Panagbenga Festival: Baguio’s Blooms and Smiles

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Little children in their bright-colored costumes; men and women in hand-woven cloths; pretty ladies carrying baskets of fresh cut sunflowers and mums of yellow, red, and orange; and smiles on painted faces. These were the captivating images that greeted me as I hurriedly walked to the assembly area right before the Panagbenga Street Dance Parade started.

Baguio’s best

The cool Baguio temperature, lined pine trees, and attractive sites are just the few things that make the City famous to tourists from around the world. A small city offers many fun activities for children to enjoy– such as horseback riding in Wright Park, the Zipline Adventure in Camp John Hay, and boat riding in the famous Burnham Park Lake. For nature lovers, there are picturesque and safe trails to hike, run on, and discover. For some, this quiet city is ideal for relaxing and savoring its romantic climate.

Baguio gets packed not only during summer months, but even during the coolest months of December to February. February, in particular, is when the City holds its annual festival known as The Panagbenga Flower for it is when flowers that grow in Baguio City are in full bloom.

In Kankana-ey, a language widely used by the Cordillerans specifically from the Mountain Province and by people from the Northern part of Benguet province, panagbenga means “a season of blooming”. For Baguio City and its people, it is during this month-long festival when they can shine and show off to the world what best represents their community.

After a devastating earthquake hit Baguio City in 1990, the people of the Philippines’ Summer Capital worked together as a team and focused on rebuilding the city. A conglomeration of the locals from private and public groups persisted in giving Baguio a new lease on life. From this, the creation of the Flower Festival came to life as a tribute to the city’s flowers and to its colorful and friendly people.

For the city and its people who believe that life must go on, the Panagbenga Festival has become an opportunity for locals to work together to get the city back on its feet. Business establishments such as restaurants, hotels, and small boutiques decorate their places with fresh flowers and landscapes. Security and telecommunication agencies collaborate to ensure peace and order in the city during the Festival. Schools and government organizations work together to make the parades more organized and entertaining. Through the past 16 years, the people of Baguio have built the Panagbenga Festival into a big event that showcases Baguio’s finest talents, its beautiful flowers, Igorot handicrafts, and the best of its people.

This year, as promised, creative minds with one goal converged to create another masterpiece for crowds to enjoy. The organizers prepared a month-long calendar of events for locals and tourists such as photo exhibits, concerts of local bands and foreign acts, a fun run, an airsoft challenge, beauty contests and fashion shows, a golf tournament, and other cultural presentations. The parades are usually held on weekends to allow more people to watch.

Street Dance Parade

On the day of the parade, I rose even before sunrise to get a good spot with a good view of the parade. Even at that hour, it wasn’t difficult to get a taxi to where the participants were gathered, and I still managed to get a cup of coffee from one of the cafés in the area.

At the parade area, the streets were filled with color—not because of the signs and banners around, but because of the performers’ ornate costumes. Men and even little boys were only wearing bahag (G-strings) a native costume of the Cordillerans made of fabric usually of a deep red color embroidered with patterns of green, blue, and gold. The maidens dancing down the streets were barefoot and carried on their backs baskets made of bamboo and abaca and filled with colorful cut flowers. Some used “walis tambo”, a Filipino broom made from dried stalks of grass and flowers, as headpieces.

It was also amazing how some dancers fashioned their costumes out of recycled paper and boxes, leaves, flowers, and feathers. This year, only drumbeats, the sounds of lyre, and the Panagbenga hymn were heard. No modern dances and tunes were played during the parade as they emphasized on the Cordillerans’ rich customs and culture as the performers marched and danced Bendian-inspired dances down Session Road to a large, cheering crowd.

Parade of the Floats

Early the next morning, it was time to watch Baguio City in full bloom as establishments and organizations displayed floats all covered with fresh flowers and beautiful scenes. The sight of these floral sculptures was breathtaking, and as they passed I could smell of roses and lilies as if perfume covered the whole city.

The twenty-something floats were obviously carefully planned for each of them was perfectly decorated. Some were shaped like Baguio’s local blooms, such as daisies and mums; others were shaped like animals and landscapes. All of them were made almost entirely out of flowers, their colors vibrant and attractive as they made their way down the main street with the Panagbenga hymn being played as the background music for the whole show.

I was amazed by the creativity displayed by the parade participants, and I marveled at the fact that all of these flowers were grown in Baguio. I did wonder too, however, about where these flowers go after the parade.

Session in Bloom

It is only during the Panagbenga Festival when Session Road, Baguio City’s main thoroughfare at the heart of its central business district, is closed for one whole week. Even the locals walk along the main road in tourists’ eyes, finding good buys and treating their palates to famous delicacies from the region. I treated myself to my all-time personal favorite meal, native longganisa (pork sausages) grilled and served with steaming-hot rice. One cannot miss this famous Alabanza food stall because one will smell the grilling of Baguio’s special sausages even from 50 stalls away.

Upon reaching the top of Session Road, I had a chance to watch the dance concert of the Aloha Philippines, the biggest dance school in Baguio City. It was a dance recital that featured children decked in shiny and intricate costumes dancing the hula and variations of bellydances. I found myself watching the whole show, impressed with the young performers’ talent and graceful presentations, and enjoyed taking photos of the children’s beautiful smiles while they were onstage.

Closing Ceremonies

Another highlight of the Panagbenga Festival is the grand fireworks display at the close of the festivities, when fireworks from six different sites (Burnham Park, Baguio Cathedral, SM Baguio, The Athletic Bowl, and two different areas of Melvin Jones) were shown all at the same time.

I set my tripod and camera and patiently waited for the countdown. I kept my fingers crossed hoping to get good shots of the fireworks display. Once the show started I realized how stunned I was and forgot all about concentrating on my shots. I stood there, frozen, like a child watching the breathtaking fireworks that looked like flowers in the sky.

I may not be a tourist who explored Baguio for the very first time, but after having celebrated the 16th Panagbenga Festival with Baguio’s friendly locals, I have learned that the city offers more than its beauty and its famous strawberries. Knowing that its people have worked hard as one to rebuild such a beautiful place is inspiring to those who in many ways have forgotten about the richness of their culture. Like the Cordillerans, it would not hurt to go back to one’s roots once in a while.

More tourists would surely visit and be inspired by Baguio City’s Panagbenga Festival in years to come. And as the city promises to make each festival more exciting and better than the last ones, enthusiasts have more to look forward to. Hats off to the people of Baguio for giving the city a new life as they are continually inspired by their rich culture.

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