New Year’s Eve in Cuba: What to Expect

December 12, 2016

havana buildings

If you’re going to be in Cuba on December 31st this year then you’re in for a treat. There isn’t a better time of year to experience Cuban culture and glean a sense of its people. But what should you expect? Will it be drastically different to how you normally celebrate NYE?

Well, if you’re used to good home-cooked food around a family table, followed by fireworks, loud music, dancing and copious amounts of alcohol, then no, it probably won’t.

Cuba might be anti-Christmas but when it comes to New Year’s Eve the island enters full-on party mode.

Pre-party

First of all, the traditional NYE meal doesn’t really differ too much from the Christmas Eve menu; an unconventional family might have chicken or turkey instead of the ubiquitous pork, but that’s generally as far as it goes. Beer – either Crystal or Bucanero – red wine and rum are the staples when it comes to drinking, and champagne isn’t exactly cost-effective or easy to get hold of so a sparkling wine is usually reserved for midnight toasts.

Many Cuban families supposedly pour bucketfuls of water from their balconies as a kind of ‘exorcism’ ritual. Not in the sense that their houses are possessed, but more to do with expelling the bad of the year gone by and making room for the good to come. But we didn’t see any such tradition.

Party Time

Once mealtime is over, the party inevitably spills onto the streets. Every central plaza fills up with locals and tourists alike, open-air bars and clubs draw in masses of youngsters, and spectacular fireworks displays rain down on the bigger cities.

Havana’s NYE fireworks are particularly impressive. Apparently…

We’d wanted to be in Havana for New Year’s Eve but the dates didn’t work for us. Our plan B had been to stay in Trinidad and danced salsa all night at the Casa de la Música, which would have been awesome, but that would have meant staying there a full week during a 3-week trip. Too long.

So we decided to ring in 2016 in Santa Clara, the city famously captured by Che Guevara and his guerrillas on January 1st 1959 – the day of the Cuban Revolution. This was the pivotal moment that led to the complete conquest of the country and the reason why the Che Guevara Mausoleum, where Che’s remains are kept, was built there.

We’d had the opportunity to explore the city for 2 days before NYE, finding time to visit the Mausoleum, the train Guevara derailed and Mirador El Capiro – the lookout point of the city where a bronze monument stands.

santa clara, cuba, che guevara mausoleum

The Che Guevara Mausoleum, Santa Clara

santa clara, cuba, che guevara mausoleum

“Hasta la Victoria Siempre”…famous words Che will forever be remembered by.

santa clara, cuba, che guevara train

The train Che Guevara and his guerrillas derailed on the day of the Cuban Revolution.

santa clara, cuba, mirador el capiro

View of Santa Clara from Mirador El Capiro.

But I digress.

New Year’s Eve in Santa Clara

New Year’s Eve in Santa Clara was a pretty special experience. First of all we’d had a lobster dinner (upon request) on our casa’s rooftop terrace. Although I am no lobster connoisseur I’d say it was up there with the best dinners I’ve had – certainly the best in Cuba! This was followed by some live music (the casa’s decorator and his mate were fine stand-ins for the pre-arranged band) and fervid salsa dancing. Here’s a little video I made (please excuse my occasional and bitterly out-of-tune contributions):

As the only gringo willing to join in the fun, I was passed among all the over-60s females, of which there were at least 4, to please the crowd. It’s fair to say I wasn’t up to standard but they all seemed to relish the experience. This guy. Such a charmer.

santa clara, cuba, music, new year's eve, año nuevo, lobster dinner

Lobster Dinner to mark the end of 2015!

Later we headed to the central plaza with the decorator (who wasn’t wearing overalls by the way) and his mate to ring in the new year. It was heaving, and smacked of the classic botellón atmosphere I’d seen so many times before in Granada, Spain.

We were each armed with a pre-mixed 1L bottle of Havana Club 7-year (so cheap it’s untrue) and coke. It was 2 minutes to midnight and we were ready to toast 2015 and a prosperous, better 2016 (oh how little did we know…)

If only we’d taken up position somewhere less sheltered.

As the clock struck midnight there was a sudden outbreak of fireworks – as you’d expect. But what we’d failed to realise was the throng of birds quietly cheeping in the trees above us.

So you can imagine what happened next.

santa clara, cuba, plaza mayor

Plaza Mayor, Santa Clara… scene of the crime (Source: FlickrCC Stephen Colebourne)

Yes, while a stunning fireworks display rained down on Havana, we were being showered in bird shit in Santa Clara. Those birds were literally scared shitless. And my ear and freshly washed, ironed shirt suffered the consequences.

My shoulder was covered with a large black smudge of what was unmistakably bird shit. Everyone found it hilarious of course, which I’ll admit it sort of was. Our Cuban friends insisted it was good luck, if not a good sign of things to come in the year ahead.

As 2016 draws to a close I find myself questioning that logic.

But anyway… I ran back to the casa, changed my shirt and rejoined the group. Crisis averted. We spent the rest of the night in an open-air club where we could buy a 2L bottle of Havana Club 7yr, a 2L bottle of coke and 2 fat cigars for $15. I shit you not.

They might have been terrible cigars – and the music was definitely terrible – but we didn’t care. This was exactly how we’d intended to spend New Year’s Eve in Cuba.

Will you be spending New Year’s Eve in Cuba this year? Was this post helpful? Share or leave a comment! 🙂

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