Cebu’s Sinulog Festival

It’s that time of the year once more for the sought-after and crowd-drawing festivals in the Visayas which will run for the whole of January—Iloilo City’s Dinagyang, Cebu’s Sinulog, and Kalibo’s Ati-Atihan. On top of these is a horde of under-the-radar celebrations across the archipelago ascribed to the Sto. Niño or Holy Child Jesus, which date back to the Spanish colonial era.

But with the pandemic we are in, festivities have been largely scaled down and focused on the religious components. Most of the physical activities were pre-recorded under strict safety protocols and streamed online for public viewing, if only to keep the traditions alive.

Here are some of the most-awaited festivals and their exotic locations which we have to witness differently this time of pandemic. If you can, driving through these areas is a nostalgic alternative, sans the “dancing in the street” as Mick Jagger and David Bowie, or The Mamas & The Papas, would put it.

My indulgence for the pun, but here are the notable pit stops where you can do the “Pit Senyor!” tribute under the new normal.

Pit Stop 1: Kalibo. The provincial capital town of Aklan, it takes pride in being home to Ati-Atihan, recognized as the “Mother of Philippine Festivals” and one of the country’s oldest. It is believed to date back to the 1200s when ancient Ati tribes danced in celebration upon forging a peace pact with the Malay chieftains from Borneo who bought their land with a golden salakot.

Participants blacken themselves with soot and don tribal costumes to the shouts of “hala bira!” to recreate the tell-tale ancient celebrative dance. Unlike its more elaborate, choreographed, and better-funded counterparts, Ati-Atihan has a more authentic feel of a festival, with its frenzied drum beats enticing spectators to dance in place and even join the fray at some point.

Drive, or better yet pedal, around Kalibo’s points of interest which are often overlooked as revelers immediately rush off to Boracay Island, just over an hour away. Within the town proper, swing by the Museo It Akean, Aklan Freedom Shrine, St. John the Baptist Cathedral, and shops selling the exquisite (and expensive) piña cloth, dubbed as the “Queen of Philippine fabrics.”

In the adjoining barangays, visit Tigayon Hill and Cave, the former secret sanctuary of the province’s freedom fighters, and the 200-hectare Bakhawan Eco-Park mangrove forest. 

Kalibo’s Ati-Atihan Festival

Pit Stop 2: Cebu. Sinulog is arguably the best-marketed Sto. Niño festival, with the incumbent president making it a point to grace the pompous occasion. This year’s edition was marred with confusion as the parade was cancelled just two weeks away, just as the planners were racking their brains how to execute a physically distanced street dancing.

But even sans the pageantry, the metropolitan area is a treasure throve of faith and culture, particularly when the country is observing this year the 500th anniversary of Christianity where Cebu plays a central part.

Travel back in time on foot around the “paseo kabilin” or heritage lane which covers the Cathedral, Yap-San Diego Mansion, Gorordo Museum, Fort San Pedro, Plaza Independencia, Museo Sugbo, Rajah Humabon Monument, and the iconic Magellan’s Cross and the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño de Cebu, the heart of the festivity and home to the archipelago’s oldest religious image.

At any given time, the Basilica’s vicinity teems with old women doing the old-fashioned sulog ritual prayer dance, precursor of present-day Sinulog steps, as they light candle offerings at Magellan’s Cross and exclaim “pit senyor!” as a homage to the patron saint.

You can commune with nature and drive to the city’s upland farm tourism resorts which is the best physical distancing you can do away from the crowd.

Sinulog Festival a decade ago

Pit Stop 3: Iloilo. Hailed for its remarkable urban renewal and heritage conservation program, this bustling city is home to the equally magnificent and award-winning “Dinagyang Festival.” But without the riotous dance tilt, you can feast on Ilonggo cuisine, dominated by the ubiquitous batchoy and pansit molo, and marvel at the well-preserved and repurposed Spanish-era ancestral mansions, churches, museums, public buildings and plazas.

Interestingly, Iloilo claims to being the “Queen’s City of the South” and they have records of Spanish Queen Regent Maria Cristina’s royal declaration dated October 5, 1889 to back it.

To promote physical well-being, biking, jogging and walking are highly encouraged among locals, particularly at the beautifully landscaped River Esplanade. Public transportation is a pleasant and inexpensive mobility with its organized routes and tidy jeepneys which mimic the bumpers of popular car brands.

All told, the city is a shining proof that the Old World charm and gentrification can blend perfectly, something cities of the future can emulate.

Iloilo’s Dinagyang Festival