Ati-Atihan Festival – 800 Years Onwards

Ati-Atihan Festival 2012
Ati-Atihan traces its roots to the early 13th century when the Ati people sold land to Malay settlers 

One of the oldest celebrations in the Philippines – a country known for its many colorful festivals throughout the year – the Ati-Atihan traces its roots to as far back as 1212 AD, when it is believed that ten Malay datus (chieftains) from Borneo, escaping the oppressive rule of Datu Makatunaw, arrived aboard balangays (sail boats) near the present-day town of San Joaquin, Iloilo. 

Led by Datu Puti, they purchased land from the aboriginal Ati with a gold saduk (wide-brimmed helmet), a chain of pure gold necklace, and some gifts consisting of colored clothes, decorated arms, and fanciful trinkets.

Ati-Atihan Festival 2012
Dancers apply soot on their skin to portray Atis

Celebration followed, with the Atis thanking their anitos (nature spirits) through vigorous dance. Upon the colonization and evangelization of the archipelago by the Spanish Crown in the 16th century, this tribal revelry was assimilated into Christian worship as a tribute to Santo Niño, the Holy Child Jesus. 

Though far much larger in scale and popularity, the Sinulog and Dinagyang festivals of Cebu and Iloilo, which was established only in the 1980s, were inspired by the Ati-Atihan festivals of Aklan province.


The Feast of the Santo Niño culminates every third Sunday of January. But as early as Saturday, the town revs up the celebration with tribal dancing around the town plaza. The main festivities center on Pastrana Park, fronting the Kalibo Cathedral, where “tribes” from Kalibo’s barangays (villages) and associations shuffle to the beat of drums and xylophones in fanciful tribal-inspired costumes with impressive headdresses. 

Ati-Atihan Festival 2012
Revelers young and old join the procession

Most dancers are covered in soot to portray dark-skinned Ati people, shouting “Viva Señor Santo Niño!” (Long live the Holy Child!) and “Hala bira!” (Go for it!). 

The parade also becomes a Halloween extravaganza with some individuals playing dress up as wild animals or famous personalities (eg. Michael Jackson) to spike up the merriment. The festival climaxes the following day with a religious procession interspersed with free-for-all dancing and drunken merrymaking by locals and visitors alike that start mid-afternoon and continue well into the night. Some “tribes” in full costume reprise their performance.


HOW TO GET THERE: Local airlines fly to Kalibo from Manila and Cebu. There are direct international flights to Kalibo from China and Korea.

WHERE TO STAY: Book accommodations at least a month before the festival. And expect a minimum stay of three nights, and paying double or triple the regular rate. Bakhawan Inn in Brgy. New Buswang offered 4D/3N stay in an A/C room for four people for only PHP 2,700! It’s located in the outskirts of town, 15 minutes by tricycle (PHP 20/pax), but provided a quiet retreat from the raucous celebration. It’s a short walk from Bakhawan Park, one of Kalibo’s main attractions – a lush mangrove forest that one can explore along an 800-meter long bamboo boardwalk.

Ati-Atihan Festival 2012
End the night clubbing at Abregana Bar & Restaurant!

WHERE TO EAT: Forget Mezzanine Cafe, which guidebooks recommend. And head to Kitty’s Kitchen instead, across the street. They have a wide range of delicious Filipino and Western fare. Bestsellers are their burgers and pizzas. Try their yummy back back ribs meal at only PHP 110! Address: Rizal Street, Kalibo. Tel: +63 (36) 2689444.

WHERE TO PARTY: Head to Magsaysay Park (entrance fee: PHP 50) for splendid fireworks displays and open-air concerts. Or to Abregana Bar & Restaurant at  Judge N. Martelino St. for some awesome clubbing!

4 comments

  1. nina says:

    You stayed in New Buswang din pala! Sayang I wasn’t able to spend more time with you guys, but it was great to meet you and the other CS people 😀

  2. @Nina: Yes, we did, so you stayed in New Buswang, too? Yes, hope we can catch up next time!

  3. Rome Diwa says:

    I love the photos! never had I witnessed those festivals in real life. Maybe next year, sana!

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