Festival Fun in Cebu City

21-01-18

Having had an amazing time exploring Palawan in both El Nido and Coron, we’ve moved on to new adventures on the island of Cebu.

We headed for Coron airport in a staggeringly stuffy mini van that was crammed to the gills. Coron airport is tiny and hot and boasts the most disgusting toilet I’ve experienced thus far on our travels. As we checked in for the hour flight we were told that our luggage was over the weight limit and that we could either redistribute the weight by transferring into hand luggage or pay a fine. Apparently we were allowed 10kg hold luggage and 7kg hand luggage each. Our actual hand luggage was barely 2kg between us but the airport staff wouldn’t budge when we tried to explain that surely the deficit here makes up for going over with other luggage. Unable to shake the feeling that we were being had, we reluctantly coughed up the fine that amounted to more than the cost of the actual flight.

The flight was very smooth and we had beautiful views of sun-kissed islands below. It’s easy to get complacent here when lavished with such amazing sites on a daily basis and we have to remind ourselves to appreciate and savour every minute.

Having read reviews that it’s smoggy and congested with little of significance to see, we weren’t initially planning to spend any time in Cebu City. That was until we discovered that the annual Catholic festival of Sinulog was being held the following day. Having done a bit of research we discovered that it’s the grand daddy of Cebu’s religious fiestas, with people flocking in from all over the country to party.

Enough said, we changed plans and booked two nights to tide us over the Santo-Nino celebrations. Our hotel presented us with Sinulog t-shirts and wooden beads as we checked in.

We stayed in the uptown Lahug district that boasts the city’s best bars and restaurants. Having not had a steak since we left Blighty, we were both craving a sirloin and good old Trip Advisor pointed us in the direction of Soho Park, a smart bistro in IT town. We indulged in a wonderful bottle of red as we devoured our juicy steaks and were just finishing up when the chef came out to say hi. Having chatted for a little while, it transpired that he was a Brit and had previously worked at the Hand and Flowers in Marlow for a short stint. What are the chances?! Having met and fallen in love with his Filipino wife whilst out in Dubai he relocated to her home city of Cebu and created his dream restaurant here. Small world.

The next day dawned particularly grey and wet which was a huge disappointment but we were sure that wouldn’t put anyone off. We had little idea of just how big a deal Sinulog was and it was only when we tried to flag a taxi down to get us into the action that we realised. All the drivers laughed at our ambitious request to be taken to the festival’s epicentre, and we settled for “as close as you can please”.

We were in Cebu for the main event but celebrations had been taking place for well over a week, culminating in today’s 2am mass service and grande parade.

The main boulevard dissecting the city was closed off and hosted a huge carnival procession from 8.30am to 4.30pm. Dancers, floats and sponsors all took to the street as the public spectators swelled on the pavements to cheer them along.

It truly felt like a wonderful and inclusive celebration. Each different float or team, accompanied by their own band would stop at points along the procession route to perform their carefully choreographed dance. We felt privileged to be able to celebrate with everyone else and there were only a couple of occasions where we felt that we were being watched a little too intently by some dodgy looking characters in the audience. The pavements were flanked with make shift stalls, touts and BBQS, catering for the masses. There was a heady smell of smoke and sewers and food in the air and the noise was deafening.

It was such a cool, visceral experience.

As we made our way back to our hotel, totally pooped we stumbled across an incredible French wine bar in the most unlikely of neighbourhoods. It was a sublime pocket of deliciousness in an otherwise grey street and we loved its design and style.

Cebu City is loud, dirty and ruthlessly fast-paced. That said, everyone is friendly, hardworking and welcoming of us despite living with very little. Heritage and tradition jostles for space with an ever-pervading mall culture and American influenced modernity. This is a theme we’ve noticed in previous Philippines destinations but not to the extent as here in Cebu City. Advertisements on the TV and in sprawling shopping Centers promote aspirational western looking families and skin lightening products for girls are everywhere. Cheap, fast food chains including the ubiquitous Jolibees (fried chicken) are on every street corner. In fact I counted 5 during a 3 minute taxi ride around town. Interesting times for sure.

I’m so pleased that Sinulog presented us with the opportunity to stay in a city and get the full, diverse Philippines experience and not just the picture perfect island getaways we’ve been lusting over on Instagram. What a country.

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