sabtang’s small population. The houses, unique to Batanes, are small but obviously very sturdy. The roofs are made of layers upon layers of cogon grass.

The roofs of the stone houses are probably a meter thick!
The roofs of the stone houses are probably a meter thick!
Some of the windows and doors are painted blue or green — the color of the sea. According to Niko, our guide, the paint is actually left over from their boats. (That’s why not all doors and windows are painted!)

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The window of a Sinakan stone house
We had a pleasant stroll along the streets — it was like being in a breezier, cleaner, less populated Vigan.

Firewood and dried flying fish
Firewood and dried fish
At the end of the tour of Sinakan, we found a plaza of sorts — it has a basketball court and a cottage. The St. Thomas Aquinas chapel can be found beside what used to be a place where leaders can congregate.

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St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel
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The sign above is an invitation for everyone to help out in the cemetery on the stated date. People do go in the spirit of bayanihan. This is also how they were able to build their houses — just through cooperation, with the implicit expectation that you will also get everyone’s help when your time of need comes.

“Dios mamajes,” of course, is the expression of gratitude in the Ivatan language. It literally means “God bless you” — I thank you for what you have done for me, and may God provide you with what you need in return.

(Of all things I could say to Batanes, what could be more apt than “Dios mamajes”? I thank you, Batanes, for showing me your beauty; I could do nothing more than take pictures of you and write about you, so may God bless you with abundance and the care that your own people provide you.)

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