Home of the Philippines’ oldest, grandest and most riotous festival, and the country’s most famous beach, Aklan rewards the traveler some of the most myriad and world-class experiences that the Philippines can offer.
Historically, Aklan (formerly known as Minuro it Akean) is considered as the country’s oldest province and was believed to have been established around 1212-1213 by datus or chieftains fleeing from the island of Borneo. The arrival of these Bornean chieftains and the subsequent trade of land versus a gold hat and jewelry with the aborigines called the Ati, spurred the beginning of the now world-famous Kalibo Ati-atihan – the mother of all Philippine festivals. Ati-atihan comes from the word Ati, and Ati-atihan (which means to make oneself look like an Ati).
Thus the Bornean settlers, in camaraderie with the Atis, daubed their faces with soot and black paint, and danced to the beat of the drums to celebrate the arrival in their new home. What began as a feast of friendship and reconciliation evolved into the most decadent, the most colorful and the wildest Philippine festival ever.
Photo by Kickflickr
Other Aklan towns that also celebrate their own versions of Ati-atihan are Batan and Ibajay (late January), Makato (15 January) and Altavas (22 January). Other Fiestas of note are the Aklan Foundation Day on 25 April, and the Feast of San Juan on 24 June (where Aklan locals flock to the beaches). The religious procession in Kalibo during Good Friday deserves a second look with pretty floats carrying the different saints and scenes of Christ’s Passion and Death remind travelers of similar processions in Valencia, Spain.
As the beats of the Ati-atihan die down, tourists hurriedly flock to the nearby resort island of Boracay (discussed in another article in these pages) to catch its world class stretch of white sand beaches, sun and yes, more parties. Boracay is approximately 45 minutes-1 hour away from Kalibo. Boracay has been named several times by international magazines as one of the top ten beaches in the world, and Asia’s number 1 beach. It goes without saying that Boracay remains the Grand Dame of Philippine tourism, its crown jewel and top tourism dollar earner. Summer in Boracay can mean beach rave parties, international sporting events (dragon boat races, windsurfing, kite boarding, and ultimate Frisbee championships- the Olympic Council of Asia just named Boracay as the host of 2014 Asian Beach Games), and hordes of tourists. Seasoned Boracay travelers will tell you that the best time to go to Boracay would be during the low season (July-October), and although the seas can be a bit rougher on the White Beach, hotel rates are lower and the beach is less crowded.
Aside from Ati-atihan and Boracay, Aklan offers a lot of other natural attractions. The town of Nabas offers a lot of beautiful waterfalls (Igpangi Falls, Magirok Falls, Magsulong Falls, Pinatuad Falls, Sakaan Falls, Sayaw Falls, Tagubtub Falls, and Sumalaysay Falls) and not to mention a protected rainforest that has relatively remained intact which hosts a lot of endemic flora and fauna. The town also boasts a natural cold spring (Hurom-horom) and a nearby cave, Basang. Going to Boracay, one passes through the 21 kilometer winding coastal road that weaves through the lush valleys of the town. Tulingon Cave is believed to be one of the longest caves in the Philippines which stretches for 20 kilometers from Nabas to the town of Pandan in neighboring province of Antique.
Past Malay town, is the westernmost Aklan town of Buruanga. The town is usually skipped by a lot of tourists since it is further than Caticlan which is a jump off point for Boracay, but Buruanga boasts of rather unspoiled beaches (check out Talisay Beach), crystal clear waters and very friendly people. Batasan Point is a good stopover for scuba divers, snorkelers, and cliff-board divers for its rich marine life. Sabang Cave, an elevated cave, which affords a stunning panoramic view of beaches and seascapes. Ignito Cave is a spelunker’s delight with its awe-inspiring stalactites and stalagmites formations hewn by millennia of drifting waters while Tigis Falls is also another hideaway from hideaway in this lovely town. Ingus-Ingus Hill, meanwhile served as a lookout for the approaching Moro pirates that used to attack the coastal villages, and underneath this is a cave which was rife with rumors that it was used as an ambuscade by English buccaneers, pirates and other plunderers of the Spanish galleons.
Before Boracay, Aklan locals used to flock to the white beach of Jawili, Tangalan and its nearby Jawili Falls (with its seven-tiered basins), and most still do. The beach is not crowded and the mood is more laidback. Tangalan town is also home for a marine sanctuary that houses a coral garden where schools of fish take sanctuary in the artificial reefs and countless species of hard and soft corals. Afga point and the Afga wave rock formation is a must-see stopover. The century-old Nepomucene Church is worth a visit as well.
In the south, the rolling and quiet hills of Madalag with its Old Spanish Church and the rampaging rivers of Libacao (perfect for bamboo rafting and kayaking) are fast becoming noticed on the Aklan tourism map.
The town of New Washington meanwhile, was the birthplace of the most controversial Filipino archbishop – Jaime Cardinal Sin (left photo), whose ancestral house still stands in front of the town square (one must knock and ask around for the caretaker if one wants to gain entry inside). The house is pretty unassuming and memorabilia not properly displayed. The entrance is for free, though a small donation to the caretaker would be highly appreciated. Cardinal Sin (yes, you can finally say that you have been inside the birthplace of Sin or house of Sin) was instrumental in ousting the two-decades old conjugal dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, and single-handedly called for the first bloodless and highly televised revolution in world history on the streets of Manila in 1986. Before the Cardinal died, he also helped kicked out another notoriously corrupt (and apparently to the Catholic clergy- morally bankrupt as well – although some of them have backtracked in their statements a few years after) Philippine President Joseph Estrada in 2001. If Sin had not died, he would have been named as the first Asian Pope as he was more senior than Germany’s Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI). For the more religious, the Immaculata Adoration Chapel and Pink Sisters’ Convent in Barangay Polo is known for its nuns wearing pink habits, and well, everything is pink- façade and all – Pink died and come here. It is also the only nunnery in the province and on the entire island of Panay. The Sampaguita Gardens, which was owned (or possibly still owned) by a semi-mysterious American gentleman, is home to a beachfront hotel (with views of the Sibuyan Sea).
Photo by Kickflickr
In Barangay Tambac, a small strip of local grill restaurants fronting the sea serves fresh and yummy seafood.
Another noteworthy place to check out is the 75-hectare Kalibo Bakhawan Mangrove Reforestation Project (one of the most successful projects of its kind in the Philippines and regarded as Best in Asia) with its bamboo eco-walk that takes you to the heart of this forest.
While the Museo it Akean (Museum of Aklan) is the provincial repository of its heritage and culture, the museum was ravaged by floodwaters during the devastating Typhoon Frank of 2008. The museum remains closed until further notice. Also check the scenic Agnaga Falls and Tigwatil-an Island (Crystal Cove – interesting shells and caves of crystalline formations) of Malay; pottery making and pop rice making of Lezo.
Kalibo is also home to the 8th century tradition of pineapple fiber weaving (piña cloth) considered the queen of Philippine fabrics and has clothed the most famous and the most influential people in the world including the leaders of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in 1996 when the Philippines hosted the event. The world leaders donned the traditional Barong Tagalog in Pineapple silk from Kalibo during the requisite class photo. The piña silk (left photo) remains to be the fabric of choice for the Philippine elite for its understated elegance, and seemingly delicate appeal.
Please check with the Philippine and Australian government funded cooperative – Handicraft of Aklan Multi-purpose Cooperative (HAMPCO) at this address -402 Old Buswang, Kalibo, Aklan, Contact No: +63.36.2624388/+63.36.2686880/+63.917.7170290 or email them at email@example.com. Another alternative source of Aklan handicrafts is the De la Cruz House of Piña +63.2.2623267 or you may drop by their store in D’Mall in Boracay.
Why Not Go
If you are expecting humongous malls and skyscrapers like the ones in Manila, forget about it. The best way to shop in Aklan is to actually go to its wet-and-dry markets for souvenirs as well its numerous souvenir shops.
One of the best beaches in the world, the best party in Asia, a treasure trove of natural attractions, piña cloth, beautiful and fun-loving people – what’s not to love about Aklan?
Best Time to Visit
Unless there is a typhoon, Aklan is an excellent destination year-round. Third week of January is the best time to hit Kalibo for the annual Ati-atihan. If you have to pass through Kalibo on your way to Boracay during summer, you may also time it during the Aklan Foundation Day as you can shop for bargain souvenirs at its trade fairs and you can check out the food festival in its streets.
For those who want to splurge, The Sampaguita Gardens is the most comfortable place to stay in the Aklan mainland and is usually a top pick for visiting families. For the demanding gourmet, skip the food – not much in originality and flavor at all.
La Esperanza Hotel (Kalibo – +63.36.2623989) has surprisingly quiet rooms considering it is right next to the bus and mini-van station. Good for people on the go, who want to hop on the next bus to Boracay after Ati-atihan finishes.
Bakhawan Eco-tourism Centre and Mangrove Park have 6 private rooms with 2 bedrooms each and two dorm-type rooms with cable TV. A little bit far from the town centre but it does give its guest peace and quiet. Run by the provincial government, contact the Provincial Tourism Office (+63.36.2688033/+63.36.2624692 or at their website at www.kalibo.gov.ph.)
You may also check these other accommodations – Beachcomber Inn Kalibo (near shops and the mall), and Garcia-Legaspi Mansion (near the town centre). The local Department of Tourism also arranges a homestay program for tourists, since the town experiences a shortage of hotels during Ati-atihan season (Contact the Provincial Tourism Office).
Where & What to Eat
Aklan is better known for pop-rice treats called Ampao, Banana chips and candied Banana slices in white paper cones. Chicken Binakol (native chicken simmered in pure coconut juice, lemongrass, and other spices) are among the most known Aklan dishes. Kamuros (brown rice) is known for its fragrance and taste. Linapay, meanwhile, is another rare Aklan delicacy that is usually served during fiestas or may be found in local wet market restaurants. It is small shrimps called alamang cooked in coconut milk, seasoned with ginger, chili, salt, onion, garlic and a local ingredient called labihig to add a bit of a sour taste and texture. It is then wrapped in Gabi (Taro) leaf.
New Peking House (Kalibo) offers good Chinese food, despite its humble ambience, while Nakon Thai Restaurant (Kalibo) serves authentic Thai cuisine (or at least the most authentic this side of town). Kalibo’s own version of Starbucks can be found at L@tte Coffee and Internet Station with an outdoor patio, comfy couches, fancy coffee mixes and shakes and an average speed internet connection. Worth a look – Nino’s Ihaw-ihaw, Mix and Match Bar and Restos and the grill restaurants along Barangay Tambac in New Washington, Aklan.
Of course, Boracay offers almost everything under the sun when it comes to international cuisines. An international crowd requires international tastes and Boracay has them. From Greek to French to Indian to Japanese, Boracay is a foodie paradise. With over 300 hotels and resorts – it is definitely expected that multicultural palates will be satisfied.
In Kalibo, nightlife usually buzzes around the Kalibo Airport area with its restaurants as well as on the shores of White Beach in Boracay. Nightlife does pickup though during the Ati-atihan and the Aklan Foundation Day with streets blocked off for grills, beer and a good night of dancing to live bands.
My to do List
1. Go crazy, dance and lose all inhibitions at Kalibo Ati-atihan. **
2. Walk through the Mangrove Forest of Kalibo.
3. Take a picture of yourself in the ‘House of Sin’.*
4. Check out the Afga Wave Rock Formation in Tangalan.*
5. Sun and tan on the beaches of Boracay.*
6. Chill out at the cold springs of Hurom-hurom in Nabas.**
7. Buy a piña cloth shawl and a Barong Tagalog.*
8. Buy Christmas ornaments in advance at the Sampaguita Gardens.
9. Go Waterfall-hopping in Nabas.*
10. Dive at Batasan Point in Buruanga.
*- Highly Recommended
**- Recommended by Locals
Stay Away From
1. Mosquitoes! – just bring bug repellent to be sure
2. Dust Mites. – bring Lysol with you, if you think the hotel room is oldish and not cleaned properly. (If you are bringing pets, it goes without saying that pets can die from Lysol.). There are also of dust mites in the ships plying the RORO trail. Got bitten good on my way from Caticlan to Mindoro Island by a colony of mites.
3. Sun protection and sunglasses if one heads out to the beaches.
Ryan supports socially and environmentally responsible and sustainable tourism, as well as the promotion of the Philippines as an alternative Asian tourist destination.
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