Although the festival doesn’t really get into top gear until the third week of January, the build-up starts a week earlier with events like craft fairs, cock fighting, snake dancing and a reenactment of the Purchase of Panay, whetting the appetite for the three-day frenzy that ends it all. Most of the action, including the fancy-dress procession, takes place in Kalibo’s town centre, with Magsaysay Park and Pastrana Park hosting various events day and night.
Inter-island boats docking at the nearby seaports of New Washington and Dumaguit are greeted by a corps of deafening tribal drummers; tourists are ferried across rice fields and coconut plantations to hotels in Kalibo, while others are accommodated in private homes and public buildings. Some camp on the beach, where fires are lit and fisherfolk make a few extra pesos selling barbecued grouper. By the last weekend of the fiesta, there’s no room at the inn, although it doesn’t seem to matter because no one sleeps anyway.
By mid-morning on the Sunday, small groups from all the nearby barangays (villages) gather in their respective neighbourhoods and dance their way to the town centre. Numbers increase exponentially as different groups from outlying areas merge into one. The main procession starts at the south side of Pastrana Park and takes a circular route to St John the Baptist Cathedral, just north of the park. The Kaiibonhons have an unwritten rule that there are no wallflowers at Ati-Atihan and no choreographed steps that isolate participants from spectators. If the best you can muster is a drunken conga line, that’s fine. But come what may, you must participate – if you don’t, they’ll make you.
The morning after
After the hangover, the hair of the dog. The majority of visitors to Ati-Atihan make the most of the prevailing festive spirit by continuing the party on the tiny nearby island of Boracay, famous for its white sand, sunsets, and shoals of girls offering beach massage for less than the price of a beer. The drill is simple: after Ati-Atihan, hop on a bus from Kalibo heading west along the coastal road to Caticlan, where you take a banca – a pumpboat with outriggers – to Boracay. The whole journey takes about three hours and costs very little, even allowing for some loose change to placate the unrelenting waves of porters. Once on Boracay, you can vegetate, scuba dive or spend raucous nights in bars such as Moondogs Shooters Bar. Moondogs is known for its “Shooters Test”, where the barman lines up fifteen bilious cocktails, and you drink them in quick succession – if you’re still standing at the end you get a free T-shirt.