Street parties in the ‘wild east’ – Cuba Carnival
Cuba Carnival article written by Travel Journalist and Photographer Antony Barton
Brazil may boast the colossal Sambadrome and Trinidad might be famed for flamboyant celebrations, but for an unrivalled multi-day extravaganza of outlandish parades, passionate dancing and mile-long street parties, the Cuba carnival in Santiago de Cuba is the place to be.
Seen as the capital of the country’s ‘wild east’ – a region that produced the nation’s most famous revolutionaries – Santiago de Cuba has a reputation for its spirited people. It is geographically far closer to Haiti than Havana, and the Afro-Caribbean influence permeates the rumba rhythms and rum-infused raucousness to create a lively, frenetic identity unlike that of anywhere else in Cuba.
I timed my journey across the country to arrive in its ‘second city’ for the final two days of its annual Cuba carnival festivities. The nearby city of Bayamo gave me a taster the preceding night with its weekly fiesta of hog roasts, dog displays and goat rides, but the sheer scale of entertainment in Santiago de Cuba takes matters to a sublime level.
Balloons, bunting and revolutionary billboards festoon the busy streets, which become livelier and louder throughout the night. My visit was also a couple of weeks before Fidel Castro’s 90th birthday, so locals may have felt the party spirit even more keenly; however, the visual spectacle of helado stalls, fried-chicken stands and barbecues stretching to the horizon is an annual treat.
At this Cuba carnival Salsa meets hip-hop meets soca – makeshift DJ booths flank the streets, energising one crowd of eager, sweaty half-naked dancers after another. Vendors sell tiny metal buckets for taking a swig of the local brew, dispensed from the many huge vats for much less than a peso – Cubans tend to provide their own, much larger, receptacles. Despite the intensity of the moment, there is palpable goodwill.
It is almost impossible to pass half a dozen snack stalls without passers-by offering the odd handshake or two and inviting you to join them. But beyond this lay further treats, with the Cuba carnival parade proving the absolute must-see.
Lasting some five or six hours each night for several nights, a procession of vibrant, cheerful dancers and musicians entertain hundreds of gathered spectators. Confetti explosions, glitter, bright lights and pounding beats provide the multisensory backing as performers parade in papier-mâché masks, fairy ensembles, stilts, bikinis and lamé suits. Schools, community clubs and workers’ guilds are among the myriad smiling faces aboard the floats and shuffling along the street.
If the nightlife becomes too much, then there is plenty to do during the day. The added appeal of Santiago de Cuba is its role in revolutionary history. On 26th July 1953, Fidel Castro led an armed attack on the Moncada Barracks in the city centre. Castro believed the soldiers would be so hungover from the carnival that they would be unable to defend themselves. The attempt to seize the weapons inside was a terrible failure, but the assault is now regarded by many as the first step towards the successful revolution six years later.
Accordingly, the Cuban people view 26th July as the pinnacle of the carnival celebrations, and the emblematic red and black flags can be seen on every street. The 25th to 27th are public holidays, and rallies and speeches are held across Cuba every year. Moreover, the morning of the day itself sees young children re-enacting the fateful events to an audience of delighted onlookers. Other than a trip to the bullet-riddled barracks, related daytime activities include visiting national hero José Martí’s guarded tomb in Cementerio Santa Efigenia and seeing the enormous sculpture of fellow hero Antonio Maceo in Plaza De La Revolución.
Although the origins of the carnival are uncertain, it’s likely that Spanish colonists exported their own summer festivities to the island. Celebrations elsewhere in Cuba have become somewhat muted in the past few decades, and this is possibly because Santiago de Cuba is now the de facto destination at this time of year. Whatever the reasons for its success, this second city will leave you energised, overwhelmed and hankering for another visit.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Antony Barton is a freelance travel journalist and photographer and lives in inner London. Antony’s specialities are backpacking, budget travel, Thailand and south-east Asian temples and temple ruins, but he enjoys the opportunity to write about practically anything.
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