By Mayté Solano Gómez

Cuba is a country of tobacco, rum and coffee, but tropical island as it is, music, dancing and happy and party loving people are allways present. That is why, year after year, various popular festivals take place. They are an expression of the island’s tradition and culture. Carnivals are also known in Cuba as ¨parrandas¨, ¨charangas¨ or ¨romerías¨, depending on the region and how the people celebrate. In any of them, folklore and traditions are present, even nowadays.

That is the case of the Santiago de Cuba Carnival, the most popular in the country. We will give you some tips about it before visiting it: when, what to eat, where to sleep …

Santiago de Cuba Carnival. Tradition.

It is celebrated every year in the month of July and is the most famous, largest and most popular festival in the island. It ends right after the celebration of the National Rebellion, on the aniversary of the Assault to the Moncada Headquarters, located in that province. This happened during the liberation struggles from American domination, in 1953.

The Assault to the Moncada Headquarter was conceived during the Santiago de Cuba Carnival, in 1953.
The Assault to the Moncada Headquarter was conceived during the Santiago de Cuba Carnival, in 1953.

In 1953 Fidel Castro and other revolutionaries took advantage of the commotion caused by the carnivals in Santiago de Cuba to attack the Batisitan forces in the region.

According to historians, the Santiago de Cuba Carnival has its origins in the ¨Mamarrachos¨ festivals, an event that took place in the winter since 17th century, to celebrate the conclusion of the harvest season. The streets were adorned for parties and families prepared traditional dishes; theater and musical groups performed and large bonfires were made. The people from Santiago also dressed up and wore masks, while dancing, ringing bells and enjoying a colorful parade of animal-drawn carriages.

The Carnival of Santiago de Cuba has had, since its conception, a popular character. With the presence of African culture and roots, the rhythms performed with instruments such as drums and maracas stand out.

Another of the oldest habits at parties was the appearance of small demons known as Diablito (little devil) o Ireme, which scared children. The diablitos or íremes are characters from the Afro-Cuban culture that represent the spirit of some ancestor; creatures from beyond the grave, who see and hear but do not speak, so they express their feelings and moods through the extraordinary gestures of their choreography.

Diablito or Ireme
Diablito or Ireme

Nowadays.

Santiago has a very different identity from the rest of the Cuban provinces due to its strong Caribbean influence. This is why everything in it spontaneously generates musicality and joy. For Cubans, Santiago de Cuba is the hot land, not only because of climate, but also for the energy and overflowing vitality of its inhabitants. Specifically, in the region’s festivals, the great black and mestizo presence has a huge impact.

The first week of July Santiago de Cuba hosts La Fiesta del Fuego, associated with the Caribbean Festival. Dedicated each year to a country in this region, this event is full of colors, languages and rhythms. The ¨Conga¨, played mainly with trumpets and drums, floods the streets of the city. The celebration includes the snake procession and the burning of the devil on the shore of the bay.

About 15 days later, the Santiago de Cuba Carnival, declared Cultural Heritage of the Nation in 2015, begins. During this festivity, the neighborhoods compete to be the most beautiful and best decorated. Music, dance, drinks and food are combined all the time.

During the Santiago de Cuba Carnival there are nightly processions where dancers, floats and musicians make their way down the main avenue towards the military barracks. The parade can last until 3 in the morning, has a panel of judges and it is broadcast live on television. Throughout the town there are street parties everywhere. Carnival encourages everyone to go out, party and dance until dawn. Music is everywhere coming from all the restaurants and houses to the streets.

Santiago de Cuba Carnival
Santiago de Cuba Carnival

Troupes of performers in the Santiago de Cuba carnival

The comparsas are street performances and parades in which a group of musicians play infectious rhythms. As the music plays, the dancers perform.

There are two types of performances: the Walks and the Congas.

Walks

They are quite organised groups, with colorful cars/ floats and well prepared and synchronized musical and dance groups. The musical accompaniment is similar to European style orchestras . The most remarkable are the pasodobles and the light marches.

Congas

The Conga is more popular, an expression of Santiago’s identity. In contrast to the walks, the Congas of the Santiago de Cuba Carnival parade with more dancers who move in a unique and peculiar way, to the catchy rhythm of the music. The music is performed by a band of percussion instruments.

Costumes, banners, capes and lampposts are elements that contribute to the joyful extravagance of these troupes.

Walk in a Santiago de Cuba Carnival
Walk in a Santiago de Cuba Carnival

The preparations…

As in any party, the Santiago de Cuba Carnival is prepared months in advance. In these preparations all groups and people are involved and a festive atmosphere prevails.

On the one hand, there is the design and preparation of the floats and costumes, as well as the choreography. Although the neighborhoods present the same groups every year, the themes vary from one occasion to another.

Hotel facilities are ready to receive a flow of tourists, both foreign and domestic, much higher than in the rest of the year. In the case of private houses, they are also crowded with tourists who can enjoy the festivities, together with the host family. One of the greatest advantages is that you can get to know first-hand the local traditions and customs.

Casa de Mabel is a sample of how you can enjoy your vacation in Santiago de Cuba: super nice accommodation, with owners that guides you during your stay and with whom you can also share the best moments of the Santiago de Cuba Carnival.

Casa de Mabel, in Santiago de Cuba
Casa de Mabel, in Santiago de Cuba
Casa de Mabel, in Santiago de Cuba

A vast spread of food offers various typical dishes of the region, as well as drinks ranging from beer to rum or brandy produced in the province. Among the most representative dishes are the arroz congrí (mixture of rice and red beans that is combined with onion, garlic, cumin, pepper…), roasted ¨macho¨ (pork) and ajiaco (made with various types of meat, corn cobs, squash, carrots and other vegetables that give flavor and color to this Cuban stew).

To sum up,

This year 2020, the Santiago de Cuba Carnival was initially planned to take place between July 18 and 27. Later, the date was modified, in tribute to the 505th anniversary of the foundation of the former Santiago de Cuba town, the 67th anniversary of the Assault on the Moncada and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Headquarters and the 62nd of the Triumph of the Revolution. Despite the uncertainty, due to the coronavirus pandemic, various contests have been promoted.

• Contest of the Poster announcing the ¨Santiaguero¨ Carnival 2020.

• Children´s contest for the poster announcing the Children’s Carnival 2020.

• Popular Music Contest “My Santiaguero Carnival”.

• Children’s Carnival Music Contest.

• Design contest for the Carnival Totems.

If you really want to meet the cheerful, supportive and party loving Cubans, there is nothing better than being part of the popular festivals that take place in Santiago de Cuba. The Santiago de Cuba Carnival is one of the best ways to have a truly “overwhelming” experience. This is not a contrived celebration for tourists, a staged dramatization, but an authentic event, a real expression of the deepest roots of the Caribbean.

To make the experience more authentic, nothing like staying in a private house. The Cuban family will really make you feel at home, despite the cultural, language or other differences.