The vibe in Havana is much like an exposed live wire: sparks will fly around with one single touch. Lively rumba music seeps through the colonial mansions’ balconies of the city. Mango juice cups are sold from the window sills of the ground floor. Intense domino games take place in street-corners amidst endless clouds of cigarette smoke and vehicle exhaust fumes covering the roads. Vintage American cars sail through the roads with smooth swagger, offering rides to enthralled travelers who are enamored by the beauty of the cars and the whole city, wondering in awe at how such a classic-looking place still exist in the modern days.
Havana’s city landscape is powered by the energy of Cuban Santeria, giving off a strong vibe of a piñata waiting to explode with colorful candies of different shapes and sizes. Everywhere you go, you will see Havana locals wearing vibrant necklaces and bracelets made of beads. These adornments are worn with the intention of expressing their spirituality. The color patterns are not random; instead, they are a representation of their deference to Western African lore’s Santeria gods and goddesses, commonly known as the Orishas. Fidel Castro famously called Santeria as a “Latin-African country”, as the city is influenced by the cultures of the Latins, Africans, and Native Tainos.
The interesting mix of these customs brought about the locals’ supernatural beliefs. The wide range of sacred relics and statues of saints adorning the locals’ homes are evidence of their established belief system — a combination of the West African spiritual customs of the Yoruba and the religious practices of the Catholics.
The bizarre combination of Havana’s religious traditions is apparent in Guanabacoa, a local town right across the harbor from Old Havana. Their spiritual customs that were influenced by Afro-Cubans are embedded in their day-to-day lives. This local community is so much different from Havana’s famous clubs that offer Hemingway-inspired daiquiris and other alcoholic beverages along its main streets.
Staying at Guanabacoa is an entirely unique journey that allows you to experience Santeria in its rawest and most authentic form. To get to the town, you only need to take one direct ferry ride to the port town of Regla. Whilst on the lower level of the standing-room-only merchant boat, you will come across day laborers and local artisans, as well as cargo packages and a portable chicken coup. Once you get off, you can take a stroll by the remarkable Church of Our Lady of Regla and its famous Black Madonna, and you will encounter cottage industries selling various products and services. Barber shops, fruit vendors, and “Articulos Religiosos” boutiques occupy the busy streets.
You will also find dozens of teenagers wearing blue Industriales baseball caps, riding their bikes, popping wheelies. Stickball games also take place in these buzzing roads. The famous welcome sign of “Bienvenido a Guanabacoa” serves as the entrance to the Vianca Blanca’s east side neighborhoods. Los Orishas, the Santeria-themed bar, and lounge displays a massive face of an African god overlooking a grand sculpture of a conch-shell. In a nearby street corner, you will find the Museo Municipal de Guanabacoa, a gallery displaying African traditions that were brought to Cuba during the transatlantic slave trade.
At the entrance of the museum, you will see hordes of travelers waiting to get to the next bus ride to Havana Bay. The museum is abundant in Afro-Cuban history, tracing the locals’ spirituality back to modern Nigeria’s Yoruba people. Santeria, which is also known as La Regla Lucumi, the city generally centers on the adoration of the Orishas and the sanctity of nature. Santeria locals rever over 400 Yoruba deities who control the world’s natural forces of life.
Orisha is derived from the words “Ori”, meaning a person’s head or consciousness, and “Sha”, meaning control or protection. Following these definitions, an Orisha is the protector of one’s inner consciousness and is the mediator between spiritual and physical planes, similar to the descriptions of Catholicism’s guardian angel.
Despite the widespread of Catholicism during the colonial era, the African slaves have managed to practice their native spirituality by fusing the two belief systems into what is now known the Santeria, or more commonly, “worship of the saints”. It is not uncommon to find altars of the Orisha of health and wellness, Babalu-Aye, side by side with statues of Saint Lazarus. The image of the feminine mother goddess, Yemaya, is also identical to that of the Virgin Mary.
Throughout time, the many differences between the Catholic saints and African Orishas slowly integrated, and deities were anthropomorphized through various paragons. The similar traits of the African deities and biblical figures aided infusing the parallel spiritual perspectives, it really helped that these beliefs were seen as different sides of the same coin. Typically, you will find traditional Orisha shrines furnished with Latin crosses that symbolize Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.
Believers of the faith would also be seen wearing both Rosaries and ileke’s (pieces of jewelry made of beads patterned in the African Orishas’ symbolic color-schemes. The evolution of these African customs and traditions persisted to revamp the physical presence of their faith while at the same time keeping their core values and principles untouched. For instance, the images of the traditional Africans dolls, what pop culture refers to as voodoo dolls, were transformed into round, pot-shaped bowls known as soperas.
These sanctified artifacts were designed as the homes of the Orishas’ living spirits all the while hiding them in plain sight amidst usual household items like round containers and cooking pots. Practitioners used deceiving methods to hide their spiritual expression from the Spanish oppressors who strictly implemented Catholicism. Ritualistic dance steps and drum beats that were performed to exalt the Orishas were masked as social parties and birthday celebrations.
Their Orisha prayers were sung to the tune of the happy birthday song, and their ceremonial dance steps were transformed into contemporary movements that are similar to salsa, rumba, and various forms of Latin-American dance that everyone in the world knows today.
Despite all these modifications, however, there are particular African traditions that have managed to stay intact and preserved. These traditions, to this day, maintain its truest form that originates from their Lucumi roots. In the divine ritual, a Babalawo priest gives spiritual guidance to people in need of insight and personal counseling. The ritual requires the use of a divination chain that is thrown over a divinity tray, thus revealing a set of ancient proverbs (called odu’s) as expressed by the almighty Orisha of ancient wisdom, Orunmila.
Much like reading tarot cards, these sessions are said to open the mystical entryway the world of the dead and allow people to communicate with their deceased loved ones. Well-hidden in the back room of a ruined apartment complex resides a local Babalawo named Maceo.
In his small, dark room full of religious relics, the hidden world of Santeria came to life. Babalawo Maceo did not accept payment for his consultations, rather, he preferred small amounts of donations based on his clients’ decision.
The doorway to his apartment unit was covered by palm leaves. Inside is a cowrie shell-eyed god who protected the intersections of the underworld. Vintage oil lamps filled the air with the scents of bayberry and myrrh. On the corner of the room is a skull of a horned goat.
There is a hollowed-out coconut shell that is filled to the brim with holy water right beside an offerings basin that is dressed in a smidge of sacrificial blood. Various images of Catholic saints and African gods surrounded the room. Babalawo Maceo will greet you with a firm handshake. His amateur wrestling days are still evident 30 years after with his burly forearms. He wears a white tank-top, and a green and yellow necklace along with a chain-linked gold cross that hung right above his navel. For many generations, his family home was used as a neighborhood ile or spiritual house. His mother was formerly a priestess of Santeria.
His guardian angel is the Orunmila, hence the colors of his ornaments. As explained by Maceo, it is the Orisha that picks its devotees during their initiation into Santeria. His wife was considered as a daughter of the Orisha of love and beauty, Oshun. His brother, on the other hand, was determined as a son of the Orisha of thunder and lightning, Shango. For those who are uninitiated, the notions of Santeria tradition states that it is Obatala, the father of all Orishas and the king of the Orisha pantheon that guides all the souls of humans until further notice. Obatala is the sky-god of knowledge and peace and dons a white robe.
His features and characteristics invoke plenty of similarities to Jesus and Zeus. Maceo’s late mother had Yemaya as her guardian, and that is why the spiritual core of his home is filled with layer upon layers of flayed blue paint. The shrine is loaded with candle-lit Orisha relics and offering bowls made of coconut shells and are packed with palm nuts and cowry shells. Piles of ornate soperas soared from the ground on every corner of the room, arranged in a totem-like form.
There are shelves brimming with packs of dried medicinal plants, glass jars with different forms of bones and organic material inside, and plastic bottles filled with unusual concoctions and even magical serums. Maceo will then sit at the center of a straw mat, with a copy of the Treaty of the Ifa Odu placed within reach of a divination tray and opele (a sacred chain with eight linked-palm shells) made of wood. This classical collection holds an array of prophecies and proverbs that are signified by the opele’s landing positions. As he begins the ceremony, you will be asked to soak your fingers in the coconut shell of holy water and perform the sign of the cross as the Babalawo recites a prayer.
He will then use his horsetail whip’s yellow and green handle to tap the center of the divination tray. This gesture calls on the ghostly presence of Orunmila. Maceo will then pinch the opele from the middle, such that the four pairs of palm nuts will hang side by side. He will stare at it over the devotee’s palms, and swing it back and forth once, and then finally carefully placing it at the middle of the divinity tray.
The landing positions of the shells, either convex or concave, will be recorded in 2 columns of 1’s and 0’s. This recording will result in a matrix-like code that represents that 256 Odu’s hidden within his holy book’s bindings. After a set of inquiries, Maceo will then analyze your results. Maceo will discuss your ase, which is the Santeria concept stating that divine energy constitutes all things in the universe.
An imbalance in your “ase” may cause your aches, and if such is the case, then you will be instructed to have a more mindful approach to your stream of consciousness so as to draw peace and prosperity. An added resolution to a devotee’s ailments is an amulet made from a small conch shell. The amulet is sanctified with Orunmila’s spirit, which is said to offer protection. Like a force field, the amulet is said to have the ability to harness powers to block off negative energies.
Maceo even has his own amulet, as well, which he keeps in his front pocket all the time. The consecration of an amulet is a well-kept secret that no non-initiated person knows to this day. Generally, though, it comes with a ritual of animal sacrifice; for instance, a chicken. Maceo will also have to build a sanctified form of cement. After it has been blessed, the cement will be poured inside the shell and set with beads of yellow and green. This process is believed to encapsulate Orunmila’s living spirit. The animal will then be cooked and eaten by the community.
If you think about it, the Santeria’s practice of animal sacrifice is almost similar to a complex blessing ritual performed before eating. But instead of praying before dinner, in this spiritual custom, the prayer is done before the animal is killed. You will then enjoy the meal with Maceo’s entire family, sharing moonshine rum, and listening to legendary tales about Orisha, while waiting for the amulet to desiccate.
At the far side of the dinner table, a plate filled with food is offered to Orunmila. The simple, spiritual room of Maceo will then turn into a disco of some sort, with family members and community locals singing and dancing. The cheerful vibe spread across the room, and will only be disrupted by bells that would ring from time to time, signifying the need to take shots of rum in honor of the Orisha of metalsmithing and rum-making, Ogun.
If you are like me, the peace, joy, and most importantly, love that you will feel like the product of the people’s spiritual approach to living, will almost make you not want to leave the place. I have Maceo and the Santeria community to thank for their brimming energy and life, as they say in Cuba. They have this unwavering state of enthusiastic existence, and their overflowing positivity is spellbinding.
When I received my personal amulet from Mateo before night time, he guaranteed that the amulet will protect me from evil and will provide a well-balanced ase. Perhaps, their concept of evil also represents negativity. Because during my visit to, Cuban Santeria, I did not find a hint of negativity, only an optimistic aura will surround you. As I was about to leave the room, I secured my amulet safely inside my pocket.
I bent down as I walked past the palm leaves hanging from the door. I once again see the cone-shaped Orisha of the crossroads, Elegua, with his cowrie-shell eyes. I lit the tip of my Cuban cigar as I witnessed the setting of the sun, puffing slowly on its fiery ashes.
As I walked out of the room, I was welcomed by the streets by loud rhythmic rumba music blasting from an old boom box. Havana symbolizes the Santeria concept of ase with great magnitude much like a quasar. There is nowhere else in the world that you will find the expressive nature of the spirit like Havana. Watch in awe of how two different worlds collide, forming one great city where music reinvents itself constantly. More than a mere tourist spot, Havana is a force to be reckoned with. Its mixture of complementary belief systems makes for a dance floor for the soul.