Cuba’s other religion: Santería


Cuba Havana Santeria Callejón de Hamel street art 12


Everyday conversation: “So, what do you do?” >> “I’m a travel writer” >> “Oh, wow, COOL! (silence) What is that, exactly?”. It’s the coolest job in the world, meaning you can travel the world and the 7 seas. It’s a hundred more things, really. It’s being able to put into words the magic of a destination, offering a dose of escapism, inspiring you to stop dreaming and start packing. It’s sharing with you off the beaten path gems and unexpected facts. It’s also helping you understand a city, a country. Spending a week in Havana recently, I noticed most houses had a little shrine near its front door, often topped with a kind of doll in a colourful dress. A local, seeing how intrigued I was, told me this was Santería- Cuba’s most important religion after Catholicism. My guide book had only 5 lines on the subject… From a conversation to another, I stepped into a wonderful side of the Cuban culture. Follow me – it’s quite a colourful journey.


The origins of Santería

When the Spanish took over Cuba, they brought African slaves over to work the sugar cane fields. Most were Yoruba, an ethnic group of southwestern and north-central Nigeria. Now imagine being taken from your home, thrown on a boat for months, pushed into an unfamiliar landscape and told: By the way, forget your religion. You’re catholic now. Giving up on their Orichás, their saints, wasn’t an option. Instead, they syncretized – looked for similarities in name, story, character, colour – and associated them with Christian ones. You could be kneeling in a chapel devoted to St Francis but be praying to Orula instead…

In time, Cubans were allowed to practise any faith they wanted. Officially 60% of the population is Roman Catholic, 5% Protestant, 24% atheist, 11 % favouring African spirituality. These statistics are based on “main religion”: it is not uncommon, even to this day, to go to Church on Sundays but wear a Santería charm… to the point that it is estimated 80% Cubans have adopted a Santería habit in their life, small or big.



Gods and colours

So how does it work? Let’s start with the main structure: Yorubas saw the spiritual world as divided between the powerful God Olodumare helped by a number of orishas (similar to Christian saints or angels) and the spirits of the dead or eggun. One thing I love about Santeria is that it is a “home” religion. No going to church: each family will have their own shrine, usually in their living room with a representation of their protective divinity, and another one in their bedroom, devoted to ancestors.

Each person/family is assigned an orisha by a santero or santera, a kind of priest who can also read the future and communicate with the spirit world. Although there is quite a number of official protectors, you will mostly hear of 7:

>> Eleggua or Echu, guardian of the crossroads and messenger, symbolised by black and red
>> Obatala, creator of humanity, bringer of peace, symbolised by white
>> Yemaya, associated to motherhood, beauty and oceans, symbolised by gold and yellow
>> Chango, pure energy and force, symbolised by red and white
>> Oggun, a warlike saint linked to all tools/weapons made of metal, symbolised by green and black
>> Babalu Aye, spirit of sicknesses also known to read the future, symbolised by brown
>> Ochosi, hunter and seeker of justice, symbolised by brown or beige

Most people practising Santería wear bead necklaces – this is where the colours come in. You will wear your assigned orisha’s colours. Now Santéria is slightly different from what you expect: think of it as a gentle, loving, caring philosophy based on trying to fix things in your life. Share your worries with your santero/a and she might advise to add to your palette for a while…


Cuba Havana Santeria necklace Cuba Havana Santeria 2 Cuba Havana Santeria drum Cuba Havana Santeria 3 Cuba Havana Santeria 4


Iyawó: the symbol of white

Walking around Havana, I encountered quite a few men and women wearing white from head to toes. There is an odd beauty to it and it proves quite difficult not to stare... Were you to convert to Santería, you would be born into a new faith, as pure as if you were beginning life again. For the first year, iyawós are asked to leave aside make-up, perfume, jewels and wear this single colour. The list of rules is simple, but long: only going out accompanied, avoid alcohol, eating meals with as spoon not a knife and fork… All this symbolises them growing in a new faith. I’m told this also applies to people wanting to turn a new leaf in their life: after a trauma, a divorce, simply wishing to give up on cigarettes. It shows such strength, such will power that I watched them with renewed admiration.


Cuba Havana Santeria iyawó 3 Cuba Havana Santeria iyawó


Regla and the black madonna

Next on the Santería quest, if you are visiting Havana, is Regla, 15 mn ferry ride away. Right by the harbour – the capital’s first one – is the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla where a black Madonna is worshipped. The legend says the original was carved by St Augustine ‘The African’ in the 5th century and eventually made its way to Spain then Cuba. The ship transporting it, surviving an incredibly strong storm, thanked the effigy, now considered patron of sailors and naturally associated with Yemaya, protector of the oceans.

It’s an incredibly strong symbol. Ernest Hemingway, who was known to be greatly influenced by Santería, left his Nobel Prize medal at the virgin’s feet. More recently, in 2015, the Pope stopped at another sanctuary (Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre in Santiago) associated both to the catholic church and Santería. No wonder, then, that thousand join the procession celebrating the Saint’s day each September

You will find santeras sitting in front of the church. For a small fee, they will give you advice, read your future in cards… Do take a stroll through the colourful streets around too, a mural is dedicated to the black Virgin.


Cuba Havana Santeria Regla Cuba Havana Santeria Regla santerias Cuba Havana Santeria Regla 2 Cuba Havana Santeria Regla church Madonna Cuba Havana Santeria Regla 3 Cuba Havana Santeria Regla 4 Cuba Havana Santeria Regla church Madonna street art


Stepping into the Santería shops

You will often glimpse bead necklaces and miniature figurines of saints at the entrance of shops. Some are, of course, fully dedicated to Santeriá. It’s quite an experience to step in. You will find everything to decorate your shrine, perfect your traditional dance costume, offerings for your orishas (think shells, miniature metal tools…), accessories for rituals such as palos (sticks with supernatural powers) … Better speak Spanish to ask for explanations!


Cuba Havana Santeria shop Cuba Havana Santeria shop 2 Cuba Havana Santeria shop 3 Cuba Havana Santeria necklace 2 Cuba Havana Santeria shop 4


Callejon de Hamel: street art and rumba

It all started in 1990. Artist Salvador Gonzalez Escalona decided to paint a mural in front of his house, on Callejon de Hamel. Along the years, he covered ever single wall of that street, even recycling bathtubs into benches, recycling material into sculptures… Not strictly Santeriá but very much inspired by it so definitely a must stop. Be warned though – the local youth, eager to earn a little money will take you along and explain every piece you are looking at. It’s only fair. As a tourist you have a much higher quality of life, you’re on their turf and they are offering knowledge in return. If you are interested in knowing more about the place – go for it, it’s way cheaper than a professional guide taking you around town. If you find this more hassle than anything else and are put off by having to say no 2 or 3 times, just come early in the morning – at 9 am you will be able to take pictures in peace.

Salvador Gonzalez Escalona still lives there – stop by his studio to have a look at its latest pieces and – why not – take one back home! You will find a little café on site too. The street in the past few years has grown famous for its rumba session, taking place every Sunday at noon. It’s free, intense, electrifying, trance inducing even. Life, the Cuban way 🙂


Cuba Havana Santeria Callejón de Hamel street art 2 Cuba Havana Santeria Callejón de Hamel street art 3 Cuba Havana Santeria Callejón de Hamel street art 4 Cuba Havana Santeria Callejón de Hamel street art 5 Cuba Havana Santeria Callejón de Hamel street art 6 Cuba Havana Santeria Callejón de Hamel street art 7 Cuba Havana Santeria Callejón de Hamel street art 8 Cuba Havana Santeria Callejón de Hamel street art 9 Cuba Havana Santeria Callejón de Hamel street art 10 Cuba Havana Santeria Callejón de Hamel street art 11 Cuba Havana Santeria Callejón de Hamel street art 13 Cuba Havana Santeria Callejón de Hamel street art 14



  1. November 20, 2017 / 18:42

    I have been wanting to travel to Cuba in a long time. Thanks so much for all of the tips! I will definitely check this out when I go.

  2. November 21, 2017 / 09:31

    Lovely photos, awesome blog. I loved the stories and information about Havana you shared in this blog, the reason people where white. I can not wait to visit Havana.

  3. Chocoralie
    November 21, 2017 / 11:51

    @Debbie Airbnb offers a couple of “experiences” too if you want an easy introduction. The way of the saints one is quite good!

  4. Chocoralie
    November 21, 2017 / 11:52

    @Yogita Definitely put it top of your list! I only did Havana and a short trip near Vinales for that trip but can’t wait to see more of the island…

  5. Followingtherivera
    November 21, 2017 / 14:16

    This is incredible! I only knew about catholicism in Cuba, but now I know much more to the country and its religions. The colours are amazing too 😀

  6. Chocoralie
    November 21, 2017 / 20:22

    @Followingtherivera I only learnt this at my second trip too… Can’t wait to go back and discover more!

  7. November 21, 2017 / 22:19

    I went to Cuba earlier this year and am sad that I missed observing this. Love the detailed history and the explanation of the “symbol of white” was very interesting. I’m sure if I visit again, I will probably spot it everywhere now that I am aware 🙂

  8. Chocoralie
    November 22, 2017 / 01:13

    @Candy I only noticed at my second trip to be fair! I’m sure there is so much more to learn: worth planning a new trip!

  9. November 22, 2017 / 11:27

    Wow just went to cuba and didn’t notice about this too much and now we wish we did. Really interesting and super informative. All the colours and the thought behind is great. Now we want to go back to Cuba so badly!

  10. November 22, 2017 / 11:34

    Wow that’s so interesting. I like the wear all white aspect of the first year. I also, oddly enough, like eating only with the spoon thing haha because I basically just eat spoons to eat.

  11. Katie
    November 22, 2017 / 12:50

    You captured and described Havana so well – the street art is so vibrant and creative! Thank you for the dose of escapism 🙂

  12. November 22, 2017 / 16:48

    I wish I knew more about this when I went to Havana last year. I saw the items and clothing but didn’t know what it was really. I hope I can go back and explore it more. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  13. Megan Indoe
    November 22, 2017 / 17:00

    What a fascinating read! I learned so much reading this. I had no idea Santeria was a home religion either, I sort of like that aspect. Haha, I am a bit embarrassed to admit I used to sing the song by Sublime and really had no idea what it was about.

  14. November 22, 2017 / 18:45

    What an interesting read, I went to Cuba about 5 years ago before the borders were relaxed. I am not going to lie I never notice the little shrine near the front doors, with dolls in colourful dress. It is definitely something I will take a look out for next time that I am there. I also find it interesting about the meaning behind the white symbol, meaning growing in a new faith.

  15. Chocoralie
    November 22, 2017 / 23:49

    @Mini & Mitch Perfect reason to plan another trip! What did you do in Cuba? I spent my week exploring Havana – can’t wait to explore more!

  16. Chocoralie
    November 23, 2017 / 00:07

    @Sarah Kim Who know, you may just be at a new chapter of your life without knowing it 🙂

  17. November 23, 2017 / 00:31

    Wow, this is so interesting. I love how you were able to dig deeper and give us a history of Santeria. It’s such a colorful and symbolic religion. I imagine that a Santero/a is kind of like having a guardian angel.

  18. November 23, 2017 / 04:32

    How interesting! I never thought the colours have any deeper meaning. Now, I know what each colour symbolizes. Thank you for sharing this information!

  19. Chocoralie
    November 23, 2017 / 13:46

    @Katie I was amazed at how much street art Havana had too – even more colourful that these murals… Incredible place indeed 🙂

  20. Chocoralie
    November 24, 2017 / 10:12

    @Vibeke I only noticed it at my second trip. So much to take in the first time around!

  21. Brooke
    November 25, 2017 / 09:53

    Love the street art and all of the colors as well as the interesting peek inside a different religion or belief system. It always makes travel so much more meaningful to dig into a tradition unique to the country that people outside the country may not know much about-this is where you get an understanding of something so unique but that sheds so much light on other things you see throughout your travels in that country.

  22. November 25, 2017 / 12:44

    Wow, really interesting read! I love learning about new cultures and different religions. I am not familiar with Santería. Loved that you spotted people wearing certain colors and knowing it had to do with their religion, especially the lady all in white. Great article!

  23. Chocoralie
    November 25, 2017 / 23:51

    @Megan I didn’t know that song – thank you for sharing that!

  24. November 26, 2017 / 07:31

    Oh, what a lovely post. I never been to Cuba, but you gave insight, that is really good to now, when I get there.

  25. Ivy
    November 26, 2017 / 18:11

    Wow there’s so much street art! I’m waiting for flight prices to drop so I can cross Cuba off my list. I’m not religious at all but I like that the idea that Santeria is a home religion too.

  26. November 26, 2017 / 21:43

    I love exploring how different cultures get woven together, but I had no idea this existed in Cuba. Thanks so much for enlightening me 🙂

  27. November 27, 2017 / 00:45

    Wow! So many things I didn’t know before. This is no doubt what I love about traveling. It teaches you so much and you get to witness and experience it all first-handly as well!! This was really quite the interesting read and I’m glad to have learnt more about Havana beyond its colorful rows of houses.

  28. Chocoralie
    November 29, 2017 / 10:35

    @Tara It is – there is a lot of listening and caring in Santería…

  29. November 29, 2017 / 18:07

    Such an enlightening post. The pictures you provided are simply breathtaking. When would it be the best time of the year to explore Cuba?

  30. Chocoralie
    November 29, 2017 / 22:14

    @Cat Colours have symbol in the Catholic religion too – check it out 🙂

  31. Chocoralie
    November 29, 2017 / 22:15

    @Mel Butler I went in 2003 and didn’t either. Maybe you notice more the second time around?

  32. Chocoralie
    November 30, 2017 / 03:23

    @Brooke It does – getting out of your comfort zone makes more sensitive to little details 🙂

  33. Chocoralie
    November 30, 2017 / 03:24

    @Sherrie Fabrizi Allbritten What a fantastic life story, isn’t it? You wear what you are going through…

  34. Chocoralie
    December 1, 2017 / 12:16

    @Hanne It’s such a beautiful place… Make sure to put top of your bucket list!

  35. Chocoralie
    December 1, 2017 / 12:18

    @ivy That is just one street – beautiful pieces throughout the whole city 🙂

  36. Chocoralie
    December 1, 2017 / 12:19

    @Bruce Schinkel My pleasure – there must be so much more but a week simply wasn’t enough!

  37. Chocoralie
    December 1, 2017 / 12:21

    @Jas It does – so many insights that make you think about your own culture too…

  38. Chocoralie
    December 1, 2017 / 12:24

    @Agness of Fit Travelling >> I went in June. Hot but not too hot. July and August are more difficult temperature wise I understand. I’d love to try Christmas…

  39. December 1, 2017 / 19:45

    Thank you for taking your readers on such a colorful journey. You are an amazing photographer and story teller!

  40. December 2, 2017 / 13:02

    This was such an interesting read. The colours, creativity and artwork makes it so pretty. Wearing white head to toe is just as colourful though!

  41. December 2, 2017 / 17:56

    Cool! That was something I have never seen. I only read/watched videos about Havana and Santiago de Cuba, but not beyond. Beautiful photos, they have interesting fashion and street art.

  42. Chocoralie
    December 6, 2017 / 17:53

    @Nazneen Malik Thank you so much – I try 🙂

  43. Chocoralie
    December 6, 2017 / 17:54

    @Verity I do love the symbolism – not sure I would be able to do that a full year though!

  44. Chocoralie
    December 6, 2017 / 17:54

    @Alexander Popkov Thank you – it’s nice to go beyond stereotypes about a place, isn’t it?

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