If you’re planning on visiting the Philippines, tell me: are you the kind of traveler who not only likes to part-ey but also wants to be a part of something big and significant? Well if you are, I suggest that you time your trip in early January so that you can catch one of the grandest events that the country has: Cebu’s Sinulog Festival!
What is Sinulog Festival?
The Sinulog Festival is a lively celebration that lasts for 9 days, and it is typically held on the 3rd Sunday of January in the city of Cebu. Said to be the center of the Santo Niño celebration in the Philippines, one of the main highlights of this festivity would be the Sinulog Grand Parade that runs for 9 to 12 hours! This parade is held on the final day, and it is soooo popular that millions of people (that are not only composed of Filipinos but also foreigners from around the world) would flock to this occasion every year.
TRIVIA: In fact, it once reached 4 million visitors. In a way, this celebration can easily rival the colorful Carnival in Rio de Janeiro – Brazil or even Mardi Gras!
Photo by Ronald Tagra / CC
Now, what happens during this Sinulog Festival’s grand parade? Street dancing of course!
It’s basically a long procession that consists of several grouped street dancers who are all clad in colorful costumes and backdropped with amazingly-decorated platforms. As they go through the whole of the town, they would perform either their own dance steps or the ‘Sinulog dance‘ — a distinct forward-backward movement which is in tune to a very recognizable drumbeat that identifies this festivity. To add, this dance step perfectly depicts the meaning of the word ‘Sinulog’ which is from the Cebuano adverb ‘sulog’ which means: “like a water current movement“.
TRIVIA: Usually, the dancers’ performances are interpretations of how Santo Niño had helped their respective communities.
And as they dance, they would occasionally shout petitions or words of thanks like “Pit Senyor kang Mama kini, Pit Senyor kang Papa kini!” or simply the more identifiable phrase “Viva Pit Señor!” which means “to call, ask, and plead to the king”. There would also be a girl that’s usually in front of each group who would wave icons of the Santo Niño in their hands as they move along the crowd.
This is actually some sort of reenactment of Queen Amihan (the wife of the Rajah or former king of Cebu) who had received the image of the Sto. Nino in the past — an occurrence that is signifcant a part of how Sinulog Festival commemmorates the Filipino’s acceptance of Christianity.
My First Sinulog Festival Experience
To sum it all up in one word, my first Sinulog Festival was… intense. And I bet every first-timer out there has the same sentiment! Truth be told, it actually still surprises me how I was able to survive walking through the throng of people as I tried to get from one place to another.
It was really crazy.
Photo by Ronald Tagra / CC
I went to this event with my friends back in 2013 and initially, there were 10 of us who were all moving altogether during the procession; but as the day droned on, the sea of people forced us to separate and I ended up with just 4 of my friends with me!
(Thank goodness for technology though, we managed to get together again later by the day.)
Now our Sinulog adventure turned out to be some sort of obstacle activity since our accommodation was situated outside the city center — and the city center is exactly where the festival’s core events were being held. Most streets were already blocked at that point thought, therefore we can’t just get a taxi or a jeepney in order to reach the procession. That’s why in the end, we had to walk.
Mind you, walking wasn’t such an easy task since we had to go through 5 various locations that were ridiculously packed with people, and it was only a couple of hours later that we finally reached a less-crowded area that enabled us to watch the grand parade. Naturally at that time, I was already exhausted!
But then again… as I stood there watching the street dancers, I started to feel that the ‘trouble’ that I had gone through was oh-so-worth-it because it was an absolute spectacle to watch the parade up close! For one thing, it was soooo colorful, and along with the smiles and cheerful faces of the performers, I just can’t help but feel as if all my exhaustion had melted away.
Besides, they really put a LOT of effort into everything. Just think about all the work that they had to do in order to come up with their costumes and equipment!
All photos above by Ronald Tagra / CC
After a while, Jonas who was also with me at that time, remembered that he had a friend who had a condo that was located near where we were. He arrived at this thought because the place that we were in was slowly streaming in with more people. We definitely didn’t want to battle with yet another herd of people so we decided to take refuge in that condo for a while.
Once we arrived at the venue which was 30 floors high, I looked out to the Sinulog Festival scene below me and I was flabbergasted. Just look at this!
There’s no doubt that this celebration is visited by millions! And again, it’s seriously amazing how everyone manages to brave through such an ordeal (while we are at that line of thought, I’d like to take this moment to give myself a pat on the back).
Surely, I’ve had my fair share of packed trains back in Manila, but this event was just on a whole other level!
After some time, we tried going back to the crowd several times, but we ended up being defeated not only by the horde, but by the heat too! So, we went back again to the condo building but this time, we settled into a cafe. I’ll keep this short but yeah… one thing led to another and I ended up singing on stage while their performers took a break. Haha!
Come night time, the grand parade typically ends and the street dancers will do their final performance at the Cebu City Sports Complex. (This is where they will hold the competition leg of the Sinulog festival with 3 categories, namely the Street Dancing Category, Free Interpretation and Sinulog base categories.)
It was quite impossible for us to join this event since the sports complex was too packed, that’s why we decided to simply roam the streets and attend the late night parties!
Yep, Sinulog Festival doesn’t end with the parade because after that is done with, everyone goes to Mango Square, Baseline or Fuente Osmeña to have some fun until the wee hours of the next day. Truth be told, most would say that this is the best part of Sinulog! (See below a video on how a typical Sinulog Festival night party goes).
Photo by Raleene Cabrera / CC
As you can see, it can get pretty rowdy here since everyone is on ‘wild mode’ — but in a fun and good way! First things first, expect people to put paint on you. Like… a LOT of it! And sometimes, you could expect random people to just go up to you, hug you, and be chummy with you.
I actually experienced the ‘hugging’ part, and it was funny and scary (just a tiny bit) all at the same time.
I was walking with Jonas and my friends along one of the party places when suddenly, I saw around 7 people in front who were looking straight at me… and I just knew at that instant that I was their target, and as if on cue, they started to scream, “Free hugs! Group hug!”
Since I was also obviously in Sinulog wild mode, for sure I was like, heck yeah, why not? And so I let them hug me. LOL.
But what was supposed to be nice calm hugs (well at least that’s what I thought) turned out to be tight rough hugs. Think: hugging someone to death. I started to think, “Uh-oh, I think I’m gonna fall… Wait, or am I going to be trampled?”
Fortunately, Jonas was there so as soon as he saw what was happening, he tried to pry away the number of people who were all over me. Now let’s take into consideration how Jonas is a giant, so safe to say, the hugging parade let me go once they glanced at the ‘tower’ before them. :P
Of course they meant well, and honestly, though they were freakishly hyper, it was actually a fun moment nonetheless! I guess they were intoxicated either with beer or with the festival’s atmosphere… and I can’t blame them for that because again, Sinulog is really intense!
Tips for Sinulog Festival
- Book your accommodation waaaay ahead of time. Preferrably, as early as August. Why? You have to remember that there are millions of people who want to attend this every year so it’s not a surprise for most hotels to be fully-booked months prior!
Best location: Pick a hotel that’s near the parade. These would be the areas near Capitol, Ayala Shopping Mall, SM Shopping Mall, downtown, or Fuente Osmeña. Take note that since most of the streets will be blocked off, taxis will be hard to come by, and then usually after the festival, it’s even harder to get a hold of them so it’s best that you pick a place that you can just walk to afterwards. (To illustrate, since our accommodation was far, we had a hard time finding a taxi or even a non-packed jeepney after the parade. Thankfully we found a motorist who was willing to give us a ride in exchange for a small fee. So if you don’t want this kind of hassle, again, plan for this ahead of time!)
- While we’re speaking of planning, don’t book a flight on the day of Sinulog Festival. That’s a very bad idea because like I said, most of the main roads will be barricaded for the parade.
- On the day itself, wear disposable shorts and shirt. If you’re planning on staying for the crazy after-parties, like I mentioned previously, paint will be involved so you’re better off wearing something that you wouldn’t mind throwing away later on. Speaking of which, sometimes they use color powder and sometimes they would even splash beer and water on everyone. Yep, it’s that rowdy… but fun. -wink- (Note: make sure to protect your gadgets!)
- Wear comfortable clothes and bring the essentials. While we’re in the topic of clothing, you’ll be doing a lot of walking under the intense heat of the sun. Therefore, you should make sure that you’re wearing the right clothes AND the right shoes. It’s certainly best if you wear shoes or sneakers since sometimes there are debris or broken glasses on the road. (If in case it’s going to rain, then of course bring an umbrella). While you’re at it, make sure that you wear sunscreen and that you pack some water.
- Stay vigilant. This is common sense, but I have to stress the importance of this thought because with all the things that are happening, you can easily get distracted during Sinulog so be wary of pickpockets. At best, try to avoid wearing a backpack and go for bags that you can position in front.
- Get acquainted with Cebu. Right before you plunge into the Sinulog Festival, make sure that you go over a map first (most especially if it’s your first time to come to this place). With all the swarm of people and the countless barricaded streets, you would often have to take different routes. So other than reviewing the layout of the city beforehand, bring a map with you! Or better yet, if you have a friend who lives in Cebu, ask them out!
Vibrant, lively, and meaningful, the Sinulog Festival is, without a doubt, a unique experience… a must-do and a must-see! Of course I can’t deny the fact that it can possibly ‘mortify‘ you given the millions of attendees during the grand parade; but for the most part, I believe that the effect will be different, and a positive one at that!
Besides, I’m sure that like me, after being bitten by the Sinulog fever, you’re bound to look forward to attending it again for the next year!
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Hey there! I am Aileen Adalid.
At 21, I quit my corporate job in the Philippines to pursue my dreams. Today, I am a successful digital nomad (entrepreneur, travel writer, & vlogger) living a sustainable travel lifestyle.
My mission? To show you how it is absolutely possible to create a life of travel too (no matter the odds), and I will help you achieve that through my detailed travel guides, adventures, resources, tips, and MORE!
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