Saturday, January 31, 2015

Diggin’ the Dinagyang of Iloilo

Thick, dark clouds and a slight drizzle greeted me as I, along with other passengers, deplaned at Iloilo’s new airport. It wasn’t exactly the kind of welcome I expected. Gloomy as it was, I stopped myself from fretting. Why, it was way better than what those who came to see Pope Francis at the airport in Tacloban experienced a week earlier!

Stepping out of the airport, I quickly hailed a cab and gave instructions to the driver. On our way to downtown Iloilo, I caught glimpses of the ongoing construction boom in the city—all in preparation for the forthcoming conference of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) this October, which Iloilo will host. 

Injap Tower, the tallest building in Western Visayas

Twenty minutes later, I reached my destination, Circle Inn Hotel and Suites. At the front desk, I got a bit irked when the receptionist told me that my room wasn’t available yet—what a way to treat a guest who has fully paid in advance!  I had no choice but to wait and take a breather at the poolside even if my patience was running out. 

I tried to keep my cool for it was difficult to find a decent accommodation in another hotel during that time (Good thing, there was a vacancy at Injap Tower Hotel where I transferred the following day).

After wasting thirty minutes of my time, the staff finally ushered me into a nice and clean suite. I then ordered  lunch and started unpacking my stuff. Then came snooze time. Feeling rested, I went out for a walk later. Destination? Smallville!

Benigno Aquino Avenue 

Iloilo sizzles at night

Nah, it’s not Superman’s hometown; it’s a popular dining and entertainment strip where locals and tourists alike gravitate to grab a bite, gulp a drink and get chummy with family and friends. Smallville originally referred to the strip of restaurants, bars, cafes, and clubs beside a business hotel. Today, the entire complex goes by that name.

It was almost dusk when I reached the place. When I got there, the crowds were already starting to fill every comfortable space they could find. The influx of people from all walks of life into Smallville never seemed to cease. When night came, the city’s popular enclave was already crawling with party animals out to paint the town red.

A glimpse of Mandurriao, one of Iloilo's flourishing districts

Everywhere I looked, the mood was festive for it was the eve of Iloilo’s most important event. Somehow, I managed to find a little corner to chill out while waiting for Mia, a good friend from Bacolod who’s already based in Iloilo. We spent the evening listening to techno music being played by the bar’s in-house DJ while downing a few bottles of beer. We left the place before midnight.

Morning came. I was awakened by  strange noises coming from outside the room. At first, all I heard was a muted cacophony of music, laughter and voices emanating from the streets. As I shook myself out of the stupor of a restful sleep, the din became louder, noisier, wilder. Quickly, I got out of bed and rolled up the blinds that shielded the window from outside light.

A Dinagyang dancer dressed in Ati costume

"Ati" street dancer

Then I saw it: a vast sea of humanity garbed in red, yellow, orange, green and black costumes. Interspersed in the colorful throngs gathered along Iznart Street are hundreds and hundreds of drummers and musicians, street dancers, revelers and tourists like me. From where I stood, I had a bird’s-eye-view of the spectacle that’s about to unfold a few floors below me.

It was what I came for this year. I’ve been in and out of Iloilo, both the province and city, that is, these past several years but I haven’t witnessed such a grand display of pomp and pageantry. Whew, I was brimming with excitement as I prepared to capture and be captured by the liveliest event in that part of the world!

In less than an hour, I managed to take a quick shower, got dressed and grabbed a bite—a free buffet brekkie—before rushing into the streets. Wearing my photographer’s hat, I held on to my Nikon, eager to catch some interesting subject as I went around the vicinity in one of my most exhilarating moments in the city.

Ati-garbed dancers getting ready to perform

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This is, after all, Dinagyang, the annual religious-cultural event when Ilonggos pay homage to the Child Jesus or Sto. Niño and also commemorate the arrival of Malay (Bornean) settlers and the subsequent selling of Panay Island to them by the original inhabitants of the place, the Ati, the dark-skinned indigenous people of the island. 

In a month devoted to honoring the Holy Child, Filipinos find themselves agog to take part in the celebrations happening in the Visayas: Sinulog in Cebu, Ati-atihan in Aklan and of course, Dinagyang in Iloilo. I’m one of those so exhilarated to have made it to Iloilo and taken part in Dinagyang.

"Ati" dancers of Tribu Ilawodnon

Dinagyang, which means “revelry” or “merrymaking” among Ilonggos, is Iloilo’s version of Aklan’s Ati-Atihan. Although it’s not as popular as the other two festivals, Dinagyang, for me, is probably the liveliest and most exciting because of the breathtaking street dancing competition among the tribes of Panay. I really had a blast joining the celebration, digging all the wonderful things I witnessed there.

"Ati" street dancer
Both provinces are found in Panay, hence, their festivities celebrate almost the same historical events: the arrival of the Sto. Niño and the coming of the Malays and selling of Panay. Dinagyang, however, boasts of three major events: the Ati-Atihan Street Dancing Contest, the Kasadyahan Street Parade, and the coronation of Miss Dinagyang.

Nine participating groups, representing the tribes of Panay, took part in the street dancing competition. They included schools like Tribu Panayanon of the Iloilo City National High School; Tribu Paghidaet of La Paz National High School; Tribu Obreros of Barrio Obrero National High School; Tribu Ilawodnon of Fort San Pedro National High School; and Tribu Salognon of Jaro National High School.

Live entertainment at an Iloilo mall

Other competitors came from communities/villages such as Tribu Baybayanon of Barangay Calaparan in Villa de Arevalo; Tribu Atub-Atub of Barangay Veterans Village in Iloilo City; Tribu Ilonganon of Abanilla Street in Iloilo City; and Tribu Milagrosa of Passi City.

There were several judging stations spread all over the routes where the street dancing competition took place. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see all the participating tribes, especially their performances. It was difficult to get through the thick crowds who came to witness the competition so I decided to stick it out at the fifth judging station, which is near my hotel.

For the third time in a row, Tribu Panayanon emerged as champion, taking home a cash prize of Php150,000, plus a chance to represent the Dinagyang Festival and Iloilo in various prestigious events not only in the Philippines but also abroad. Tribu Ilawodnon, which I covered before the competition started, managed to land as a runner-up. 

Meanwhile, the Kasadyahan street dance parade is Dinagyang’s unique feature, celebrated  a day before the Ati-Atihan street dancing contest, usually the last Sunday of January. It is the Ilonggos’ way of expressing their gratitude to God for the bountiful harvest. For more about Dinagyang, visit the official website at

One of the paintings that featured Pope Francis at Museo Iloilo

This recent escapade to Iloilo not only afforded me the chance to experience Dinagyang but also revisit some of the city’s popular tourist destinations, which I’m fond of seeing, particularly Museo Iloilo and one of Iloilo’s must-see districts, Jaro. 

Museo Iloilo is home to a spectacular collection of Iloilo’s cultural heritage which includes stone age native pottery; fossils, jewelry and clothing; trade pottery from neighboring countries; war memorabilia, including old weapons; and some Spanish-era Filipino sculptures.

Inside the Iloilo Museum

The museum’s permanent exhibit covers Western Visayas’ cultural history from past to present. The collection includes carbon-dated fossils, swords and spears of the Mondo tribe of Panay, and an Ati family.

It also features several religious life-sized and small statues, reliefs and other artifacts. But it's the Santo Entierro or the Dead Christ encased in a glass coffin that caught my fancy. Whew, it closely resembled a dead body, especially with the shriveled skin at its shoulders!

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One of the paintings featuring the pope

Aside from these, there are other interesting stuff that’s going to lure culture vultures to this tourist enclave, such as the special section that served as display area of the paintings featuring Pope Francis—all creations of Ilonggo artists.

Our Lady of the Candles Shrine a.k.a. Cathedral of St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Jaro

Jaro, on the other hand, has always been a part of my itinerary whenever I’m in Iloilo. I always look forward to seeing the place again and again. What’s so special about Jaro that warrants a revisit? Well, there’s the Gothic-Renaissance church named after St. Elizabeth of Hungary a.k.a. Jaro Cathedral.

Completed in 1864, the church, which also happens to be the National Shrine of  Our Lady of the Candles (Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria), boasts of a red-brick belfry (built earlier in 1744), which is among the few religious structures in the Philippines that were constructed separately from the main church.

For more about this cathedral, visit

Interior of the Jaro Cathedral


Sto. Niño de Villa Arevalo Church


Lastly, I couldn’t consider my Dinagyang experience complete unless I see one of the reasons why Ilonggos celebrate it—the icon of the Child Jesus which is housed at the Sto. Niño de Villa Arevalo Church. 

Icon of the third oldest Sto. Niño in the country

Together with Mia (who graciously offered her car to take us there; many thanks miga Mia!), I paid a visit to the church a day after the festivities to avoid the thick crowds who flock there to see the image.

The icon is said to be the third oldest image of the Sto. Niño (1581) in the Philippines which the Augustinians brought with them when they established a settlement in that part of old Iloilo. The oldest and original image is kept in Cebu (1521) while the second oldest is found in Tondo (1572). 

Gazing at the image, I silently thanked God for fulfilling one of my fondest wishes—to join the celebration of Dinagyang. For I was diggin’ every minute I was there. :-D

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