Ati-Atihan is the Philippines’ wildest Mardi Gras-like celebration, a week-long street party in Kalibo that rages from dawn to dusk, peaking on the third Sunday in January. Honouring Santo Niño (an image of the infant Jesus), it is a religious celebration cloaked in secular sequins.

The origins of Ati-Atihan date back to the 13th Century, when a group of lighter skinned Malay immigrants from Borneo chose to show their respect for the local Ati people by painting their faces black and singing and dancing in thanks for the land and food that was offered to them. The colonising Spanish later added Santo Niño into the mix to dispel any pagan influences. Today, in keeping with the celebration’s origins, participants in the main parade paint their faces with black soot and wear highly decorative colourful costumes.

Though the festival runs for a week, with most of the action happening in Pastrana Park, celebrations truly fire up in the final three days (Friday to Sunday). The biggest day, Sunday, begins early, with the transfer of the venerated Santo Niño icon from Kalibo Cathedral to the adjoining Pastrana Park, where an open-air mass is conducted. The festival culminates late Sunday afternoon with an enormous parade through the centre of the city, featuring soot-covered and elaborately costumed tribal groups carrying bamboo torches and Santo Niño images.

If you plan on going, book a hotel in Kalibo at least a month in advance and expect to pay two to five times the usual rates. Many people simply camp on the beach.

For the other 11 months of the year, Kalibo is primarily known as an entry point to the famed holiday island of Boracay. White Beach is where all the pre- and post-Ati-Atihan action takes place. For quieter surrounds, escape to Boracay’s wild and windy Bulabog Beach to the east, a favourite windsurfing spot, or to the long and quiet Puka Beach to the north. The Mt Luho View Deck (admission P20) offers views both magnificent and decidedly trashy; its slopes have been the site of Boracay's garbage dump (at the time of research there were alternative proposals for dealing with this growing problem).

Since the 1970s, more than 300 resorts and hotels have been built on Boracay, and the outdoor pedestrian D'Mall expands every year, birthing more shops, bars and restaurants. But none of this seems to affect the regular rhythm of a typical day, which includes tropical cocktails, fruit shakes, tanning, the occasional afternoon beach volleyball game and, for the actively inclined, just about every imaginable water activity known to man.


The article 'Ati-Atihan festivites on Philippine shores' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.