There’s music echoing down the street and it’s definitely Samba or Rumba or Salsa, but I’m not sure I know the difference. No fireworks yet, though. I wonder if it’s going to be any good?
Around the corner and now there’s a lot more people around. Some of the local boys are running down the street carrying some sort of wooden trestle table covered with what looks like bits of newspaper rolled into small cones and twists. Are they the fireworks? That looks a bit naff.
Ooh, there’s a nice smell suddenly wafting past. Somebody’s cooking something delicious. I’ll have to track that down later. Around another corner and the music is louder and woah!, so many people! Wow, its packed! Yep, something’s definitely going on. The main square has people everywhere, and some giant structures all painted up and decorated.
What on earth is it meant to be? Some sort of rooster?
Well, something’s obviously going to be happening. I wonder when the firework display is meant to star…
BOOM!!! BOOM!! Ba-ba-ba-BOOOOM! Ba-ba-BOOM!
Holy crap! You instinctively duck and cover your head because the deafening explosions pound your eardrums and must be no more than a couple of metres directly above you. The booms and bangs and sizzles don’t stop and as you start backing away you feel bits of debris bouncing off you.
I’m right in it, bloody hell, this is insane! Stepping back against the wall of the building I now have chance to look up and it is right over my head, rockets and firecrackers, and mortars and flares, and it doesn’t stop. It’s like someone’s accidentally lit every one of the display’s fireworks all at once instead of spreading it out.
And now it’s raining down this way and good grief look over there it’s firing right into that crowd of people. This is nuts.
You’ve walked right into the middle of an uncontrolled storm of fireworks. You move away from it, seeking refuge from all the burning bits of cardboard and paper bombarding you from above, and just when you’re out of range there’s an ear-splitting boom from right behind you and another crackling flashing ribbon of fire erupts in the sky right above you.
There are no barriers separating the crowds from the launch zones, no safety zones. There’s no restricted areas or any crowd control or any kind of warning where it’s going to come from next, it’s a free-for-all. It’s madness.
And it’s brilliant!
Turn the volume up and watch the video. Seriously, turn the volume up as high as it will go!
Las Parrandas is the Remedios fireworks festival, and it’s unlike any fireworks display you’ve ever seen. It’s not so much a display, more an uncontrolled explosion of sound and noise and heat and fire.
It’s a thrilling, terrifying and exciting battle between the two sides of the town to see who can outdo the other with the loudest, fiercest, most dramatic maelstrom of smoke and noise. The locals started preparing for this not long after last year’s event, and they intend to have a big night.
Gunpowder, rum, street food, and rumba music fuels the entire population of the town from dusk through to the early hours of Christmas day.
The smoke and burning paper mixes with the smells of unidentifiable meaty or sugary delights being cooked up on the bicycle-drawn food carts, and there are partying, dancing, drinking people everywhere.
It seems like chaos, that’s really the only word. You’ve just got over the adrenalin rush caused by another barrage suddenly screaming into the air just behind you, when more rum-soaked revellers loose off another volley of mortars in a wall of flame and smoke and noise right where you were standing just 10 seconds earlier.
You and your companions will keep saying “bloody hell we were standing right there two seconds ago, this is crazy!”
You’ll struggle to get any clear video because of the self-preservation that kicks in to make sure that your first reaction is to duck, and it’s all so unexpected and fast. You really don’t know where it’s coming from next.
Eventually the stocks of home-made rockets and mortars runs down, and the music takes over. The streets are full of people, the ground is covered in the remains of all the fireworks, and for the rest of the night the samba and rumba bands play while everyone gets drunker and drunker and the conga parades around the square.
Trumpets and drums and whistles, music and dance and rum and beer. It’s astonishing.
The fireworks, music, dancing, costume parades, displays of lanterns and carrozas, the drinking and the partying all continue into the early hours.
History of Las Parrandas de Remedios
Las Parrandas de Remedios, one of the oldest festivities in Cuba, lasts from the 16th and 26th December every year, with celebrations every night.
Conga bands playing in the streets, rumba dance parades, colourful carnival carrozas (floats) made by the residents of the different barrios (neighbourhoods).
It started in the 18th century when the Spanish priests at the Grand Cathedral de Remedios gave the local children plates and spoons to run around the village making a racket to rouse people out of their houses in time for midnight mass, “Misa de Gallo”, on Christmas eve.
It evolved into a carnival and fireworks displays where the eight main barrios of the town divide into two competing groups, San Salvador and El Carmen, and try to outdo each other with their fireworks and floats.
After the fireworks, the whole town spends hours dancing and parading around the square to the salsa and rumba music, and enjoys all the street food and a non-stop flow of rum and beer.
The main event is Christmas eve, when the battling barrios go all out with the most thunderous, explosive, seemingly uncontrolled barrage of home-made fireworks. The locals spend several months making the fireworks and building and decorating the floats and lanterns and costumes.
The Remedios fireworks festival can be dangerous
There’s no question about it, Las Parrandas is dangerous. The fireworks are homemade and there are lots of them, usually ignited altogether in a short but intense burst of mayhem.
There are no barriers between you and the fireworks, no controlled zones with a 100m safety line. You’ll be backing away from one terrifying riot of flames and smoke and then another will erupt right behind you.
The rockets and firecrackers mostly go up, and it’s frightening enough when the smoking debris rains down on you, but the bigger danger is that plenty of them spiral out of control heading sideways and downwards into the crowds.
You need to have your wits about you. You need to stay aware of what direction the explosions are coming from and position yourself carefully. Back against a building, or under the terraces is safer.
If you avoid diving into the thick of it with the locals, and avoid getting hammered on rum like the locals, then you’ll be out of the main firing line.
Lots of the locals are injured every year, and there have been some occasional deaths when things have gone badly wrong. That has led to an increased number of police and security tasked with the job of keeping the crowds back from the launch zones where the fireworks are being lit, but it’s still no match for a proper metal safety barrier and a 100m exclusion.
It’s up to you. If you’re able to take responsibility for yourself you’ll be fine. Just understand that nobody else is making efforts to ensure your safety. It’s everyone for themselves.
How to see Las Parrandas de Remedios
When is it
Between the 16th and 26th of December every year, but the main event with the fireworks is Christmas Eve.
Where is it
Remedios is a 1 hour taxi ride from Santa Clara and about 4 hours by bus from Havana.
Tours to Las Parrandas de Remedios
Many of the tours that are in Cuba over Christmas will work Remedios into their schedule. Whether you’re on a cycling tour or a cultural tour or a culinary tour, most of the operators know what an incredible experience Las Parrandas is and so they give you the option.
I was in Cuba on an excellent cycling holiday with Explore! and I knew that the tour would be passing by Santa Clara on the 24th, but the itinerary said nothing about Remedios.
I so wanted to see it that I had made arrangements to separate from the tour group and take my own accommodation in Remedios for the night, and had arranged my own transport to catch up with the group the next day. In the end it wasn’t necessary, but it was close.
We boarded the tour bus behind schedule after that day’s cycling and a lot of the group were saying that they were tired. The tour leader said that we could choose to go to “a little celebration in a nearby town” if we wanted to, our we could make straight for the hotel.
None of the other people in the group knew anything about the Remedios Firewaorks Festival and when people started voting for the hotel I had to say “No, no, this is the Remedios firewaorks festival, it’s amazing, we have to see it!”. Fortunately the guide agreed that yes, this is an amazing event worth seeing, and so off we went.
Independent travel to Remedios
Your only challenge for experiencing Las Parrandas indepently is the journey to Remedios and making sure you have some accommodation. You will need to book well in advance. There are plenty of options for buses from Havana to Santa Clara, and then you can take a taxi to Remedios.
You should expect that from late afternoon on Christmas eve until early afternoon of Christmas day, it may be tricky to find taxis because the drivers will also want to be getting involved in the excitement, and then sobering up from it.
Cycling holidays in Cuba
Cuba is a spectacular country and brilliant for a cycling trip. There are several group cycling holidays by operators like Exodus and Explore. The roads are not always in the best condition, but they’re not bad and the traffic levels are generally low.
Rather than being endlessly buzzed by cars, your only issue when cycling will be occassionally having to hold your breath when an old lorry labours past you, spewing black smoke.
The weather is December is perfect for cycling, the scenery is great, the food is either “not too bad” or “delicious”, depending on how much rum you’ve had, and the hospitality is great. It’s fairly flat, and the old towns full of Spanish colonial architecture and 1950s American cars are a photographer’s delight.
Most of the cycle tours over the Christmas week will stop at Remedios, but check before you book. You’ll also need to book a cycle holiday quite far ahead because Cuba is a popular choice for a Christmas with a difference.
How to get to Remedios from Havana
If you’re not part of a tour group with its own transport, you’ll need a taxi to get you between Santa Clara and Remedios. There are always plenty of taxis at the bus station, even in the early hours.
They know when the night trains and buses are due in and they don’t pass up the chance for a fare. Expect to pay around $20-40 depending on your luck.
Between Santa Clara and Havana there are trains and buses. Both are cheap at around $20-$30, but the bus is the better option as there is a greater number at different times and the buses are quite modern Chinese vehicles.
Trains in Cuba take a lot more preparation and patience. They’re old, and because they’re a little cheaper than the buses they are rammed with Cubans.
Where to stay in Remedios
There are a growing number places available to book on the likes of booking.com and hotels.com, but you’ll need to book a long way in advance for Christmas eve. If you can get a room, it might not be cheap. Rates throughout the year are as little as £20-£30 for a night in a fairly decent B&B, but it goes up a lot for Las Parrandas.
Expect to pay around £100 per night for a small hotel if booked well in advance, and be warned that even most of the casa particulars can be booked out months in advance, never mind the hotels.
All the options for Remedios hotels at Hotels.com are 60% full for Christmas Eve 2020 as I write this on the 27th December 2019.
There are lots of “casa particulars”, essentially a room in someone’s private house, which will be the cheapest option but requires a bit more effort and flexibility.
It can be hard to book things in advance because of Cuba’s limited internet access, although that aspect improves every year and there are now a lot more independent “hostels” and “casas” listed online.
They’re not what you would expect a hostel to be. rather more of a B&B. Some will be a room in someone’s house, others will give you own private room, and many are quite beautiful little houses with private courtyards.
You can be sure that the hospitality will be superb, your hosts efforts to make sure you are well-fed and happy will be very noticeable, and staying in one puts more money into the hands of locals than it does when you stay in a hotel.
One option is the Hotel Santa Clara Libre which you know is right in the thick of the action because it still bears the scars of bulletholes from Che Guevara’s 1958 revolution. If you’re not staying, you can still go in for a drink up on the verandah.
What to do in Remedios
There is a museum full of old photos of the event going back decades. Museo Parrandas Remedianas is on the main street next to the central park. It’s the pink and blue painted building opposite the church. It’s small, but ineteresting. Remedios dates from the 16th century and has a fascinating history spanning from Spanish settlers to communist revolution.
There is still a lot of Spanish colonial architecture as old as the 17th century, so if you get the chance to spend a day there before the explosions and drinking starts, you won’t be bored. The main church, Iglesia Mayor, was restored in the 1950s. Remedios isn’t a big town, but nearby Santa Clara also has a lot going on.
What is Las Parrandas?
Las Parrandas is an annual celebration in the town of Remedios in Cuba, featuring fireworks, music, dancing, and colourful floats and lanterns. One of the oldest traditions in Cuba, it’s a barrage of home-made fireworks on Christmas eve.
When is the Remedios fireworks festival?
The festival takes place from then16th to the 26th of December every year, with the main fireworks event on Christmas eve.
Is Las Parrandas de Remedios dangerous?
Yes, but most visitors have no trouble. A lot of the locals get minor injuries every year. It doesn’t help that a lot of rum and beer gets drunk during the event. There are fireworks going off all around a small area with few controls. You have to look out for yourself. There have been some serious injuries and even deaths.
Where is Remedios?
Remedios is in central Cuba, close to Santa Clara and about 4 hours drive from Havana.
How do you get to Remedios from Havana?
There are buses and trains from Havana to Santa Clara, which takes about 4 hours. From Santa Clara you can take a taxi to Remedios, a journey of about 1 hour.
Is Las Parrandas de Remedios any good?
Oh yes, it’s a fantastic experience. Just be aware that your safety is in your hands.
Are there hotels in Remedios, Cuba?
Yes, there are a number of hotels and hostels that can be booked online. Rooms during Las Parrandas are booked up months in advance.