Fiesta with Berta & Andrew: Dinagyang Festival
Hello! Maayu nga aga! Can you guess what that means? That’s ‘good morning’ in Hiligaynon, the very musical language they speak in the province of Iloilo in the Visayas. We have just enjoyed a few days of music and dancing in their version of the Aklan Ati-atihan: the Dinagyang Festival.
We can’t wait for you to see what fun we had in Dinagyang. But before that, we’d like to tell you the tale of how Dinagyang came to be, according to one tourist guide we met in the streets of Iloilo:
Unlike Ati-atihan and Sinulog, Dinagyang’s history is fairly young. It all started in 1967 when a replica of the miraculous Santo Niño of Cebu was brought to Iloilo. The Ilonggos happily received the replica and welcomed the people from Cebu with festivities and parading through the streets.
Two years later, the celebration of the coming of the icon became a full-fledged revelry that had tribes of Ati-atihan dancers in costumes. By then, the celebration had been pattered to the Cebu Sinulog Festival and was named ‘Iloilo Ati-atihan.’ In 1974, it extended to become a community party with the audience encouraged to dance on the streets.
By 1977, Iloilo Ati-atihan was renamed Dinagyang Festival. ‘Dinagyang’ means ‘merry-making’ in Hiligaynon. Today, Dinagyang is a very big and much looked-out festival in Visayas, rivaling Ati-atihan and Sinulog in spectacle and scale.
Dinagyang Festival happens every year in Iloilo City. Most of the events happen in schools and in the San Jose Parish Church. The major events meanwhile happen on the streets around the city on a pre-assigned route. We had to print out a schedule from the event’s website so that we could better prepare for the bigger events. Our advice if you’re going to Dinagyang next year is to get a schedule before heading to Iloilo, or visit their local tourism office.
Iloilo is quite a beautiful city with many surviving Spanish-era buildings. Iloilo is also blessed to have churches with their own unique designs, making the city a go-to destination in Visayas. Iloilo is very accessible by direct flight in the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
Dinagyang lasts more than a week so there are tonnes of things that happen there. Everything happens during these days of celebration! There will be masses, fashion shows, medical missions, food programmes for kids, food fests, film showing, talent contests, parties and a fireworks display. Shopping malls like Robinson’s and SM will have their own events.
As a way of thanking Cebu for sharing their Sinulog legacy, there will be some days that will be devoted to the story of the Santo Niño of Cebu and the conversion of the early Cebuanos. There will also be a fluvial parade and a procession of the Santo Niño. The culmination of Dinagyang is the Santo Niño procession and the Ati-atihan contest which happen on different days. We suggest booking in for a few days on the biggest events of Dinagyang way, way ahead of time to make sure there will still be free rooms in hotels!
Good thing we arrived a few days before the main events because we got to participate in a food festival by a hotel organisation here in the city. The seafood is to die for in this part of the country! We had great ones in Manila, but it seems like seafood in Iloilo tastes fresher, are bigger and therefore much more delectable!
Some Ilonggo delicacies to look out for are everyone’s favourite chicken barbecue called ‘inasal,’ ‘diwal’ or a kind of rare scallop and the food we have been told to look out for since leaving Manila: the famous noodle soup la paz batchoy. Ahhh! They were heaven to eat!
Do not miss this if you’re a foodie! We recommend it because it’s a chance to sample what types of food and tastes the Ilonggo people love. Food is a very important part of understanding a culture, and since the hotels and restaurants will be competing with each other, we were also sure this was the right time to taste the best of the best in Iloilo!
We have to give it to Iloilo, they know how to start the main festivities right! The Opening Salvo of the festival involves thousands of drums playing at the same time on the streets. The drummers are students from the many schools of the city.
It was awesome! The place was loud and we bet the rest of Iloilo province heard the beat of the drums banging all at the same time! The effect was immediate on the crowd: jumping, dancing and shouting. We didn’t feel our bodies ache at all because the joy of the audience watching the show and dancing to the drummers was very contagious.
The drummers were then followed by a lyre band that played some catchy tunes the Filipino crowd was very familiar with. We followed the parade from the centre of town up to the grandstand. There was considerable walking — good thing we didn’t forget to put on our SPFs for sun protection!
‘Hala bira!’ and ‘Viva Senyor Santo Niño!’ are also shouted at the Ati-atihan dance competition on Sunday, so it was a good thing we practiced before going to Dinagyang! The dancers here competed as ati tribes, so they were covered with soot to get darker skin. They also wore warrior costumes and had weapons and shields. But the dance groups made sure to add the religious side of the festival with their own depictions of the 1st Santo Niño dance in Cebu.
The costumes here are crazy. The point is to use indigenous materials, and the tribes are able to showcase great colours and spectacular props while executing their dance moves with energy. There was really no best and worst for us… everyone was amazing to watch!
We were more of spectators than dancers during the whole of Dinagyang. But we were instant foodies during our few days’ stay in Iloilo… we’re already missing so much of the bountiful and unique street food that we encountered there!
But kidding aside, it was amazing to see Iloilo make the most out of this year’s Dinagyang. The same goes to the Aklanons and Cebuanos in their own festivals. They truly gave it their all in spite of the losses they had after typhoon Yolanda. I think that their energy and their willingness to celebrate shows a kind of Filipino spirit we have never really seen so much in the countries where we came from: resilience to stand up again and the optimism to smile and feel blessed.
Our experiences in the three Santo Niño fiestas of Visayas are something we would not soon forget. They taught us to mingle with people, to speak the language and eat their food, to be happy and celebrate every blessing and to respect culture and tradition.
We hope our experience will encourage you to visit the Philippines someday to the biggest Santo Niño fiestas of Visayas: Ati-atihan of Aklan, Sinulog of Cebu and Dinagyang of Iloilo. We guarantee you won’t regret it. Until then…
See you in our next adventure!