Any Travel Tips on visiting Santiago de Cuba in July?

Question: I will be in Cuba end of June thru July 17th. I want to travel to Santiago for Festival/or carnivals. Do you know the exact dates of each event?

Answer: The month of July is a great time to be in Santiago de Cuba, if you can take the stultifying heat and humidity that typifies that time of year. The two great festivals during July are the traditional Festival del Caribe, also known as the Festival del Fuego or Festival of Fire, and El Carnaval.

This year, 2010, the Festival del Fuego will take place from July 3rd through 9th, a week-long festival that celebrates music and dance from all over the Caribbean area.  It also includes a cornucopia of cultural workshops, theatre and artistic performances, free outdoor concerts, indoor shows, processions of decorated vehicles, parades of spectacularly attired dancers, food stalls and beer stands, and much more.

Initiated in 1980 as an annual popular festival, the Festival del Fuego is a forum for exchanges between the diverse identifies and cultural manifestations of the peoples and nations of the region. It also highlights the common cultural elements that go beyond geographic and linguistic diversity. Included in the Festival is the “El Caribe que nos une” (The Caribbean which Unites Us All) International Colloquium that focuses on issues related to the preservation, development and dissemination of Caribbean cultural diversity, as well as actions that can contribute to regional unity and cultural exchanges with the rest of America and the world.

The 2010 Festival del Fuego is dedicated to Curaçao and the Brazilian region of Pernambuco. It will also pay tribute to the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence and the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution.

A couple of weeks later is El Carnaval, a tradition in Santiago de Cuba that goes back to the late 17th century with annual processions on the feast of Santiago Apóstol, the patron saint of the town. During colonial times, slaves were granted permission by the Spanish authorities to celebrate the Epiphany with their own music and dance. At the beginning of the 20th century, comparsas (neighbourhood dance groups) and processions of decorated floats began to parade down the streets, a tradition that is still observed today.

Although Carnavales take place in many Cuban towns and cities, the largest, most famous and most traditional of all is that of Santiago de Cuba, which is usually held during the July 24th to 27th period. But while the whole city moves to the conga lines, punctuated by the constant sound of Chinese trumpets and percussion instruments – bass drums, congas, pots and pans, and spoons – El Carnaval is also a time when Cubans remember their history and the Cuban national holiday of July 26th, when Fidel led the attack on the Batista government at the Moncada Army Barracks in Santiago de Cuba.

As for accommodation, you could either sort this out before arrival through a reputable travel agent (for hotel reservations), or you could take your chances upon arrival and try to find an available homestay. But be warned: both Festivals are popular events that attract many visitors from elsewhere in the country as well as internationally, and it would be best not to wait until the last moment to arrange suitable accommodations.