Mountain Festivals, and How to Survive Them

Frank Cimatu gives us a rundown on festivals in the Cordillera Administrative Region, plus a Panagbenga Survival Guide.

By Frank Cimatu
July 31, 2011

It's hard to be a lover in Baguio in February. You save enough for a bouquet of roses, only to learn that the farmers are readying them for an event two weeks later, and whatever was left was already brought to Manila. Other flowers like chrysanthemums, anthuriums, daisies, and orchids are likewise elusive. You buy chocolates and learn that some of them were destined for the chocolate fondue and fountain of some of the hotels' booths during Session in Bloom, set on the first week of March. You buy a bottle of tapuey (rice wine) and learn that all are reserved for the Ipitik Festival. If you are lucky still, you learn that all the respectable hotels have been fully booked since January.



Baguio residents usually pass February 14 with a simple date in a café and reserve their wallets and energy for the end of the month and the weeks that follow.

That is when the Panagbenga (Panahg-buh-ngah) Festival comes in. In 1995 when it was started, it was meant to fill in the lull between December (weddings and Christmas vacation) and Holy Week, the two crests of the tourist season for Baguio.

Now Panagbenga is much larger than both events. Most LGUs, school conventions and private "stress reduction" seminars are now timed to coincide with this event. It has become a must-go for politicians (during campaigns) and showbiz people with upcoming movies or commercials.

I remember in 1997, when the flower festival officially got named Panagbenga (Kankanaey for "season of blossoming"), that I was just walking around when the parade started and so I sat on the pavement to watch it pass by. In 1999, I was stuck at the Philippine Military Academy and had to walk four kilometers to reach the parade. By 2001, lowlanders (that's what we call you, local tourists) would be at the sidewalks of Session Road five hours before the parade. Last Panagbenga, entire families were actually camping on the streets or on the overpasses.


So what's the fuss all about? Panagbenga is one of the first secular festivals so don't expect dancing Sto. Ninos or Santo Entierros among the floats. Panagbenga celebrates flowers. The Alpha Flower is the marapait, the native sunflower, that suddenly blooms on the rocky mountainsides of the city mainly to tell the people, "Hey! Bring out your sweaters! The cold is here!" The marapait blooms only when the temperature reaches 15 degrees Centigrade, which is lower than your aircon setting. And then, boom! The mountains turn golden yellow. There are usually still marapaits in February.

But there are other flowers as well. What was once a two-day industry (All Saint's Day and Valentines) has become, well, a week for the flower industry. The flower gardeners in La Trinidad and Tublay already have their cut flowers reserved for the floats, which use thousands of flowers. There were 21 floats this year--some are a tableaux of fantasy gardens and terraces with unicorns and dragons, huge floral bunnies (this being the Year of the Rabbit), and even a mini-Baguio in flowers or renditions of local products done in flowers.

Even the boats at the Burnham Lagoon are embellished with flowers during the Fluvial Parade. At night, the stage at the center of the lagoon becomes a concert venue of Broadway songs and dances.


The Panagbenga also highlights the Cordillera culture. The routine for the dances is patterned after the Bendian, a circle dance by the Ibaloi, the first people of the area, which they perform after a successful headhunt. Think about it: flowers and beheading. Hmmm.

The Panagbenga hymn, composed by my neighbor Mac Fronda, complements the Bendian as well as the gongs and native drums that traditionally go with it. G-strings and the native skirts also go well with the floral costumes of the children dancers. One time, I was walking at the front of the parade when a woman shrieked. I thought it was another artista on a float. It turned out to be the local police in their uniform tops with G-strings.

The city council also declared February 23 as Ibaloi Day and the Ibalois hold their canao and merrymaking at that day.

The Ipitik Festival held at the Rose Garden is a celebration of tapuey. Ipitik is what you say to whoever opens a bottle or jar of tapuey so they can offer a bit to the spirits and to Kabunian, the supreme god of the Cordillerans. During the Ipitik, the native priests  offer prayers to Kabunian and start the ritual slaughter of pigs to bless the festival. Then 108 boys in G-strings play the gongs, a salute by organizer Ferdie Balanag to the Buddhist number of infinity. Then 2,500 people are treated to pinikpikan, a native Igorot chicken stew.


One day is also given to the pony boys of Wright Park and the Benguet cowboys all over the country. There are rodeos, pig wrestling, horse and pony races, and other things cowboys can think of as fun at the Baguio Athletic Bowl during the Pony Boy Day.

During February, the barangays are also required to come out with pocket gardens and to clean the streets. The cleanest and greenest barangays are awarded while the dirtiest and barest are also publicly shamed.

After the weekend parades, Session Road is closed for traffic for a week and becomes a street of outdoor cafes, mini-gardens and stores of crafts and foods from other regions in the country. Session Road in Bloom also means concerts and performances every night on both ends of Session Road. There are a lot of events made to coincide with the Panagbenga like Universal Reality Combat Championship, airsoft competition, golf tournament, Mr. and Ms. Panagbenga, Little Ms. Panagbenga, cheerleading and many others.

Two worthy innovations this year made Panagbenga more diverse and artistic. One is the Baguio Music Festival at the Centennial Park which showcased the Baguio talent in all types of music. Another is the Axis International Festival by Kawayan de Guia and DJ Mark Zero, which is their version of the Burning Man Festival or the Los Angeles Fringe Festival.


Held in the Rose Garden with a huge tent sewn from ukay-ukay discards, the festival included performances and installations from local and foreign artists. Installation arts of discarded windows, huge chalk murals, ecological art and hybrid music emanated from the tent. But there were other venues like Katipunan St. and Camp John Hay. Kawayan decided to make the Axis a biennial thing so the next "accident" will be in 2013, that is, if the world doesn't end in 2012.

If you missed the Panagbenga, you have other chances for the other Cordillera festivals.

Benguet's Adivay Festival is held in November at the Benguet State University. There is more to Benguet that salad bowls and flower gardens, as you would see here. Mountain Province holds its Adivay Festival in the first week of April while Ifugao has its Gotad in July usually to coincide with their planting season at the terraces. Abra holds its Abrenian Festival in the first week of March. Try their miki, native sugar or basi (local wine) at that time.

Now if you are the hapless lover in Baguio, try to celebrate February 14 either at Kalinga or Apayao. That was the time when the two provinces "separated." You can either go to the Ullalim Festival in Kalinga or Suyam Festival in Apayao. Either way, it will be a lot of fun and will involve a lot of drinking and feasting.

How to Survive the Panagbenga

I edited the official Panagbenga magazine, which is expected to be your guide for the next Paangbenga in 2012. You can find copies in selected gas stations and bookstores in Baguio and Manila. One of the articles is this one I wrote as a survival guide to watching the Panagbenga parade:


The Panagbenga has become a pilgrimage, and I am not talking of the old sense of that word that pertains to the Crusades and Templars. I remember going to Lourdes Grotto and seeing these old men and women going up from the road to the grotto on their knees. Those were the real religious pilgrims. Now, watching the Panagbenga requires the same piety, determination and patience.

Some tourists, police officers tell me, camp (with tent and sleeping bags) at the overpass in front of Sunshine Supermarket on the eve of the parade so they can stake a claim for the best view the next day. And this was at the time when the parade started at noon. Since the parades are scheduled in the morning, expect more rivaling campers.

If you think this is excessive, you can do what some natives do: leave the city and let the tourists take over. But if you are brave but not fanatic enough to stay in the trenches, here are some tips I culled from the Panagbenga campers and veterans of foreign parades.

1)      Arrive really early. The parade starts on the weekend but the bumper-to-bumper traffic from Manila started as early as Thursday in the past years so it would likely be the same next year. If you can help it, leave your cars and take the bus. The bus companies are aware of the Manila exodus to Baguio so they have dispatched their other buses for your convenience.

2)      Scout for a good spot and stay there. Look for the nearest restrooms and look for shade. If you can, surf the Internet or find out from posters the areas where the bands and dancers do their routines and stay in front of these areas. Expect Session Road to be full to the brim so try Upper Session Road. There are more trees there and that's where most Baguio natives stay.

3)      Bring folding chairs, food, drink, and toys if you are with children. The lull will bore you, and especially your children, so these things will come in handy. Get a step ladder but be sure that it is firm enough not to topple. Then put your iPod on full blast because you will be heckled from the back. Grab a book or a newspaper (which you can use to shield yourself in case the sun shines in its full glory) to swat pesky neighbors and marshals and other people on ladders with. There are restaurants along Session Road with good second-floor views. Have your breakfast and lunch there and seek out the windows.


4)      Try waiting it out at the Athletic Bowl and Burnham Park. There are fewer people there and that's where the participants give their best performances (that is, if they still have the energy after walking the five kilometer stretch).

5)      You are here to take photographs or videos. Here are some tips I got from photographers on the scene: Don't neglect the background. Don't always zoom in on the floats. Include the crowd watching the floats or those trying to catch the candies being thrown. These are part of the story. If you are early, scout for a good location like getting in front of a pine tree so you can have a good frame for your shots. Be sure that you have enough power for your equipment. Also, try to shoot quicker without refocusing too much. Don't spend time previewing your shots. So many things happen in parades.

6)      Not only tourists, but  snatchers and pickpockets come up to Baguio during the Panagbenga. Secure your bags, wallets, phones and cameras.

7)      This has not happened during the Panagbenga but a stampede is likely. Paul Wertheimer, an expert in crowd control, said that you should make a mental note of where the exits are.

"When you start to feel uncomfortable in a crowd, this is the time to start looking at leaving.  This is very difficult, because if you've come a long distance, or you've waited for a long time, for example in front of a stage, you don't want to leave," Wertheimer said. Here are some of his survival tips:

*Stay on your feet.

*Conserve energy - don't push against the crowd and don't yell or scream.

*Use sign language to communicate with those around you (point, wave, even use your eyes).

*Keep your hands up by your chest, like a boxer - it gives you movement and protects your chest.

*If you're in danger, ask people to crowd surf you out.

8)      If Number 7 scares you, watch instead the Panagbenga on TV.


9)      Dress appropriately. It's already warm in February, but it could be cold if the sun is blanketed by clouds. Wear shirts with lots of pockets especially those with zippers and buttons to deter pickpockets. If you need to bring bags, get the recyclable canvas ones because these can be used as napkins as well. Bring water. Leave your cigarettes as smoking is banned on the main streets of Baguio.

10)  Be part of the Panagbenga event. Wear flowery shirts or flowers on your hair. Be as wacky as possible. Smile often.


Basta Pinas, Mapintas!


Frank Cimatu is a Palanca-Award-winning poet and a correspondent for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. His CV lists him as a "poet, blogger, NGO worker, editor, newspaper reporter, art critic and eventologist."