If you ever wonder when best to visit Santiago De Cuba, I’ll tell you now: July.
Why am I selecting exactly this period? Easy: each year the “Santiaguieros” celebrate the “Fiesta del Fuego” officially known as “Festival Del Caribe” and soon after this, the city host the famous Cuban Carnival.
In this article, we are going to focus on the Festival del Caribe: Caribbean festival.
The celebrations dates for the festival are from the 3rd until the 9th of July and the whole city will come down to celebrate with music, parades, food, and lots of laughter and rum! Performances, exhibitions, workshops and street activities will spread throughout the city: very artistic festival.
This year It was my first time in Santiago and I reached over the weekend: it was the Friday night, but regardless the late time, the sky looked red and orange due the fire games played in the streets and music all over the place with people dancing and having a real good time. It was a very hot welcome!
Why is called “Fiesta del Fuego”(Fire party)?
Being Santiago located in the very south of Cuba, the temperature reaches sometimes really high level (as a matter of fact Santiago is well-known for its hot temperatures) , but in July the heat will really reach the highest of its peak (hence, I would not suggest this period if you really suffer hot temperature). The high temperature mixed up with the very warm hospitality from the locals gave the festival the name of “Fiesta del Fuego”.
The first celebration was initiated back in 1981, since then the Festival del Caribe has become one of the most important within the Caribbean islands, paying tribute to different countries: people from all the other Caribbean island will come over to Santiago to show and perform in parades and street exhibition.
Over the Festival period Santiago host countless performances including – music, dance, magic, religious ceremony, painting, sculpture, and theater. The themes center around the history, religion and culture of the Caribbean region. Ending with a stunning final parade, the last day called the Fire Parade: the parade begins with a ritual salute to Nzambi Congo – a chief entity in the Palo Monte religion and ends with a burning of a big effigy of the Devil, accompanied by an unchained storm of drums.
Among all the many activities in my Festival weekend, the one I have enjoyed the most was the Casa Del Caribe: it’s a cultural center where really enjoy local music and get to know the mixing of Christian and African religions.
Each day until late hours the center will host local artists who perform in choreography, music tributes, and workshop. Also not to be missed the Cuban food cooked fresh *generally meaty, so it might be a trouble for vegetarian people). It might looks like and feel a quite Spartan place, and not really a touristic spot (I could not recall many other travelers around me) , but this is the beauty of it: you will immerse yourself in the culture and considering the festivity period, you will also have plenty of fun listening to music, get involved with local dances and eat gorgeous food accompanied by a refreshing beer or for the strongest ones, a dash of rum Santiaguiero!
The atmosphere is vibrant and lively: musician singing, people dancing, kids playing around and it feels to be in one big family.
I was there with 2 fellow travelers and it took us few minutes before to adapt to the local party: I remember that I was trying to queue to get some food and Cubans were just overtaking me like I was not there.. I was not one of them, so why not! Until I stood my feet and made them understand that, yes! I was one of them: I was there to celebrate the festival and get some food.. and things changed since that moment! The local felt we were close to them, not just curious tourists hanging around and making pictures like they were an attraction: we were there together and celebrating together the festival.
It was lots of fun and of course I had to be involved in dancing and singing: this is a must do, you cannot refuse a dance or, like it happened to me you cannot refuse that some random guy will dedicate you a romantic Cuban song *most of all after few many shots of rum…)
Carrying on the celebration we reached the final day: people filled up the street, probably the whole city and surroundings where all celebrating the last day of the festival and it was a massive crowd around!
Music all over, colors, dancing, parades, and performances: a big party, not to be missed! The parade itself was one of the prettiest I saw in my whole life: people from all the Caribbean islands were there with their country customs but all united in one dance. The party spirit was strong in everybody and it felt just right to be there.
From early in the afternoon, the parade stopped around 20.00 at Alameda ( best thing to do if you want to enjoy the parade, get a spot at Cespedes park around 15.00 and you can enjoy all the parade from your spot. Bear that you should take with you lots of liquid because it is very hot and you cannot move unless you want to lose your spot).
Once the Parade reaches the Alameda (Santiago’s Harbour) the famous Devil will be burnt up surrounded by people who pray that all the bad spirits go away with the burnt Devil. It is a pretty impressive and quite deep moment.
After this spiritual moment, the party re-begins with live music on stage, more dancing and most of all more drinking.
Now, I really suggest everybody visit Santiago in July, also because after the Festival del Caribe more local events and eventually the official Carnival will run the city: the last Conga will be celebrated just few days before the Carnival (a river of not only youngster, will flue the streets of city center leaving really little room for the watcher. It might turn to be a little dangerous though, due to the fact that some people will get seriously drunk and afterward a danger for others, but it is plenty of police who monitor the situation, hence just watch out your neighbors and avoid the big crowd unless you are with a local person).
Although July is a party month in Santiago and can be fun for many people, this cannot result to be a good time for others: for those, I would suggest visiting Santiago in a less hot period, maybe around December (still expect a min of 25 degrees Celsius).
Tips for Festival Del Caribe:
- Streets will often be full of people and some of them might not be as nice as other so try to leave your accommodation with little money, the right you need for the day (consider that Santiago is a very cheap city) and do not take with you credit card or valuable items such phone, watch etc.
- The temperature is very hot, so always bring in your backpack a bottle of fresh bottled water, although the city is plenty of kiosk selling fresh natural juices.
- Rum can be offered everywhere to everyone from the same bottle: don’t get too much carried away with this, as it can be unsafe and you can also lose easier your control, putting yourself in a dangerous position
- Other than above, unwind and relax and get fun shaking your hips and melting with the local community.
Thanks for reading