We visited Catanduanes on our third trip to the Philippines in 2009. The island was certainly not one of the more famous destinations in the country, but if anything we were attracted by the island’s off-the-tourist radar status; we were looking for an alternative to the well-known beach resorts such as Boracay and Puerto Galera. Catanduanes was said to have fine beaches that were yet to be discovered by foreign tourists. Travellers were likely scared away by the island’s reputation as one of the country’s most typhoon-prone islands. We too had our reservations: mostly we like to see historical sights on our travels; Catanduanes had so often been battered by typhoons that little of its built heritage had survived the centuries. Nonetheless, we took some solace in the fact that there was at least one historic church to see- the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church of Bato, often just known as the Bato Church.
We flew into the island from Manila on the now-defunct PAL Express. We had got the fare for a bargain basement price of around $40 each, which had also factored into our decision to choose Catanduanes as a destination. The flight took us across Luzon and the Maqueda Chanel to the mid-sized island, which was positioned right at the westernmost edge of the Pacific Ocean. We touched down at the island’s main airport at Virac, the largest city on the island. Virac Airport was a very low-key affair; it was one of those airports at which they wheel the luggage-trolley onto the apron and you collect the luggage yourself. Having done that, we simply walked into town, the outskirts of which stretched right to the airport.
Having checked into our hotel, we immediately set out to explore the centre of town. In terms of sightseeing, the picking turned out to be pretty meagre. It was easy to believe that the city had been repeatedly hit by typhoons, as despite it’s considerable age- Virac was already established by the middle of the eighteenth century- there was very little to show for its two and a half centuries of history. This was perhaps not all the fault of the typhoons: apparently the depredations of Moros (Muslim pirates) had also taken a heavy toll at times. Anyway, the end result that we saw was an underwhelming settlement of cinder-block houses with little grand public architecture to speak of. There were a couple of small churches which seemed to combine cinder-block renovations with older portions. Perhaps these had incorporated the ruins of older more elegant structures into themselves, but really were clutching at straws. Virac had little to recommend it to the history buff; it was time to head out to the Bato Church.
We hired a motorized tricycle out to the church, which was located about ten kilometres out of town. The road took us through pretty, green scenery with steep hills rising up behind the road. After several kilometres we stopped at a small cascade which had been promoted in the tourist literature. It was certainly not a breathtaking sight, but the water was clean and cool and it was very peaceful, surrounded only by shrubs and grasses. After a quick dip in one of the larger pools, we climbed back into the carriage of the tricycle and continued on towards Bato. As we neared our destination, we crossed the Bato, a swift-flowing river which was coming down from the hills, and I was reminded that the scenery of the interior was supposed to be wild and rugged, with many beautiful falls. Unfortunately, I realized that such adventuring was beyond the scope of our flying visit to the island.
Soon thereafter we came to the church. Made of coral rock, it has a solid, weighty look, almost as it it were hewn right out of a mountain. The heavy blocks of stone, beautifully fitted together, had doubtless helped it to weather almost two centuries of island’s turbulent weather. Began towards the end of the eighteenth century as the replacement of an earlier wooden church, it had not been completed since 1830. This suggested that it was difficult to marshall much in the way of manpower and resources during the early history of the island. Nonetheless, the Spanish had persisted and it had stood intact in that spot ever since.
The appearance of the church was in some senses rather plain. There was nothing in the way of sculpture or reliefs to speak of on the exterior, but there were some domes and cupolas, a large one on top, mounted by a cross, and smaller ones on the corners of the facade. There was also an empty niche and some small windows along the side. The focal point of the front was a bell which hung above the main door, which was locked when we visited. (Apparently access to the belltower was gained by an internal staircase). There were also two simple colonettes on either side of the door and a further one at each end of the facade. These were not free-standing columns but rather ornamental ones which were worked into the design. At various points, vegetation sprouted out of the grey stonework, giving it a look of considerable age, or even something like a ruin from Angkor, overgrown with jungle foliage. This perception was reinforced by the lush, jungle-like growth which was covering the hill behind the church. Overall the structure had a certain grandeur in spite of its plain design.
Heading down the side, we found that there was a side door, which was open. Stepping inside, we gained a look at the interior. It was again a fairly simple affair, but it was did have a certain rustic appeal. There were rows and rows of wooden pews and a modern altar at the front. Though none of this was as original as the stone interior, it still had its charm. The front wall was decorated with simple but stately columns and a couple of chandeliers hung down from the ceiling. The altar was certainly not original but the later additions were not too ostentatious and did not greatly compromise the historical character of the church. Overall, we thought it was quite well-suited to a church of its historical stature. We agreed that it was easily the most impressive monument we had seen on our first day in Catanduanes.