Cuba has some of the most highly regarded festivals in Latin America, and events like the Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano continue to grow in prestige and attract growing numbers of visitors. There are also plenty of lesser-known festivals celebrating Afro-Cuban dance, literature, ballet and other arts, and a whole host of smaller but worthwhile events in other provinces. Catching one of these can make all the difference to a visit to a less-than-dynamic town.
Cuba’s main carnival takes place in Santiago de Cuba in July and is an altogether unmissable experience. As well as numerous parades featuring dramatically costumed carnival queens waving from floats, and more down-to-earth neighbourhood percussion bands, several stage areas are set up around the town where live salsa bands play nightly. Also worth checking out are the smaller carnivals held in Havana and other provincial towns, such as Guantánamo in late August, which feature parades and boisterous street parties as well. Here are listings for the main festivals and a selection of smaller events.
Liberation Day (Jan 1). This public holiday celebrates the first day of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution as much as the first day of the year, with street parties and free concerts throughout the country.
Feria Internacional del Libro de La Habana (Havana International Book Fair) Havana (mid/late Feb–early March). You’ll find more books on Cuban politics and ideology at this citywide festival than you can shake a stick at, as well as new fiction and poetry, at the Fortaleza San Carlos de la Cabaña in Habana del Este (as well as at several bookshops across the capital). Events include discussions, poetry readings, children’s events and concerts. Havana’s Casa de las Américas also presents its literary prize during the festival period.
Festival del Habano (Cuban Cigar Festival) Havana and Pinar del Río (late Feb). A commercialized festival promoting the Cuban cigar industry, but still a great event for any cigar enthusiast with visits to cigar factories and tobacco plantations, a trade fair and plenty of tastings.
Festival Internacional de la Trova “Pepe Sánchez” Santiago de Cuba (usually March 19-24). Commemorating the life of the great nineteenth-century Santiaguero trova composer José “Pepe” Sánchez, this festival fills the town’s streets, parks and most important music venues with the sounds of acoustic guitars and butter-smooth troubadours.
Festival Internacional del Cine Pobre Gibara (mid-April). Small coastal town Gibara hosts the annual International Low Budget Film Festival. As well as public screenings in the local cinema and on outside projectors, there’s a competition for fiction and documentary films as well as an assortment of captivating exhibitions, recitals, seminars and concerts.
International Urban Dance Festival: “Old Havana, City in Motion” Havana (mid-April). Rather than displays of breakdancing and body-popping, this festival, organized by the well-respected Retazos Dance Company, uses sites around Habana Vieja to show off contemporary dance choreography, with accompanying master classes, lectures, workshops and night-time jazz jams.
Bienal de La Habana (April-May). This month-long biennale focuses on Cuban, Latin American, Caribbean, African and Middle Eastern artists. It takes place in dozens of galleries, museums and cultural centres all over the city, such as Pabellón Cuba and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.
International Workers’ Day (1 May). Known in Cuba simply by its date, Primero de Mayo is vigorously celebrated in this communist country. A crowd of around twenty thousand, waving banners and paper flags, march past dignitaries in front of the José Martí memorial in Havana, with similar parades taking place across the country, in a quintessentially Cuban celebration of national pride and workers’ solidarity.
Romerías de Mayo San Isidoro de Holguín (May 2-8). A yearly pilgrimage, Mass and three-day celebration of performing arts in this eastern city.
Feria Internacional Cubadisco Havana (mid to late May). A celebration of the local recording industry, in which Cuban musicians who have released albums in the preceding year compete for the title of best album. The finale is held at Salón Rosado de la Tropical Benny Moré.
Festival Internacional “Boleros de Oro” Havana (late June). The siren song of bolero, a musical genre born in Cuba in the nineteenth century, draws singers from all over Latin America for this week-long Havana festival organized by UNEAC. Concert venues usually include Teatro Mella and Teatro América in Havana as well as venues elsewhere in the country.
Camagüey Carnival Camagüey (mid June to late June). With over thirty outdoor stages and party areas set up throughout the city, and big stars like Adalberto Álvarez and his Orchestra in attendance, this is one of the worthier provincial carnivals.
Fiesta del Caribe Santiago de Cuba (first week of July). Santiago’s week-long celebration of Caribbean music and dance culture takes place at the beginning of July, with free concerts and dance displays in Parque Céspedes and throughout the city.
Carnaval de Santiago de Cuba Santiago de Cuba (mid-July). Cuba’s most exuberant carnival holds Santiago in its thrall for the last two weeks of July, with costumed parades and congas, salsa bands and late-night parties. Official dates are 18-27 but the week-long run-up is often just as lively.
Carnaval de La Habana Havana (late July to early Aug). Usually lasting a week or so, the Havana carnival is a jubilant affair with many of the country’s top bands playing to packed crowds throughout the city, and a weekend parade of floats working its way along the Malecón.
Simposio de Hip Hop Cubano Havana (late Aug). Superseding the former Festival de Rap, this five-day event, whose main venue is the Casa de Cultura de Plaza in Havana’s Vedado district, has become a more studied affair with conferences, discussions and workshops but fortunately there are still live performances too, at venues around the city.
Festival Internacional de Ballet de la Habana Havana (late Oct to early Nov). Held in even-numbered years and presided over by Alicia Alonso and the Cuban National Ballet. Recent highlights have included performances by visiting Cubans Carlos Acosta and José Manuel Carreño. Performances take place at the Gran Teatro and Teatro Mella.
Festival de Matamoros Son Santiago (mid to late Oct). This three-day festival, a tribute to the Santiago de Cuba nineteenth-century musician Miguel Matamoros, draws music stars from around the country for concerts, dance competitions, workshops and seminars. While the focus is on son, expect to see many other traditional styles of music, including salsa.
Havana International Theatre Festival Havana (Oct-Nov). Excellent ten-day theatre festival showcasing classics and contemporary Cuban works as well as productions by theatre groups from Latin America, Europe and the US, with plenty of free street theatre in the city’s open spaces as well.
Festival de la Habana de Música Contemporánea Havana (late Nov). A festival of classical and chamber music staged in venues around the city, such as the Casa de las Americas and the Convento de San Francisco de Asís.
Baila en Cuba – Encuentro Mundial de Bailadores y Academias de Baile de Casino y Salsa Havana (late Nov). A commercial event consisting of a week of concerts, workshops and classes showcasing and teaching Cuban dance styles. There’s usually an impressive line-up of salsa bands too.
Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano Havana (early Dec). One of Cuba’s top events, this ten-day film festival combines the newest Cuban, Latin American and Western films with established classics, as well as providing a networking opportunity for leading independent directors and anyone else interested in film. Information, accreditation and programmes are available at the Hotel Nacional, from where the event is managed. It’s well worth paying $40CUC accreditation, which gains you access to all screenings, seminars and talks and many after parties.
Havana International Jazz Festival Havana (mid-Dec). Organized by the Cuban Institute of Music and Cuban jazz legend Chucho Valdés, this is the powerhouse event in the local international jazz calendar. It consistently attracts an excellent line-up: Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Haden and Max Roach have all played in the past, alongside Cuban luminaries such as Bobby Carcassés, Roberto Fonseca and of course Chucho Valdés himself. Venues across the city include Teatro Mella, Teatro Karl Marx, Teatro Amadeo Roldan, Teatro América and the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza.
Parrandas de Remedios Remedios, Villa Clara (Dec 24). An unusual and exuberant carnivalesque display of floats, fireworks and partying.