The islands of Western Visayas are home to some of the sweetest and most cheerful people in the Philippines, an undeniable observation once you’ve gotten to know the Ilonggos. For one thing, they reside in the sugar capital of the country, with tourists and locals carrying boxes of piaya and biscocho upon leaving the islands to share with their loved ones in other parts of the country. The Ilonggos are also a friendly and caring people, and their bright and welcoming smiles can make anyone feel right at home.
The Hiligaynons, or the “Ilonggos”, are a subgroup of people from the Visayan region who speak Ilonggo. It is interesting to note, however, that the different Western Visayans have distinct traits that add to their own beauties as cultures. Perhaps looking closely at these traits will help us gain a deeper understanding of where they come from, as well as a deeper appreciation for the Ilonggo culture as a whole.
When visiting an Ilonggo household, it is common for the guest to be asked the question, Naka kaon ka na? (“Have you eaten?”) Ilonggos are very particular about their food, and will only eat the absolute best. One difference between the Ilonggos from Panay and those from Negros Occidental is the type of food that they’ll proudly serve their guests.
For Bacolodnons, there’s nothing that can compare to their famous chicken inasal. While each local has their own go-to restaurant to satisfy their craving for it, tourists flock to the Manokan country for the experience of eating chicken the Bacolodnon’s way — with some garlic rice drizzled with chicken oil, a sawsawan of toyo, calamansi, and sinamak, or spicy vinegar with garlic, ginger, and chili peppers, all eaten with their bare hands. They also love a big bowl of cansi, a soup dish with a tinge of sourness that is made from beef, bone marrow, and batwan, a fruit indigenous to the area.
Then, whether it’s a big dinner to celebrate an occasion or just a simple meal with the family, there’ll always be room for dessert — and there is a wide variety to choose from. With the sugar industry dominating Negros, there is an abundance of piaya and napoleones, a light flaky pastry filled with custard and topped with sugar icing. Several dessert cafes and restaurants also await, with native delicacies such as inday-inday, a sticky rice cake with grated coconut and muscovado, and kalamay hati, coconut milk and brown sugar stirred into a sticky and sweet paste. When it comes to sweets, Bacolodnons know what they’re talking about.
On the other hand, Panay has its own variety of flavors inspired by many different cultures. It is common for Ilonggos from Panay to serve Spanish-inspired dishes like paella, lengua, and callos, although the province is also known for its Chinese-influenced dishes like pancit molo, siopao, and of course, batchoy. The Ilonggos also have their own version of traditional Visayan foods like pork lechon, and lechon manok, both prepared with lemongrass. Additionally, thanks to Panay Island’s diverse and healthy marine life, there is never a shortage of mouthwatering seafood dishes, especially from areas around Villa Beach. Never ones to deny a guest the best food Iloilo has to offer, they will surely fill each breakfast, lunch, dinner, and merienda with these unique and scrumptious dishes.
Finally, all Ilonggos have a penchant for desserts, and those from Iloilo have a whole roster of breads, pastries, and sweets that might confuse you at first — at least until you try them. There are bakeries on nearly every block in Iloilo, and they are stocked full of biscocho, butterscotch, galletas, barquillos, and bibingka. One can also indulge in Iloilo’s many types of kakanin — “ibos” or suman, butong-butong, pulot, and the famous bayi-bayi.
People and traditions
Life in Negros or Panay is certainly a far cry from what it’s like in Metro Manila. Ilonggos enjoy a more laid-back lifestyle, where traffic is barely an issue. Everyone knows one another and can often trace their own and each other’s family trees, based on the stories and tales of grandparents.
Citizens of Iloilo and Bacolod love good company, good ambiance, and a good meal. For this reason, their get-togethers usually last for hours, with dinners sometimes extending until past midnight. They love to catch up with old friends and keep themselves updated, which is easy when everyone knows everyone else. Like their food, the Spanish influence is still strong in their way of life. They enjoy naps in the afternoon called siestas, and are devout, prayerful, and family-oriented.
On the third week of January, Iloilo’s Dinagyang Festival celebrates both the Ilonggos’ devotion to Sto. Niño and the arrival of Malay settlers in Panay Island years ago. The festival is most known for its Ati warriors, whose painted faces can be seen all over the streets as they dance to the stomach-churning drum beats of the parade. Truly an anticipated happening in Iloilo, it is a day-long celebration with events like Ati-Ati competitions, the “Mardi Gras” (Kasadyahan) festival, processions, and even more food.
Speaking of food, another great festival in Iloilo is the Jaro Festival, celebrated in the traditional city of Jaro. Held on February 2, they celebrate this festival to commemorate the Feast of the Lady of Candelaria. All houses along Jaro open their doors and let people in, celebrating the feast in their homes.
Meanwhile, every October, all roads lead to Bacolod City as the City of Smiles celebrates the Masskara Festival. With colorful smiling masks, sparkling costumes, and street parties, this well-known festival is a tourist attraction in itself. It all began in the 80s, when the entire province suffered greatly because of the crisis in the sugar industry and the tragedy of the MV Don Juan. The Masskara festival was, somehow, the people’s way of escaping from the harsh reality and of staying strong and optimistic despite the circumstances.
Landmarks and tourist destinations
Boracay is just one of many summer destinations in Western Visayas, which is home to several other white sand beaches to go to. When in search of the fresh sea breeze in Negros Occidental, one can go to Sipalay, hidden in the southern part of the island, which promises a relaxing escape to clear blue waters and beach resorts. Meanwhile, in the north, there’s the Carbin Reef of Sagay, and Lacawon island, a perfect fit to the laid-back and relaxing lifestyle of the locals.
For history enthusiasts, Silay is the place to be in Bacolod, with all its old Spanish houses. In particular, the Balay Negrense is now a museum that showcases the life and times of affluent Filipinos during the time of the Spanish colonization. Talisay is home to a few old houses as well, one of which is referred to as The Ruins — the remnants of Don Mariano Lacson’s mansion after it was burned down during the Japanese occupation.
There’s no shortage of historical places in Iloilo, either. Home to some of the oldest cities and towns in the country, Iloilo holds many cathedrals from the Spanish era in towns like Jaro, Molo, and Miag-ao. There are also many other heritage sites like plazas and ancestral houses in the Downtown Iloilo City Heritage District, where it seems the past has come back to life. Finally, a side trip to Guimaras Island, Panay’s close neighbor and a tourist destination all on its own, is a must for any sun-kissed traveler looking for a place to swim, unwind, and enjoy their famously delicious mangoes.
For all Ilonggos, there’s truly no place like home. No matter how different Negros and Panay may be, there are some things they have in common — a rich history, a great culture, and a loving, caring home for Filipino residents and tourists alike.