The second leg of our people-to-people exchange in Cuba took us to the charming city of Remedios, just a couple of miles from the north coast of the island. But, before we reached Remedios, there was there was much to see in the rural parts of Cuba between Camagüey and Remedios. I discovered the small cities are just as interesting as the big ones. And even though I was completely charmed by the colonial architecture in Remedios I found the countryside most interesting of all, maybe because I grew up on a farm.
Sharing the Road
With the exception of a few stretches of divided highway, which were not heavily traveled, the roads we traveled were two lane and very heavily traveled. A frightening variety of vehicles shared these roads. Our bus driver, Jurestes, carefully negotiated our 40-passenger bus through slower traffic, around bicycles, horse carts and pedestrians.
Passenger cars are not as common as we expected and most Cubans must rely on other methods of transportation. Ridesharing is required in government-owned vehicles because ownership of the vehicles is viewed as collective, therefore collective use is required. This applies to government-owned passenger cars and buses. There are officials who coordinate government vehicles traveling from city-to-city with individuals needing to make the same trip. These coordinators (hitchhiking coordinators, if you will) are dressed in yellow and stop passing government vehicles, which are identified by their license plates, that are not full.
It was common to see people gathered alongside the road waiting for a ride. Many waved money at our bus driver indicating they needed a ride. The government-owned, 40-passenger bus we rode in was not required to stop to fill the empty seats (there were only 16 in our group) during our visit. However, after our bus driver dropped us at the airport in Havana at the end of our trip, he was required to stop at a central bus station to fill the bus before making the return trip the Camagüey. As people get off the bus along the way he would be required to take on passengers to fill those seats.
Taxis were not uncommon, though the most common types of taxis we saw were horse-drawn or motorcycle taxis. Local buses also operate on a schedule, although the buses we saw other than the tourist buses were much older and not nearly as nice.
The four-hour drive from Camagüey to Remedios offers an interesting view of rural life in Cuba. We passed through a few small towns along the way, but mostly the drive took us through the countryside. The soil changed from sandy to red and then back to sandy. The terrain was flat, then hilly. Some areas looked to be suffering from severe drought conditions, others were lush with palms trees and banana tree plantations. Many small farms had varied plantings of vegetables surrounding the homes. Some homes were brightly painted, some were under construction and others were in need of some TLC.
Sugar cane was common and often planted in fields covering many acres. I also saw lots of open pasture land with windmills and large trees that reminded me of the oak trees that dot the foothills near where we live.
I was fascinated by the tobacco farms, most of which covered only a few acres and looked to be worked by one or two people. Neat rows of tobacco were planted, mostly in areas with red soil. Orderly racks in the fields covered with drying tobacco leaves were common. The large drying barns were beautiful and distinctive in their shape. Trying to photograph them from a moving bus became both a challenge and a frustration.
A Beautiful Central Plaza with Two Churches
Plaza Martí sits in the center of Remedios and is impossibly picturesque. It includes palm trees, large shade trees, statues and a central gazebo. Our lodging for the three days we spent in Remedios was the Hotel Camino del Príncipe which overlooks the square. Watching life go buy from outside the hotel or from the square was truly one of the simple pleasures of our visit to Remedios.
The square is a gathering place for locals throughout the day, but especially in the evening when families gather with friends. Young women and men, dressed to the nines, gather to see and be seen. Couples walk arm-in-arm around the square.
Two Catholic churches open on to the main square making Plaza Martí the only town square in Cuba with two churches. Both are beautiful, and painted the same colors on the outside, but they could not be more different on the inside. The smaller church, Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Buen Viaje, was established in 1703 and built between 1713 and 1719. It looks recently painted on the outside, but the inside is in ruins. Even in its ruined state, though, it is beautiful. I only ever saw one man working on the interior.
The larger parish church, Iglesia de San Juan Batista, is a cathedral by comparison. Maybe by any standard. It, too, is very old and was built in 1692 on the site of a church built in 1570. The gold altar is exquisitely detailed as is the ceiling of the church.
A series of small altars line the sides of the church. Unique among the altars is a statue of a pregnant Virgin Mary and a statue of Our Lady of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba. Both churches are remarkable.
Remedios is home to a crazy celebration before Christmas called Las Parrandas that involves fireworks, many of which are homemade, and a nighttime parade including enormous floats lit with colorful lights. There are costumes and dancing in the streets. In Remedios, two neighborhoods (San Salvador and El Carmen) compete against each other to design the float that best represents the theme chosen the prior June. Las Parrandas originated in Remedios and now many cities in Cuba have similar celebrations, but the celebration in Remedios is the biggest in Cuba.
We met with a local artist, Roaidi Cartaya, who participates in designing floats every year. Construction of the floats requires teams of carpenters, electricians, decorators and costume designers. The designs are top secret every year. We toured a large workshop of the El Carmen neighborhood that houses parts of floats from prior celebrations and got a feeling for just how enormous and involved these floats are.
Visiting a Neighborhood Bodega
One morning we visited a government-owned grocery store called a bodega. These bodegas, or rationing stores (every city has them and there are 19 in Remedios), are where Cubans go to receive the basic food allotment to which they are entitled. Basic means things like beans, rice, cooking oil, bread and eggs. The cost of goods at the bodega is very low, but the amount each person is entitled to is not enough to last the month. The difference must me made up by shopping elsewhere at a much higher price.
Each family or individual has a government-issued booklet which is marked every time food is received from their assigned bodega. Individual food allotments vary depending on gender, age and whether a woman is pregnant or not.
The shelves were mostly bare and most people came in to purchase bread, eggs or rice. I didn’t see anything else being sold, not that there was much else to purchase. It was a sobering experience. The one thing this system has going for it is that everyone knows everyone else in the bodega. There was at least as sense of community about the bodega.
A History Lesson and Time for Dominoes
During our stay in Remedios we also visited an old sugar mill that is now a museum, which we reached by steam train. In nearby Santa Clara we visited the mausoleum of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and the site of a train derailment led by Guevara on December 29, 1958 that was instrumental in the fall of the Batista regime the following January.
We also visited a cigar factory (sorry, no photos allowed!) and a print shop still using machines made in the 1860s and 1870s. We met with local car club members and, no matter where we went, we came across groups of men playing dominoes. We never saw women playing dominoes; maybe they are too busy. It was an interesting stay, and one that was filled with contrast.
The next leg of our visit took us to the beach and our only one-night stand of the trip. And, finally, we found Cuban wine!
If you would like to see more photos of our trip to Remedios check out our SmugMug album.