Full unedited version, spelling and punctiuation mistakes ‘n’ all!
Getting to grips with a new country and culture can be difficult at the best of times, but when that country is as unique, confounding and oft times mystifying as Cuba, embrace the possibility that it’s not going to happen at all. Spending a few weeks listening to Spanish lessons in the car and reading Jon Lee Anderson’s epic account of Comandante Che’s revolutionary life will definitely stand to you, but if you really want to prepare yourself for a trip to Cuba, forget linguistics and politics, brush up your salsa shimmy and prepare to bust some moves. Visiting Cuba and not dancing would be like sending Willie Frazer to The Vatican on a city break; it’s not going to be an immersive experience.
Taxi for Mr. Frazer!
My main reason for hitting Cuba was to get a taste of some Carnavales De Cubanos; as you may have gatheredI have a festival fetish. Wandering around Havana it quickly became obvious that finding a festival in this parish was going to be difficult. The music, mojitos, daquiris and dancing are everywhere. The whole city seems to be in party mode and the Cuban crowd are well trained in the art of enjoying themselves, they take the whole socialism thing very seriously.
Out for a stroll in old Havana
I began to discover that when you really want to find something in Cuba, you can often end up frustrated. The trick is to just roll with it and when you’re searching for something else, you’ll probably happen across the thing you previously needed. While looking for dinner, I ended up at the ballet. Having missed a festival in the south, I accidentally landed into the middle of two festivals up north. I managed to get my hands on a ticket for the Plaza Jazz Festival while trying to book an internal flight. Maybe it was just me.
You can’t always get what you want… unless it’s cigars or rum of course
The opportunity to see Cuban pianist Chucho Valdez perform on his home patch at the international jazz festival he founded was more than a treat. In a packed Mella Theatre on the opening night of the festival, his sizzling quintet were out of this world. Expect a new album from them early this year. I would have happily gone home the next day, totally content with my trip. Thankfully I didn’t have to, so I hopped on a bus.
Dominoes time on the street in Trinidad
Five and a half hours southeast of Havana is the beautiful town of Trinidad, a time capsule that harks back to an era when the rich colonial sugar plantations made the place a bustling jewel of the Caribbean. The coach loads of tourists who arrive in Killarney-sur-Caribbean are well justified and I heard one Canadian girl sum up the affect of the place quite succinctly as she rounded the corner to have the impossibly picturesque main square revealed to her – “Wow!”
Trinidad’s main square
Many of the musicians who provide the soundtrack that permeates Trinidad from early morning to, well, early morning, will provide music lessons for anyone interested. I hooked up with a percussionist and besides the beat schooling, he provided some great insight as we chatted between slaps. His love for Cuba, his family, his band mates and their music was obvious, that he and his Croatian wife choose to make Cuba their home is intriguing. While living in Cuba doesn’t afford the same economic opportunities he enjoyed while living in Mexico or Canada, he feels it’s a better place to rear a family, but he does have the rare luxury of being able to travel abroad when he wishes. He cited safety, medical care and education as the main reasons for the choice. Having begun his career as a university mathematics lecturer, he found a career in music more rewarding, both financially and spiritually. A few mornings spent in his company drumming, sipping beer, chatting, lizards running around our feet and humming birds buzzing the red and yellow blossoms on the tree under which were taking shade were moments to be savoured.
If it’s music you want…
About 10 clicks outside Trinidad is Ancun, one of Cuba’s finest beaches that boasts enough white sand and turquoise Caribbean waters to populate a library’s worth of travel brochures. A trip out to the coral reef on a catamaran for some snorkeling is a pretty idyllic way to spend a winter’s day. It was like being an extra in Finding Nemo.
Ancun at sunset
My main festival focus was Las Parrandas in the usually sleepy town of Remedios. Once a year, on December 24th, the town goes mental for a festival that resembles what Macnas might get up to if they were in a war zone. Incredible floats, parades, light displays that would put Las Vegas to shame, fireworks that are as dangerous as they are impressive and teams of locals who compete to out do each other with gunpowder and gala, all add up to a festival experience that is as much chaos as it is carnival. Health and safety isn’t high on the agenda here and this adds an enjoyable edge to proceedings. Pickpocketing is rife, rum is drank by the bottle, being singed is likely, temporary tinnitus is probable but an exciting and unique night is guaranteed.
A warzone masquerading as a festival… some craic!
This traditional festival is one of the largest and oldest on the island, it’s origins going back about 200 years to a priest who used to round up the children of the town, getting them to parade around the streets making as much noise as humanly possible in an effort to hunt parishioners out of their homes and herd them into the church for midnight mass. The tradition caught on and eventually became a competition between two neighbourhoods, El Carmen and San Salvador, as to who could make the most noise and spectacle around their own parades. It’s gotten wonderfully out of hand.
Shouldering my way through the crowds of carnival goers, it sounded as if the auld boy outside a rundown building was shouting “Two headed cow, six legged dog and four legged chicken”. In Kinsale this might signal a pop-up restaurant, but in Remedios it was a bona fide freakshow. A hard fought haggle, a slug of rum, a spit on the hand and a handshake later and we were in. All the advertised attractions were on display and some sensitive souls legged it, but morbid fascination kept me staring. The poor auld dog looked very tired, but the extra pair of legs probably meant he did 50% more running around the place. These lads have been at more than 760 festivals in Cuba with their grotesque menagerie and they seem to be quite popular. I invited them to this year’s Ploughing Championships.
Festival power nap
As I roamed around the country on the festival trail, it felt as if serious change has begun in Cuba. Subtle signs of creeping westernisation can be seen and maybe this will make life somewhat easier for a population who have had decades of lean years that make our burst bubble seem like a minor blip. On an early morning local bus, overcrowded with people who were on their way to work, most for paltry wages, I was struck by how incredibly happy they seemed. I’m sure the sunshine helps, but it couldn’t be the only reason. I remember reading that forcing yourself to smile cons your brain into triggering feelgood endorphins. In a country where public negativity towards the regime can have serious repercussions, I wonder does enforced positivity on a massive scale have a similar effect to a fake grin. Whatever the reasons, Cubans are quick to laugh, smile and make you feel welcome. The auld lads have a wonderful glint of divilment in their eyes as they effortlessly whisk willing young ladies around the dance-floors. If you are thinking about a trip, consider what Christopher Columbus had to say about the place – “The most beautiful land on earth”. He ought to know, he got around a bit.
Safe travels, don’t die.
Some Other Recommended Cuban Festivals –
Festival de la Trova Longina – Santa Clara – Early Jan
Festival of traditional song featuring skilled troubadours and musicians.
Romerias de Mayo – Holguin – Early May
Week long multi disciplinary arts festival.
Camaguey Carnival – Camaguey – Late June
John the Baptist’s Feast Day (June 24th) is the trigger for this party. You’ll find these festivals all over the country, but this is a good one.
Festival del Caribe (Festival of Fire) – Santiago de Cuba – Early July
Santiago celebrates it’s cultural diversity with pan-Caribbean music, dance and mayhem.
26 July Celebrations – Countrywide
Revolution day. Expect more flag waving and propaganda than a Finna Fáil ard fheis. Also the birthday of writer and patriot Jose Martí.
Two Top Tips –
Casa Paticulars are the way to go for accommodation. B&B’s that provide valuable income to families and some of the best meals to tourists. Once you find a good one, you can ask the Bean an Tí to book ahead for your next destination. These ladies have one of the most solid networks of information in the country. Advance bookings sometimes available at http://casaparticularcuba.org
Viazul provide regular and comfortable busses around the country and have stations in most major towns. Try to book your tickets a couple of days in advance to avoid waiting lists.