It's always a great time to be in Cuba, even in the so-called winter (for those who believe such a thing exists in Cuba). The weather's pleasantly warm, sometimes a bit too hot even, averaging on the mid-20s but sometimes nearing the 30-degree Celsius mark. With temperatures making long sightseeing walks all the more bearable and the beach also presenting an attractive distraction, it's really a no brainer - Cuba, like much of the Caribbean at this time, is a dream winter destination.
There's one more reason why a holiday in Havana, more specifically, can be extra special if you visit during the first week of February, but only if you're prepared to travel a bit outside the city centre and make it to one quaint town with a somewhat morbid, yet thoroughly enjoyable festival.
I'm talking about Santiago de las Vegas, an otherwise sleepy, laidback and unassuming town located some 12 miles of Havana, an easy 30-minute car ride away offering plenty of sightseeing options on the way, as you take in off-the-beaten-path landscapes, small towns and communities. What's so special about Santiago de las Vegas this month is that on 5th February they celebrate a somewhat peculiar public street party – if you can call it that, although that is precisely what it is in essence, despite theoretically being classed as a "funeral", the burial of Pachencho.
Before you arch your eyebrows in dismay, let me explain. The funeral isn't real, the burial is also fake, the melodramatic weeping of the widow is all an act, and the dead in question never fails to spring back to life at the end, miraculously awakened by a few drops of rum wetting his lips, poured by the locals in a final send-off that actually becomes a rebirthing celebration.
Sounds oddly interesting enough? Then, what are you waiting for to be part of this mega-party? Make it to Havana now (or plan to visit it around this time next year), and join the procession of locals "mourning" Pachencho to the beat of the drums, the trumpets and the rhythmic movement of a massive conga line.
Carnival-like celebration inspired by a play
Far removed from the beaten path, it wasn't until in very recent years that Pachencho's burial became frequent news in local and national newspapers (in online as well as print editions) and started attracting crowds of curious foreign tourists – small crowds, but still, it was quite something for a small town that not even the neighbouring capital-dwellers would go and visit, were it not for its carnival and its subsequent funeral celebration, which has become the icing on the cake.
The staging of this mock funeral gathers more and more curious visitors each year, as inquisitive onlookers queue up to witness the "end" of the popular character, always refusing to die for good and defying death with more vigour (and energetic dancing) every time.
But what could possibly be the origin of such a bizarre fake funeral celebration? No one knows for sure who started it, when or how, but the general consensus agrees that in 1984, after the culmination of the town's annual carnival festivities, people were still thirsty for more and looking for a final piece of entertainment before waving goodbye to carnival season. It was then, that someone suggested the crazy idea, based on an old Cuban tale.
Showing there's art beneath the apparent madness, this odd celebration actually has a solid cultural foundation and was inspired by a popular Cuban theatre play, titled (you guessed it!) "El velorio de Pachencho", which translates as "Pachencho's wake". Dating back to 1901, the old play tells the story of the simulated death of Pachencho and ends with a rumba party once the living-dead pops out of the coffin.
Speaking of how well-received the initiative proved right from its creation, the President of El Liceo, a social centre in Santiago de las Vegas, told EFE back in 2011:
"I thought the idea was crazy, but it has given tremendous results."
Attendance by locals and foreigners alike grows every year, despite it still being a relatively unknown Cuban attraction and rare celebration with the peculiarity.
Faithful to the play down to the very last detail, the re-enactment of Pachencho's burial meticulously and chronically documents the events; from the wake to the long street procession and the burial (flower crown and all) at the local cemetery (yes there's a dug hole here waiting for Pachencho's coffin to be lowered down), with repeating actors taking the role of Pachencho and his distressed widow, as well as a mock priest dressed in a cassock, blue in colour by the way, despite the solemnity of the occasion.
Which takes me to one of the very few things that's differentiates this funeral from the majority of others around the world. No one dresses in black, or perhaps, coincidentally a few do, but that's also Cuba for you, people have lacked variety of clothes for so long, no one is expected to wear black for funerals any longer.
The "Santiago-vegueros" take this funeral celebration very seriously, extremely seriously in some cases, to the point that some ask for a day off from work to be part of this now decades-long tradition that shows no sign of waning down or losing popularity.
Rebeca Morera, an enthusiastic 50-year-old once told AP Press during the funeral celebration in 2014, (all the while shaking her hips to the music):
"I never miss this party. I tell my boss and take a day off work. This is a tradition of my town, where I was born and raised. We can't lose it."
Conga music, tradition and a generous sprinkling of rum
For the festivity's first 25 years Pachencho was impersonated by a local shoe shiner, known by everyone as Blanco, but after his real death, Divaldo Aguiar took over in 2010, being 46-years-old at the time. He has taken on the role of Pachencho ever since, in the company of Carmen Zamora, who up until 2014 was her weeping widow. After her sad passing she has been replaced by an as of yet unnamed participant.
But what exactly can you look forward to in the booziest of Cuban funeral festivities?
It all starts with a staged wake in which we see mourners on rocking chairs surrounding Pachencho's corpse. A fake priest approaches with his hands in a cusp and utters consoling words to the sobbing widow while a tractor with a trailer waits outside to carry the dead to its final destination.
Pallbearers line up to carry Pachencho's coffin on their shoulders and place him on the tractor's trailer to the blaring sound of trumpets and drums as the music kick-starts the "sad" procession through the town's streets on the way to the cemetery. People throw flowers, cry out in mocked despair and above all, shake their hips to the beat of the conga line.
During the journey, the conga quartet, the widow and her friends all dance along while chanting and otherwise professing their sadness. They issue their goodbyes and posters covering the funeral trailer have phrases like "Descanse en Paz" (Rest in Peace) or "Feliz Viaje", a message signed by all of Pachencho's women, wishing him a happy journey to the underworld, not with the least bit of irony, given his reputation as a womaniser, which the priest later confirms during his "eulogy" where, to the amusement of onlookers, he condemns Pachencho as a no-gooder lazy lowlife who had it coming and deserved his ending.
"Rebirth is one of life's most beautiful things"
As Pachencho's casket is hoisted up and brought down from the trailer, the quartet starts playing the funeral march as pallbearers carry Pachencho through the cemetery and everyone gathers around his final resting place on the soil. He is slowly lowered down to the hole in the ground as the widow says her last goodbyes and cries out laments such as:
"How could you leave me all alone? Oh God, I don't want him to be buried!"
Pausing while offered a sip from a bottle of rum and saying "Dame" (gimme). The rum bottle passes hands frequently and no one refuses a sip.
Friends give humorous speeches that go something like this:
"Get comfy Pachencho, you're only going to hell."
For a short while Pachencho lies dead five feet underground, before funeral-goers start pouring rum down the grave splashing his lips and bringing him back to life. He opens his eyes, climbs out of the coffin and the party starts going again as he is paraded down the streets in miraculous cries of:
"Viva Pachencho, el muerto vivo de Santiago de las Vega!"
Which loosely translates as:
"Long life to Pachencho, Santiago de las Vegas' living-dead!"
Reflecting on his journey back from the dead, Pachencho himself declares:
"Rebirth is one of the most beautiful things in life."
Asked about the event's 33-year-old tradition, a local housewife, Yaumara Solis explained how people needed joyful festivities like this to escape the strife of daily life:
"This breathes life into a town that needs it because life is hard here. Mourning a live dead man is not disrespectful to the dead - it's an homage to the challenge of life."
Eager to witness Pachencho's next burial? There's no other requirement to attending beside turning up and making the 30-minute journey here from downtown Havana – which is easily done either by hiring a car and driving there yourself, hailing a taxi or hiring a cab with driver. You'll get a full immersion into Cuban folklore and I promise this will be one of your trips' most unforgettable highlights.
I'm really looking forward to this year's Pachencho burial as a friend of mine who went to last year's highly recommended it. Conga frenzy with generous splashings of rum and a whole load of funny characters? Sounds right up my alley!