The beat of the drum is intoxicating as you pace and sway to the music around the streets surrounding Pastrana Park, the central point of the celebration. I have been told that it is the 5th day that different tribes from the city have converged in the area to continuously drum up the beat in preparation for a massive celebration. I found it funny and exciting that the festive atmosphere was just a prelude to a bigger celebration. With the different bands playing to different tunes, you get to choose where to dance and how to dance. The beat gets into your system and you get to feel Kalibo embracing you with it rhythm.
Welcome to the famous Ati-Atihan Festival!
The city seemed unassuming when I arrived in Kalibo after a two hour land trip from Roxas City. It seemed that the city was not in the middle of its festivities. Unlike my previous trips to Iloilo for their Dinagyang and Cebu for its Sinulog, Kalibo did not have the festive music that was booming from every city corner. The only indication of the celebration was my excitement to be part of the festivities.
Kalibo was once known as "Akean" , similar to the name of the river that runs within its jurisdiction, until it was renamed in reference to the thousand native Ati who attended the first Catholic Mass in Akean. Kalibo is popular because of two things - it is a cheaper entry point for those headed to the famous island of Boracay and for its Ati-Atihan Festival.
The famed Ati-Atihan Festival of Kalibo is recognized as the Mother of all Festivals in the Philippines and is the oldest festival in the country which dates back to the year 1212. It is celebrated with a 7-day streetdancing, rain or shine, in honor of the Santo Nino. Revelers smudge themselves with soot to dance along the streets of the city while offering prayers and thanksgiving. The festival culminates with a grand procession and street dancing where the different tribes in the city don their colorful Ati costumes and converge into one festive celebration while trying to outshine each other in a friendly competition.
The tempo of the city changed as we headed to the center of the festivities, We started to hear the rolling beat of the drums as we got closer to ground zero. People were having a drink , dancing to the beat, and were just in a festive mood. It was evident that the smiles and rythm would soon get into our system and e would soon be part of the city's beat.
Saint John the Baptist Cathedral
At the heart of the celebration is the Saint John the Baptist Cathedral. Built in the 1804, the church was named in honor of John the Baptist, however, it is more popularly known as the home of the revered image of the Santo Nino to which the Ati-Atihan is celebrated in honor of.
The massive structure with its simple facade is a beautiful sight at the center of the city. The cathedral, with its adjacent belfry, stands watching over the revelers on the street while providing sanctuary to those in prayer inside the church. Interestingly, there are two old large bells on display at its courtyard.
The interior of the cathedral is also simple with the its golden retablo as its highlight. Simple as it may seem, the church mirrors the simple and yet joyful celebration outside he church.
As mass was being held inside the sanctuary, the beating of the drums keep rolling outside. At this point, the distinct Ati-Atihan sound gets into you. You start to get tipsy with the sound that you then start swaying to the beat. At this point, you know that there is no stopping the beat. You just know that there will be more dancing along the way.
As the evening draws near, you will find yourself in middle of a sea of dancing people, both locals and tourists. You feel the energy of the festivities rising and you start to feel the unique reverberating vibe of the Ati-Atihan. You know what is coming and you start to feel that there is no point holding back. So you grab a beer and start getting deeper into the Ati rhythm.
Pastrana Park is a huge plaza standing right across the church. This is where most people and business converge during the celebration. I could imagine that the place is where most locals spend their afternoons just enjoying a lazy afternoon with kids running around while parents mill on the latest stories in town. The plaza has a lot of monuments that honor local heroes. It is an indication of how the city values its history. At the center of it is a stage where most city celebrations culminate.
Pastrana Park is busiest during the Ati-Atihan celebration. It is one of the venues in the city where activities, booths, and concerts are set up. It is also the center of the drumbeats, literally, because all tribes converge to walk around the streets surrounding the park. You can expect to see a lot of spectators along its edge watching the festivities. In the end, it was hard to JUST be a spectator. You have got to join the fun and the beat of the Ati-Atihan.
Kapitan Gil Mijares Building
I was enjoying the flare of the festivities. I mean, who wouldn't be enticed to join the street dancing with the smiles being passed around, not to mention the rhythm. You simply feel the excitement of the crowd that surrounds you and the next thing you know... you do not just sway with the music, your body starts to jiggle with the festive beat.
As I was stomping my feet to the pulsating beat with a group of locals, I noticed a historical marker installed at the Kalibo Police Station. I stopped to have a taste of history. The building was once the old Tribunal of Kalibo. It is one of the three historic buildings by the city center which includes the Kalibo Cathedral and the building that houses the Museo it Akean.
The building was later named after Kapitan Gil Mijares, a World War 2 Akeanon hero. Mijares served the guerilla movement against the Japanese and was later captured by the opponent. Despite being subjected to torture, he did not reveal crucial information about the arrival of American submarines. This resulted to his untimely death under the hands of its captors.
Museo It Akean
The sound of the drums beckoned me to head back to the street and continue my dancing. I bumped into a local who was oiled in black soot all over, dancing. It is a practice during the festival to dress up like an Ati. At the height of the festivities, you can expect to be smudged with soot or paint colors or to be offered a drink from a total stranger. You just simply have to let go, have fun, and just keep dancing on the street.
As we went around dancing by the streets surrounding Pastrana Park, another commanding structure stood out in the area – the Museo it Akean. It is the repository of Aklan’s valuable artifacts that outlines the rich history and culture of the province. The building in itself is valuable historically. It is the oldest structure in the area as the original structure was built in 1882. It was initially established as a school for the locals of Kalibo – Escuelahan it Hari (School of the King). It served as a trial court, a warehouse, an auditorium, and a garrison before being converted into a museum. Unfortunately, the museum was closed because of the celebration so I was not able to explore its exhibit.
Aklan Provincial Capitol
The rhythm of the festival was intoxicating and, as the evening rolled in, you know that the party was getting to the next level. At this point, the pocket concerts and parties in different venues start to gather heat. One thing that stood out for me was that most of these concerts highlight the local talents of the city or the province instead of the usual artists or bands from Manila.
To cap off our first Ati-Atihan night, we decided to head off to check out the party that was being held in front of the Aklan Provincial Capitol. The capitol building is the seat of power for the province of Aklan after its declaration as an independent province in 1956. The massive structure of the capitol building was a great backdrop to a great evening party. The party was at its peak when we arrived and the music, albeit more modern, was just an extension of the festivities with more dancing.
The rain did not even dampen the excitement of the festivities on our second day. Everyone was in an upbeat mood despite the continuous light rains and the occasional moderate rains. The energy from everyone was just overflowing as we manoeuvred our way to the city center. We dropped by a small store to buy raincoats as we anticipated that things will probably get wet through the day. Interestingly, the “pwera pasma” phrase means to avoid getting sick through the 7-day street dancing festival, be it rain or shine. So true to its nature, we were treated to a colourful street spectacle that spoke of Akeanon’s faith.
The drumbeats once again filled the air as tribes, donning their colourful costumes, from different areas danced the main streets of Kalibo. The dancing was more formal this time as there are judging areas scattered in the city where a jury selects the best represented tribes. But unlike most festivals in the Philippines, you can get a face-to-face encounter with the Ati-Atihan tribes. You also get the chance to dance with them.
The rhythm of the Ati-Atihan Festival gets into you again as you feast on the mirage of colors and movements from the tribes. The colors of the festival are vibrant that it brought sunshine despite the rains that was drenching both participants and visitors. The street dancing was void of lavish and well-thought choreography. The steps are simple – participants, even guests, simply dance how the music makes you feel like dancing.
The “Sadsad” is actually a prayer in the form of dancing. Most of the participants in the street dancing do it to show their devotion to the Santo Nino so do not expect a show that will impress you. The simplicity in itself will impress you. So it is not a surprise that when you try to get close up shots of its participants, most of them will not even break into a smile. They are in prayer.
I was impressed with a lot of their colourful costumes which were made from recycled materials. The intricate designs are really thought of for both group and individual categories. The Vikings Tribe is one of my favorite because of their intricate purple costume but it was the Black Beauty Boys Tribe that brought home the grand prize, bringing home the prize for 7 times in a row.
Bakhawan Eco Park: A Breather from the Ati-Atihan Beat
Taking a breather from the pulsating drumbeats and from the non-stop dancing, we decided to visit the Bakhawan Eco Park in New Buswang. It is a 220-hectare mangrove forest that was a product of a reforestation project that started in 1990 by the local government of Kalibo. The project that stemmed from efforts to prevent flooding in the community did not only serve its purpose but has also been a source of livelihood for its locals and a tourist attraction. It is regarded as the most successful reforestation project in the country.
At the heart of the mangrove forest is a bamboo wooden trail that leads you deep into the forest. It has a total length of 1.3 kilometers that will give you a serene walk in the midst of mangrove trees. You will find pens where crabs, clams, and fish are allowed to grow and multiply. Small resting spots were also installed for those who want to take a break or if you want to just sit still and be one with nature.
You will be treated with and amazing and tranquil view of the sea at the end of the trail. You can relax by the wooden benches to simply enjoy the view and the sea breeze. It is a very relaxing spot. There are a number of activities that you can do for a minimal fee. There is also a restaurant where you can get refreshments while relaxing by the sea.
You can also set up camp in the eco-park if you want to spend a night there.
One of the things that I prepared myself for was the Tamilok taste test. Tamilok is a mollusc found inside rotting mangroves and is a delicacy in the Philippines. I did not miss the chance to try it out which they say tastes like oysters. So for a Php300 fee, I got the chance to see a demonstration on how it is harvested by the locals and the chance to taste it after the demo.
The Tamilok is harvested from a rotting mangrove bark. It is cracked open to expose these mollusc. You can find a lot of it inside one bark and they die once they are exposed to air. Our “manong” would then take the head and tail off, clean it with water, and then would put the Tamilok into a small bowl of vinegar with spices. That is when you take a piece straight into your mouth.
Tamilok tastes okay. It is not something that I would crave for but it is good. It tastes a little like oysters but it is sweeter to the palate. It is good that I munched on two more but not that great for me to finish everything. But it is one experience that you should not miss.
Entrance Fee: Php150
Viva Senor Santo Nino!
The Ati-Atihan celebration culminates on the third Sunday of January. Most locals would term it as “fiesta”. Unlike previous days, the city of Kalibo is now abuzz in every corner. Major streets are cordoned off from traffic because this is the route of the afternoon “prusisyon”. While most of the city’s guests are dressed down, the locals dress up for the day’s event. The city is exuding a lot of excitement and energy as it was the culmination day of their week-long celebration.
The plaza is more vibrant with more dancing. All participating tribes, in full costume, are converging at the plaza together with other groups who are not part of the competition. Marching bands are everywhere drumming up the celebration. You will see individuals, even families, in costumes of different kinds going around in merry festivities clutching the image of the Santo Nino. Different sizes of the Santo Nino image is paraded around Pastrana Park.
This is when I realized that the Ati-Atihan Festival is not a festival that is out to please its guests. It is a festival that focuses on the faith and the belief of the Akeanons. Guests are encouraged to join the festivities as a local and you are treated like a local.
As the festivities in the plaza bursts out of its seams, the celebration spills out to the streets of the city. We gamely danced with one of the tribes as we followed them snaking out of the streets of the city.
By the afternoon, the culmination of the celebration rolls in to more dancing and music as a huge procession snakes around the main thoroughfares of the city. Unlike other processions where it is usually enveloped with solemnity, Kalibo does it with a different flare. It is a festive celebration with drumbeats, drinking, laughter, and dancing. The procession is participated by Ati-Atihan street dancers, local groups and organizations, and families. You will see different images of the revered Santo Nino being paraded down the streets in a sea of merry making.
The best way to enjoy it is to chug along the procession in joyous dancing and merry-making, not to mention that it will also allow you to see some of the historical landmarks of this city.
19 Martyrs of Aklan
Along 19 Martyrs Street, you will find a historical site that was a silent witness to the brutality of Spanish forces. 19 Filipino patriots was killed on this site on March 23, 1897 because they fought for our freedom by cooperating with the Katipunan.
Akeanons are made to remember this event through a special holiday on the same day to commemorate the patriotism of these martyrs.
Aklan Freedom Monument
A few blocks from the site is the Aklan Freedom Monument – a monument that honors the 19 fallen Aklan martyrs. The main highlight of the park is a Filipino freedom fighter on a horse with a gun on hand and a Philippine flag draped beside it. The shrine also bears the names of the martyrs.
Golden Sarok Shrine
Further down the road is the Golden Sarok Shrine, a prominent landmark in Kalibo. The structure that is present is a new one after the first one was demolished earlier on. The arch was built to honor the rich history of the city from pre-Spanish times to the present. It also bears the word that completely describes this city in Aklan – “Vibrant Kalibo”.
Post Travel Notes
The Ati-Atihan Festival of Kalibo trumps all other Philippine festivals when we talk about street dancing. Akeanons totally defines street dancing and totally slays it. One thing that makes the festival unique is that it does not dress to impress its guests. You enjoy the festivities by being part of the dancing just like how the locals celebrate it. It is a festival that is celebrated by the locals and the only way to really experience it to the fullest is to be one with the locals. The rhythm of the drumbeats is intoxicating that you would eventually find yourself in the middle of the celebration.
On a side note, Kalibo is a place that rich in nature’s bounty and history. I have grown accustomed to Kalibo being a city of transit for those going or leaving Boracay and my Ati-Atihan weekend gave me a different perspective of Kalibo. It is a city teeming with history and unassuming beauty, not to mention a gastronomic heaven. The city is worth your time to explore and a quick foodtrip.
I strongly recommend that you visit or set aside a day, on your next Boracay trip, to explore the beauty and its deep devotion to the Santo Nino that makes Akeanons dance and shout during the Ati-Atihan – the Mother of all Philippine Festival.
Hala Bira! Pwera Pasma! Viva Senor Santo Nino!
Getting There: Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific Air, and Air Asia have regular daily flights to Kalibo from Manila, Cebu, and selected Asian countries. Regional carriers also offer direct flights to the city.
Marc del Rosario
I believe in education, entrepreneurship, and caring for the environment.