MassKara: the festival of smiles
I was told that the people of the Philippines know how to celebrate, but it wasn’t until I traveled to Bacolod in Negros Occidental to attend the MassKara festival that I truly understood the true Filipino fiesta spirit. Dancing, parades, street food — MassKara had it all!
Fiestas have been a part of the Philippines since the Spanish era, and even now you can feel the Spanish influence in the way Filipinos celebrate, with colourful bands and parades.
When is it?
The month of October marks the start of the festive season. The city turns into one big party place with thousands of people flooding into the town to celebrate MassKara, which is one of the most famous festivals of Philippines.
The dates vary from year to year; the 2016 dates are not yet official. However, the main event is expected to happen from Oct 17 to Oct 19, 2016.
History of MassKara
The MassKara festival began in 1980 in the midst of the Philippine sugar cane crisis. Sugar cane is the main product of Bacolod, and sugar prices hit an all-time low as a result of the rise in popularity of US corn syrup. Then, in April 22 of the same year, the inter-island vessel MV Don Juan collided with a tanker and sank in Tacloban City; approximately 700 people died during the tragedy, including members of several prominent Bacolod families.
As a result of this double disaster, the government decided to give people something to smile about, and came up with the idea of MassKara. The name MassKara derives from the words mass meaning “crowd” or “many”, and kara which roughly translates to “face”, so the name MassKara means “many faces” or “a crowd of faces” — a name which makes sense, since the main event is a street dance procession!
One of the liveliest and vibrant festivals of Philippines, MassKara is not all about the colourful parade and catchy Latin music. It reflects the spirit and zeal of the people of Bacolod; and demonstrates that no matter how bad things get, they are always prepared to fight back and emerge as winners.
Get to MassKara
MassKara is held in the city of Bacolod and is easily accessible from Manila, Cebu or Iloilo.
From Manila/Cebu by plane
It’s easy and affordable to fly from Manila or Cebu; Philippines Airlines and Cebu Pacific are the major carriers for this route. The cost of a one-way ticket can vary from 1500 pesos to 4000 pesos (US$30-90). It is advisable to book in advance, especially during MassKara season.
From Iloilo by ferry
Geographically, Bacolod is very close to Iloilo. If you’re there, it a lot more sense to travel by ferry rather than flying! Wesaam or Supercat Express each cost around 350 pesos (US$7.60) from IloIlo terminal. The travel time is about one hour.
From Bacolod port you can hire a tricycle to get to the main town, three or four kilometres away.
What to do?
Big vibrant masks are the essence of this festival. So your first task is to buy one from the street vendors.
Different barangay (neighbourhood) groups work hard to create a standout performance with eye-catching dresses and neatly crafted masks. The fiesta is generally spread over three days, each filled with flamboyant parades from different barangays. The main MassKara event is on the last day, and street food is an important part of the festival too — there’s a wide range of food to satisfy your taste buds. From mouth-watering dishes to printed-on-the-spot Bacolod t-shirts, there’s a range of things to keep you going for three days.
Lacson Street is generally the main attraction, but moving to the starting point gives a better view, with relatively less crowd to handle. For MassKara 2015, I chose to stay at Araneta Ave (for better access to the parade) and eventually made my way to Lacson Street by the evening.
Since you’ll be walking a lot, make sure to wear comfortable footwear. The whole fiesta spreads over a stretch of few kilometres, and since the roads will be generally jammed or blocked, the best way to explore the place is by foot — though you can hop in a tricycle if you’re tired!
There are plenty of accommodation options to choose from, but I recommend one of the hotels on Lacson Street as a safe, convenient choice. I stayed at the Circle Inn, about 3km from the main street, and while this meant walking to and from the events, I found it a good choice. Whichever accommodation option you choose, make sure to book in advance!
As well as street food, make sure to try Bacolod’s signature dish: Chicken Inasal! From Manokan country food stalls to Chicken Deli; this charcoaled grilled chicken can be spotted everywhere.
Also, don’t forget to try the pastries at Calea. I’m not a big fan of sweets, but being in Bacolod (the sugar cane capital) means that sugary treats are obligatory!
Bacolod is blooming!
Vibrant colours, parades, costumes, food stalls – you name it, they have it. For any photography enthusiast or food lover, MassKara is pure heaven!
Photos by the author.