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A Guide to Celebrating Carnival in Santiago de Cuba – One of Cuba’s Most Culturally Rich Experiences
Thursday 18 th July 2019
Saturday 27 th July 2019
- 1 What is the Carnival of Santiago de Cuba?
- 2 When is Carnival of Santiago de Cuba
- 3 Where is Carnival of Santiago de Cuba
- 4 What is the history of the Carnival de Santiago de Cuba?
- 5 Comparsas
- 6 How do they celebrate Carnival of Santiago de Cuba?
- 7 Carnival of Santiago de Cuba Tips
- 8 How to get to the Carnival of Santiago de Cuba
- 9 How to get around during the Carnival of Santiago de Cuba
- 10 Where to stay during the Carnival of Santiago de Cuba?
- 11 Take a Tour!
- 12 Is it Safe?
What is the Carnival of Santiago de Cuba?
The Carnival of Santiago de Cuba is the most famous, traditional and biggest carnival in all of Cuba! It is an explosion of colour, contagious rhythms, melodies and dancing. It is a period for Cubans to come together and remember their community culture and history.
The carnival provides an opportunity for the people of Santiago to forget their worries and release tension through dance and music. Every year thousands of locals and visitors pour onto the streets to celebrate one of the most important cultural events in the city and definitely the most colourful carnival in all of Cuba!
Many participants spend an entire year preparing for the carnival! Carnival de Santiago is an event for the entire community! One way or another everyone does their part. It is also an event for the entire family with a whole family either participating in the parade or contribute to making costumes or embellishing floats.
What most characterizes the Carnival de Santiago are the congas, which can be heard all around the city. For the locals as long as there is lots of music to dance to and beer to drink, then carnival is a success. The sounds and sights of Carnival de Santiago are one of the most culturally rich experiences that one can have in Cuba!
When is Carnival of Santiago de Cuba
The 2019 Carnival of Santiago de Cuba begins on Thursday, 18th July and finishes on Saturday, 27th July. The carnival takes place annually at the end of July as it coincides with the Cuban National Holiday on the 26th July and also the anniversary of the Attack on Moncada Barracks that also falls on July 26th.
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Where is Carnival of Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city in Cuba and the capital city of Santiago de Cuba Province. Santiago de Cuba is located in the south-eastern part of Cuba, facing a bay off the Caribbean Sea.
Santiago de Cuba was founded by the Spanish in 1515 and is known for its colonial architecture and revolutionary history. It is known as the “hero city” because it was the birthplace of the Cuban revolution.
Santiago de Cuba is the most exotic city of Cuba with lots of different ethnic groups having settled here over the centuries including Indigenous, African, French Haitian, Chinese and Spanish. The mixture of these cultures has created a cultural richness of both music and dance with many famous forms having originated in Santiago de Cuba such as Conga, Rumba and Salsa!
What is the history of the Carnival de Santiago de Cuba?
Carnival de Santiago de Cuba started back in the 17th century! While the exact time is not exactly known it is said to have evolved from festivals that took place at that time known as Mamarrachos that were held in both the winter and summer months to celebrate the end of the harvest season and the pre-Lenten season.
The Winter Carnival was called the ‘Carnival for the White Cubans’. The Summer Carnival was known as the ‘Carnival of the Lower Class’ as it coincided with a period of rest for those working in the fields. The Winter Carnival celebrations were stopped back in the 1920’s but the Summer Carnival tradition still takes place in Santiago de Cuba still to this day!
The Mamarrachos of the 1800’s were even larger and more intense than they are today. These celebrations saw objects and liquids thrown at other participants, traditional foods were boiled, there were performances by theatre groups, horse racing, a parade of animal-drawn carriages, large bonfires, wearing of costumes and masks, masked balls, live music, dancing and lots of alcohol consumption.
A lot of these celebrations died out but the main element of the celebrations was music! Music was created by the slaves of similar ethnic groups who would create comparas (carnival bands), and would chant and make music with home-made instruments like bells or drums.
Accompanying the comparsas were little devils called diablitos, male dancers dressed in costume, a tradition that still exists today. You will see unnerving jester-like figures running through the crowds scaring the kids.
One of the most distinguishing features of the Santiago Carnival is the comparas. Comparsas are street performances or parades that are made up of a group of musicians and an associated troop of costumed dancers. Comparsas are an important expression of local identity and folklore.
There are two types of Comparsas: Congas and Paseos.
- Paseos: These groups tend to be more lavish and are distinguished by its accompanying music, scenography and choreographed dance steps. Its accompaniment music is European style orchestral music, light marches and pasodobles.
- Conga: These comparsas are composed of mainly lower class citizens with the band consisting of mainly percussion instruments. They also have larger conglomerations of dancers compared with the Paseos. What the Congas lack in material goods, they make up for in terms of inventiveness. It was the Congas that invented the unique dance and musical styles of the Carnival of Santiago de Cuba.
During Carnival the whole city moves to the sounds and rhythms of the Conga Lines. Everywhere you go, you will hear the sound of drums, congas, corneta china, French drums and even pots and pans turned into percussion instruments. They lead the dancing crowds around the steep roads of Santiago de Cuba.
How do they celebrate Carnival of Santiago de Cuba?
When carnival kicks off in Santiago de Cuba, the entire city transforms into one giant party! Carnival in Santiago is essentially two weeks of celebrating, joy and parties! The Carnival of Santiago de Cuba is all about music, dancing, family, friends, Cuban Food and consuming lots of alcohol! The Carnival kicks off with a big Fire Party known as the Fiesta del Fuego.
During Santiago de Cuba Carnival there are nightly processions where dancers, floats and musicians make their way down the main avenue marching towards the military barracks. The parade is lively and goes well into 3am in the morning. The parade also has a judging panel and is broadcast on TV.
All around the town there are street parties occurring everywhere. The carnival encourages everyone to stay out and party and dance until sunrise. Music is everywhere spilling out of every restaurant and home onto the streets.
Carnival of Santiago de Cuba Tips
- Be aware that everything runs on Cuban Time! So if they say something is going to start at 9 it may not start until an hour or two later!
- The nightly processions begin at 8pm Cuban Time and will run for about 2-3 hours. It is advisable that you arrive about 1-2 hours prior to ensure that you have good seats because it will be very crowded.
- It is worth it to just purchase a seat that offers great views for the processions. Foreigners can purchase seats for about 5 -10 CUC/each on the day from the seat attendants manning the stands. You still should arrive earlier as they do fill up quickly.
- Another good option is to go enjoy a drink and some views from Hotel Casa Granda which has a great rooftop bar that overlooks the Parque Cespedes Plaza where a lot of the action takes place.
- Santiago is very hot in July! The temperature at sunrise can rise to about 35 degrees Celsius within an hour. So during the day protect yourself from the sun and make sure that you seek out shade or air-conditioning and stay hydrated. Even during the night the temperatures still remain very high!
- Food options in Cuba can be a bit minimal due to embargoes and scarcity of natural resources. Cuban cuisine isn’t what it once was and while there are several options if you have a delicate stomach search for some other options prior to your night out!
- The Carnival of Santiago de Cuba is very family friendly and safe! If you bring the kids just know that it runs very late into the morning so they may have trouble staying awake past their bedtime!
- You need a visa to travel to Cuba!
How to get to the Carnival of Santiago de Cuba
If you are coming from overseas there are several airlines that fly from the US to Cuba every day. From Havana you can fly Cubana to Santiago which costs about $110 one way. There are also 3 Viazul busses daily from Havana to Santiago de Cuba. You will need to book bus tickets in advance during carnival as they are usually sold out weeks prior.
There is also a reliable train service called Tren Francés which will leave from Havana every 4th day and takes around 12 hours to get to Santiago. There is a weekly service from Montego bay and Kingston on Air Jamaica Shuttle that costs about US$360. Sunrise Airlines flies from Port-au-Prince to Santiago a few times a week for about a US$400 round trip.
To get a quote for a flight click here.
How to get around during the Carnival of Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba is very easy to navigate around on foot. If your accommodation is around the centre of Santiago de Cuba then you will be within walking distance of all the carnival celebrations. There are also taxis if you need to get somewhere else.
Where to stay during the Carnival of Santiago de Cuba?
We recommend staying in the centre of Santiago de Cuba to be close to all the action. To check out some accommodation options go here.
Take a Tour!
For more information about things to do, cooking lessons, sightseeing tours, day trips and more click here. Or if you are lucky enough to have a longer vacation then check out Tour Radar which has lots of different itineraries. Cuba is the unspoilt gem of the Caribbean! A colourful capital and past, white sandy beaches, salsa and so much more, it’s easy to see why Cuba is one of the world’s top destinations! Check out some tours here. For those in the 18-35 aged range then check out some fun Cuban Tours here.
Is it Safe?
Cuba a very safe destination! In fact Cuba is one of the safest islands in the Caribbean with violent crime being incredibly rare. The most common crime would be pickpocketing especially during carnival when there are big crowds and it is easier to get your stuff stolen. So be aware of your valuables at all times or even leave them back at your hotel and only bring some cash with you. Or check out Amazon and invest in one of these travel safety accessories, like a fanny pack hidden under your clothing to store your essentials in. If you have to take your phone out with you, don’t have it on show for long.