The Visayas are the central portion of the Philippines. While Luzon in the north and Mindanao in the south are big land masses, Visayas is broken up into six large and several hundred lesser islands clustered around the Visayan, Samar, and Camotes seas. The main islands are Bohol, Cebu, Leyte, Negros, Panay and Samar.
The ati-atihan (“doing the Ati”) festivals in the Visayas every January signal the start of the Philippine summer town fiestas and holiday vacations. Dance troupes with colorful tribal costumes and headgear, come out in the streets in choreographed steps with thundering drumbeats. The dancers are painted with black grease after the Atis (the Aetas or Philippine negritos) who sold the settlement rights of the Panay island lowlands to 10 Bornean chieftains for a string of pearls and a gilded lady’s wide-brimmed hat (salakot) around the 13th century.
The event’s historical veracity is still in question. Yet, the townspeople of Kalibo, now chief city of Aklan province in Panay island, launched the weeklong celebration in the mid-1970s timed with the feast day of the widely venerated Santo Niño (Holy Child Jesus). Ati-atihan (‘a-ti-a-ti-hän) caught fire and was soon imitated throughout the country.
Hence, Aklan celebrates the ati-atihan every third Sunday of January. Other Panay provinces followed: Iloilo with its Dinagyang festival every fourth week of January; Antique, Binirayan (“where they sailed to”) festival every third weekend of April; and Capiz, Halaran (“offering”) festival every second week of October.
Cebu, the central province of this islanded region, has its ati-atihan festival called the sinulog (“graceful dance”) every third Sunday of January. And Bacolod City, chief city of Negros Occidental, holds its Masskara (a combination of the English “mass” and Spanish cara or “face”) every third week of October.
January is the best time to visit the Visayas. Choose between Cebu and Panay. Arrive amid the color, excitement and pomp of the ati-atihan festival. After the street fun and spectacle, head to your next destination. The Visayas are right for nature trippers and culture lovers. Besides the underwater dives and white beaches, the region hosts a number of surviving Spanish colonial heritage sites.
If you’re in Kalibo, Aklan province in Panay island, Boracay is only 1½ hour away . But before rushing to a sun-and-sea getaway, take a day out to drive around the island. Historic Iloilo City has many remarkable period houses, buildings and churches lining olden Calle Real.
Situated 40 km. southwest of the city is the magnificent Miag-ao Church. Built in 1786, it is counted among the UNESCO World Heritage Site because of it’s beautiful façade. It has a bas-relief portraying St. Christopher, bearing the child Jesus, before a centrally-located palm tree, the Philippine “tree of life.” The local flora and fauna, as much as daily life, are sculpted in the background.
Just 13 km. southwest of Miag-ao is the similarly remarkable San Joaquin Church. Built out of coral rocks in 1859, its façade also features a bas-relief of the Battle of Tetuan in the 1500s.