The Ati-Atihan Festival in Kalibo, Aklan on the island of Panay is, according to many, the “Mother of all Festivals in the Philippines” honouring the Santo Niño in the Visayas Region. Held annually in the first month of the year, like the Sinulog in Cebu and Dinagyang in Iloilo, it ends on the third Sunday with lots of celebrations in the form of eating, drinking, parades with street dancing in colourful costumes and / or painted faces to the beat of the drums all day and a good part of the night. The name Ati-Atihan means “to be like Atis”, the name of the Aeta natives (a Negrito ethnic group) who first settled in Panay and other parts of the country.
One story of the festival’s origin dates to 1200 A.D when ten Malay chieftains (Datus) were granted settlement by the Ati people and to honour their darker-skinned compatriots the Datus smeared their faces with soot to resemble them. The other story starts with the chief minister of one of the Datu’s forging a deal with the natives and buying their land in exchange for brass, cloth and jewellery. The Ati’s then moved up to the mountains. However, they were forced to return to the lowlands after a very bad harvest. In exchange for food and being allowed to stay they danced and sang for the Datus. Same elements but two very different stories. The religious element came in many years later when the Spanish missionaries arrived and introduced Christianity and to this day Ati-Atihan is celebrated as a religious festival.
Sunday merrymaking kicks-off with a mass at 7.00am and right after, the first sadsad panaad starts, a street dancing competition between the Ati tribes only while other revellers get to stay around to enjoy the dancing and bright native costumes on parade. The festivities restart in the mid-afternoon with another sadsad open for everyone and anyone to join. Ati-Atihan has been nicknamed, “The Filipino Mardi Gras” and can also be described among other commonly heard words like fun, crazy, wild, and colourful as well as informal, disorganized and all-inclusive. This peculiar characteristic is probably what makes it so attractive in the first place. It is also quite normal to be approached by strangers offering you alcohol. Regardless of the ammounts of alcohol involved (most locals will say that it is the one time when everyone can drink in excess, in public, without being frowned upon), it is really worth saying that there were mostly positive vibes and no fighting.
Finding accommodations during the week-long celebrations itself could be an absolute nightmare as hotels, hostels, inns and pensions are all booked months in advance. If you find yourself planning last minute, ask local friends from Kalibo to help you ask around as their neighbours, relatives or friends might be renting out spare rooms during those days. You might also like Roz and Angelique’s Inn & Suites, Marzon Hotel, Papierus Pensionne, or Ati-Atihan Festival Hotel. Most places take advantage of the influx of local and foreign guests though by publishing higher rates so one way to avoid this by booking ahead of time.
Since getting around can be quite difficult during the festivities you must try to plan meal times as well and check out restaurants some distance from the plaza where everyone congregates (in the case you don’t end up eating at a local resident’s home). Otherwise if you don’t mind eating at fast food places which will be overflowing with people looking for a quick bite. It’s quite easy to eat something “light” on the streets as there are tons of corn, peanuts, and refreshment vendors either walking about or with stands. Some offer delicacies like deep fried cow intestines.
It is apparent that more than a few things have been modernized through the year like the choice of playing pop music or dressing up the Sto. Niño in different costumes. It also begs asking: When did the practice of carrying statues of baby Jesus while drinking or being drunk begin? Has it always been like that? On the flip side, there is something uniquely Filipino that is ever present even during Ati-Atihan – it is the hospitality and openness of the people (in this case the Aklanons) which is most specially felt when a complete stranger can be invited to their homes to partake of food and drinks. It doesn’t really matter that they just met you in the streets that very day. It can also be said, how amazing it is, that a feast which is at least 800 years old is still celebrated this way today. At the end of the day, each person’s experience is unique and therefore you decide what takeaways you have from Ati-Atihan.
Hala Bira! Viva kay Señor Sto. Niño!