EVEN before the Sinulog or Dinagyang festivals became famous, there was already the Ati-Atihan. I think most of the recent festivals in the Philippines were all developed with the Ati-Atihan as the prototype. The beating of the drums, the dance steps and the costumes are all patterned after the festival that started in Kalibo.
There are many versions as to how the Ati-Atihan festival started, but most of them point to the original people of Aklan – the Ati – that had fought hard against invaders.
The ancient town of Kalibo is said to be established during the 13th Century when Malayan settlers arrived from Borneo. They found the island inhabited by aboriginal Aetas or Atis, and soon, after several bloody encounters, they finally were able to befriend the natives. For several centuries, Malayan settlers were able to co-exist peacefully with the native Atis.
When the Spaniards arrived in the island, they saw the need to convert the locals to Christianity. They officiated the baptism of one thousand (isa ca livo) inhabitants. The conversion was warmly celebrated by the natives with feast and thunderous sound of the local drums. Soon, the new settlement became known as Calivo, after the one thousand inhabitants who became the first Christians in the island.
And so it became a tradition to commemorate the conversion to Christianity every January during the Feast of the Infant Jesus or Santo Nino. To show harmony with the original Atis, the local settlers paint their faces and bodies with soot and join in the merriment.
According to Aklaenon literature, “It is said that a devotee comes to the Ati-Atihan in a symbolic act of faith. A little soot is painted on the skin, face and other parts of the body which symbolizes a person beginnings, a little blemish [or sin]upon his person. As he joins the dancing, merriment and revelry throughout the day, the soot continually build-up as other people adds more and more [symbolizing influence and life], as the day end one enters the church [soot and all]to be blessed during the Thanksgiving Mass.”
Don’t expect getting to Kalibo, particularly during the Ati-Atihan weekend, to be easy. Local residents and tourists usually make arrangements months in advance to get there. Still, it is worth exploring all possible options to go to Kalibo to celebrate one of the country’s most colorful festivals.
The quickest way to get there is to fly there via the Kalibo International Airport. There are several regular flights daily from Manila and Cebu to Kalibo. International tourists can also come directly to Kalibo from China, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan. The city
proper is three kilometers from the airport. Take a tricycle (fare is P100) to go to the city proper.
An alternative is to take a bus from Cubao to Kalibo. There are several Iloilo-bound Ceres Bus that make a brief stop in Kalibo. The land-sea travel via bus and ro-ro (roll-on, roll-off) boat takes between 14 to 16 hours.
It is also possible to go by boat to Kalibo via the Dumaguit Port in New Washington. There used to be a direct boat from Manila to Dumaguit, but this was discontinued. But Dumaguit is still served by a ro-ro boat from Batangas. Travel time is eight hours. From Dumaguit, it takes 20 minutes to reach Kalibo.
Those who wish to combine a visit to Kalibo with a few days of enjoying the sun and sea of Boracay can take a plane to Caticlan and take a van or a bus to Kalibo. Travel time from Caticlan is about an hour and a half.
What to see, what to do
They say the Ati-Atihan is both tribal and religious, both loud and solemn. So expect everything to be unexpected. Visitors to this festival must be ready for anything.
For the solemn side, there is the nine-day Novena held everyday until the High Mass on the last day of the festival. There is also the Paeapak, a unique tradition where a Catholic priest rubs parts of the devotee’s body with the image of the Santo Nino. And finally, there is the High Mass on the last day where the image of the Santo Nino de Aklan is transferred back to the Cathedral. After the High Mass comes the simultaneous beating of the drums. This is said to be Aklaenos’ own way of professing their love for the Santo Nino.
Days before the grand parade are small parades, sort of like teasers. Called Sadsad Panaad, each group or tribe roams around the city performing its own beats and dances. Come grand parade day, they all come together in colorful costumes, their faces and bodies covered with black soot, chanting and dancing to the beat of the drums, shouting “Hala Bira!” and “Viva Santo Nino!” The dancing usually starts in the morning and lasts up to midnight.
And the dancing and the chanting are not only for the locals. Tourists are expected to participate as well. So, choose your tribe well. Come in your most exotic costume, have your face painted in black and join the crowd as they dance around the streets of Kalibo.
There is also several trade fairs held in front of the Kalibo church. It is the best place to shop for Aklaenon products made from abaca, pinya (pineapple), banana chips, dried fish, among others. The nearby Aklan Museum is a good source for information about the history and culture of this province.
Where to stay, what to eat
The best way to get a place to stay in Kalibo during Ati-Atihan week is to stay with friends or relatives. Otherwise, you have to make early arrangements with the very limited lodging places around the city.
For those who can afford, there’s the Agzam Spa and Resort and the Dona Crispina Beach Resort and Hotel. In nearby New Washington, the Sampaguita Garden offers accommodations in mini-theme park setting.
For budget and mid-range accommodations, there’s the Airport Line Inn, La Esperanza Hotel, Beachcomber Inn and Kalibo Queens Hotel.
As there are now 24/7 boat transfers between Caticlan and Boracay, many tourists now choose to stay in Boracay instead after visiting Kalibo.
Dining in Kalibo is mostly on Aklaenos favorites like chicken inasal and their own version of bachoy. But for the more adventurous one, there is the fresh talaba (oysters) that are available in most local eateries.
No matter where you stay or what you eat, the best part of your experience is taking part in the Ati-Atihan. It is a festival like no other.