LOCATION The feast is held in Kalibo town on Panay Island, the Visayas island group, the Philippines

WHEN Ati-Atihan takes place in mid-January

ORIGINS First held in the 13th century as an indigenous festival and later influenced by the Spanish

POPULATION Kalibo: 62,000

Ati-Atihan, with its vibrant costumes and parades, is like carnival elsewhere in the world, only it’s much wilder. Here, the frenzied masses take to the streets in such an unruly free-for-all that the world’s best- known carnival celebrations seem quiet by comparison. The two-week-long shindig has non- Christian roots, but these days it is held in honor of the Christ Child, Santo Niño, who was introduced to the islanders by the Spanish in the 19th century.

A line of dancers wearing extraordinary tasseled costumes during Ati-Atihan, the Philippines
A line of dancers wearing extraordinary tasseled costumes during Ati-Atihan, the Philippines

Ati-Atihan’s distinguishing feature is that the revelers all paint their faces black. The story goes that in the 13th century, a band of roaming Malay tribesmen came to the island of Panay to escape from trouble in Borneo. Here they met the islanders, the Ati people, who gave them some land on which to live. Every year since then, the settlers have celebrated this act of generosity with an enormous feast, and by painting their faces black to look like the Ati people. The very name “Ati-Atihan” means “to be like an Ati.” Many indigenous Ati people still live on the island and join in the festivities every year.

Although Ati-Atihan takes place over two weeks in January, it isn’t until the last few days of the second week that the real party gets going.

Before then, the focus is on religious processions, art fairs, and theater performances, although significant ritual and ceremony is also evident during the three final days of mayhem. On the first of these days, locals worship Santo Niño in the cathedral in a formal and spiritual build-up to the partying, which is accompanied by deafening tribal drumming. Parades of Catholic and indigenous pagan iconography and dancers in stunning tribal costumes fill the streets, where percussion from road-side bands forms an endless, mesmeric soundtrack to events. It’s impossible not to want to join the dance.

At dawn the next day, a rosary procession and Mass are held before the cavorting on the streets gets under way again. And on the final day, the party reaches fever pitch when different tribal groups in lavish feather and leaf costumes take part in the parading competition. By this point in the proceedings, the party is so riotous that the impassioned revelers dance freely in and out of Kalibo Church. A torch-lit procession then leads everyone to Ati-Atihan’s grand finale – an elaborate masquerade ball. It’s easy to see why this colorful event has the motto Hala Bira, Puera Pasma, which means “Keep on going, no tiring.”

Practical Information

Getting There and Around Getting to the Philippines is easy enough by international flight to either Manila or Cebu airports. From Cebu it’s an easy ferry-boat ride to Kalibo and the festival island. Getting around Kalibo town during the festival will be mostly on foot (probably dancing!).

Daytime Temperature 82°F (28°C) during Ati-Atihan.

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