Carnival & Other Santiago Festivals
Santiago is well known among Cuban cities for its sparkling music festivals, which thrust Afro-Caribbean culture and the local musical genius to the forefront of urban life. If you can stand the stultifying heat in late July, Carnival is the most exciting time to visit the city.
In Santiago, Carnaval is not a pre-Lenten celebration as it is in other Latin American countries. In the 17th century, slaves reshaped the traditional (and much more solemn) Catholic veneration of the city's patron saint, Santiago Apóstolo, and the attendant religious processions, into a festive celebration. The slaves' revelry was much more raucous than that of the white Christians, who began to refer to the slaves' participation as the Fiesta de Los Mamarrachos (party of the Crazies). Gradually, the rest of Santiaguero society began to appreciate and even participate in Carnival. French and Haitian elements were incorporated after the 18th-century influx of those populations. By the 20th century, Santiago's Carnival had gone the way of samba and Carnaval in Brazil, which was appropriated from marginal black communities and transformed into a mainstream cultural affair.
Today, unsurprisingly, even Carnival is linked to politics. The 5-day celebration also serves to commemorate the 26th of July movement that was the foundation for the Revolution. At 5am on the 26th of July, a reconstruction of the Moncada attack is made, complete with a cavalcade of old cars and gun shots. It's a surreal event. Yet politics seems light-years away from the popular explosion that erupts on Santiago's sweltering streets. Garish floats, with parade queens atop, glide through the streets, frenetic drum-beating conga parades rock the neighborhoods (the biggest are the barrio congas of day 1), and masked diablitos (devils) dart daringly through the throngs. African elements, including representations of orishás (Yoruba gods), are omnipresent. Comparsas, the Carnival band processions, have marchers who don papier-mâché masks and brightly colored costumes.
Today, Carnival manages still to be exuberant, even though funds for fancy costumes are tough to come by and homemade instruments predominate (during the years of the so-called Special Period in the mid-1990s, economic conditions were so tough that Carnival had to be canceled for a couple of years). Some conga ensembles, such as Los Hoyos, trace their origins back to the 19th century. Watch out for the following excellent dance troupes: Cabildos, La Placita, and Izuama y Olugo. The focal points of Carnival activities are along Avenida Jesús Menéndez and Victoriano Garzón, where the parade and float judging takes place. Tickets for the grandstand seating can be bought in wooden kiosks along Victoriano Garzón from one hour before the children's parades at 5pm and the adults' parades at 10pm ($2MN). If you can't bear the crush and need some space, pay for optimum viewing in front of the sealed-off El Barracón restaurant. It charges CUC$3 (including one cerveza) to sit down under its umbrellas with front row seats. Beware that you may be coaxed to sit in the foreigners' stand -- and be charged a whopping CUC$5 for the privilege. If you've got the Spanish, argue against the discrimination.
Preceding Carnival is the Fiesta del Fuego, or Festival del Caribe, in the first week of July, which brings a cornucopia of cultural workshops, theater, and artistic performances to Santiago. On the last day of this festival, an effigy of the devil is burned (Quema del Diablo), and a conga line shimmies all the way from Parque Céspedes down to the water at 5pm -- buy a bottle of rum, swing your hips, and join the end of the line. Another important date is the 24th of June (Día de San Juan) when the various congas from each barrio visit each other by snaking across the city in procession. Also worth catching, although not nearly as frenzied as Carnival, is the Festival de Rumba in mid-January, which is also celebrated with street dancing and music.