Traveler's Test

The lesser known carnival in Havana: Three Kings’ Day in January

The lesser known carnival in Havana: Three Kings’ Day in January

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The challenge: learn how to conga as you dance through the streets of Havana during Carnival in January

Although it’s not nearly as famous as the world-renowned Rio Carnival, Cuba has its own raucous street celebration, with all the festivity and feasting of its Brazilian counterpart. If you happen to be in Havana on January 6 (Three Kings Day or Día de Reyes in Spanish), keep your ears alert for the sound of conga music echoing between the crumbling houses of Old Havana.

Pin it for later, because you wouldn’t want to miss this party:

How it all started

During the 16th century, slaves from Africa were transported on ships to work on the plantations in Cuba. For centuries afterwards, the slaves and their masters kept their cultures completely separate. Africans were allowed to organize street processions only on Sundays and major holidays. Three Kings Day during the Epiphany (January 6) was the most important of all, followed by Carnestolendas (a.k.a. Carnival) on Ash Wednesday.

Participants in these celebrations were covered in feathered headpieces and African masks with horns and vegetable ornaments.

After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Carnival was moved to July 26. The July rendition of Carnival still takes place, but in recent years the government has allowed modest celebrations in January, too, in order to attract more tourists. Don’t let this mislead you, though; the joy on the faces of the dancers – both professional and amateur – is genuine, if somewhat restrained.

Compare Three Kings Day in Havana in 1855:

Día de Reyes | Album Pintoresco de la Isla de Cuba, B. May y Ca./WikiCommons

… to the 21st century:

havana carnival dias de reyes three kings day january epiphany

Carnival in Havana, Cuba | © Maria Angelova/www.203challenges.com

Almost identical!

What you will see and hear at Carnival:

  • Conga music performed by a live band.
  • Conga dancers on stilts.
  • Locals joining the party and helping you master the dance.
  • Dancers giving you tiny little seashells as a souvenir.

Where and when to experience Carnival on Three Kings Day

January 6, on the streets of Old Havana. The procession moves along for a few hours, starting late in the morning.

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