Like a Local: The Ultimate Guide to Sinulog Festival, Philippines

Photo credit: WikiCommons

The Sinulog Festival, held every third Sunday of January in the Philippine city of Cebu, is described as the country’s grandest festival. Also known as the ‘Mother of all Philippine Festivals’, Cebu Daily News reports that the Sinulog attracts over a million people each year.

Characterized by incessant drums, trumpets, and native gongs, the festival combines legend and contemporary culture. It showcases a mix of the country’s pagan past and its current Catholic traditions.

A brief history

Primarily a dance, the Sinulog traces its roots from the early days preceding the Spanish colonization of the Philippines. The word ‘sinulog’ roughly translates to ‘like water current movement’ and describes the dance itself, which is typically two steps forward and one step back.The Sinulog Festival’s website explains that the dance was originally an act of worship for the Visayan deities.

That all changed in April 1521, when Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan arrived on the shores of Cebu. As a ‘conquistador’ for the Spanish Empire, Magellan brought not only plans of colonization, but also the Christian faith. He baptized Rajah Humabon of Cebu and his queen, Hara Amihan was renamed Queen Juana, along with 800 other natives. As a baptismal gift, Magellan gave Queen Juana a statue of the Child Jesus — Señor Santo Niño.

After Magellan’s death at the hands of another Rajah, Lapulapu, the next group of Spanish colonizers arrived 44 years later in April 1565, led by Miguel Lopez de Legaspi. But even in those years of Spanish absence, the people of Raja Humabon and Hara Amihan had embraced the image of Santo Niño as their own. After bombarding their village and burning it to the ground, Legaspi’s soldiers discovered a wooden box in one of the burning huts. It contained the image of Santo Niño laying side by side with native idols, covered in gold and surrounded by flowers.

This event is the basis for the Sinulog festivities, which include a special dance to reenact Queen Juana holding the Santo Niño in her arms to bless her people.

Sinulog today

From its humble beginnings as a communal form of worship, the Sinulog has grown to today’s vibrant festival. But it didn’t go without challenges. The International Journal of Research – Granthaalayah revealed that the tradition was almost completely forgotten at some point in the past. Thankfully, devoted individuals and organizations took it upon themselves to preserve the region’s cultural heritage, and share it with the world at the same time.

The modern celebration of Sinulog brings together attendees in a nine-day celebration that culminates in the Sinulog Grand Parade. One highlight is the Fluvial Procession, a water-parade held at dawn that includes a boat holding the Santo Niño surrounded by flowers and candles. This is followed by a reenactment of the Christianization of Cebuanos at the Basilica, and a procession at the city’s major thoroughfares. In the evenings, there are street parties.

The Sinulog experience


It goes without saying that this is not the place to be if you’re looking for a quiet retreat. There are ceaseless chants of “Viva Pit Señor!”, not to mention the electrifying drums and gongs.

However, there’s something very special about being one with a million people, uniting under the image of the Child Jesus. Whether or not you are religious, it’s an overwhelming experience to witness a tradition passed down through generations to be held in this scale and fashion. Many devotees attribute everything, from being healed from sicknesses, achieving financial success, and finding love to their worship of the Santo Niño.

The festival is an explosion of color, energy, and faith. Rain or shine, devotees flock to the streets and performers decked out in festive clothing practice the traditional dance. Essentially, it’s a celebration of people and faith, and even with commercialization, continues to be so.

Some final tips for travellers

Avoid booking flights that arrive a day before the festival, as most of the streets will be closed for preparation and you will have trouble getting from the airport to your hotel. To be safe, be sure that you’re in Cebu at least three days prior to the event. Plus, it will also give you enough time to get around first to familiarize yourself with the city.

The climate in Cebu can be very hot, and visitors not accustomed to heat will need to take extra care. Stay hydrated by bringing a large bottle of water when heading out. For more restful evenings, Leesa recommends keeping your room at 60-67 degrees Farenheit, so make sure your hotel room has a good air-conditioning system you may end up sweating profusely throughout the night.

In addition, place your gadgets in zip lock bags as you might get wet or painted on during the festivities. Be alert at all times and stay wary of pickpockets during crowded parades and shows.

Attending a festival like the Sinulog might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about inner peace. But those who’ve experienced the festival would know that the energy and culture inherent in the Sinulog is on another level.

Viva Pit Señor!

Post Author
Marion Villafuerte

Marion Villafuerte is a Manila-based licensed accountant by day and writer by night. Born to Cebuano natives, Marion is drawn to the history and culture of the Visayan people. When she’s not working, Marion likes to travel and practice yoga.

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