FFE Magazine

Fiesta with Berta & Andrew: Ati-atihan Festival

Hala bira! We know that isn’t the right welcome greeting for you, but we’ve been hearing and shouting it so much the past few days we couldn’t get enough of saying it!


Guess where we have been to this week? It’s a big island in the Visayas and apart from the festivals it’s also known around the world for this one fantastic white sand beach… Panay Island, specifically in the town of Kalibo in Aklan!





The Ati-atihan Festival is both a religious and non-religious celebration that happens every year. The tricycle driver we hired there told us that they do the festival each year in the name of the child Jesus or Santo Niño, which is in St John the Baptist Cathedral. Another local was so kind to point out that Ati-atihan goes back even farther, to the 13th century at the time when Panay natives or ati had contact with chieftains or datu from Borneo.


The ati and the people of the datu had a few clashes at first. But desiring to live in harmony with the natives, the datu asked for peace. The ati and the people of the datu celebrated the peace pact they made and, as a sign of their sincerity, the people of the datu painted their faces and body with soot to match the ati who had darker skin.


The legend opened our eyes to the many unique things we saw during the days of festivities in town: the crazy, epic costumes, the infectious mood of joy, the praise for the Santo Niño. We thought this was a wonderful backstory for a very lively and colourful celebration.




Kalibo is the capital town of Aklan province. It isn’t a city yet, but it’s progressive. It has shopping malls, but not big ones like SM or Ayala. We thought that the number of tourists visiting the festival really helped boost the town.


To get to Kalibo from Manila, simply take a direct flight from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Kalibo is a major tourist destination because of the festival and because of Boracay Island, so it’s fairly accessible to reach.


What happens?

The Ati-atihan festival has grown from a 2-day affair to a full blown week-long festivity that includes many contests and events. But the main events of the festival are the two days of dancing that usually falls on the Saturday and Sunday, third week of January.



During the Saturday dance, many ‘tribes’ will go neck and neck as they try to out-manoeuver each other in the Ati-atihan street dancing contest. There are four categories here, so there are plenty of competing groups and individuals to watch! This means lots of time standing, walking and craning the neck to catch a glimpse of the bright costumes and daring moves of the competitors. There is no stage or platform — everything happens on the streets. Be warned: wear your most comfortable shoes!



During the Sunday parade, the tribes will have a religious procession that ends in front of the cathedral. The whole procession is actually a festive dance and what’s great about this one is that even tourists can dance along with the tribes to the beat of the mighty drums. There will be a mass in the name of the Santo Niño afterward.




The Costumes


Ati-atihan is truly a feast for the eyes! Every tribe is worth looking at because each participant has taken a lot of thought on how they assembled their costumes. We couldn’t imagine how they managed to dance with metres-high head gear! Actually, the tribes are supposed to resemble warriors, so some have weapons like spears and shields. We really couldn’t choose a favourite among all the tribes because everyone did an amazing job with their costume!




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