The end of the year is a cheerful time in Cuba, perhaps the best time to visit the island. The warm climate is tempered by the soft Cuban winter, and the overall mood is relaxed and optimistic. This “winter” will not restrict your sea bathing options, given that average sea water temperature for a year is about 26 degrees Celsius (80 degrees Fahrenheit).
Cubans show smiling faces while they are busy browsing markets and shops and buying what is needed for these days of partying: pork, black beans for “arroz moro”, fresh lettuce, tomatoes and watercress, cassava (it must be good enough to soften by boiling, before being covered with “mojo”, the Cuban sauce that consists of oil, mashed garlic, salt and bitter orange juice), banana (to make “tostones”, a type of fried banana) and cassava bread (mainly in east Cuba, delicious with roasted pork).
Since you are going to share these days with Cubans, it is good to know a few things: Cubans’ tradition is to dine and party in family; you will find many people tipsy this time of the year and Cubans have many ways to bid farewell to the old year: throwing water out of doors or down balconies; burning human-sized rag boy dolls (made of old clothes); going around the block (those who want to travel carry a suitcase), among others. Relatives, friends and even strangers kiss and hug each other at New Year’s Eve midnight.
Here are five things to do for New Year’s Eve in Cuba.
1. Eat a full roast pork (and even spinning the spit-rod)
Roasting pork is a must for Cubans during New Year’s Eve celebrations. You will find barbecues at some hotels and restaurants or “paladares” with outdoor seating spaces, but it is really amazing to live the experience at a Cuban’s family home where they still do it using a spit rod and preserve tradition as a way of enjoying family gathering.
Ending up at a Cuban’s home for New Year’s Eve party and dinner is totally possible if:
- You have a Cuban friend or traveled to Cuba as a recommendation from a Cuban’s friend
- You are staying at a “casa particular” and the owner’s family invites you to share the celebration
- You just happened to be invited by a Cuban family, for any reason
This last scenario could seem unlikely to anyone who has not been in Cuba, but at times like year-end Cubans tend to be more hospitable than usual.
The all-day long task begins early in the morning, when the pork is prepared, salt and “mojo” are spread inside, and a spit rod is passed through its body. A hole is dug on the ground, filled with charcoal, and the roasting starts. Seating at one of the spit ends, one of the attendees spins the spit rod, trying to do it slowly so the pig roasts equally all over.
A 70-90 pound pig may require a 6-7 hour roasting, if you want it to be perfectly roasted. This is the old, traditional way in Cuba, and few people have mastered the art of really roasting a pig. Many Cubans have fond memories of sitting at the fire and spinning the spit rod, watching the fat running over the bright skin and falling into the red charcoal that flames up every time, while drinking a cold beer and smoking a good Cuban cigar. Meanwhile, people are partying around, dancing, talking and joking and telling stories. Music completes the warm scene.
Finally, when the night is falling, the roasted pig is placed over a table (sometimes on big banana tree leaves). The skin is deliciously crispy, the pork is tasty, juicy and soft: thanks to the process of roasting most of the pig’s fat is left on the charcoal.
Everybody gather at the table, helping themselves from big plates with “arroz moro” or “congrí” (rice and black beans cooked together), cassava, lettuce and tomatoes, “mojo”, fried banana and pork. Beer, wine and rum are usual drinks, but some people go further and make their own mojitos or Cuba-libres. The family is celebrating, and tonight you are part of a Cuban family.
2. Go for fireworks and special dinner at Old Havana
At Havana, the same as in many cities around the world, New Year’s Eve comes with fireworks. The night could start at one of the “paladares” or restaurants around La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), you can choose among the classic and famous ones, such as San Cristóbal and La Guarida, or little places -bar and “paladares”- with beautiful views like Don Eduardo Alegre, at Plaza Vieja, the most amazing colonial piazza at La Habana Vieja in terms of architecture.
Anyway, on New Year’s Eve many restaurants located in colonial and romantic ambiances offer special dinners together with shows and live Cuban music.
At midnight 21 salutes are shot from cannons at San Carlos de la Cabaña fortress, located at the other side of the bay, as part of a ceremony to celebrate another anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Then the fireworks start. You will get the best views from colonial piazzas or from “paladares” with terraces such as La Moneda Cubana, near Cathedral Square.
3. Party at Parrandas de Remedios (World Heritage)
Las Parrandas, an annual popular celebration held each December at San Juan de los Remedios, a small colonial city in Villa Clara province, central Cuba, are perhaps the most astonishing and colorful Christmas festival in the island.
The scenario for Las Parrandas is Remedios central square. The most stunning and intense moments of the festivity are the ones running between the night of the 24th and the early morning of the 25th. The city is divided in two rival sides or neighborhoods (San Salvador, whose symbol is a rooster (gallo), and El Carmen, whose symbol is a sparrow hawk (gavilán).
Each side creates and builds clothes and patterns for their troupes and floats. Maybe the most impressive feature of the festival are the huge electric light displays or “trabajos de plaza” (piazza works), which are dozens of meters high and show colorful and original dynamic designs.
It comes to get really wild at some times of the night, because too many fireworks are shot, thousands of them, in different calibers, colors and forms. People live intensely the show and the friendly rivalry, and the most interesting thing for the outsider, apart from the pyrotechnics, is how tradition and culture and pure party come together here to deliver an extraordinary experience.
In November 2018, Parrandas de Remedios were added to UNESCO’s List of Intangible Heritage. You can easily find accommodation in Remedios, a colonial city founded in the 16th century. Remedios is about 60 kilometers away from the famous Cayo Santa María and Cayo Las Brujas, connected to the main island of Cuba by a 50-kilometer causeway. Beautiful beaches and all-inclusive resorts at “los cayos” and Parrandas of Remedios may be the perfect setting and combination for year-end vacations in Cuba.
4. Enjoy the beach and the colonial charm at Trinidad de Cuba
Many Cubans and travelers seeking new places to spend New Year’s Eve on the island go to colonial small-sized cities like Remedios and Trinidad.
Trinidad, in the south central coast of the island and founded in the 16th century, was one of the main world sugarcane producing centers in the 19th century. The city was inscribed in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1988 and declared World Craft City last July, 2018.
Trinidad is a good choice for spending the days before and after New Year’s Eve: the city is close to beautiful white sand beaches like María Aguilar and Ancón, and to the second most important mountain range in Cuba, the Escambray Mountains (Cordillera del Escambray).
You can spend a day exploring the colonial city (old houses with wide hallways and fresh patios inside) and craftsmen’s studios. It is the perfect opportunity to watch artisans work and buy original handicrafts to take home: fabrics, clothing and knitting; jewelry, paintings and clay works can be found in this beautiful city, full of architectural gems from the colonial times.
The list of “paladares” is long: TripAdvisor, for example, lists dozens of options if you are looking for seafood, Italian, Cuban, Latin, Caribbean, Spanish or International cuisine. Bistro Trinidad could be a good choice for dinner in New Year’s Eve. It is nicely set on a rooftop with view to the mountains and tile roofs of the old city, the staff is warm and welcoming, and the food great. After dinner you can go to one of the bars or cafes open at night and have your first New Year’s dose of Cuban music and cocktails.
5. Experience New Year’s Eve at a Havanan terrace
There are many alternative places in Havana these days, bars where drinks, ambiances and original settings are expressions of creativeness and witty innovation that make this city so enjoyable and sometimes unpredictable.
At El Vedado, Magic Flute restaurant (Calzada Street 101) offers international cuisine and especially seafood. The house’s specialty is Provence fish: fish and pepper slices, tomato and onion, plus olive oil, herbs de Provence, butter and white wine. Besides good Cuban and international cocktails, there is a pool and a view of the sea, the Malecon Avenue and the city. The live music program includes jazz by some of the best Cuban jazz players.
Not far from Magic Flute, at Old Havana, Bar Roma is one of several trendy places at Havana. Bar Roma is set on the roof of a colonial building and allows a wide view (spectacular at night) of the city and iconic buildings such as the Capitolio.
This is place of minimalist and casual decoration where the DJ mix rhythms and genres, from jazz and blues to electronic and Cuban music. People dance or talk while they drink a cocktail. A good place to socialize and make friends while feeling the musical vibe of Havana on New Year’s eve.