In 2010, I visited Bacolod city in the Philippines, for 2 of my most colorful days ever. What follows is an account of the masskara festival that happens in Bacolod city every October.
Wait a minute. Where is Bacolod?
Many folks will tell you that Bacolod is one of the best cities in the Philippines, even better than Manila and Cebu on some accounts. Known as the city of smiles, Bacolod is the capital of the Negros Occidental province of Philippines, and the home of the annual Masskara festival.
How do I get there?
Assuming that you have already got to Manila in the Philippines, the best way to get to Bacolod is to take a domestic flight. Zest air, Philippines airlines, Cebu Pacific and Airphilexpress all have daily connections from Manila to Bacolod. Technically, the Bacolod airport is outside the city and is located in the city of Silay. But you will get plenty of jeepneys from Silay airport to Bacolod. Or if you feel rich, you can also take a taxi!
Note that during the month of October, the prices can get a little high due to the Masskara festival. In such cases, a slightly cheaper alternative is to take a flight from Manila to Iloilo, which is just 45 minutes away from Bacolod by ferry. Once you are at the Iloilo ferry port, there are ferries leaving to Bacolod every hour.
Ok, what’s the deal with the Masskara?
Bacolod is a very historical city, and it was in the forefront during the Spanish-Negrense conflicts. So, there are plenty of historical attractions abound in the city and neighbourhoods. Like ‘The ruins’, also called the Taj Mahal of the Philippines.
Yet, Bacolod is famous on the South East Asia backpacker trail – or the banana pancake trail – for one reason. And that is the Masskara festival, held every October. In a nutshell, this is a pandemonium of colors, masks, people, music, food, and loads of fun. But since nutshells are for common ravens, read ahead for the whole package.
How it all started
It was a dark and stormy period of 1980. (I could very well get the next Bulwer-Lytton prize for that line).
The entire Negros Occidental province was affected by the drop in sugar prices. And to make things worse, a passenger ferry collision led to the death of 700 people, which involved many famous people of Bacolod. The entire province was in a state of shock, grief and sorrow.
Bacolod was already known as the city of smiles, but all the smiles had vanished that year. So, the city council decided to set up a ‘festival of smiles’, with the sole intention of putting a smile back on the face of the people. Also as a message that whatever the hardship, Bacolod always prevails. The word Masskara itself is a very intelligent concoction of an English and Spanish word. The word ‘mass‘ refers to a group of people in English. And the word ‘kara‘ means face in Spanish.
So, essentially, Masskara means the ‘faces of many people’. What is more interesting, is that this is also a pun on the Filipino word ‘Maskara’, which means – wait for it – Mask!
When is the Masskara?
It is held every October in the 3rd weekend of the month. What started as a small town celebration, gradually went on to attract the attention of other provinces in the Philippines. And eventually, it became globally renowned for its colour and fervour.
The 2 main items of the Masskara festival schedule are the street dancing parades that happen on 2 different days. The first one which happens usually on a saturday, is the school division category. And the second one is the Barangay competition, which is the highlight of the festival.
Barangay is an administrative unit in the Philippines, and Bacolod is divided into a total of 61 barangays. These barangays come together, mostly on the last day of the festival, to launch a competitive street dancing competition, which would have been termed aggressive if it was not for the smily faces that they wear along.
This is no Rio carnival, but the Filipinos are some of the most resourceful people on the planet, and nothing showcases it like their festivals. The next time you wonder where to rent your costume for a themed party, take a look at the costumes used in the Masskara. You have stuff made from glittering gold flakes, cardboard boxes, used CDs, or any other thing that they can get their hand on and convert it to something beautiful.
There is a lot of face-painting that goes around too, although this is mostly not in the competition. The face-painters are generally not part of the street dancing crews, but supporters who come to thump them on. Also, there is an electric masskara at night, which involves a lot of masks with colours and lights added to them. That was quite a surreal experience!
What makes the whole street-dancing unique, is that the entire episode, which lasts anything from 2 to 5 hours, happens in the blazing sun of Bacolod. Philippines is a pretty hot country, even in October, and it is not a rare sight to see somebody faint in the middle of the street-dancing. You have to admire the Pinoys for their commitment! And it gets even better when you find there are plenty of live bands performing on the street throughout the day.
And if you get hungry after all the walking, it is imperative that you check out the local Bacolod Inasal, which is roasted chicken served on a skewer. And at night, you can catch the miss Masskara beauty pageant, or go partying at any of the numerous masquerade parties in the local clubs.
Tips to enjoy the Masskara:
1) Remember to carry 200 PHP when you depart from the Bacolod airport. The departure fee is generally not included in your flight ticket.
2) Many folks tend to club a visit to Bacolod with a side trip to Iloilo or Boracay. Just saying!
3) Arrive early for the street dancing competition to get a good vantage point. Whole families tend to line up the streets much earlier than the actual street-dancing.
4) Bacolod is a very safe city, compared to some of the other bigger cities in Philippines. But be mindful of your belongings, as you will be caught in a crowd. A very huge crowd!
5) It’s freaking hot!! Carry loads of water.
6) Take a cue from the performance. Keep up the smile!
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