24 years ago, I was born in a little town about an hour away from the bustling town of Kalibo. My family moved to the United States shortly after. 24 years later, I came home to make it to one of the world’s most unique and colorful festivals. Every January, the Mother of all Philippine Festivals takes place. It is said that Kalibo’s Ati-Atihan Festival has inspired many other similar festivals throughout the country.
I managed to make it to the final day of the festival, waking up at 4 AM to drive an hour down from Ibajay with some family members. The parade itself didn’t start until 8 AM but we luckily anticipated that there would be chaos on the streets if we didn’t secure our parking spot early enough. A strange 5 AM McDonald’s breakfast of fried chicken, egg, rice, and a hash brown later, we breezed our way through the mostly empty streets of Kalibo towards the main plaza.
Festival-goers and performers intertwined in a strange scene that can truly only happen in the Philippines. Flamboyant costumes juxtaposed with the traditional Philippine attire of basketball shorts, a t-shirt, and tsinelas. Actually, most of the paraders were wearing tsinelas also. This is the Philippines after all. The 7 AM mass droned on as I weaved through the crowded plaza trying to snap as much of the festival scenes as I could.
Starting a festival with a 7 AM mass was far, far different than the last festival I went to. The Ati-Atihan Festival is a religious one after all, celebrating Sr. Santo Niño, or sweet baby Jesus. It seems like an anachronism at times. Ati-Atihan literally means “to be like the Ati”, the native people of Panay before the Spanish colonialism took hold. Obviously, sweet baby Jesus wasn’t a thing until the Spanish came over and brought Catholicism with it. So to be like the natives whilst incorporating baby Jesus in your costumes and performances, and going as far as waving statues of him around can be a pretty hilarious and often unsettling sight.
Tell me this picture doesn’t look like something straight out of Mad Max.
Sometimes, the Philippines makes absolutely no sense to a foreigner. And that is just perfectly fine. We are who we are and it is impossible to deny that it is often much more fun in the Philippines. Without further ado, grab some popcorn and prepare for some major FOMO as you feast your eyes on the dazzling displays of Kalibo Ati-Atihan.
The vibrant colors and intricate costumes create a beautiful display as the tribes parade down the streets in choreographed unison. The percussionists viciously banging on their instruments tail behind the colorful dancers as they stomp through the streets. Perhaps one of the most impressive feats is how the dancers manage to keep their massive peacock-like headdresses on as they twirl and lose themselves in the moment.
Special note has to go out to the children, waking up way earlier than anyone should be awake on a Sunday to dress themselves up and have a blast regardless of the hour. I frequently get told that I am the person that always lights up a dance floor and helps bring the party to life. My response to that is that you haven’t met nearly enough Filipinos. From watching this parade and especially the young children stealing the show more often than not, it is apparent that we are all literally just raised to be the life of the party everywhere we go.
It looks like even child soldiers can get grounded sometimes. Should’ve listened to his Nanay when she told him he wasn’t allowed to join any child armies. I can already feel the tsinelas marks on his butt from the inevitable spanking.
Because not even child soldiers are immune to the allure of cotton candy.
The festival was an incredible event to be at. Despite my jetlagged self groggily waking up at 4 AM after managing only one hour of sleep, the energy instantly brought me to life. I wearily went through the motions as I photographed the happenings but as soon as mass came to a close and the “VIVA KAY SEÑOR SANTO NIÑO” rang out from every direction, I felt myself becoming instantly alive. The drummers beat mercilessly on their drums as the tribes danced and stomped and shook the earth.
I know a party when I see one, and this was one hell of a party. I subconsciously took note of every foreigner that I saw there, a total of five. Although Philippine tourists might have been there in hordes, I was shocked that such an incredible event had still yet to be touched by the international tourism scene. For something off-the-beaten-path, this is a festival that you absolutely have to go to. Boracay can wait. Book your flight for January and explore the incredible of island of Panay in its entirety as you dance and drum and celebrate with the most welcoming and fun-loving people you will ever encounter.