Lucban, Pahiyas Festival
A classic Tagalog quiet farming town that sits on the foothills of the sacred mountain of Banahaw, Lucban literally explodes with a kaleidoscope of colors, gastronomic feasts and religious fervor during the annual Pahiyas Festival, perhaps one of the most festive, most significant and most colorful of all the festivals in the world.
Lucban, 3-4 hours south of Manila, is an upland town in the province of Quezon (one of the largest Philippine provinces in terms of land area), is a bustling community of about 46,000 people. Postcard perfect, this is basically a traditional Southern Tagalog quiet municipality with narrow roads, a bunch of Spanish-era houses and a genteel yet provincial charm framed with the distant shadows of the mighty Mount Banahaw and rolling farmlands in the background.
According to a legend, the town got its name from the Lucban or Pomelo Tree. And so the legend goes, three hunters by the name of Marcos Tigla, Lucas Manawa and Luis Guimba from the town of Majayjay in the neighboring province of Laguna lost their way whilst following the trail of some wild animals and hunting at the foot of Mount Banahaw. While stopping for a rest under a tree, the trio saw a crow and thinking that this was a bad omen, they moved to another location under a large shady pomelo tree. While resting, the three hunters were fascinated with a couple of beautiful singing kingfishers. The superstitious trio thought of the incident as a good sign and decided to settle and name the place as Lucban. The townsfolk accepted this as true and Marcos Tigla became to be the first gobernadorcillo (a petty title similar to a village chief doled out by the Spanish conquistadors) in 1596. After his leadership, the other hunter, Lucas Manawa then took over for four years.
Photo by stitch
Lucban is pretty much synonymous with the famous Pahiyas Festival, celebrated every 15th of May – and it is this Philippines festival that made Lucban a must-see destination for those exploring the decadently multicultural and multifaceted country that is the Philippines. The festival dates back hundreds of years long before the arrival of the Spaniards and started out as an animistic ritual for the locals to honor their gods for their bountiful harvest and believing that celebrating this great fortune would ensure another bountiful year ahead.
When the Spaniards arrived around the 16th century, the festival was appropriated to suit the Catholic taste (as it was the same with the Kalibo Ati-atihan). The Spanish friars introduced San Isidro Labrador (Saint Isidore) to the natives and shifted the allegiance basically from the animist gods to the Christian God whilst continuing the tradition of thanksgiving and prayers for more abundant harvests to come. The townsfolk started to bring their best harvest to the church for its blessing and later on, with the increasing bounty they started putting it outside their doors instead with the statue of San Isidro going out in a procession.
With Filipinos being naturally creative, the Lucban townspeople started hanging their harvests on their windows as well and then, the entire façade of their houses along the procession route. You would usually know the trade or industry of a particular house by the decorations themselves – rice stalks – means a rice farming family lives in that house; hats- meant there lives a hat-making family and so on and so forth. Don’t expect a house decorated with lingerie or kinky adult toys here though, however, we kind of had a wistful thought of that while we were strolling along the procession route. The procession route changes each year so that other houses may have a chance of participating in the festival. Giant papier-mache effigies are also paraded around town with a lively brass band, adding to the lovely fiesta atmosphere.
One iconic Pahiyas decoration is no other than the “kiping”, a colored (and edible) rice paper that is similar to the tacos of Mexico. The Galleon Trade between Manila and Acapulco (Mexico) in the 17th century was a major influence with this Pahiyas icon. A Lucban local by the name of Juan Suarez sailed to Mexico for training of some sorts, and was introduced to tacos in the port of Acapulco. Being a culinary talent, he tried to fashion out his version of tacos upon his return to Lucban using locally available ingredients (water, ground rice, salt and food coloring) – and thus, kiping was born.
Kiping is made by mixing all ingredients with water and pouring the mixture into a “kabal” leaf- a sturdy and wide leaf, while dripping the excess liquid (kipi) and then steaming it for 2-3 minutes. It is then hung up to dry after which you remove the kiping from the leaf to dry on a flat surface. You then put the “buntal” fiber for hanging and then you flatten (kipiin) several pieces by putting a heavy object on top. Kiping eventually became part of the Pahiyas Festival making the festival more colorful than ever – with chandeliers or “arangya” made out of kiping and sunflowers made to decorate the houses along with the vegetables. A drop by the local and surprisingly well-stocked souvenir shop can get you some kiping to take home (which is about PhP75 for six different colored pieces in a box). The kiping is usually deep-fried like prawn crackers and dipped in locally made organic spiked vinegar. It can also be grilled or microwaved and dipped in sugar, cheese powder, sour cream or however you like it.
In the ‘60s the local word “Pahiyas” meaning decoration was formally added to name the celebration. Each house would compete for the Grand Pahiyas Prize and when the day turns into night, the brightest and the most lighted house wins the “Kutitap Award” – suddenly transforming the entire town into a Christmas village in the middle of May.
The Pahiyas festival usually starts around the morning of the 15th May with a mass in its beautiful centuries old Lucban Church (photo below). The present church actually sits on the ruins of the previous churches on the same site. The first one was built in 1595 and was destroyed in 1629, and a second church was constructed between 1630 and 1640 but was seriously damaged by fire 1738. The present church was completed in 1738 and the convent in 1743. Right by the right side of the church was the site of the La Casa de Doña Ana. It was the site of a big “bahay na bato” (house made out of stone – an architectural style that is usually attributed to the well-off Filipino families as opposed to the “bahay-kubo” – also known as the nipa hut and is usually attributed as the abode of poorer Filipinos). The house, which was owned then by Pedro Nepomuceno Y Villaseñor and Ana Maria Herrera Y de la Concepcion, was built in a neoclassical style a few years after the couple’s wedding in 1842. It was the only house with the neoclassical style in the entirety of Lucban and was the favorite place to stay for prominent guests coming from Manila and neighboring towns. The house was subsequently named in honor of the wife for her role in establishing Hospicio de Pobres de Lucban, a facility taking care of Lucban’s destitute and sick.
Photo by stitch
What we found strange in Pahiyas was even though there was heaps of free food being handed out in the streets, there were an overwhelming number of beggars (we suspect these people were bused in from a different place as they did not look like they were locals). Touts are everywhere as well, with everything from dyed chicks, garlands and even the local “kesong puti” – cheese made from either goat or carabao milk. And like any place in the Philippines, ugly photos of politicians who were intending to run for public office were conveniently put in place- one, a prominent opposition mayor from a Manila city running for President for the 2010 elections, shamelessly posting his election streamers in Lucban. The streets of Lucban can be pretty crowded with media, local and foreign tourists milling around the procession route. The people of Lucban are generally peaceful, laidback, helpful and friendly so it is not very difficult to get around this tiny town. To go around the festival, start with the church and follow the houses with the decorations- you are basically following the procession route. Always check the Pahiyas Festival website for the route map for the year.
For the religious, another important site for pilgrims in Lucban is the Kamay ni Hesus Shrine (+63.42.5403085 or +63.917.8536267)- a few minutes away from the town proper, and is situated on the slopes of Mount Banahaw and features healing masses. The site features what would be the biggest Christ the Redeemer statue (50 feet) in Northern Hemisphere and second only to the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. It sits on top of a hill with life-size figures depicting the 14 Stations of the Cross. It has a very theme-park feel and is a bit too contrived, with directions on how to go to the “Holy Bath”, to the “Garden of Eden” and to the cafeteria (no good coffee served here) and souvenir shop. We almost half-expected to see someone get crucified for a three-o’clock show. The buildings are boxy and do not have any artistic value, and the statues were basically made of concrete and painted. While I respect the views of the pilgrims who come here, I could not help but think of the place as something out of a Simpson’s TV episode.
Photo by Alaundre
For those who want to hike Mount Banahaw, please check with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (+63.2.9281178) first as the government sometimes closes the mountain to protect it. Usually accompanied with the word mystic, this imposing dormant volcano reaches heights of 7,382 feet above sea level with its last recorded eruption taking place in 1730. It has a 700 foot deep crater and the mid-slope has crystal clear springs that flow down to the town proper of Lucban and other towns nearby. Best place to start your hike though is from the town of Dolores with supplies coming from San Pablo town in Laguna. Mount Banahaw is considered as a holy place for a cult who calls themselves as Rizalistas who gather every Easter at the crater to wash in the “River Jordan” and pray for the rebirth of Jose Rizal. Rumors have it that UFOs were also seen in this area – giving the mountain a spooky and quirky reputation.
For people traveling on package tours such the ones handled by Discover Asia International Travel and Tours, there are side trips to the underground cemetery in Nagcarlan, Laguna offered as well as beaches in nearby Pagbilao (1 hour away) in the Tayabas Bay.
*updated Ryan: 19/11/2009 – Discover Asia International Travel and Tours does not have their best guides anymore, and lately, it has been very difficult dealing with them. I could no longer vouch for the quality of their services.
There are also beautiful Spanish era churches in the city of Lucena as well in the town of Tayabas that are quite pleasant. If you are not spending a night in Quezon, you might as well skip the island hop. The islands were okay but forgettable. The island hop in Tayabas Bay usually includes the Isla Puting Buhangin – a sizable island with a decent small strip of mixed sand and coral beach in a cove. It also a features a tiny cave called Kwebang Lampas where you can wade inside in about 4 feet of water. The boat trip to the island is uneventful (about 20 minutes). The island has a major coal power plant, which is a big turn off. Another nearby island is the Patayan Island (photo above), a small mangrove lined island with a mixed coral and pebbles sandbar that extends quite a long way into the sea. Sand quality on both islands is definitely inferior to that of Boracay and water quality is okay but is also second to Boracay, Palawan or even neighboring Batangas. Trips to the island are usually launched from the resorts on the coast of Pagbilao town. A big disappointment was the Balugbog Baboy or the Bilaran Sandbar. According to local boatmen, the sandbar practically disappeared after nearby resorts and homes quarried the sand indiscriminately, effectively destroying it.
Why Not Go
There are no beaches of any sort in Lucban and none that are close and worth going to either. The town does not have the huge malls that are present in most Philippine cities but it does have quaint stores that have that refined provincial feel.
Lucban town itself is full of charm, and the Pahiyas Festival, along with the Kalibo Ati-atihan itself are amongst the most authentic and most colorful festivals in the Philippines. One should not miss the distinct culinary experience Lucban itself offers.
Best Time to Visit
Festival time (Pahiyas Festival, celebrated every 15th of May) is the best time to go to Lucban – although the town itself generally experiences occasional showers and thunderstorms as well as mist descending from Mount Banahaw the entire year. An umbrella always comes in handy in case of a sudden downpour.
Whether Lucban is just a daytrip for most people coming from Manila because of the lack of accommodation, it is probably best to contact the Pahiyas Festival website for referrals for places to stay in Lucban. Lucban, like Kalibo in Aklan has a similar boomtown character (although Kalibo does have more places to stay).
The Patio Rizal Hotel (+63.42.5402107) on the main street of Quezon Avenue has 18 rooms with 1 VIP suite and is amongst the most recommended places to stay in Lucban. As a tip, book your room possibly a year in advance if you plan to stay overnight during the festival. It is basically a stone’s throw away from the church where the procession basically starts and ends.
Where & What to Eat
Lucban is a good culinary destination for those who long for dishes with that deep Tagalog touch. Pansit Habhab is the queen of all Lucban dishes – a tasty noodle dish that is made from egg noodles that are sautéed with vegetables, pork, pork liver, and shrimps and is wrapped and eaten on banana leaves. The local government usually sponsors free pansit habhab and gives out free helpings to everyone on the street corners.
Another important Lucban culinary tradition is the Hardinera – Lucban’s version of meatloaf, but is quite different in most cases. It is made from diced pork and vegetables (and sometimes fruits) and then mixed with egg yolks, flour, cream and in some cases even cheese. Unlike meatloaf, it is steamed not baked. It has a curious delicate taste and it does add a perfect balance to the lustier flavor of Pancit Habhab.
Lucban longganisa (longganisa/langgonisa are Philippine-style sausages) above, are the smaller and the less sour version of their Vigan counterparts but not the less flavorful. It is a good compromise for those who cannot take the sourness and spiciness of the Vigan Longganisa.
Other notable must eats in Lucban are the kesong puti or the Philippine white cheese (which is most usually made by neighboring towns but sold in Lucban – a small block is about PhP50) which is a little tangy and a bit bland but perfect for freshly baked bread in the morning and a glass of brewed coffee; coconut jams; pastillas and yemas (mostly milk-based candies).
While it is best to be eat in one of the houses (usually package tours include buffets in someone’s house), one can also drop by the Abcede’s (+63.42.5402277) which has mainstream Filipino dishes as well as the Lucban specialties.
Nightlife in Lucban is forgettable save for the Pahiyas Festival nights where drinking and eating are widespread in almost all of the homes.
My to do List
1. Buy a box of kiping to take home.*
2. Take photos of the beautifully decorated houses.*
3. Stuff yourself with delicious Lucban dishes such as the pancit habhab.**
4. Have a taste of Southern Tagalog’s preferred poison – the fiery and potent- Lambanog.*
5. Take home a bunch of the Lucban Longganisa.**
6. Take a sidetrip to the nearby towns.
7. Stroll the streets of Lucban town at night.
*- Highly Recommended
**- Recommended by Locals
If you are not going with a tour group, there are buses going to Lucena City or Sta. Cruz, Laguna from the different bus terminals in Manila (Buendia and Taft Avenues in Manila; Araneta Center in Cubao, Quezon City and along EDSA Kamuning-Kamias). From Sta. Cruz, take a jeepney going to Lucban in a terminal located in Pagsawitan. The jeepney fare should be about PhP38.00. Coming from Lucena City, head out to the Grand Central Terminal or the Crossing- Diversion Road and get on a jeepney bound for Lucban (Fare is PhP25.00).
There are AUVs, SUVs and other commuter vans located near the shopping malls in the south of Manila as well (Alabang, Muntinlupa area) but the fare varies.
Around town, walking is the best way to get around, because well, you don’t have any choice as the procession route is closed off to vehicles. If you are bringing a car, you would have to park it a long way from the town center in designated parking areas.
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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