Ati-Atihan in Kalibo: Boogey-ing and Rocking to its Raucous Beat Once Again


It was an eye-opener to experience the Ati-Atihan for the first time. That was the case back in 2012. The second time in 2015 was a glorious return, capped off by drinking a Red Horse beer poured over a still-unused toilet bowl plunger (thank God). The third one in 2018 was, without a doubt, a charm, celebrating it with my friends Karla and Erica. When the opportunity to attend the Ati-Atihan for another time came about, I expected it to be a toss-up between me experiencing a case of the "same-same" or having a great time.

Things to do in Kalibo
The  Santo Niño is the centerpiece of the Ati-Atihan Festival

How silly of me to even doubt the fun-o-meter this revelry would bring, as after witnessing the Ati-Atihan Festival for the fourth time, I'm pleased that it delivered zero dullness and instead injected heaps of excitement. I once again found myself boogey-ying and rocking to the festival’s drumming beat. 

Marky Ramone Go
Party and Face color ON

Besides, as I always tell my friends, the Ati-Atihan wouldn’t be my favorite Philippine festival for nothing.


Ringed in by yells of “Hala-Bira” followed by a dance move called “sadsad”, which comprise of a one-step backward, two steps forward, step-tap sequence, the Ati-Atihan Festival dates back to the early 1200s, when villagers began commemorating the arrival of ten Malay Datus who were shipwrecked on Panay Island after fleeing a dictatorial kingdom on Borneo. 

Alyssa Lizardo
You can see countless images of the  Santo Niño paraded during the street procession

The Malay Datus, taken aback by the warm welcome of the Ati Tribe of Panay, expressed their gratitude by presenting the Ati chief with a variety of presents, including jewelry, golden salakot, brass basins, and cloth, which aided their integration into the community. The Ati-Atihan evolved from a pagan ceremony to a religious festival honoring the child Jesus Christ (Sto Niño) during the Spanish colonization in the 15th century. Since then, the Ati-Atihan has been celebrated every third Sunday of January.

A Fusion of Joyful Vibrations

Despite being an almost three-week celebration in January, the revelry reaches fever pitch on the third weekend of the month. We arrived at Kalibo on a red-eye flight Saturday morning, the penultimate day, before the closing ceremony on Sunday.

The coloring of the face shouldn't be seen as a form of "blackface" that is offensive in the West, since this practice predates it and is meant to give honor to the Ati people.

Giddy with excitement, we hit the road leading to the town plaza right away. All lanes seem to lead there as a throng of crowds, both spectators and participants, who already have colored faces and are wearing their street dance costumes, fill the streets.

Kaiz Galang
Vibrant smiles everywhere

It didn’t take long as we approached the venue before we began hearing the familiar rhythmic drumming beats of the Ati-Atihan. The ground begins to vibrate as the foot-thumping actions expand in swarms, and the loud noises swiftly rise in decibels. "This party has already started," I thought to myself.

Ayi del rosatrio
Men, women of all ages and genders participates in the festivity

Reaching the main stage, where the many contingents from several high schools in Kalibo would perform in front of the judges, I quickly selected a spot where I could take photos and videos. 

Kelly Austria
Overflowing creativity in every contingent's costumes

Despite the scorching glare of the 2:00 pm sun, I gleefully awaited the arrival of the street dance performers. Not too long after, the first set of Ati-Atihan tribes started surrounding the plaza, accompanied by a synthesis of basking noises.

Ochi Bernadas
Other than Kalibo, smaller Ati-Atihan festivals are also celebrated in other towns in Aklan

Referring to the participating groups as “Ati tribe” to pay homage to the original settlers of Panay Island, each group comprising young street dance performers was given not more than ten minutes to display their choreography to the tune of the signature Ati-Atihan drumming pounding.

WHere to go in Aklan
 Ati-atihan means ‘making like Atis,’

Without missing a beat from what I could imagine as hundreds of hours of practice sessions, each contingent came roaring to the plaza grounds, aiming to grab the judges and spectators’ attention by delivering their finest performance to the delight of the crowd.

Best festivals in the country
Despite the heat, the contingents give their all in making the festival a rousing success

The spectacle lasted almost two hours, to the objection of no one. As the next-to-last event of this year’s Ati-Atihan came to a conclusion, the performing men and women, young and old, left a trail of bliss along its path. One could still make out distant cries of "hala bira!" and patches of rumbling drum battering as the audience slowly disperses and makes their way into the many stalls of street food.

Where to go in Panay
Amidst digging into the fun vibe, the Ati Atihan Festival is also a spiritual undertaking

Feeling famished from covering the street dance competition, I headed out to one and had myself some corn on a stick and a refreshing cold drink. Seeing the jubilant faces of the passing people, I had the impression that the Ati-Atihan party would remain steadfast all night long until Sunday, the last day.

During the Ati-Atihan, devotees flock to Kalibo Cathedral to receive a traditional "pahilot" where the priest blesses the devotee's body by rubbing an image of the Sto. Niño.

By Sunday noon, the curtain had dropped on this year's Ati-Atihan. Overwhelmed by the sheer exhilaration of witnessing what many refer to as the "mother of all festivals" in the Philippines, I was ready for a change of scenery. It's not that I've had enough of the Ati-Atihan; on the contrary, I'm recharging my energies in anticipation of the next time I get my jam on to its wild and rocking rhythm.

The Ati-Atihan is sometimes compared to Mardi Gras, but I believe it deserves its own distinct identity.

This early, I’m already looking forward to doing the sadsad dance steps for the fifth time. Until then, I'll live my life echoing the Ati-Atihan's cry, "Hala-bira, hala bira," as I move forward in life with a joyous and celebratory attitude.