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.
Cuba carnival article written by Travel Writer Antony Barton
All Cuba carnival images are copyright of Antony Barton