Sinulog – The Most Colourful Festival in the Philippines!

So each year, we’d do a festival trip where we’d go to a famous festival – be it music, party, cultural or religious, to soak up the local fun and festivities. Back when I was living in Japan, festivals are a huge thing. The entire local community would put in time, effort, resources to plan, practice and rehearse, and tourists would come from all over the country (and internationally as well). There will be a huge crowd – families, couples, children-, lots of street food, amazing performances, beer, fireworks and a massive celebration. I kinda missed the collective fun and chaos of those festivals, when strangers become friends and everyone is just having a good time. Somehow the sanitized version of festivals in Singapore are never up to par. As a result, we decided to do a festival trip every year!

This year, we were just looking at the flights during one of the promos. A quick desktop research showed us the promo prices coincides with one of the biggest festivals in The Philippines – Sinulog! In fact, it was termed as “the Mother of all festivals in The Philippines”, as well as “the mardi gras of Southeast Asia”. I guess that kinda sealed the deal for us, so off we went to Cebu, the queen of the south!

When to go?
Sinulog is a cultural and religious festival to honour Cebu’s pagan past (the dance ritual signifies the current, or Sulog, of what was then known as Cebu’s Pahina River) and the arrival of the Spaniards and Christianity, as well as the baptism of rulers. Read more on the history here.
The Sinulog activities start every year in early January, building up to the Grand Parade on the third weekend of January. That weekend is also when the bigger events are held, including the coronation of the festival queen, the fluvial procession and reenactment of the Image of the Sto. Niño, the fireworks competition, and the street parade and parties.

What to do? 
  • Go local and join in the celebrations!
    The entire weekend is lined up with events. Do your research before you go, although the programme seems largely similar from year to year. We stayed at Pillows Hotel (read my TA review here), which is near the Fuente Osmeña Circle, and where most of the parades, parties and street stalls are. Besides, traffic was horrid the weekend, so you want to be somewhere within walking distance to the action.Friday, things were just starting to warm up. The street stalls were just setting up, and you can see all the necessary get-up on sale – the colourful tshirts, the masks, and straw hats. We watched the coronation of the festival queen, which is like a beauty pageant where contestants come from different provinces in Cebu. As part of the contest, they are also required to perform with a dance troop in a mini Sinulog dance competition. Although I said “mini”, but the dances are actually quite impressive with all the props and formations. It’s like a teaser to what you will see at the Grand Parade!
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The coronation of the Queen Festival – Dance performance by one of the contestants

Saturday, things get a bit more solemn and religious with the morning mass, the fluvial procession and the reenactment of the arrival of the Image of the Sto. Niño. Join the devotees to watch the processions and soak in the festivities happening around the Basalica del Santo Niño. Finish up the day with the mind-blowing fireworks competition.

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Joining the morning mass at Basalica del Santo Nino.

Sunday is the big day of the Grand Parade, where everything is happening along Osmena Boulevard and Fuente Osmena Circle. Get decked out in your Sinulog gear – colourful Sinulog t-shirts, masks, colorful straw hats, fans, water (lots of it), colored powder (for self-defense!) etc and hit the streets! Spend the morning at the street parade, watching the street performances. When you’re tired, get a ticket into CSCC to watch the stage performances. We were told by the locals that this is the place to watch the performances as this is where the judging of the parade competition takes place! Also, you get a good chance to take snapshots of the performers as they are leaving the CCSC. Stay till the grand finale, then join the street party at Mango Square. Get ready to party hard, shout “Pit Senor!” to strangers, receive hugs, take a couple shots, get slapped in the face / back / anywhere else with a palmful of paint, get squashed in a huge crowd etc etc.

  • Dive!
    Being the avid divers we are, of course, how could we forgo an opportunity to dive in one of the best dive destinations in the region? According to asiadivesite.com, there are four key dive areas in Cebu; Malapascua Island in the north, Mactan Island close to Cebu city off the east coast, Moalboal off the west and Sumilon in the south. We chose to dive in Moalboal because it is relatively easier to get to from Cebu city, and because of the famous sardines run. Most of the dive shops are located along Panagsama Beach. The dives did not disappoint. We dove at Pescador Island, where we saw a few big fish like the grouper as well as decorator crabs and cuttlefish at the night dive! The sardines dive was right at the house reef, and I was surprised to see the sardines just about 15-20m from the shore, and about 6m underwater! It was simply awe-inspiring, to see the school of sardines swimming in formation above us. I have seen pictures of the sardines run but I really wasn’t expecting to see that MANY sardines around us – it was really crazy. Even with the large number of divers and snorkellers around, the sardines were still there!
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Panagsama Beach, Moalboal
  • Eat lechon at Carcar 
    Carcar is said to have the best lechon in Cebu, and some even say in the Philippines. Also, it is en-route from Cebu city to Moalboal. Otherwise, it is a short 1hr bus ride from Cebu. Go to Carcar City Public Market, walk all the way to the back of the market and you will see about 8 stalls selling lechon, with the shiny glazed, freshly roasted lechon on display. We bought 250g (80PHP) from a stall which had the most local customers, and brought it to the small eatery at the back to eat. You can bring your lechon there as long as you order some rice and sides to go with it. Standard practice.


How long to stay?

We spent about five days in Cebu – we arrived slightly earlier to make a side trip to dive in Moalboal (yea, we couldn’t resist). On the way back to Cebu, we stopped by at Lechon capital, Carcar, to try the famous lechon at the Carcar public market. The remaining three days were spent in Cebu city at the different activities at the festival. Here’s a sample itinerary:
Day 1 / Wed 
  • Arrive at Mactan Cebu International Airport
  • Taxi into town (250PHP) – you can call for a GrabTaxi (there is free WIFI in the airport), or get a metered taxi from the taxi stand, 45mins-1hr
  • Bus to Moalboal from South Bus Terminal – Catch the yellow Ceres Liner bound for Bato (There’s both AC and non-AC versions and plenty of conductors shouting. Just tell them where you want to go.) AC bus cost us 116PHP/pax, 3hrs.
  • Arrive at Moalboal bus stand, catch a motorised trishaw to Panagsama Beach, 150PHP.
Day 2 / Thurs 
  • ==Diving!==
Day 3 / Fri 
  • Visit Kawasan Falls, one of the most famous and scenic waterfalls in Cebu. (Unfortunately our trip was cancelled due to flooding and high water levels from the consecutive days of rain. Boo.)
  • Bus from Moalboal bus stand to Carcar city for the BEST LECHON IN CEBU at Carcar public market (map), 65PHP/pax, 1.5hrs
  • Bus from Carcar city bus stand to Cebu City South Bus Terminal, 60PHP/pax, 1.5hrs
  • Taxi from South Bus Terminal to our hotel near Fuente Osmena Circle, 70PHP
  • BBQ dinner at Larsian (map)
  • Check out the street stalls along Osmena Boulevard and watch the Coronation of the Festival Queen at the Cebu City Sports Centre (CCSC) (Tickets are 50PHP / pax)
Day 4 / Sat 
  • Check out the morning mass at Basalica del Santo Niño at 6am
  • Join the crowd at 7:30am to watch the Fluvial Procession of the Miraculous Image of the Sto. Niño at the flyover near Carbon Market (map) – FREE
  • Watch the reenactment of the arrival of the Image of Sto. Niño (somewhat like a mini street parade). A good location is at the junction of Osmena Boulevard and M J Cuenco Ave (map). Be there by 8am. – FREE
  • Join the Solemn Procession of the Miraculous Image of Sto. Niño from 2-4pm and other festivities near Basalica del Santo Niño – FREE
  • Be wowed by Sinulog Fireworks Competition at SM City Cebu at 7pm. A good spot to watch the fireworks is here.- FREE
Day 5 / Sun
  • Morning: Take a stroll down Osmena Boulevard and check out the street stalls, and beautiful floats parked outside the CCSC. Find a good spot along General Maxilom Ave / Osmena Boulevard to catch the Sinulog Grand Parade! – FREE
  • Lunch at Casa Verde (map)’s famous babyback ribs!
  • Post-lunch: Get a ticket (2,500PHP) into CCSC to watch the Sinulog parade performance on-stage
  • Grand Finale and announcement of results at CCSC at 7pm – FREE
  • Street Party @ Mango Square!!!
Day 6 / Mon
  • Last minute shopping in Cebu city – Shamrock Bakery’s otap (famous puff pastry in Cebu), dried mango, Zubuchon’s lechon (apparently rated “best pig ever” by Anthony Bourdain!)
  • Do note that there is an airport tax of 750PHP/pax (gasp!) at Cebu International Airport.
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