How to best enjoy Santiago de Cuba's famously spectacular July Carnival

The words "carnaval" and "Santiago" go together like bread and butter, strawberries and cream. In fact, in Cuba, the word carnival doesn't sound truer or stronger than when accompanied by Santiago - the carnival cradle and capital of the country since its foundation. If you're a tourist planning to be part of Cuba's biggest, loudest and most spectacular public event, this is the guide to read up on for the best streets to watch all the action from, the best lodgings to rest the nights away, the must-try typical carnival food and the best spots to escape it all for a break from all the noise. Buckle up...carnival is coming!

How to best enjoy Santiago de Cuba's famously spectacular July Carnival

El Carnaval de Santiago” is one of Cuba’s most famous events, so famous in fact that people who are serious about street parties only consider attending this one festival in the country’s eastern city and many tourists make Santiago their stop to coincide with carnival dates. Even when the city is at its hottest temperature-wise and most foreigners would find it hard to deal with the heat at the peak of Santiago’s sizzling summer, the free-flowing beer and chilled cocktails, available from pop-up stalls everywhere, make it that much easier to bear, in fact, many soon forget about the scorching humidity as they join in the conga line.

The mood is decidedly uplifting and joyous, people dance ‘till they drop, sometimes quite literally, but alcoholic drinks on tap can also give way to annoying drunks in some places, so you must keep your eyes open and move out of trouble’s way if you spot any kind of altercation. It’s no more dangerous than any other big street event or party of epic proportions elsewhere in the world; certainly the big carnival in Rio can get much more violent and perilous, but that doesn’t stop true party-goers from joining in the fun every year.

And neither should it stop you enjoying Cuba’s biggest carnival! “El Carnaval de Santiago” is one of the safest in the world for tourists to enjoy, in fact it’s widely considered a family event, you’ll see children joining in the festivities and the carnival actually kicks off with a themed “Carnaval Infantil” aimed at children and performed by children.

In more ways than one, the Santiago carnival is the one event santiagueros look most forward to in the year. In fact, a large proportion of the city spends the whole year preparing choreographies, designing floats, sewing costumes and rehearsing comparsas to get the whole thing down to perfection come July.

Usually celebrated towards the end of July (over the last two weeks of the month), Santiago de Cuba’s famous Carnaval can be humbler and less spectacular than Rio de Janeiro’s but it’s certainly lively, flamboyant and an enjoyable way to take in the party spirit of the people of Santiago. Its pumping high energy, intoxicating beats, aesthetic beauty, authentic charm and lack of commercialism more than make up for its shortcomings and anyone seeking to embrace the true heart and soul of eastern Cubans should make attending this carnival a priority in their holiday itinerary.

Old Traditions and New Renditions - Carnaval de Santiago 2016

Like every year around this time, Santiago´s carnival celebrations and the city´s explosion of sounds and colour are in full swing. The eastern city´s biggest festivity kicked off Last Friday 22nd July and the raging action won´t stop until six days later when it all goes out with a bang today, 28th July. That gave visitors plenty of time to get into a conga line or two, cheer on with the passing of the comparsas, the towering munecones, the procession of mamarrachos and enmascaradosñ all followed by the beating drums and catchy choruses of parranderos. Are all this fancy words just jargon to you? Then allow me to explain.

Comparsas are one of the oldest elements of Santiago’s carnival, going all the way back to the 17th century, and they are the most colourful form of street partying and dancing. Comparsas consist of groups of dancers representing different neighbourhoods and whose choreographies are usually themed around Caribbean traditions and daily life in the city. The comparsa dancers are accompanied by elaborate floats which parade down Garzon Avenue (this is the main spot to see them upclose) where a jury later decides the best one and crowns it the winner. For many visitors comparsas are the big event to watch out for, and tourists often prefer watching them go to attending any other event in the carnival, especially if they’re in Santiago for a limited time and only have a day or two to enjoy the festivities.

Tailing at the end of the long and colourful parades, two more iconic figures make their way. Dressed in flamboyant costumes, the mamarrachos dance their way in, clad in elaborate, vividly coloured fancy dress, moving to the beat of the parranderos (musicians playing the drums, rattling on to the conga rhythm and chanting popular choruses). Then we have the “munecones”, huge figurines made out of papier mache who enter the picture accompanied by enmascarados - men and women wearing elaborate face masks and dancing.

Last but not least we have the famous conga lines, but these are meant for joining in, not standing by and watching!

All of these elements perfectly come together to create a spectacular kaleidoscope of colours, fabrics, textures, sounds and aromas (from the food stalls) to treat the senses in quite a dramatically overwhelming way. Oh, and it all comes to live to the distinctive sound of the Chinese cornet (or “corneta china”), introduced to the carnival at the turn of the 20th century with the arrival of Chinese immigrants to the region. A quirky reminder of how multi-faceted and multi-ethnic the Cuban population actually is.

The best spots – where to be during the carnival

Which spot is best to secure in order to sit back and watch the parade? Well, assuming that you want to stand back and chill with a drink instead of following the music around the streets, you can sit on a bench in Avenida Garzon or Cespedes, two of the main streets through which the parades march. Alternatively, you can secure a seat on the stands (come early though) facing the make-shift stage at Avenida Garzon (where the judges sit) or you can squeeze your way in the crowds to try and get a more upclose peak at all the action. There are other streets outside the official carnival circuit which host their own carnival parties and they offer another amazing opportunity to join in locals and embrace the party atmosphere first-hand!

If you want to make the whole journey and follow the party route of the Santiago de Cuba carnival, make the long Trocha Avenue (officially known as Avenida 24 de Febrero) your starting point, and from then on make your way dancing, conga-lining and drinking from kiosk to kiosk until you reach Paseo de Marti, at the other end of the city, and the parade’s final stop.

Doing the whole walking (or even better, dancing!) journey following the big parade is the most authentic way to fully immerse in the spirit of the Santiago carnival, where the line blurs between spectators and official carnival dancers - that’s the place to be!

Eating and drinking

One thing you are guaranteed among all the flair and pomp, the scorching heat and the intoxicating drum beats, is a refreshing drink everywhere you turn. Wooden kiosks with thatched roofs made of “guano” leaves, are set up all along the main streets where the parade runs through, so you’ll have numerous opportunities for stopping to get a drink, a snack or a full-sized meal.

There are also walking street vendors who will approach you offering beers and mixed drinks if you happen to be sitting at the stands, so you might not have to get up at all in order to get fed and refreshed.

Drinks are cheap all around, and if you opt for the most popular (and cheapest) alcoholic beverage, “aguardiente”, your throat might roar in shock but you’ll feel like one of the locals. Likewise, if you want to experience traditional carnival flavours you can tuck into a typical plate of “congri, chilindron and ayaca”. If you’re a Cuba newbie, “congri” is black beans and rice cooked together (as opposed to “moros and cristianos” or “arroz con frijoles” where the rice and the beans are cooked and served separately alongside each other. The “chilindron” is a local Santiago dish where goat is the main ingredient; cooked in a pepper, tomato and onion sauce, and “ayaca” is the regional term for “tamal”, a parcel of corn dough stuffed with meat and wrapped in corn leaf.

If seeking something more refined, the rest of the city’s restaurants don’t close during carnival, so you can get away from the crowds to enjoy a proper sit-down meal. Some of the best privately-owned restaurants (a.k.a. “paladares”) include Restaurante Aurora (proud winner of TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence 2016), Roy’s Terrace Inn for hearty meals and Restaurante Setos Cuba for a colonial ambiance where you’ll be stepping back in time a century or two. For a touch of elegance and a more modern, stylish menu to match opt for a meal at St Pauli, yet another proud Certificate of Excellence holder.

Sleeping the party away – where to stay

When it’s time to rest all of the carnival’s excesses and your feet can’t take any more dancing, swinging and gyrating, Santiago de Cuba has a few good places for sleeping the party away.

The best hotel to stay at to be in good walking distance of the carnival action, is the Melia Santiago at only 12 minutes walking distance from Avenida Garzon, the parade’s main avenue. It’s also the city’s best hotel in terms of quality of accommodation and modern facilities – the closest to world-class standards you will get in Santiago, which is still in its early stages of tourism development when it comes to lodging options. It’s by no means luxurious, but the closest you can get to it.

Another fantastic bet is the Hotel Casa Granda, a short five minutes’ drive to Avenida Garzon and fantastically located for a spot of sightseeing as it sits overlooking the city’s cathedral and just steps from beautiful old colonial buildings. Its only downside is that because of its popularity and centric location it can get particularly busy at times and come carnival time it might be fully booked up.

The Gran Hotel Encanto is also perfectly located close to all the action and its recent modernisation means elegant rooms with a touch of colonial nostalgia. Its housed in a grand colonial building and because of its limited number of rooms it fills up fast so advanced booking is essential. Another similar option nearby is the Hostal San Basilio, offering quaint charm despite being a touch less modern and smaller.

Alternatively, you could choose from a myriad of casas particulares and stay with local hosts to get the most out of the experience culturally. There aren’t as many casas particulares in Santiago as in other popular Cuban cities and they are still in the developing stages, which means you won’t find a lot of reviews about past guests to help you choose. Two of the best according to TripAdvisor reviews are Hostal Raul y Kathy and Casa Don Carlos, both centrally located less than a five minutes’ drive to the heart and soul of the huge carnival party.

Staying safe

Anywhere where alcohol is cheap and free-flowing in Cuba there’s bound to be some sort of altercation. By no means should that stop you from enjoying the carnival and blending in with the crowds. Just be mindful of the fact that spirits are running high and amid all the singing and dancing, arguments happens and fights can break off at any moment, so be ready to jump aside and move out of harm’s way. Fights are usually among Cubans and historically no tourist has ever been harmed, but in case someone throws a rum bottle and glass bits fly in mid-air is best to be wary and look around frequently to stay well away from troublesome arguments.

Big events like this also give way to opportunistic thieves and pick-pockets, so, once again, be mindful of that and don’t have your most treasured personal belongings on show. Bring the least valued possessions possible, the less you bring; the less you risk to lose or have snatched from you. Do bring a photocopy of your passport to have on hand in case of incidents but leave your actual passport safely behind in your hotel, hostel or casa particular. If planning to bring a flashy camera to capture all those special, colourful moments, strap it securely around your neck or in a front-facing rucksack so that you have it in view at all times.

With that in mind, don’t be too scared to join in and enjoy the party! It’s not by chance that many past visitors and carnival-going tourists plan their next Cuba holiday to Santiago around carnival dates to experience the flair for yet another year.

Not in a mood for carnival? What else to do, where else to go?

If you happen to land in Santiago de Cuba in time for carnival by accident and you don’t particularly enjoy such loud festivities, or if you simply want a break from the non-stop music after enjoying the festivities, fear not, there are places to escape the noise during carnival week.

One of the best options is venturing into nearby towns for a spot of sightseeing and off the beaten path adventures. If you seek quieter pursuits, you will love an opportunity to bask in the beach and while Santiago is not known for the beauty of its beaches, in fact there are none within the city itself, you'll find one or two nearby that are pretty enough to make the effort of going.

The closest to the city centre (around half-an-hour’s distance by car) is Playa Siboney, and, like most beaches on Santiago’s coast; the waters are darker and the sand is more grey-black than white. That being said, it has plenty of local flavour as this is where most santiagueros head to on the weekends.

A prettier option is Playa Cazonal, but most particularly the stretch facing the Club Amigo Carisol Los Corales which is some 50 km from the city centre (just under an hour’s drive). To gain access to it you must pay the hotel a fee that oscillates around $25 CUC and includes meals and drinks. It’s a good option if you fancy a day out by the beach with modern resort comforts.

Because beaches are not the draw to people who visit Santiago, you won’t find many beach resorts here, with the only exception of Club Amigo Carisol Los Corales, but on the upside, this means quieter, more authentic beaches for the most part that you’ll most likely be sharing with other locals instead of tourists.

Costa Morena is one other option if you don’t want to travel far to find a pretty and relaxing beach with some added comforts. At around 40 km east of Santiago city, which equates to around a 40-minutes-drive, Costa Morena is home to yet another hotel, this one more modest then the former. The Islazul Costa Morena hotel sits within the natural Baconao enclave, a protected natural reserve of stunning beauty and is a relatively quiet property for spending a day or two chilling out under the sun. Or, even better, exploring the Baconao Park in all its glory.

If you venture a bit further into Guama and head to the charming town of Chivirico, the beaches are prettier, sandier and the waters are clearer. You’ll find this quaint charming town just over 70 km south-west of Santiago de Cuba and there are many historic sites to peruse with an undeniable old world charm. The neighbouring beaches are some of the best in this part of the country and the resort Brisas Los Galeones offers quality all-inclusive accommodation for the perfect unwinding escape. If you want to get active there are a few good hiking trails to embark on.

Nightlife in Santiago de Cuba: beyond the carnival music

Don’t think that conga music is all there is to the Santiago Carnival either. There are pop-up stages set up all around the city where local bands spanning all music genres perform to an eager audience. Carnival festivities have evolved over the years and have now expanded into new open areas where local bands perform on platforms. From traditional son to merengue, salsa and trova, to rock and disco music, there’s quite a mix to be enjoyed.

If you want to enjoy the nightlife away from carnival crowds in Santiago, there are fantastic options such as the always popular Casa de la Trova (rendered a must-stop) in Heredia Street, the Iris Jazz Club in Plaza de Marte and the Bello Bar at the top floor of the Melia Santiago hotel; especially suited to those seeking quieter nightly entertainment in a relaxed atmosphere.

Susana Corona

Susana Corona

The islands' go-between

Having lived most of my life between Cuba and the UK and being half-raised in both island nations, I...

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