Unforgettable Mt. Iraya in Batanes

View of Valugan Bay from Mt. Iraya early in the morning

Mt. Iraya in the background. CLICK TO ENLARGE

If it was not for the bird flu that struck some countries in the Southeast Asian region a few years ago, I would have spent my birthday over in Vietnam. But that was not the case. Scrambling to look for another place to visit, the sight of the clumps of islands that makes up Batanes province just made me smile that I spent a week there sansany travel itineraries.

This is my entry for the Pinoy Travel Bloggers’s Blog Carnival with the theme Best place you’ve visited in the Philippines. Click on the graphic above to visit the blog carnival page. I planned to spend my birthday differently from what I used to do by following the tatus (coconut crabs) trappers up Mt. Iraya (3,310 ft), that volcano looming in the background when one is in Basco, Batanes. It last erupted in the 15th century but is considered an active volcano as seismic activities were recorded there in 1998. But it was perfectly safe after that year as the rumbles died down.

Coconut crabs are a bit weird. They don’t look like the typical market crabs from the sea or mud flats that we get to expensively indulge. These are actually nocturnal land arthropods (genus Birgus) that are commonly encountered in lowland forests or, in the case of Batanes, hiding up in their burrows at the slopes of Mt. Iraya. These are especially favored as a delicacy for its sweet and oily part from its abdomen.

There are stories that these creatures can climb coconuts to harvest fruits and are also reputed to have very strong pincers that can cut off fingers if one isn’t careful enough. I am intrigued with these crustaceans and that was the reason why I went out of my way to follow two men who went up to trap as well as gather edible ferns.

Tatus or coconut crabs tied and bundled for selling at Basco town

Tatus trapper with his traps made from cooking oil cans. CLICK TO ENLARGE

It was a beautiful February morning as we trekked to the mountain, passing the rock strewn landscape of Valugan Bay. As I was considering this as a daytrip, I just packed light and minimal food, enough for lunch and snacks plus a few liters of water.

The climb wasn’t hard but not too easy. Ripe wild berries, some tart, some sweet-sour were along the trail ready for the picking. Iraya isn’t fully forested. There are portions with thick secondary growth, some disturbed thickets and at one point, about halfway, grassland. It is rugged with boulders and stones strewn along the slopes.

The trail became steeper. At one point, sharp inclines that a fall will definitely land you fast to the sea but the views were just gorgeous. The sea was calm, the wind cool and it was this sweeping landscape that just overwhelms. After a few stops to take pictures, we entered a forested area.

Edible ferns (humahum?) ready for transport

Fern gatherers binding the produce. CLICK TO ENLARGE

The two men, with their traps, followed their own trails marked with sharp and lose rocks. They seem to know every nook and cranny as they just walked and stopped at some pile of stone or cavity on the ground, placed pieces of coconut meat at the center of the trap and lowered it down. Then on to the next. They did this for a few hours. Once their traps were all distributed, it was then time to gather the still soft tips of edible ferns.

I was now fidgety as I was alarmed that it was already afternoon and the men haven’t arrived to go down. Later, I learned that we will be spending for the night. I was a bit concerned since I didn’t have enough food for dinner but my companions assured me. Night fell and there was just no electricity as we stayed at this small house that is used as a station to pass for the night or store the gathered tatus and ferns. Cool. A pleasant change to what I usually have during my birthday and I was actually enjoying it.

There were no pillows and mattresses, only mats and scattered ferns. At one area, rice was cooked over a slow fire. Then one prepared a vegetable soup of ferns and canned sardines. We chatted the night away with sips of gin to loosen the tongue. It was cool and breezy and surprisingly, no mosquitoes to ruin our night. We slept early as the men have to gather the traps and prepare for the descent before lunch.

Ang Langyaw at the start of the day

It was unexpected. Really. And humbling too. I was hoping to visit and experience Batanes as a way of pondering about my past, my present and my future as I was crossing a major life milestone and the trip up Mt. Iraya was just the thing I needed. It provided me with moments of contemplation while trekking up and down, taking in the landscape and the natural beauty spread out before me.

After that trek, my mind was cleared and I just enjoyed what this province had to offer from Spanish colonial era churches, to great fresh food, day old dried flying fish, tatus. The rough but enjoyable ride to Sabtang, vacul, vernacular houses and hearing the melodic calls of boys at dawn for their hot pandesals competing with the crowing of the cocks.


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