Jun 24, 2020

Carnaval in Camagüey

Also a Recipe: Ajiaco de Camagüey

The feasts of Saint John and Saint Peter are celebrated throughout Cuba, but the six-day Carnavales del San Juan—a summer festival held annually in Camaguey since 1725—was by mid 20th century the most important San Juan festival in Cuba and a significant annual event in the island nation, attracting tourists from throughout the nation and the world. It was so big it was named in plural: “The Carnivals of San Juan in Camaguey.”

A float at a 21st century
San Juan Festival parade in Camaguey 

Celebrations begin on Saint John the Baptist day (June 24) and end on Saint Peter the Disciple day (June 29). A traveling circus and menagerie sets up at the vast Casino Campestre park and amusement rides and their midways crowded the city. Daily scheduled events and parades co-existed with daily impromptu happenings beginning late afternoon and continuing late into the night. There were fireworks daily except for the last day. What began in joy ends on the 29th with a city-wide parade somberly celebrating the burial of Saint Peter, the disciple, first pope, and martyr.

In the 19th century equestrian events dominated, with riders arriving from all over the island to show their skills and their mounts at parades, contests and events. There were dancing horses!  In the 20th century, equestrian parades and events continued—after all, Camaguey is cowboy country—but they got more and more competition from fotingos (the Cuban word for antique automobiles) as the century progressed. 

The festival continues uninterrupted to this day. At the height of the festival’s popularity before Cuba descended to today’s poverty, and in a manner similar to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras traditions, like-minded individuals got together in clubs and brotherhoods months in advance to plan neighborhood block parties, parade floats (carrozas), marching bands, dancing bands, and, of course, fotingo shows and parades. Some also planned unofficial “spontaneous” parades and light-hearted disruptions. 

At “the San Juan,” as locals called the festival, the sacred mixed with the profane, and the multi-day festival engulfed just about every street and plaza in the city. A somber religious procession could be followed (after a decent, but very short interval) by a conga line led by musicians playing the drums that gave the conga its name. Not just congas but all types of dancing troupes paraded.  Spectators watching from the sidewalk were invited to join the parade and dance.

Music at the San Juan was non-stop, not only congas, but comparsas, rumbas, guarachas, son, and, in the 20th century, also big bands playing mambos, salsa and jazz could be heard day and night. The frenzied beat slowed down at times to allow for romantic and old traditional dances like danzón, contradanzas and habaneras as well as for música campesina (peasant music) and pop music. And of course zarzuelas, operas and classical music played in Camaguey’s theatres while brass bands played patriotic and marching music at plaza bandstands.

Beer and liquor was abundant at the San Juan and fueled the festival’s intensity. In a 2009 article of reminisces in the magazine El Camegueyano LIbre published in Miami, Víctor Romero Sóñora fondly recalls a brotherhood known as Los Sangrones (The Bleeders) who were known for humorous pranks like wheeling a urinal filled with beer and a single sausage down the street, offering cups to passersby. They were mock-offended and called you chicken if you did not partake. Many partook!  Others in the troup would infiltrate the onlookers and drop a five dollar bill tied to very thin almost invisible thread and then yank on the thread when someone tried to pick it up. Still others would “accidentally” splash fake blood made from Camaguey’s blood-red dirt on anyone wearing especially fine clothing.  It was all taken in good sport as I have been told that there were surprisingly few reports of violence at the annual San Juan.

 There is always plenty to eat at the San Juan. All types of street vendors could be found around event venues and accompanying the parades. But it’s the food at the many block parties held on the street that first-generation Cuban exiles remember most fondly. 

Old Camagueyans of the Cuban Diaspora—most of whom have now passed on—recalled the street parties and most specifically the party’s pot of soup, and my ancestors commemorated in the stories in this blog were no exception. You weren’t just welcome at your own street party, you were welcome at all, and almost without exception they all featured a communal ajiaco.  To your own street party you brought something for the pot, but to the others street parties you just brought along a bowl and a spoon so you could sample their ajiaco.

I never attended a San Juan. My family practically inaugurated Camaguey’s first suburban development so I lived outside of the festivities, and I was considered too young to attend other than the circus and an amusement ride or two before I left for the U.S. at age 9.  But I heard plenty of stories form my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.  They always exclaimed the deliciousness of the different ajiacos you could smell from blocks away as you made your way around the festival.  

Ajiaco Soup
The color in this photograph is a bit off
An ajiaco-style soup, at least in Camaguey, has no set recipe. It is pot-luck in one pot. Some Americans know it as Stone Soup, where the hosts provide a pot full of water on a fire and the guests bring the ingredients to turn the water into soup.  For a communal ajiaco the host controls what and how much goes into the pot when, otherwise the soup or stew could get too salty, too spicy, or the ingredients could end up swimming in too much fat. Therefore an ajiaco, (pronounced ah-hiA-ko), is more a suggestion of how to prepare soup than an actual recipe.

At the San Juan festival in Camaguey, at each street party, someone would set up a large pot on a trivet over a charcoal fire. The pots were large, some made from the bottom half of 55 gallon metal drums. Initially the pot was filled with gallons of a thin broth started from a sofrito, but after contributions were added and started cooking, it quickly became a multi-course single-bowl meal that changed in flavor and texture as the party progressed and late-arriving ingredients were added.

Ajiaco Recipe.

This 30 gallon jambalaya pot
would make for a great ajiaco
Ajiaco soup would make a great main dish for a large gathering, whether cooked outside on coals or on propane, or in the kitchen in your largest canning pot for a winter get together. I’ve already confessed I never personally tasted a Carnival del San Juan Ajiaco, and there is no family recipe to fall back on because it is not something you needed to write one down. So all I can offer here is guidance from what I’ve been told and occasionally fed.

  1. Depending on how many folks are coming to your party, tell them to bring half to a pound of meat or one to two pounds of vegetables. Coordinate it so there is a variety of ingredients. They’ll bring too much no matter what you tell them, so be sure to control what goes in the pot or you’ll run out of room and have to fish stuff out so you can add something different.
  2. Borrow a 20 quart (or bigger) stock pot.
  3. Fill the pot with 6 to 8 quarts of vegetable or chicken broth. You can also start with water but be sure to increase the salt if you do.
  4. In hot skillet, fry up a sofrito and set it aside
  5. Light the fire under the pot as folks begin arriving and mix in the sofrito.
  6. Add ingredients to the pot as they arrive, making sure they are first cut into pieces that can be easily ladled up.  You may want to brown the meat first in a fry pan, with a little oil, before adding it to the pot, but it’s not necessary.
  7. Skim off foam periodically when it forms.
  8. Add water if the soup thickens too much. The soup should have a richly-flavored broth, not be a stew.
  9. Cook until ready, reduce the fire, ladle some out, and then cook some more. Restock the pot with more ingredients periodically.

Suggestions for the sofrito:

2 or 3 tbs. vegetable oil (or use equivalent amount of bacon drippings)

1 large onion, finely chopped (or use a food processor)

1 green pepper, finely chopped (likewise)

4 or more large cloves of garlic, finely chopped; some folks use a whole knob.

1 small can tomato sauce, or for more tang, use 3 tablespoons of tomato paste instead.


 Below are some ingredients used to make authentic Cuban Ajiaco. Use any or all! Or use something not authentic, like mushrooms and carrots. After all, in its origin Ajiaco is a soup that uses scraps of whatever is laying around the kitchen that is reaching the end of its shelf life.

  • Green or yellow plantain, cut in ¾ inch rounds. If you are using plantains, wait until you’ve added the plantains and then follow quickly with the lime juice (below) to keep the broth from darkening.
  • * The juice of two limes. Add lime juice whether or not you use plantains.
  • A tablespoon of cumin powder and/or oregano
  • * Corn on the cob, cut into 2 inch pieces.
  • * Two or more kinds of root vegetables
    • Yucca root, peeled, deveined, and cut in chunks. You can find it already peeled in most grocery store frozen cases these days. Peeling yucca is not fun.
    • Cooking potatoes, cut into chunks (avoid baking potatoes, as they tend to disintegrate in the soup).
    • Sweet potatoes and/or white-root yam (boniato)
    • Other Caribbean root vegetables like malanga and taro.
  • * At least one type of salted meat
    • Beef jerky (tasajo) that has been soaked in plenty of water overnight. Discard the water and dice.
    • Hand-cut bacon, cut in small cubes. Fry it first and render out as much fat as you can.
    • Ham such as a ham steak, cut in large cubes
  • * Chicken on the bone. Cut the breast up in multiple pieces.
  • Chunks of beef stew meat and/or pork. Cut these into bite-size and put them in first so they get nice and tender.
  • Optional: green vegetables like okra and string beans, but add them late in the cooking process so they don’t disintegrate
  • Optional: an onion, chopped into large chunks

* The soup will still be tasty, but you can’t really call it ajiaco if you don’t include at least the items marked with the asterisks.  Also, it’s not an ajiaco if it has rice, noodles, beans, milk, cream or cheese in it.

 If the party is large enough, ajiaco soup continues to cook for the entire party. Early-arrivals will be eating a completely different soup than latecomers.  Serve smaller portions and encourage guests to come back for more, letting them know that it will taste different with each refill.

 Serve in broad soup bowls with crusty Cuban, French or Italian bread; and provide olive oil and vinegar cruets to be used as condiments. The only utensils needed are soup spoons.

 Unlike many other Latin-American cuisines, Cuban food is never spicy-hot food, but you could also set out an assortment of hot sauces for those who want a bit of spicy heat.  Be sure to put up a sign that says “this not Cuban” next to the hot sauces.

 This is a messy meal. The corn and chicken is eaten with fingers once it cools down a little bit, and the smaller chunks of meat and vegetables with a spoon. The broth is sopped up with bread. Juices will dribble down your chin and splash on your clothes. Hand out plenty of napkins and keep plastic lobster bibs on hand to hand out to finely-dressed folks. 

A twenty quart pot should feed 15 to 25 people.  More, if you keep restocking it.