ILOILO’S rich and colorful history is said to have started over 850 years ago.
According to Maragtas, a legendary account of the Pre-Spanish Panay Island, during the Hindu-Malay Empire of Sri-Vijaya in 1250, ten datus lead by Datu Puti left the island of Borneo to escape the cruelty of Sultan Makatunaw. They brought with them their families, warriors and slaves, supplies, their earthly belongings and prized possessions, and sailed north in their balangays (boat) without any specific destination in mind.
After sailing for many days, they reached this rich land where fruits grew abundantly on trees and the surrounding sea was full of fishes, and best of all, it was far from the hands of Sultan Makatunaw.
It was on this southern tip of Panay Island where the northern wind had brought them. On the mouth of the Siwaragan River, near the present town of San Joaquin, they met an Ati fisherman. This man took them to their ruler, King Marikudo and Queen Maniwantiwan. The datus told the king they came in peace, and that would like to buy lands in the island. The King consulted his wife and the elders in the village, and they finally agreed to sell some piece of land to them. The purchase price consisted of a golden salakot for King Marikudo and a long gold sumangyad or necklace for Queen Maniwantiwan. The sale was sealed by a pack of friendship, and followed by a feast and merry-making.
Seven of the datus settled into the island of Panay. One datu, Paiburong, travelled northeast and reached a new territory at a mouth of a mighty river and called it Irong-Irong.
I don’t know whether this story is true or not, but whenever visitors come to Iloilo during the Dinagyang Festival, the same merriment and festivities will be afforded to them by the Ilongos, many are probably coming from long line of the friendly Malays who came with the 10 datus centuries before, throwing several days of partying to commemorate the friendship pact with the Atis.
How to get there
The easiest way to go to Iloilo is to fly from Manila, Cebu, Cagayan de Oro, Davao, General Santos and Puerto Pricesa. There are also regular international flight from Hong Kong and Singapore. The New Iloilo International Airport is located in Cabatuan, Iloilo, 19 kilometers northwest of Iloilo City. Taxi fare from airport to city proper is around P400.
Another alternative is to take a roll-on roll-off (RORO) bus from Cubao to Iloilo. Travel time is 18 hours and fare is around P1,000.
What to see, what to do
There is one attraction in Iloilo that brings over a million people every year to celebrate its unique heritage. This is the Dinagyang Festivial, which is held every third weekend of January every year.
It started in 1968 as an activity of the Parish of San Jose, when it received a replica of the image of Santo Niño from Cebu. To welcome the image at the airport, the faithful led by the members of Cofradia del Santo Niño de Cebu–Iloilo Chapter, worked to give the image a fitting reception by parading it down the streets of Iloilo. The Cofradia patterned the celebration on the Ati-Atihan of Ibajay, Aklan, where the natives dance in the streets, their bodies covered with ashes and soot, to simulate the Atis dancing following the sale of Panay to the 10 Bornean datus. The image of Santo Niño was added in the dancing to symbolize another significant event: the baptism of the locals during the coming of the Spaniards.
The Dinagyang usually starts on Friday, with a fluvial procession along Iloilo River. Devotees carrying the images of Santo Niño ride in bancas at the mouth of the river, until they reach the pier area near San Jose Church, where the procession would continue on foot until it reaches the church.
On a Saturday, a cultural parade called Kasadyaan showcasing the colors of the many festivals around Panay Island is held.
On the Dinagyang Sunday, the main event takes place. Starting with a mass at the San Jose Church, the participants pay tribute to Senor Santo Niño. With several tribes competing for the grand prize, each group has to perform in four staging areas, and walk over five kilometers with heavy costumes and bodies painted with ashes and soot for over 10 hours.
The spectators are treated to a spectacle of colors, to a dazzling vision of almost a hundred dancers gyrating to the beat of the drums.
Aside from Dinagyang, there are many other attractions in Iloilo City. Within the city, two churches dominate the landscape: the Molo Church (1831) that is a fine example of Gothic-Romanesque architecture and called “Church of Women” because of the presence of 16 women saints inside; and the Jaro Cathedral (1864) where the only rose among of the statues of male saints is the image of the Nuestra Senora de Candelaria.
Around Jaro district are rows of houses built during the turn of the 20th century, when sugar barons and their families exported this precious commodity to the rest of the world. In the old Villa de Arevalo, there are still some old houses that continue to produce limited numbers of hand-made and hand-embroidered fabrics made of sinamay, jusi and piña.
Along J. Basa Street in the old downtown, art deco buildings from the 1920s to 1930s still stand side-by-side with new and modern concrete structures.
It is also worth checking the modern structures around the city, like the newly-built Iloilo Convention Center and the Riverside Esplanade.
Where to stay, what to eat
There are several new hotels like the Richmond, The Courtyard by Marriot and Seda built last year in time for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit. They are new additions to business hotels like Business Inn and Smallville.
But for those on a budget, there are still many pension houses in the old district where one can get an air-conditioned room for two for P1,000. Be warned though the Dinagyang is the city’s peak season for tourists, so be sure to book in advance.
For dining, the city is a food-lover’s paradise. Breakthrough and Tatoy’s are best known for their fresh seafood dishes. However, there’s one dish that every visitor must try – the Iloilo batchoy! This traditional beef noodle soup has been transformed into a unique concoction of meat and innards, chicharon, different varieties of noodles, vegetables and soup stock with a twist of a little sugar and bagoong. It must have been Chinese in origin, but the batchoy is truly and distinctively Ilonggo.