We don’t like to generalise, but it’s safe to say that family life and a sense of fun are two key components of culture and lifestyle in the Philippines – if anyone knows how to party, it’s Filipinos. The best way to get a sense of the culture is by: a) nabbing an invitation to a family feast and b) joining the locals at one of the country’s many festivals. On the topic of the latter, here are 10 favourites. Gather your bakarda (gang), go forth and make merry…
‘Filipino culture and lifestyle is very laid back, friendly and family-oriented. A typical day for me in the Philippines would consist of waking up, eating breakfast, showering outside my house, riding around with friends on mopeds, visiting the mall, eating some delicious food, enjoying afternoon beers, having a massive dinner with family, doing some karaoke, being persuaded to hit the club with my uncles, then maybe having a few more beers.’
Justice, chef and co-founder, Filishack
Bailes de Luces, La Castellana, Negros Occidental: early January
If you like vivid light displays that rival Las Vegas, make sure you come to La Castellana for Bailes de Luces, a festival of thanksgiving that relies on elaborate light shows to convey its message of gratitude, happiness and hope. LED lights are used by performers in props and costumes – imagine decorative dancers wiggling their bodies to Latin beats, while wearing light-emitting, colourful clothing. The street dancing competition is the festival’s highlight, usually held on 5 January.
Sinulog Festival, Cebu: third weekend of January
Dance, music, food, colour – and more dancing. Sinulog is the Philippines’ biggest and best-loved festival, held in Cebu, a week before Dinagyang (see below). The fiesta is a celebration of the feast of the Christ Child, Santo Niño de Cebú. Dancers reenact the coming of the Spaniards on a fluvial (river) parade; the festival’s name references the strong currents of Cebu river, which are reenacted by undulating dancers. Come hungry: the fluvial festival breakfasts are worth writing home about.
Ati-Atihan Festival, Kalibo, Aklan: third Sunday of January
You’ve not properly experienced Filipino festivals until you’ve experienced Ati-Atihan, which started life as a pagan animist festival, before being adopted (and Christianised) by the Spaniards, who dedicated it to the Christ Child and his feast day. Expect to be tired after attending this party, as it’s participative rather than spectator-based – that means it’s not just the dancers who will be cutting shapes; you will, too. On Saturday, there’s a dawn procession, a devotee’s mass and a parade; Sunday is dedicated to feasting (and drinking).
Dinagyang Festival, Iloilo City: fourth weekend of January
Dinagyang means ‘merrymaking’. You could never accuse this festival of not living up to its name: it’s a riotous party thrown – like Sinulog and Ati-Atihan – in honour of Senyor Santo Niño, AKA the child Jesus. The highlight of the festival is a flamboyant street dance parade, which takes over the thoroughfares of Iloilo City. There are five performance stages used for competitive choreographed displays (you’ll need to buy tickets for these in advance), but you can expect dancing, drum-playing and colourful costume-clad Filipinos to spill out onto the surrounding streets, too.
Lucban San Isidro Pahiyas Festival, Quezon: 15 May, annually
When you think about it, farmers don’t get a fraction of the thanks they deserve, but you can help redress this balance at Pahiyas, a harvest festival thrown in honour of San Isidro Labrador, the patron saint of farmers. As you’d expect, fruit, vegetables and other natural bounty feature heavily here: houses in Lucban are decorated extravagantly with colourful decorations, some of which are edible – don’t nibble on them, they’re there for display! It often rains during the festival, which is counted as a blessing for future crops.
MassKara Festival, Bacolod: third weekend of October
If you ever needed proof of the existence of the famous Filipino smile, attend MassKara Festival, which came about as a result of the sugar crisis that hit Bacolod in the 1980s. Disastrous crops meant that the locals were anything but smiley, so the city’s government and artists decided to boost morale by throwing a massive party. The festival’s name combines the English word ‘mass’ with the Spanish word ‘kara’, meaning face: unsurprisingly, masks and masquerades abound, in an extravaganza of colour, prints and patterns.
Panagbenga Festival, Panagbenga Park, Baguio: February
Like flowers? You’ll like Panagbenga Festival, whose name loosely translates to ‘blooming of the flowers’. This month-long flower fiesta is held every year in Baguio City, culminating in a grand parade on the last Sunday of Februrary. Panagbenga raises a glass to Baguio’s bounty of flowers; it also champions the indomitable spirit of the Luzon people, especially those who survived the 1990 earthquake. Highlights include the flower-bedecked floats, the Iblai dance (inspired by Luzon locals), the street dance contest and the ceremonies and celebrations held around Session Road.
Philippines International Hot-Air Balloon Fiesta, Clark, Pampanga: February
If you’ve ever wondered where pilots party, here’s your answer: this festival in Clark, Pampanga celebrates all things aviation; it also provides a meeting place for pilots both young and old from all over the world to swap stories, ideas and expertise. Proving again that Filipinos react to change with positivity, the festival first started after the US military left their airbase at Clark – the initiative was designed to boost tourism and morale in the region.
Kadayawan Festival, Davao: the third week of August
Give thanks for life, love, laughter and nature – give thanks for everything – at Kadayawan. The festival has pagan roots: locals would gather at Mount Apo, offering gifts of thanks – rice, fruit, vegetables and other edible tokens – to a deity they called Manama, while singing and dancing in praise. The same sense of joy and gratitude dictates Kadayawan today, but other cultural and historic influences have helped the character of the festival to evolve. Visitors can still get a flavour of the region and its edible bounty by picking up fruit and veg from street stalls in Davao; there’s also a magnificent river parade. The festival’s name stems from the word ‘madayaw’, a warm and friendly greeting, used to describe something wonderful.
Ligligan Parol, San Fernando, Pampanga: December
The Giant Lantern Festival, also known as Ligligan Parol (Lantern Competition), is held on the Saturday before Christmas Eve in the city of San Fernando. It is thought that the festival evolved from more simple celebrations in Bacoor, with festivities switching to San Fernando sometime in the 20th century. The early lanterns were tiny compared to today’s giants (three feet back then, versus the standard 16-feet works of art that visitors can admire these days). In 1931, the arrival of electricity in San Fernando helped the lanterns to become even more dazzling. Light is a symbol of hope – this festival’s focus.