Guanabacoa is one of the most interesting and colorful towns located at the periphery of the City of Havana. Known for its customs and stories, Guanabacoa preserves its idiosyncrasies and is unique from other towns with its rich history, the survival of ancient religions and other African influences, and architectural monuments dating back to colonial times.
Throughout the first half of the 16th century, the Spanish Crown ordered all the remaining Indians into one area. Most of them settled and have remained in what is today Guanabacoa - also called "a town of Indians."
There are several versions concerning the name of this settlement. One of them states that Guanabacoa means a high place and another, in the aboriginal language, a place with much water. The latter is the most accepted since this region is characterized by a number of water springs.
On June 12, 1554 the town of Guanabacoa was officially founded but in the following year, a very important event took place for its people. Jacques de Sores, the famous pirate who was devastating the Caribbean Sea, plundered and seized the nearby capital. The Governor, Don Gonzalo Perez de Angulo, ordered a retreat and, together with members of the town council and a number of important citizens, fled to Guanabacoa. They remained there for six months during which time the town council met to conduct business. That is the origin of the popular saying: "to put Havana in Guanabacoa." While it is absurd to think that the very illustrious San Cristobal de La Habana could fit into little Guanabacoa, ironically for a six month period, Havana did. Since then, whenever something too big is thought to fit into a smaller place or when describing something grandiose, exaggerated, and impossibly pretentious, the popular saying that "you can't put Havana in Guanabacoa" will be heard.
On August 14,1743, King Phillip V, on the request of some important citizens and clergy, passed a decree giving Guanabacoa the status of Villa with the name of La Asuncion (the "Assumption") of Guanabacoa. As then, it stood out and was called Guanabacoa la Bella, or "Guanabacoa the Beautiful" with its rustic city walls. One of the most auspicious events was the popular and colourful celebration of the Assumption which took place there.
In 1762 another important event took place in Havana which would have a bearing on Guanabacoa: the seizing of Havana by the British. In the face of the Spanish ineptitude in the defence of the city, the courage of the militia and the volunteer regiment led by Jose Antonio Gomez y Bullones, the legendary Pepe Antonio from Guanabacoa, was outstanding. Ever since, Guanabacoa is also popularly known as "the Villa of Pepe Antonio."
In the surroundings of Guanabacoa, several sugar mills were built which increased the black population in the area. First there were slaves and later these slaves were freed but continued to work there. This explains the survival of African religions and other influences which have characterized this town such as: Santería, Palo monte, and the Abakua Secret Society which is still present today. Hence, the popular phrase "Go to Guanabacoa and find a Babalawo."
Guanabacoa also has a very valuable cultural heritage. It has been the cradle of musicians, writers, historians, and Jose Marti (the national hero of Cuba) visited its Literary Artistic Lyceum. Among the top artists born in Guanabacoa are Rita Montaner, the singer and actress who was baptized , by the people as La Única or "The Unique," Ignacio Villa a peculiar singer and composer known as Bola de Nieve or "Snowball," and the most universally known of all our musicians, Ernesto Lecuona.
Today, these cultural traditions are still alive and can be seen in the prestigious Guillermo Tomas Music Conservatory, the Municipal Museum visited by Cubans and foreigners alike, and the international Welmilere Festival of African Roots held in Guanabacoa every year.