Although any time of the year is apt to explore this colonial time-warp of back streets and crannies on foot or in the ubiquitous horse-drawn carriages, Remedios is famous for its centuries-old parrandas, or revels, on Christmas Eve. Year after year, on the night of December 24, a competition of fireworks and floats reveals the mysterious preparations of the two districts: EI Carmen, represented by locals in the color brown - carmelitas- and San Salvador de Horta, represented by the colors red and blue - sanseries. The ancient rivalry between the two neighbourhoods is now played out in a pre-dawn competition of colourfully decorated floats prepared in secret all year and paraded through the streets on Christmas Eve with lights, fireworks and traditional music. When daylight warms Plaza Martí, both carmelitas and sanseries proclaim their victory - today there are no losers in the contest.
Considered the oldest festivity in Cuba, the Parrandas were promoted by Father Francisco Vigil de Quinones in the 19th Century because parishioners were not attending the "Misa del Gallo" (midnight mass). He came up with all sorts of distractions to keep people from sleeping on the night of the 24th; encouraging children to take to the streets with wooden rattles and whistles so adults had no choice but to get up and attend mass. The original ruckus became a tradition and a Cuban pride.
Originally named Santa Cruz de la Sabana and located on the northern coast in 15 13, marauding pirates forced its move to Texico Cove where mosquitoes and a string of other curses, as well as continued pirate raids, caused the settlers to uproot again and found San Juan de los Remedios.
However, not even St. John the Baptist, the patron saint to whom was consecrated the Parroquial Mayor church, still filled today with splendid religious treasures, could save Remedios from its misfortunes. Although coffee, cocoa and livestock where the initial sources of income, ransom and smuggling became the only means of survival of Remedios' inhabitants.
Their wooden houses burned easily and the largest fire recorded in the city, "the Great Fire" was set in the late 16th century by a group of residents who left to found Santa Clara.
They returned to convince the other inhabitants to join them, and when they were rejected, first prayed against the town demons and then burned the town down.
The stubborn people of Remedios rebuilt their town and continued to suffer hardships until the sugar boom brought the first signs of prosperity in the mid-19th Century, when landowners from Sancti Spiritus and Trinidad invested in the then depleted coffers of Remedios.
Curiosities and legends
There are two churches consecrated to different patron saints in the historic Martí Plaza of Remedios. One is the San Juan Batista, Parroquial Mayor, renovated to reveal a cedar altar and carved mahogany ceilings and sheltering the unique statue of the pregnant Virgin.
A more modest building, the Nuestra Senora del Buen Viaje church, is located close by. It is said that in the 17th Century a group of returning fishermen found a box containing the virgin floating among the remains of a shipwreck. They assumed she had presented herself to guarantee a safe journey home and brought her to the shack of a freed slave. The next day they took her to the church of San Juan, but were astonished when she continued to return to the shack. There they finally decided to build her own church, still popular with the local faithful.
There are other myths nourishing the fantasies of those visiting Remedios. The Güije de la Bajada - hell's mouth - is one of them. It was believed that a cattle-thief could only be captured by seven men named Juan who were completely pure, including never having had contact with women. This difficult condition was at last established and the seven men went out in search of the brigand. They caught him, but on their way back they passed the Santo Cristo hermitage when the parish priest was offering mass. When the Güije heard a certain phrase, he squealed and escaped, finding haven in a well where he forever disappeared and believed to be haunted. We don't know when this legend began, but it was already old in the 19th Century.
Anecdotes of lovers turned into doves, stories of exorcisms and the like sprout from every corner of this town. The stories have fascinated a large number of Cuban artists, especially painters like Carlos Enriquez and Amelia Peláez. The local Public Library is adorned with stained-glass windows by Peláez.
Yet another treasure in Remedios is the museum dedicated to the avant-garde Cuban composer and contemporary classical musician Alejandro Garcia Caturla, who was born in Remedios in 1906. His house is replete with the stories told by his black nanny that nourished his imagination and his political activism, and the passion of the letters to his beloved.
This is San Juan de los Remedios, persisting in its myths and traditions and safe, so far, from demons.