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Published: February 7th 2010
There were a million things we'd have loved to do in the Philippines, but a while back we'd decided that top of our list would be to go to the Ati-Atihan festival, said to be the wildest and most colourful of all festivals in South East Asia. We'd had to pre book our hotel in advance so were a bit limited with how we could spend our remaining few weeks. Along with Dominic we'd all decided to head towards the Panay island where Kalibo, the home of the festival is found as well as the beautiful Boracay. On the way our boat would stop at the Cuyo Islands so we thought we'd make use of this stop and stay a few days on this group of islands that there is very little information about both in books and on the internet.
We'd booked economy tickets thinking it would be a similar set up to the ferry we caught to Coron but we should have learnt by now that you should never assume anything in this world as more often that not assumptions are wrong! Our economy bunks were not up in the fresh air as we'd thought but way down
in the depths of the rickety rusting boat (not ferry!) and down there it was and very very hot & sweaty with only small portholes for ventilation. It was a 12 hour ride to the Cuyo Islands and needless to say we didn't get much sleep at all and spent most of the time sharing Sophie's fan to try and create a bit of a breeze.
Our time on the Cuyo Island group was also not quite what we'd hoped. We'd read on a blog that there was supposed to be some of the best coral in the Philippines here so all had dreams of snorkelling pretty much every day that we'd planned to stay. We found a nice guesthouse (one of only 2 to choose from), had some lunch and then bumped into an American ex-pat down on the sand when we went to explore. Whilst we're sure he didn't intend to put us off intentionally, he told us that most of the coral was dead and around 1km out from the island but if this didn't put us off enough we couldn't even get there as it was now windy season and none of the fishermen would
Snr. Santo Nino
one of the many figures
take us out anyway. Island hopping was also out the question for the same reason and island exploring was also a no go as there were no bikes to hire, with the prospect of days sitting around doing pretty much nothing and the boat still sitting in the dock ready to go we packed up our things and made a quick getaway. We were all quite disappointed as we'd really looked forward to staying here but sometimes things just don't work out the way you'd hoped so onwards we went with another 18 hours ahead of us living off pot noodles in the sweat box!
It's worth noting that this group of islands is home to a major exclusive celebrity hangout in the shape of Pamlican Island, the holiday destination for the likes of Tom Cruise, Mariah Carey, the Beckhams and even Royalty. Again we'd hoped that a day trip here would be possible but we were quickly warned off this by the locals when we learnt that if you so much as step foot off a boat onto the beach chances are you'll get shot by the armed guards! We also heard that the staff have to wear
dark sunglasses to stop them staring directly at the celebrities who choose to bath nude! How true these rumours are we'll never know but it's true enough that this island is supposed to be stunning and a true paradise island.
As we'd left the Cuyo Islands a little earlier than we'd planned we hadn't really prepared a plan B, never a good idea when you get off a boat at 6am and have a million tricycle/taxi drivers shouting in your face. For once we were completely honest when we said we didn't know where we wanted to go! This didn't register with them though and they kept on asking "where you go" as they always do with us responding that "we don't know". This went on and on in increasing volume until we had the heat taken off us when a fight broke out between two locals giving us some time to think and a bit of early morning entertainment.
We made a quick decision to make our way up North and try to get to the Rombulon Islands, mainly Sibuyan Island which is supposed to be the Galapagos Islands of the Philippines. We caught the bus up
to Kalibo which is where we thought we could get the boat there from but things had changed and the boat doesn't go from here any longer, instead it goes from Caticlan at 4am every day. To be honest the bus & local people did tell us this but we just assumed that they were making it up (which people often do in order to get you to do something else with them), but the Philippines is very different. Like most travellers we had our 'scam/rip off/salesman avoidance wall' firmly built over our time in Asia but just spending a short time here changes all this. Travelling in the Philippines is refreshing
its like having a really good massage after a long trek and slowly but surely the Filipinos take that wall down and you start to trust, relax and have fun again so remember this if you go there and shrug off people who are genuninely trying to help you (taxi drivers are exempt from this though.. they will rip you off at every opportunity!).
By the time we'd found out about this we were totally shattered, getting to and from the Rombolon Islands was going to be
way more effort that we had at this point of our trip so we all threw in the towel and decided to just spend the full 12 days on Boracay instead.. oh the hardship! So 12 more days was ahead of us in our favourite Asian beach resort, the weather wasn't great so we split our time between the beach, watching the Discovery channel, eating great food and feeding the family of 3 cats that Sophie made everyone adopt while we were there... it was a very very relaxing stress free time which was needed in preparation for 3 days of craziness that lay ahead.
The Ati-Atihan Festival
Like we said we'd pre booked our room for the festival a while back, this festival is very popular with both Filipinos and tourists so this is advised. As a result of the popularity prices go sky high (we paid 5,000PHP for 3 nights!) so it was a quite a chunk out our budget to come here but so worth it as it was a real highlight of our trip.
The festival is a real mix of celebrations and is still partly a religious event. It's based around the
Catholic festival celebrating the Santo Niño (child Jesus), but in recent years it has morphed into a hodge podge of indigenous dancing and displays from various tribes, loud music, great food and is generally just a huge party held all through the streets of Kalibo. We'd read a little about it before we came but reading about it could never convey the amazing atmosphere that is created by everyone who is in and around this place as it's electric! The festival takes place during the first two weeks in January but its the final 3 days that are the most important, with costumed locals taking to the streets in a riot of spontaneous partying, music and street dancing and it is this what we had come for... 72 sleepless hours of alcohol fulled, intoxicating mayhem acted out to the deafening sound of massed tribal drums..Bang-bang..Bang-bang..
Before you even see anything you hear the constant banging of those tribal drums & the melodies on the xylophones (barbie girl seemed to be a favourite!) as the parades go round and round and as they go round they start to build up in intensity. These start at around 6am and even after
the drums have finished in the early hours of the morning you won't get the beat out your head for days! As you get near the town centre you start to see the crowds lining the streets, it's a bit of a battle to get though but eventually you make your way to the front and then get to see the tribal parades of locals dressed up in the most colourful wild outfits as they go round too, all with their own band following with those all important drums. People everywhere are dancing as the parades go past and it would be imposible not to have a huge smile on your face when you get to see the work that's gone into the costumes and floats that go past, the weather wasn't so great for the first few days but even this didn't dampen anyone's spirits and everyone was still out in full force.
The parades go round and round the streets for most of the Friday, Saturday and Sunday. If the daytime wasn't enough then the evening gets even wilder when the crowds all join forces, pick a band/tribe to follow and trail round the streets dancing, drinking
and generally having a great time. Don't expect to just stand by and watch, the locals have an unwritten rule that you can't just watch at Ati-Atihan and even if you don't take part they'll make you! People get very drunk but unlike the UK, no one feels the need to fight or argue or smash things up to ruin it for everyone.. people are just there to have a good time. There are also live bands, food stalls and various bars lining the streets for when your feet get too tired to keep on marching and dancing around! We found the obligatory Reggae Bar to spend our Saturday night and had a great time chatting to the locals (not just from Kalibo but all around the Philippines), drinking San Miguel and watching the fire show.. which was sponsored by the town fire brigade!
Sleeping in with a hangover is not allowed so on the final day we were up early to the sound of the drums outside our window. The final day is centered around the procession of the Santo Niño figures who go round the streets from the early afternoon to the late evening all accompanied by
their bands of course! Again everyone picks a figure to follow and as the light goes the torches are lit around the figures and it makes a really pretty scene watching them go past all lit up. The huge parade of people is broken up every now and again as someone puts some fireworks down on the road (with people still all around!) and everyone separates to let them fly out then off they go again. We met up with two fellow Brits, Tash & Spence in the evening and even though we still had banging heads from the day before it was hair of the dog for us and we were soon drunk again following the parade with blue faces making lots of new friends as we went. We finished off the evening in the park where it seemed the whole town had gone to dance the night away.. we have vague memories of making a whole heap of new friends including 2 kids who were beautifully dressed up and so cute Sophie wanted to take them home as souvenirs!
It really was an amazing few days, totally crazy! The people here in the Philippines are so welcoming
and friendly that you are never alone and they all want you to dance with them. We were lucky enough to be invited for Sunday lunch with our guesthouse family too and enjoyed a fantastic Filipino banquet which made a change from the Jollibee we'd been eating up to that point.
After a day of rest to recover from 3 days of fun our time here in the Philippines was at an end as we flew from Kalibo to Manila and then from Manila to Bangkok.
We have loved the Philippines enormously and perhaps with the time we spent here we should have done more, but in this fascinating country you will find your paradise so for this reason alone you need to plan for a lot of time here. Forget about just a 21 day month visa and get an extension as soon as you can or as with some ex-pats we met, extend it for life!
For us the Philippines has become one of our favourite countries and we can't wait to come back one day and see all the things we missed. We really took it easy travelling through here.. again maybe a little
too easy, but it's hard not to make the most of those beautiful beaches which are by a long long way the best beaches we've seen on our travels. It's strange that more people don't come here but that's probably most of it's charm. When we chat to Filipinos they always ask us if we like their country (yes we love it!) and what it's like compared to the likes of Thailand. For us this country offers a lot more than Thailand ever could, it has amazing (empty) stunning and clean beaches, trekking, adventure activities, some of the best diving in the world and the people here are genuinely lovely, honest and hospitable people. Maybe that's because they really love it when people visit and share their country. Like most travellers one of the best things is that even in the most popular places like Boracay you don't see the numbers that you get in Thailand, and whilst we'd love to keep it that way it's hard not to rave about just how fantastic this country is.. so what you waiting for go and find out for yourselves!
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