Carnaval de Santiago de Cuba

The origins of the Santiago Carnival go back to the end of the seventeenth century when processions would wind their way through the city streets celebrating the day of the patron Saint Santiago. During the colonial period, the Spanish authorities granted permission to the black slaves to have their festivities on the Epiphany, putting on their typical music and dances. At the end of the nineteenth century the festivities were extended to the months of June and July in order to celebrate the patron saint days for St. John (June 24), St. Peter (June 29), St. Christina (July 24), St. Santiago (July 25) and St. Anne (July 26).

In the early twentieth century, parading comparsas would represent the different neighborhoods; this tradition is still alive, just like the dances held in the main areas of the city. Although many Cuban cities hold carnival festivities, none of them attracts as many people as the Santiago Carnival; during the days of July, all the inhabitants of the city move to the contagious rhythm of the conga drums, the piercing shriek of the Chinese cornet and the dozens of improvised percussion instruments—oil drums, pots, pans, spoons…. With this musical background the dancers wind their way along steep streets that recall the ritualistic origins of the event.

The carnivals have always given the people of Santiago a means to release tension, to put aside their worries and dance to the rhythm of conga music. This year, like every year, locals and visitors will keep up the tradition and pour onto the streets in what is considered the most colorful carnival in Cuba. This is one of the most important cultural events in the city: many of its participants spend the whole year preparing their routines for the event. And don’t worry, it’s a family event. The entire family will either participate in the parade or at least help make costumes or embellish floats. One way or another, everyone will do their bit.

Carnival highlights include comparsas (neighborhood dance groups whose choreographies are generally related to Caribbean traditions and the daily life of the people of Santiago) and the processions of decorated floats that will parade, as usual, mainly down Avenida Garzón, where a jury will choose the best. The conga lines are perhaps the most popular element of the carnival, but they are meant to join, not watch.

Right at the end of the procession, mamarrachos (characters in flamboyant, colorful costumes), muñecones (huge papier mache figures) and enmascarados (men and women wearing elaborate masks), accompanied by parranderos who with their drums, congas, rattles, catchy choruses and cornetas chinas liven up the event—if that is even possible. Inserted into carnivals as early as 1916, the corneta china, or Chinese horn, was introduced in Cuba by Chinese immigrants, adding another layer to the festivities.

In recent years, the festivity has extended to other open areas in the city where live music with son, salsa, merengue as well as rock, pop, and disco being played by the most popular bands of the moment. Free of all commercialization, the Santiago Carnival is truly an opportunity to celebrate this nation’s unique history and culture in a riot of rhythms, drumming and color.

Although many Cuban towns hold their own carnivals, none attracts the crowds of the Santiago carnival, so don’t miss out as the whole city moves to the rhythm of conga lines, the sound of the corneta china, bass drums, congas and French drums as well as pots and pans turned into unconventional percussion instruments that lead dancing crowds down the steep roads of Santiago de Cuba.


  • Highlights of the 2012 Havana Art Biennial

    Highlights of the 2012 Havana Art Biennial  LH 5

    The 11th Havana Biennial is already under way and for those of us who have attended its exhibitions, installations and performances so far, it is a time of evocation and strong emotions triggered by t …

    2014 Serie Nacional de Béisbol Play-offs

    2014 Serie Nacional de Béisbol Play-offs  LH 5

    Simplicity is the key word for baseball in Cuba, with no luxury boxes, huge electronic scoreboards or celebrity baseball players. As in many things in Cuba, there is no shortage of passion and this se …

    Marabana—The 2012 Havana Marathon

    Marabana—The 2012 Havana Marathon  LH 5

    Marabana is Havana’s annual marathon. Typically an exercise for me in making resolutions to get fit and participate in the race the next year, or a reminder that last’s year’s resolution is now forfei …

    Cubadisco: Cuba’s premier music awards show

    Cubadisco: Cuba’s premier music awards show  LH 5

    Nothing to do with discotheques, the International Cubadisco Fair begun in 1997 as a way to bring to national and international attention what the Cuban recording industry has been up to. It includes …

    1st Havana World Music Festival

    1st Havana World Music Festival  LH 5

    Organized by a nonprofit group led by young Cuban singer and composer Eme Alfonso, the 1st Havana World Music Festival (February 7-8, 2014) sought to open a window from Cuba onto the world and from th …

    The Marabana – Run Charlie run

    The Marabana – Run Charlie run  LH 5

    Race experience (Nov 2010) It is dark outside, 5.30am. Wishful thinking that I could simply sleep in and let the Havana marathon wait another year. I have, after all, been signed in various times over …

    64th Ernest Hemingway International Billfish Tournament

    64th Ernest Hemingway International Billfish Tournament  LH 5

    Like all the best fishing stories, mine began in a bar. One evening in Havana, I was introduced to a man called Stewart, an affable commercial manager in a London building firm. It turned out he was p …

    Harley Davidson Varadero Rally, 2012

    Harley Davidson Varadero Rally, 2012  LH 5

    Part of Cuba’s attraction undeniably is its pre-1960s vintage from the classic American cars through Tropicana and Buena Vista Social Club to simply the feel and look of the place. That it also harbor …

    The Rotilla Festival in Jibacoa

    The Rotilla Festival in Jibacoa  LH 5

    Founded in 1998, the Rotilla Festival started as a rave between friends and grew over the years to become Cuba’s largest annual concert (attracting over 20,000 people in 2010). While it started out li …

    Cine Pobre: Cuba’s alternative film festival

    Cine Pobre: Cuba’s alternative film festival  LH 5

    Cine Pobre is authentic, charming and off-the-beaten track even in Cuba. Traditionally held in Gibrara, a small fishing village which sleeps the rest of the year away, for a week in April, this become …

    1 of 8 pages »