We learned about Carnaval de Santiago de Cuba while waiting for the bus to Cienfuegos out of Havana. We started chatting with a German couple in line, sharing our plans to spend a few nights in Cienfuegos, a couple of days in Trinidad, and then make our way south to Santiago de Cuba.
“Oh wow, you are going all the way south”, they said. “Will you get there in time for the Carnival?”
Carnival? What Carnival?
We recalled reading something about a festival in one of the Wikitravel articles before leaving for Cuba, but to be honest, we didn’t pay much attention to it. The excitement of our new German friends sparked our curiosity and a few days later, after finding internet access in Cienfuegos, we discovered what the fuss was all about.
“If you are visiting Cuba in July, don’t miss the biggest Carnival in the Caribbean taking place in Santiago de Cuba between July 21-July 28th”, the guides read. We knew immediately that we had to check it out!
We quickly rearranged our itinerary, deciding to forego a few extra days in Trinidad in favour of catching the Carnaval in Santiago de Cuba. But getting to Santiago during the Carnaval proved to be harder than we anticipated. Viazul bus (the only network shuttling foreigners across the country) tickets were sold out for days in advance, so our only option was a colectivo taxi. It took 10 painful hours, but we made it to Santiago just in time to catch the tail end of the week long celebration.
History of the Carnaval de Santiago de Cuba
Carnaval de Santiago de Cuba dates back to the end of 17th century and is said to have evolved from the festivals formerly knowns as Mamarrachos, held in the summer and winter months to celebrate the end of the harvest season or the beginning of the pre-Lenten season. The Winter Carnival was referred to as “Carnaval por los blancos cubanos” (Carnaval for white Cubans), while the Summer Festival that coincided with a period of rest of those working in the fields (mostly African and mulatto slaves) was known as the ‘Carnaval de las classes bajas” (Carnaval of the lower classes). Winter Carnaval celebrations were abandoned in 1920s, but the Summer Carnaval tradition is upheld in Santiago de Cuba to this day.
The modern annual celebrations take place from July 21 until July 28th and represent a time for Cubans to gather with family and friends, remember their history (the Carnaval coincides with Cuba’s National Holiday and the anniversary of the Attack on Moncada Barracks that falls on July 26th) and culture.
Every year thousands of locals and visitors gather along Avenida Jesus Menendez to participate the celebrations and witness the processions. What started out as a local festival has now grown into the biggest Carnaval in all of the Caribbean, drawing floats and performers from all over Cuba and event other parts of the Caribbean.
We arrived at Avenida Jesus Menendez early, securing front row seats well before the procession was due to start and spent the hours leading up to the celebration exploring the stalls lining the avenue.
Time flew by and in just a few hours the show was ready to kick off! It was the last day of the celebrations and everyone was looking forward to the announcement of the winners from each category of the procession.
The music started and one by one the brightly coloured performers started to make their way along the avenue. As usual, the processions comprised of two major elements: conga lines and floats. The conga lines consisted of dancers and walkers dressed in traditional costumes performing a variety of choreographed routines that showed off not only their skills by also their costumes. The floats were elaborately decorated with fabulous dancers in amazing costumes. They lit up the stages as they moved past us.
The official part of the Carnaval carried on into wee hours in the night, with floats and conga lines continuing to show off their skills well past midnight. And when the processions were over, the crowd spilled out onto the streets, continuing the celebration on the streets.
Feel the rhythm of the Carnival without leaving your home! Watch our Highlights of the Carnaval Video on YouTube!
The sights and sounds of the Carnaval are one of the most unique and culturally rich experiences one can have in Cuba. Look past the bright lights and intoxicating rhythms to grasp the real meaning of the costumes, the dances, and the performances that give an insight into the history of Afro-Cuban culture of Santiago.
Essential Travel Info and Tips:
Get in: There are 2 Viazul busses running to Santiago daily. One originates in Havana, the other in Trinidad. Book bus tickets well in advance as tickets will most likely be sold out for 1-2 weeks around the Carnaval. In addition to busses, there is a fairly reliable train service called Tren Francés that leaves Havana every 3rd day at 18:27, stopping in Santa Clara around midnight. The train takes just over 12 hours (from Havana) but is meant to offer a slightly more comfortable experience than the bus. Flights to Santiago are limited, but can be booked well in advance from Cubana de Aviación and Aerogaviota.
Get around: The central area in Santiago de Cuba is easy to navigate on foot. Stay in the centre of Santiago de Cuba and you’ll be within walking distance from the Carnaval.
- Festivities take place annually from July 21-28,and include nightly processions, street parties/festivals, and day time performances. The vibe is lively and music seems to be luring out of every home and every restaurant onto the streets.
- Nightly processions start at 8pm (Cuba time – meaning they can start at 9 or 10pm) and lasts around 2-3 hours. However, it is best to arrive 1-2 hours in advance to grab good seats.
- Foreigners can purchase seats that offer good views of the processions (5 CUC/each) on the day from the seat attendant in the stands. During our visit (in July 2016) only one side of the stands was dedicated to foreigners, but we are certain that that’s bound to change over the years! For best seats arrive early (around 6pm).
- Foreigner stands offer access to a waiter who is happy to take your drink orders and deliver your beverages to your seat allowing you to focus on the festival. Beer, mojitos, and non-alcoholic beverages are well priced and readily available.
- Food stands and local keg beer stands (plastic 700ml cups are sold nearby) offer a cheap and cheerful option for budget travelers.