Ati-Atihan Festival: All you need to know about the Philippines’ biggest fiesta

It’s 6 in the morning and Kalibo city’s roads are already filling up with enthusiastic people all dressed up for the big day ahead. The city is bedecked in colorful flags and the air is gradually filling with loud, rhythmic beats of drums beating in the distance. There are barely any cars to be seen in anticipation of the festivities scheduled for the day, but you can sense a storm brewing beneath the layer of calm. As you walk the streets to join the crowd, you realize, that who you are or where you’ve come from don’t really matter here. It’s a celebration of a unique culture and all that counts is how much fun you can have.

If there’s one fiesta in the Philippines that defines the country’s festival calendar, it has got to be the Ati-Atihan festival. Held every year in Kalibo city, Ati-Atihan is more than just a religious festival. A complete multi-sensory cultural extravaganza celebrating the Holy Santo Niño (the Infant Jesus), Ati-Atihan is considered to be the biggest fiesta in the entire country. And given that there is absolutely no dearth of fiestas in the Philippines, one can imagine how elaborate the Ati-Atihan must be for it to be named so!

But what is this festival all about? Should you attend it? And what should you expect if you are visiting Kalibo during the festival? If your mind is buzzing with such questions, this article is going to help demystify the Ati-Atihan festival for those eyeing the Philippines for the next festival season.

A little dose of history

Ati-Atihan Festival

A festival of this stature is bound to have legends and stories associated with its origin. One line of thought claims that the Ati-Atihan festival came into being when members of the local tribe, Aetas, gave shelter to the refugee members of the Datus tribe from the neighboring Borneo region. It is said that later, during a time of famine, the Datus tribe returned the favor and took in the Aetas to provide food and shelter. To celebrate the spirit of this friendship, the Ati-Atihan fiesta was born, the name of the festival literally meaning ‘to pretend or to be like the Aetas’. In the present day, participants of the Ati-Atihan festivities paint their faces black with soot in remembrance of the Aetas tribe and their generosity.

However, Ati-Atihan also harbors religious affiliations which came in much later, only after the Spanish colonial rule of the Philippines started. Thousands of local Filipinos converted to Christianity during this time and the Ati-Atihan festival saw cultural and religious traditions merge for the first time. Over the years, Ati-Atihan has also come to be associated with the Santo Niño (Infant/Baby Jesus) and a big part of the current celebrations revolve around paying respect to him.

Irrespective of whether these stories are true or not, there’s no denying that the Ati-Atihan brings people together and is one of the best depictions of the Philippines’ spirit! If this sounds like something you’d like to experience first-hand, read on to find out more about the fiesta.

The basics: Ati-Atihan timing and schedule

The Ati-Atihan celebrations are a week-long affair in Kalibo city, starting on the second Monday of January and finally culminating on the third Sunday of January every year. That one week witnesses the entire city turning into a massive party with thousands of locals, as well as visitors, coming out and celebrating on the streets. Although each day during the festival week is dedicated to a specific event or activity (street parade, pageant night, music concerts, street dancing, etc.), the final 2 days of the festival are considered to be most important. While the penultimate day (Saturday) witnesses a massive parade that begins at 4 in the morning, followed by a ritual of blessing children, the final day (Sunday) witnesses a religious procession along with the transfer of an image of Santo Nino to the St. John Baptist Cathedral.

Kalibo happens to be the only city where Ati-Atihan is celebrated. However, if you are unable to make it here but still want to get a taste of Filipino celebrations, the fiesta bearing the most resemblance to Ati-Atihan is the Sinulog festival of Cebu, celebrated on the third Sunday of January just like Ati-Atihan. Moreover, Sinulog is also a week-long fiesta to pay homage to the infant Jesus, so it’s a great opportunity to be a part of similar festivities even if you cannot make it to Kalibo.

Planning the logistics for the Ati-Atihan festival

The Ati-Atihan fiesta may seem all fun and games, but when it comes to planning the logistics for attending an event of this scale, advance preparation is a must. Keep in mind that the city attracts millions of people during this time of the year, so the only way you’ll find a place to stay is if you book your accommodation at least 4-6 months in advance. The earlier you book, the more choices you’ll have. It is also not surprising to find steeper accommodation and transportation rates in Kalibo during Ati-Atihan so be prepared to pay a premium price. When planning your trip here, also keep in mind that most hotels sell accommodation packages for 3 nights and 4 days. Hence it’s a good idea to book your stay first, get the dates confirmed and then book your flight or bus tickets to Kalibo. 

How to get to Kalibo

The most convenient way to reach Kalibo is to take a direct flight from Manila. If that’s not an option, another easy way to get to Kalibo is by flying to Caticlan, lying north of Kalibo and just south of Boracay island. From Caticlan, you can take a direct bus to Kalibo, a journey that takes only 45 minutes. Alternatively, if you happen to be in Boracay island already, you can also hop on a ferry and bus to reach Kalibo very easily.

Make the most of the Ati-Atihan fiesta

Ati-Atihan Festival, Kalibo

For the first-time festival-goer, Kalibo’s Ati-Atihan fiesta may seem a tad bit overwhelming with so much happening in that one week. Imagine seven days and nights of endless street parties, eating and drinking, music and dancing. So in order to make things easier for you, here’s a lowdown on the main events of the week and the activities you can expect to participate in.

Watch the parade of floats

The Ati-Atihan festival is the Philippines’ answer to the famous carnivals of Rio De Janeiro and the Parade of Floats is one of the most important events to take place during the festival week. Imagine thousands of people dressed in traditional tribal costumes, faces painted in black soot, marching through the streets of Kalibo, and you have a fairly accurate visual representation of the Ati-Atihan fiesta. The Parade of Floats and Tribes typically takes place on the first day of the festival and is meant to kick off the sequence of events that follow.

Participate in street dancing and music

Ati-Atihan Festival, Kalibo, Philippines

Filipino fiestas are all about embracing life and being free-spirited, and Ati-Atihan is no exception. The most prominent feature of the entire week of celebrations is definitely the street dance parties that take place all across the city. Accompanied by rhythmic drum beats and pumping music, this is where all the action happens! Brace yourself for the massive crowd, but once you do, let yourself have a little fun as you match steps with the local dancers.

Pay your respects at religious processions

A day before the festival finale, thousands of devout Catholics join the Dawn Penitential Procession that begins at the crack of dawn. The holy procession walks towards the Cathedral of St. John, while devotees pray on their way. This is followed by the transfer of a photo of the Santo Niño to the church on the final day of the Ati-Atihan festival. If you want to catch a little break from the regular festival celebrations, this is a good way to connect with the local community and witness a peaceful religious tradition.

Indulge in festive food and drinks

Filipino fiestas are incomplete with food. If you are attending the Ati-Atihan festival in Kalibo, head to the food festivals held all week at Pastrana Park and Magsaysay Park to taste delicious local dishes. Try traditional food items like Binakoe (chicken cooked in coconut milk) and Latik (a dessert made from glutinous rice, coconut, and sugar). A variety of drinks is also easy to find and most festival visitors can be found drinking some kind of alcohol while partying away to glory! 

Being the “mother of all Filipino festivals,” the Ati-Atihan definitely calls for a visit, so you can see how intricately woven these fiestas are with the local culture. And when you are in the Philippines, especially during a fiesta, it is safe to say that the party never stops. If this sounds like something you’d like to be a part of, plan your trip to the Philippines to coincide with the festival dates. How involved you get in the festival doesn’t really matter. Just be there for the good food and good vibes, if nothing else!

Chandrika Ghosh

Chandrika Ghosh

Full-time travel blogger & writer from India on a mission to live life on her own terms. Perpetually suffering from itchy feet syndrome. Can be found zoning out into the distance when not typing away on a laptop. Survival strategy - tea & coffee.
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