Celebrating Christmas Eve in Cuba – Las Parrandas de Remedios

I’m home from Cuba and it has been a hard transition back to my everyday life in Vancouver. I miss my travel companions from the Cuban Adventures tour, the delicious and cheap mojitos, the hot weather, smoking Cuban cigars, walking around exploring new cities and towns and the people that I met. The photographic opportunities ranged from crumbling old buildings in Havana to white sand beaches at sunset in Varadero and lush, tropical fields of tobacco in Vinales.

I can’t wait to share my stories and photos of my Cuban trip. One of my adventures was heading to Remedios to celebrate Noche Buena (Christmas Eve), a night that I won’t forget anytime soon.

Las Parrandas de Remedios 2014

Las Parrandas de Remedios is a night of partying in the streets and celebrating Christmas Eve on a rooftop. We enjoyed fireworks, dancing, partying, wandering the streets, exploring the stalls and squeezing past locals drinking rum and Cristal, all while the final touches were being made to parade floats. Las Parrandas de Remedios takes place on Christmas Eve and is a massive celebration between two rival groups, El Carmen (the hawk) and San Salvador (the rooster). The preparations take months, and involve making homemade fireworks, extravagant floats, costumes and other materials for the festival.

Parrandas were born in the 18th century when Father Francisco Vigil de Quiñones, the priest of the Grand Cathedral of Remedios, had the idea to put together groups of children and provide them with jars, plates and spoons so they could run around the village making noise and singing verses, in order to get the people to come to midnight masses the week before Christmas. The idea persisted over the years and with time it gain complexity ending in the street party that has remained till these days. – Cuban Adventures

We arrived at Remedios shortly after nine and squeezed our way through the packed crowds. Our guide, Valerie, led the way to a rooftop where we hung out and took in the view of the party below. We missed the first round of fireworks by minutes and the people who were already there were on an adrenaline high. They described their experience of running from the rooftop as home-made fireworks descended on them before they rushed inside and down the stairs to view them under shelter. All that remained were the sticks scattered on the roofs and the ground. As one traveler said, “I felt like I was in a war zone,” until he was undercover and was able to enjoy the experience.

Las Parrandas de Remedios Street

We headed upstairs to take in the view from above. On the ground below were stalls that included betting counters, children’s amusement rides and vendors selling toys, hats, beer and food. Both the locals and the tourists were enjoying the various offerings.

We stood on the roof, drinking rum and coke, taking in the sights, watching the light show and getting to know our group members better as we waited for more of the fireworks. As we weren’t sure when the next show was going to start, Nasser and I wandered down to the street to enjoy the sights and sounds. We saw pigs being roasted on the street, beer cans being cracked open and drinks sold for a fraction of the normal charge. People danced  close together and the smell of tobacco permeated  the air. I couldn’t help trying to understand the Spanish words that I heard as we squeezed our way past people. As I wanted some Cuban tobacco, I found a vendor. (The tobacco is different from what you would get in North America; it’s not filled with the chemicals that makes them harsh and leaves you sick). It is a smooth smoke and as I lifted my head to release it, I smiled. I couldn’t believe I was here in Cuba, experiencing Cuban tobacco. When in Remedios …

Las Parrandas de Remedios street

After walking for a while on the cobbled streets, we were hooked, but we went back to our guide to check in as promised before heading back into the street. Time flew by as we walked around the side streets, people watching and enjoying a few Cristals. The two groups (roosters and hawks) tried to outdo each other as we soaked it all in. As we were checking in, we heard a loud bang: the fireworks were starting so we hurried back to get a good view. We watched the fireworks explode in the sky, one after another, with their smoking remains descending, sometimes falling into the crowd below. After a splash of pink and white light, all that would be left was the smoke before the next volley shot off. I had enjoyed the festive energy, but the group decided that it was time to head back as we had an early start the next day and it was already after two.

Valerie held his phone up as a light beacon, and we navigated our way to the bus. Once aboard, we sank into our seats for the forty minute ride back to Santa Clara. The next morning, waking up to my alarm, was slightly painful. But it was well worth the experience of Las Parrandas de Remedios. We later learned that the contest between El Carmen and San Salvador ended in a draw, as it does every year.

We were advised to leave our good cameras and bags at our accommodations. Hence the lack of photos, however, I was able to capture some moments with my phone:

These festivals, Parrandas, have spread through Cuba. However, Remedios remains the best location to experience the tradition and the incredible energy. If you are heading to Cuba during Christmas, I highly recommend checking out this carnival.

Tips for Las Parrandas de Remedios:

    • We were advised not to bring our good cameras/valuables however, in hindsight, I would have felt comfortable bringing a DSLR. Do it at your own risk. It is similar to any large crowd gathering, but with more drinking. Some years are crazier than others. I would recommend leaving bags at your accommodation if you can.
    • Bring small bills to purchase food and drinks.
    • You can bargain with vendors. The stall we bought our beers from were charging in local currency, and we didn’t have any. We offered 1 CUC and it was accepted.
    • Watch out when the fireworks are going off as the remains can fall on the crowd or misfire.
    • If you aren’t on a tour, book your accommodations well in advance. I was on tour with Cuban Adventures and they took care of getting us there and back and keeping us safe. A guided tour also offers you a group of travelers to hang out with.
    • Most of all have fun, explore the streets and soak it in. It’s a unique way to celebrate Christmas.
Las Parrandas de Remedios 2014
The street scene at Las Parrandas de Remedios, looking down from a roof top. Later on, I was down there exploring!

 

Disclosure: Part of my trip was sponsored by Cuban Adventures. However, all of the opinions here are my own.

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18 thoughts on “Celebrating Christmas Eve in Cuba – Las Parrandas de Remedios

  1. I love attending local festivals while travelling. That’s how you really get to experience real life in the city. I’m sure with the increase in tourism that is going to come as a result of Americans now being allowed to travel to Cuba that some of these places are going to change over time…

    BTW that roasted pig looked amazing!

    1. Local festivals are a favourite of mine, you get insight into the country, community and people! Roasted pig was in multiple places, but I never tried it. I was getting tired of eating meat after a while.

      I’m glad I was able to go now as I think it will change due to the increase of tourism. I’m hoping it will all be for the better though.

  2. I’m headed to Cuba next January- and I cannot wait! I just booked my spot, and your blog post landed in my inbox less than a minute later. Must be the universe telling me something ;).
    Thanks for the tips!

    1. I highly recommend going for Christmas! It’s high season, busy and more expensive but there is something about spending Christmas there that is magical. If you go, try to check out Las Parrandas de Remedios.

  3. Sounds like a great experience and fun. I just learned something new! Had no idea there was such an event. Very cool. I went to Cuba almost 15 years ago now, may be time to go back.

    1. It’s changed dramatically Andrea and will continue to. Cubans are allowed to have small businesses such as casas and restaurants, own homes and cars and soon they may only have one currency. I loved Cuba and can’t wait to go back.

  4. Great description of the Parrandas Megan! I haven’t been myself and this has given me the best idea of what its really like by anyone so far. Too bad you missed the first round of fireworks. The guides are telling me they have even better arrangements planned for next year (eg a roof top even closer to the main square). I’m glad you enjoyed and thanks again! John – Manager of Cuban Adventures

    1. Thank you John! I loved the Parrandas and Cuba. Even though we missed the first round, we had a wonderful time. It’s exciting to hear that it’s going to be even better next year, looking forward to hearing about the changes.

  5. Sounds like such a great experience! I really want to visit Cuba–hopefully we can go soon! Love the photos and it would be fun to travel over the holidays like this!

  6. Hi Megan,

    What a blast! We find it neat to experience Christmas in the tropics. So used to those cold, sometimes snowy New Jersey holiday seasons, so when we’re in Thailand or Malaysia things are so different. The food, people and scene looked amazing and you did a fab job recapturing your experience.

    Thanks much!

    Ryan

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