Fiesta time in the Philippines is a great way to experience the genuine friendly local culture and take in some outstanding pageantry and premier photo opportunities – before you head out to that perfect beach resort to chill out and recover!
by Dave Stamboulis.
While the Philippines is noted for its incredible array of empty island paradises and untrammelled tropical beaches, its colorful festivals are just as worthwhile. And the cool winter season turns out to be the height of the festival calendar as well, with some of the country’s most interesting festivals happening in January.
At the top of the list for interesting cultural experiences is Ati Atihan, which is held in the small town of Kalibo in Aklan, in the Visayas, which is easily accessed from Cebu. The roots of Ati-Atihan predate the Spanish colonization of the Philippines. It goes back to the 13th century when a light-skinned people, known as the Maraynons, came from Borneo to settle in the lowlands. They were assisted by the dark-skinned Aetas, who grew crops in the highlands. Due to the Aetas’ kindness, a yearly fiesta was held in their honor, with the Maraynon painting themselves dark with soot and joining the Aetas in song and dance.
After the Spaniards came the church would not hear of pagan celebrations, so local leaders convinced the Aetas to add a religious element to the festival, in which dancers paid homage to the Santo Niño (Holy Child), the patron saint of the Visayas who is celebrated at all festivals here. Thus today, one can see participants at the parade carrying doll images of the child saint.
In addition to face and body painting with dark soot, there are wildly colorful and elaborately crafted costumes worn by dancers, and despite this being a “religious” festival, there is plenty of drinking, partying, and general revelry, with ace drum troupes from Kalibo leading the merrymakers in a non-stop fiesta.
If you’re in the Visayas at this time, you’ll also have the chance to catch Sinulog, the nine-day street festival that also honors the Sto. Nino, which celebrates the Filipino acceptance of Christianity, and features grand street parades, street dancing, elaborate costumes, and performance contests. Cebu City hosts the largest parade but the festival is also celebrated in smaller places throughout the Visayas. The word Sinulog comes from the Cebuano “sulog,” which essentially translates as “water current movement,” a metaphor for the traditional Sinulog dance, which moves repeatedly back and forth in a series of slow steps.
The grand parade at Sinulog takes place on the third Sunday of January, and hundreds of tribal dance groups and musical performers make their way to the main stadium in Cebu, which becomes a riot of colors and one of the country’s most dazzling displays of talent and fun.
While Ati-Atihan feels more like a mardi gras and a real local “let your hair down” party, Sinulog is a bit more refined, perhaps due to plenty of government dignitaries showing up, and the fact that it is showcased in Cebu, the country’s second major city. But one will find plenty of good cheer nevertheless, as all festivals in the Philippines appear to have plenty of pre- and post-event partying.
While perhaps a bit less colorful and slightly more sober–if you happen to be in Manila in January; on January 9 specifically–the district of Quiapo plays host to possibly the largest festival to be found in Southeast Asia.
The “Feast of the Black Nazarene” commemorates the passage of a dark-skinned Jesus statue, made by a Mexican sculptor in the 1600s, which made its way to Manila and has been a subject of manic devotion ever since.
Up to 12 million people pack every nook and cranny of Quiapo, and follow the statue as it traces its original transfer, or “La Traslacion,” as it is affectionately known, when it was brought from its original place in a main city park to the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene Church back in 1787.
This festival lasts between 15 and 20 hours, and all streets in Quiapo are closed to traffic, shops are shut down, and the entire area becomes a sea of devotees, who dress in red and yellow just like the statue, and walk barefoot in humility and penance alongside the carriage pulling the statue while onlookers scream, “Viva Señor.” Everyone tries to touch the image, claiming it can cure disease or bring great fortune to those lucky enough to lay a finger on it.
For this festival, a bit more planning and strategy is required, as the crowds are huge and it can be near impossible to move if caught up in the middle. The best spots to view the procession are from second floor buildings or the few overpasses that dot the parade route. If you can get to the Quiapo Basilica early, upstairs above the masses, you will get a great view, although you won’t want to make any plans to leave.
Fiesta time in the Philippines is a great way to experience genuine friendly local culture and take in some outstanding pageantry and premier photo opportunities.
And just make sure to keep an extra week when all the festivities are finished to head out to that perfect beach resort to chill out and recover from the revelry!