Festivals in Cuba: Literature, Cigars and Music

Festivals in Cuba - feature image

Cuba; a country branded by the irons of revolution and made famous by music, cigars and literature. Where rum, salsa and Spanish-colonial architecture meet in a fiery heatwave of culture. It has been kind to many writers, including Hemingway, who made his ‘home-away-from-home’ in Havana, Cuba’s capital. And whose presence is still felt there today. And of course, many artists have sprung from its cities and graced the world stage with their work. Including people like Antonio Gattorno, and Carmen Herrera. Not to mention the country’s magnificent output of musicians and film stars, such as Pitbull and Andy Garcia. The many festivals in Cuba that take place throughout the year are in celebration of the country’s marvellous cultural output. And that is why they are so rich in content and wholesome in spirit.

This Cultural Scribbles guide will provide a brief introduction to the many festivals in Cuba. Then it will break the large number of festivals down into two main host cities: Havana and Santiago de Cuba. Following this, I will discuss some of the lesser-known festivals Cuba holds throughout the year. And finally, I’ll touch upon a few more Cuban events that aren’t necessarily festivals, but that still deserve your attention.

A brief introduction to festivals in cuba

Fire, salsa, drumming, jazz, cigars, DJs, artwork, film, floats, parades and literature – this is what you’ll find at the multifarious festivals in Cuba. Luckily, the country has a fairly packed-out yearly calendar when it comes to celebrating its culture. So visitors can attend festivals and events in almost any month of the year. Whether it is a more formal celebration of revolutionary victory and national independence, or a lighter affair involving floats and dancing, there is always something being celebrated in Cuba.

Interestingly, you’ll find far fewer festivals with religious roots in Cuba than other Latin American countries. This is mostly due to the government’s somewhat indifferent attitude towards religion and religious practice. At any rate, it is well worth your time to experience a Cuba festival. And because of the palpable history that still vibrates and echoes throughout the nation, you’ll feel as if you’re celebrating and sharing in a rare kind of freedom.

Festivals of cuba

Festivals in Havana

Havana International Jazz Festival

Festivals in Cuba - Havana International Jazz Festival

Music is the beating heart of Cuba. To walk along any given street in Cuba is to experience the multifarious sounds that characterize the country. From restaurant, cafes, homes, cars and businesses, you’ll hear music from several genres pouring into you ears. And at this internationally renowned festival – that consistently attracts a brilliant line-up of local and international jazz musicians – you’ll feel the full force of Cuba’s musical power. Cuba has its very own genre of jazz, and a continuous supply of fresh and exciting local talent. Which is a result of the importance that the Cuban government and society places on music. Performances take place in the Casa de la Cultura Plaza, Teatro Nacional de Cuba and a few other venues across the city. The festival will take place from January 18-23, 2022.

Many countries have an international jazz festival. In fact, if we turn our gaze to East Africa, the Safaricom International Jazz Festival is one of the most magnificent festivals in Kenya.

Cubadisco

Festivals in Cuba - Cubadisco

This annual festival brings with it an element of competition. Hundreds of local musicians perform in various theatres and venues throughout Havana. All of whom hope to win one of the prestigious music industry awards. Additionally, prizes are awarded to notable figures within the Cuban music industry. And exciting new records are unveiled. Each year brings with it a different theme, usually a specific music genre, and a country of honour. The festival usually takes place in the middle of May and runs for one week (15th-23rd). However, due to Coronavirus the exact dates for 2022 are as yet uncertain.

Havana Biennial

Festivals in Cuba - Havana Biennial

Many regions of the world began to hold biennials in the mid-nineties, but Cuba’s first biennial took place in 1984. One of Cuba’s, and Latin America’s most important artistic events, the Havana biennial pulls in hundreds of modern artists from all around the globe. Artworks are on show in several galleries and museums, as well as in public spaces throughout Havana. Even the unsuspecting visitor will quickly realise an art event is taking place. Largely because they will come across some of the exhibitions unknowingly. Additionally, the work on display includes performance art as well as paintings and sculptures. The festival has grown enormously since its inception, and has become a meaningful meeting for, and of, creative minds. It takes place every two years in April/May.

Havana Film Festival

Festivals in Cuba - Havana Film Festival

This is a widely popular event among filmmakers and film enthusiasts. The Havana Film Festival celebrates films from directors across the Caribbean and Latin America. That is probably why the event is also known as the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema. A number of categories are welcome at the festival, including short films, animation, documentaries and feature length films. And these will be shown in cinemas all throughout Havana. There is a special category for Cuban filmmakers. In its inaugural year, 1979, the festival saw the mighty Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez take a seat as one of its judges. The festival takes place annually from December 5th-15th.

Festival del Habano

Festivals in Cuba - Festival del Habano

Cigar connoisseurs from all across the globe gather in Cuba for this most important of cigar festivals. The event has grown year on year, with more and more famous Cuban brands in attendance. Including Cohiba, Partagas, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, H Upman, and smaller brands such as Robaina. The festival invites its guests to visit cigar factories and tobacco plantations, as well as seminars, cigar rolling demonstrations and tastings.

Havana Carnaval

Festivals in Cuba - Havana Carnaval

Not quite the traditional spectacle that is held in Santiago de Cuba, Havana’s carnival is still a vibrant exhibition. There’s music, dancing, costumes, fireworks, alcohol and bright lights. For a period of time during the 1990’s, known as the “special period”, Cuba’s carnivals ceased to run. This is due to the collapse of the USSR, who subsidised the Cuban economy. The US trade embargo, which brought about a huge financial crisis in Cuba, also played a part. But now, in the present day, the carnival in Havana is back. And you can see parades stretching along the length of the Malécon. As well as dancers wearing Muñecones (large masks). You’ll also spot the Faroleros – dancers who carry a multi-coloured light board which they twirl around them. The carnival runs from 16-26 August every year.

Havana International Book Fair

Festivals in Cuba - Havana International Book Fair

This festival is hosted in the Cabana Fortress, on a hill on the opposite side of the bay to Old Havana. But the event travels to many different cities around Cuba. In attendance are readers, publishers, writers and various other celebrities. As such, the event attracts huge numbers of people from within Cuba and around the world, especially those from Spanish speaking countries. Aside from book selling, the festival offers a series of lectures from attending authors. As well as a sprinkling of theatre and dance performance, and a variety of film sessions. The 31st International Book Fair of Havana will take place from February 3 to February 13, 2022. Subsequently, it will spread out from the capital to all provinces of the country, ending in Santiago de Cuba.

Havana Ballet Festival

Havana Ballet Festival

We have Alicia Alonso, Cuba’s ballerina sweetheart to thank for this premier ballet event. She founded the festival in 1960, and since then it has gained international renown. Cuban ballet is of a particularly high international standard, and this biennial event is the country’s way of celebrating this. As well as the Cuban ballet troops that perform, there are international dance companies that come and display their talents. The primary venues are the Gran Teatro (Alicia Alonso Gran Teatro de La Habana), and the Teatro America. As the festival has grown, it has also begun to incorporate film screenings, art exhibitions and conferences. Further, the festival has now spread to other cities in Cuba. The Havana Ballet Festival takes place from October 27 – November 3 on a biennial basis.

Festivals in Santiago de Cuba

Festival del Caribe

Festivals in Cuba - Festival del Caribe

Known by some as the Festival del Caribe, and by others as the Festival del Fuego, this week-long event is a massive celebration of Caribbean culture. The festival ultimately aims to create a space in which the cultural diversity of all nations in the Caribbean can meet. It celebrates the unity of all the nations which make up the Caribbean region. And, traditionally, the festival opens with several speeches addressing that subject. Whether it be dance, music, poetry, theatre, culinary arts or painting, Festival del Caribe will showcase it. Additionally, the event features free outdoor concerts, indoor shows, processions of colourfully-decorated vehicles, and parades of dancers. Not to mention the brilliant food and beer stalls, and cart rides for kids. The festival takes place from July 3-9 annually.

Pepe Sanchez Trova Festival

Festivals in Cuba - Pepe Sanchez Trova Festival

A huge celebration of the Trova music genre, this festival began more than 50 years ago, back in 1962. The event was named in honour of a local musician from Santiago de Cuba, Jose (pepe) Sanchez. Who was considered the father of the Cuban style of Trova. Trova comprises a few different styles and sub-genres, many of which are embodied by musicians at the festival. There’s the traditional Cuban Trova, which emphasises the troubador style, including poetry and singing. Which will typically be accompanied by a guitarist. Then there’s Filin, which is a Cuban style Trova combined with a bolero rhythm. And there’s also Nueva Trova, which is the style influenced by US and Brazilian pop music. This style typically involves some kind of social commentary as a theme. The festivals runs from March 19-24, on an annual basis.

Santiago de Cuba Carnival

Festivals in Cuba - Santiago de Cuba Carnival

Cuba’s largest, wildest and ultimately, best carnival. The celebrations scale the entire city of Santiago de Cuba. But the central parade is really the jewel of the event. Floats saturated with dazzling colours and lights make their way down the street. Whilst expressions of pure happiness beam from the faces of all the dancers and musicians. The event takes place at the hottest time of year. Which adds to the palpable passion and raunchiness that characterizes the celebrations. The carnival breaks midway through the week to honour the national date of July 26. Which creates an atmosphere of reflective gravity, before returning to the fanciful fun. The festival grew from the summer festivals that were formerly known as the Mamarrachos. And as such the festival takes place towards the end of July (usually 21-27), annually. This truly is one of the best Cuban festivals you will see.

Festival del son Matamoros

Festivals in Cuba - Festival del son Matamoros

The festival of Son is a tribute to one of the most notable musicians in Cuban music, Miguel Matamoros, who was born in Santiago de Cuba in 1894. Santiago de Cuba is the home of much of Cuba’s musical beginnings. And so it’s only fitting that this festival is essentially an assemblage of many famous traditional Cuban musicians, along with other artists from across the globe. Festival goers can see plenty of concerts, lectures on Cuban music, workshops, dances, book and CD launches. They’ll also see Cuban style dance competitions, involving the cha-cha-cha, son, salsa, mambo and casino. Showcases take place all around the city, including in Casa de la Musica, Casa de la Trova, Teatro Heredia, Salon del Son and Casa de los Dos Abuelos. This wonderful historic festival takes place in late October. It is biennial and the next year that it takes place will be 2022.

lesser-known festivals in cuba

Havana Theatre Festival

Havana Theatre Festival

If you’re a theatre lover you’ll definitely want to drop in on this little known festival in Havana. Most of the performances are in Spanish, however the event does welcome international theatre groups too. Additionally, there are shows for both children and adults, a few dance performances, theatre workshops, conferences and exhibitions. The stages are set up in many of Havana’s theatres, as well as some open cultural spaces. The event takes place from October 19-27, annually, and you can check the website here.

International Cuban Dance Festival

International Cuban Dance Festival

This festival promotes dance as a way of conjoining the diverse ethnicities, languages and history of the Caribbean region. At this event you’ll see dancers, choreographers, teachers and students from the Caribbean. Along with lots of other performers from around the world. This festival takes place in Havana, on an annual basis, from April 20-26. It is a particularly interactive festival, and as well as marvelling at the artistic displays, attendees can learn and participate too.

Gibara Low Budget Film Festival

Gibara Low Budget Film Festival

This unique film festival is hosted in the quaint, coastal town of Gibara, in Eastern Cuba. The event exists to showcase the world’s best low-budget, independent and alternative films. It isn’t a particularly prestigious event, like some major film festivals around the world. But it is a celebration of pure artistic vision, that hasn’t been tainted by commercial considerations. The event includes concerts, theatre, fashion shows and exhibitions of various art forms such as photography, painting and sculpture. It takes place in July on an annual basis.

more cuban celebrations

Festival Internacional de Coros

Festivals in Cuba - Festival Internacional de Coros

The International Choir Festival has taken place in Santiago de Cuba since 1961. The main venue for performances, and the original festival venue, is the Santiago Cathedral. In this grand and imposing building, the first choir compositions in Cuba were written by Esteban Salas. Who was the chapel master during the latter half of the 18th century. Today, choir companies from all around the globe come to Santiago de Cuba to perform in a variety of venues throughout the city. These include schools, public squares, and occasionally hospitals and factories. Organisers of the event do not restrict the music to traditional, ecclesial styles, and in fact welcome choir singing of all types. The event takes place from October 29 – November 3, and is an annual occurrence.

Parrandas de Remedios

Parrandas de Remedios

The unsuspecting town of Remedios is well-known throughout Cuba for its Christmas festival, known as ‘Las Parrandas de Remedios’. The event includes street parades with rumba percussion ensembles, music and verses, many, many floats and a fantastic firework competition. It is also Perhaps the oldest celebration in all of Cuba, and runs annually from December 19-24.

Havana’s New Years Eve Celebrations

Festivals in Cuba - New Years Eve in Havana

Every year, on the 31st December, a dinner party and accompanying show are put on in the Cathedral Plaza in Old Havana. At this time, the square is set up with lots of tables and umbrellas. Ready for those 300 lucky guests who are attending the al fresco dinner. Additionally, there is an open bar with wine, champagne, beer, and several spirits on offer. And as if that wasn’t enough, diners will have the pleasure of watching the excellent cabaret show too.

International Ernest Hemingway Needlefish Tournament

Festivals in Cuba - International Ernest Hemingway Needlefish Tournament

Hemingway himself is responsible for the inception of this event. He established it in 1950 and hosted it for the following decade, until he left Cuba in 1950. The fishing tournament takes place off the coast of Havana, and the primary aim is to catch big needlefish species. Which includes Wahoo, Tuna and Marlin. Fishing was one of Hemingway’s all-time favourite hobbies. In fact, the old man in his novel ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ is based on a man that he used to fish with in Cuba. The event has its headquarters at the Hemingway Marina, and sees lots of international fishing enthusiasts in attendance. The tournament takes place on June 13 every year.

where to stay for the festivals in cuba

LocationPropertyWhy here?
HavanaCasa Mirador la ColinaThe hosts, Aymee and Gaspar, are fantastic. Not to mention the property is ideally located in Vedado, just opposite the beautifully-designed university. Additionally, there are lots of bars and restaurants nearby, and it’s only a 20 minute walk from Old Havana.
HavanaCasa Colonial Yadilis Y YoelSet in the heart of Havana, just a 5 minute walk from the historic town centre. Also very close to the fine arts museum, revolution museum, and many bars and restaurants. And just a 15 minute walk to the beach.
Santiago de CubaRoy’s Terrace InnCentrally located, this property is just a 5 minute walk from main square Cespedes Park. The cathedral, the original Casa de la Trova, and most of the city’s attractions are also nearby. However the property is hidden away in a side street and thus keeps a relaxing atmosphere.
Santiago de CubaHostal YoyiMade up of two buildings, both in the centre of Santiago de Cuba. Staying here will put you within a 5 minute walking distance of the: Bacardi Rum Factory and Frank y Josue Pais Museum. And just a further 5 minutes of walking will get you to Santiago Town Hall, Santiago cathedral and Cespedes Park.

I do hope that you have found this guide useful. Cuba is such a colourful country steeped in history, and its festivals celebrate that beautifully. Whether it is literature, cigars, music, dancing, film or theatre, you’ll feel a part of something special at a Cuban festival.

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