Get to know Baguio City’s famed Panagbenga beyond the street dances and float parade
WRITTEN BY MARICRIS D. MARTIN PHOTOGRAPHED BY JOHN DARYL OCAMPO
Flip through your old albums and you will most likely find Baguio photos there. Trips to the city during the sweltering summer months is a tradition for many families, which explains the abundance of photos of your young self on horseback at Wright Park or John Hay, on a swan-shaped boat at Burnham Park, or simply standing outside the Baguio Cathedral. As you grow older, you come to associate Baguio with friends, lovers, and spirits of two kinds—the ones you see featured on Halloween specials on TV, and the ones you savor bottoms up. You realize that the cold weather makes for better conversations, cuddling and drinking.
But come February, before the chill of the Christmas season leaves Baguio, the streets of the country’s Summer Capital get choked with cars and people who aren’t there for the horses, the boats, or even the cold. And no, it’s not for Valentine’s Day either. People come up to Baguio in hordes, droves and multitudes this particular month to experience the much talked about Panagbenga.
Derived from a Kankana-ey (one of the languages used in the Cordillera region) term which means “a season for blossoming,” the Panagbenga is one of most well-known and well-attended festivals in the country. DOT Secretary Ramon Jimenez Jr. affirms this, saying, “We have a festival for everything [in the country, and] none of those are as successful as Panagbenga. It’s definitely an inspiration to everyone.”
Like many of our festivals, the roots of the Panagbenga are both significant and commercial. On the one hand, the devastating earthquake in 1990 reduced the city to rubble and it took a long time before flowers bloomed again in the city. The festival was meant to commemorate this remarkable re-blossoming of flowers—hence, its alternate name, Flower Festival. On the other hand, the local government also felt the need to come up with something that would entice people to visit Baguio after Christmas and before summer.
According to Sec. Jimenez, “Philippine festivals coincide with a spike in domestic tourism,” and most Philippine festivals are in celebration of patron saints. But then, Baguio City was not founded by Spaniards who used Catholicism for colonization; it was built by Americans as a colonial hill station in the early 1900s, which is why it doesn’t have a patron saint. Nevertheless, a celebration of blossoming flowers is certainly festival worthy. The Panagbenga has been celebrated for 17 straight years since it started in 1995.
The month-long festival is packed with activities and events such as concerts, beauty pageants, variety shows and sports competitions. The street dancing and float parades on the last weekend of February are the most popular, with people coming from various regions in the country just to watch, and with local and Manila-based media covering the events.
The Panagbenga organizers call it “a continuous flow of visual and auditory spectacle.” Students from different schools in Baguio take weeks to practice and perfect their routine for the street dancing competition while the huge floats covered almost entirely with flowers (the rule is 80% of the visible part of the float should be made entirely of flowers) require a lot of hands to ensure that they will be ready (with the flowers looking fresh!) by the time of the parade. The artistry and skill that both parades exhibit are definitely impressive—the dancers (most of whom are only in elementary school) dance and play instruments with much gusto while walking down Session and Harrison Roads, while the floats not only feature neatly organized fresh flowers that form interesting figures, but also minor feats in engineering. One of the floats this year had a large red dragon with a head that moved and a mouth that spewed smoke. The number of visitors who came up this year is one of the largest the city has seen in a while.
The festival is quite elaborate and therefore expensive, and local government units and private businesses work together to sponsor the events. They are also able to generate funds from the month-long Market Encounter, and the week-long Session Road in Bloom. Mayor Mauricio Domogan is quick to point out the economic benefit of the festival: “There is no doubt in my mind that these festivities help businesses and in turn, help the city get revenue.” Sec. Jimenez expresses that “[the Panagbenga] was very impressive. I am even more impressed at the cooperation between LGUs and private establishments.”
Baguio residents are also very involved with the festival, with 2000 volunteers forming the Baguio Emergency Group. Those manning the lines for crowd control are very commendable as the people can get quite rowdy when trying to get a better view. With the growing participation of residents and visitors alike, as well as of LGUs and private companies, the 17-year-old festival will surely get to a ripe old age.