01 of 06
Pit Senyor! Welcome to the Philippines' Biggest Fiesta
If you only have enough time to catch one fiesta in the Philippines, then time your trip for Cebu's Sinulog festival on the third Sunday of January.
Sinulog is a raucous, no-holds-barred expression of Filipino culture: originally a Catholic festival celebrating the Santo Niño (Christ Child) icon housed in Cebu's Basilica del Santo Niño Church, Sinulog has metamorphosed into a Mardi Gras-like party-hearty weekend.
The Grand Parade that snakes its way through Cebu's major thoroughfares is certainly Sinulog's most popular event, though impromptu parties along Cebu's side streets have also become a memorable part of the Sinulog experience.
In the following pages, we'll give you an overview of this fun Philippines travel experience: its historical roots, the calendar of Sinulog events rooted in the ecclesiastical calendar, and the major secular Sinulog events, including the Grand Parade and the many parties occurring around it. We'll wind it up with a guide to surviving Sinulog as a first-time visitor.
To find out what Sinulog is all about, proceed to the next page.Continue to 2 of 6 below.
02 of 06
What is the Sinulog Festival?
There would be no Sinulogwithout the Santo Niño, and possibly no Catholicism in the Philippines either. This tiny, foot-high icon of the Christ Child is the Philippines' oldest religious relic: it was given by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 as a baptismal gift to Humamay, the queen of the Rajah Humabon.
According to legend, Baladhay, an adviser to the Rajah Humabon, lay ill within sight of the Santo Niño icon. After a few days, he was found healed and dancing with vigor; he explained that a small child (and he pointed to the Santo Niño) had tickled him awake.
Trying to scare the child away, Baladhay danced the steps of the "Sinulog" for the first time, in imitation of the movements of the river. Two steps forward, one step back - Santo Niño devotees dancing on the streets every Sinulog over the years have since followed (quite literally) in Baladhay's footsteps.The original Santo Niño image can still be seen in Cebu's Basilica del Santo Niño Church today, but its clones can be seen in many Filipino homes and businesses, not just in the Philippines but wherever the Filipino diaspora can be found. Revelers carry copies of the Santo Niño icon (pictured above) as they dance in the streets for Sinulog. Other festivals around the Philippines - notably the Ati-Atihan Festival - are dedicated to the Santo Niño as well.Continue to 3 of 6 below.
03 of 06
Sinulog Calendar of Events
The third Sunday of January is actually one of the last days of the Sinulog celebrations; the festival properly launches more than a week before this date.
The city government, local ecclesiastics and Santo Niño devotees kick Sinulog off with a penitential walk to the Basilica del Santo Niño. The next nine days afterwards are taken up by novena masses in Cebu's churches, celebrated alongside a packed calendar of art events, parties, and pageants throughout the city. (For an updated schedule of events, visit the official website at sinulog.ph.)
At the end of the novena period, the next few events take place in quick succession:
- Traslacion. On Thursday, the Santo Niño and an image of our Lady of Guadalupe - makes its way from the Basilica to the Shrine of Saint Joseph in neighboring Mandaue City.
- Fluvial parade. On Friday, a fluvial procession bearing the Santo Niño circles from Ouano Wharf to the island of Lapu-Lapu, then back to Cebu and the Basilica.
- Solemn parade. On Saturday, a solemn religious procession circles through Cebu's main thoroughfares, beginning and ending at the Basilica. Santo Niño devotees follow the procession, carrying candles while dancing the Sinulog. Some of them join to thank the Santo Niño for answered prayers; others join to seek favor for wishes not yet granted.
- Grand parade. On Sunday, a massive parade featuring teams of colorfully-dressed participants dances through Cebu's main thoroughfares. The parade culminates in a grand event at the Cebu City Sports Complex, where the best-performing troupes compete for over a million pesos in prizes.
- Hubo. A few days after the Grand Parade, a Mass called the "Hubo" (undressing) takes place at the Basilica - the Santo Niño is ritually undressed, bathed in perfumed water, and dressed before being placed back in its niche. The Hubo marks the official end of the Sinulog festival.
As a visitor for Sinulog, do you have to stay for the whole lineup? Goodness, no! The Grand Parade is the biggest event on the Sinulog calendar, and it's the only one you need to see. More on this on the next page.Continue to 4 of 6 below.
04 of 06
The Sinulog Grand Parade
The first Sinulog Grand Parade in 1980 consisted of no more than a few hundred dancers in recycled costumes parading down Osmeña Boulevard. 35 years later, an estimated 2.5 million visitors attended the 2015 Grand Parade, watching about 130 groups of dancers marching in garish outfits accompanied by 40 floats and 33 higantes (giant effigies).
The Grand Parade marches slowly down a 4-mile loop; you can start watching the action from Mango Avenue (also known as General Maxilom Avenue), as the parade moves west down this road, around the Fuente Osmeña Circle, then down Osmeña Boulevard to the Cebu City Sports Center.
The groups participating in the Parade come from all over the Philippines. Towns send their best, most intricately-dressed dancers, all carrying copies of the Santo Niño while shouting "Pit Senyor!", swaying and prancing to the amplified beat of the Sinulog theme song on endless repeat (you will try to get it out of your head by the end of the day; you will fail).
At 7pm, the Parade reaches its ultimate peak at the Sports Center - the participating parade groups vie for prize money by showing off their costumes and dance moves.Continue to 5 of 6 below.
05 of 06
Sinulog's Raucous Street Parties
Over the past few years, Sinuloghas evolved from a sober civic/religious festival to a rowdy once-a-year week-long party. Literally millions of teens and twenty-somethings crowd Cebu's streets during Sinulog - not just to watch the Grand Parade's colors, but also to hang out by the side streets radiating from Maxilom Avenue to eat and tipple.
Maxilom Avenue's bars and restaurants enjoy the influx of tourists the most; starting Thursday night, the nightlife along this busy Cebu street gets busier and busier, reaching a peak on the Sinulog weekend. Alternatively, partiers can just stay out on the street and enjoy the impromptu outdoor celebrations - side stalls selling beer, alcohol, and Filipino street food proliferate during Sinulog. (Read our Guide to Drinking in the Philippines.)
The street parties reach a climax on the day of the Sinulog Grand Parade, beginning at noontime and continuing into the night. The main outdoor party precinct begins at the Fuente Osmeña circle (the whole park comes to life with food stalls - location on Google Maps), and continues down to Maxilom Avenue and its side streets. (This writer and his friends stayed at an outdoor grill along Juana Osmeña Street, location on Google Maps, and saw plenty of partying going down our way.)
For fans of live music, a number of organizers oblige with a series of parties throughout the week leading up to Sinulog. Some notable Sinulog shindigs include LifeDance Cebu, an EDM dance event that follows in the wake of ZoukOut and Coachella; and Sinulog Invasion.Continue to 6 of 6 below.
06 of 06
Surviving Sinulog: Tips for Travelers
Cebu's Sinulogis probably the Philippines' biggest street party, and it can be overwhelming for the first-time visitor. To get the most out of your Sinulog experience, keep the following tips in mind:
Find a Cebu hotel within walking distance of the parade route. Public transportation in Cebu during Sinulog will slow to a standstill. Unless you have a privately hired ride waiting to take you to your hotel or hostel, you may find yourself stranded in the middle of the party zone. Our suggested solution: find a Cebu hotel along Fuente Osmeña or Maxilom Avenue, or within walking distance of these places.
Wear appropriate clothes. Sinulog weather is usually hot and sunny; wear light cotton clothing and comfortable shoes, as you can expect to do a lot of walking along the parade route and down the party side streets. (Read about weather in the Philippines.) Wear clothes you don't mind getting dirty - you and your shirt will be smeared with face paint by smiling locals.
Prepare for the heat. Bring a bottle of water with you, and wear sunscreen or a big hat to ward off the heat. (Read our list of sun protection tips for travelers to Southeast Asia.)
Go with the flow. One one hand, Sinulog's massive crowds can be overwhelming. On the other, local partygoers take pride in showing you "Cebuano hospitality" by plying you with free drinks and painting your face in good fun. "Good vibes lang" (just good vibes) is the spirit of the day - take no offense at getting your face smeared for the umpteenth time, take everything in good fun, and enjoy.
Find a spot to sit down in. The human body isn't meant to walk around for over 12 hours straight. During Sinulog, this writer and friends settled down at noon at an al fresco grill along Juana Osmeña Street. To our delight, we discovered that the party had come to us - the crowd of revelers streaming down the street to the Grand Parade route made an irresistible party scene, with free-flowing spirits (in a literal sense: Cebuanos were plying passersby with free tequila shots) and busy street food stalls.
No bathrooms. The restaurant bathrooms around our drinking table had long waiting queues; there were no portalets in sight. Prepare your bladder for battle.
Repeat after me: "Pit Senyor!" This is the traditional Sinulog greeting, once reserved for praise to the Santo Nino, but now an expression of goodwill to fellow Sinulog partygoers. Say it to strangers, repeat it, don't be afraid to wear it out. Pit Senyor!