Every year on Christmas Eve the quiet town of Remedios, close to Cuba's north coast, hosts one of the island's most colourful festivals.
Known as 'Las Parrandas de Remedios', the centre of the small colonial town erupts with a firework, lightbulb, popcorn and music frenzy that powers through all night.
Las Parrandas sees two Remedios 'barrios' (districts) pitted against each other over various stakes - a huge towering structure flashing with lights and decorations, parades of floats, costumes, music and dancing, and all-night fireworks.
The competition is serious; many months are spent preparing in workshops set behind huge gates to prevent prying eyes getting a peep, and the whole town gets involved in celebrating the annual carnival.
It all started around 1820 when the parish priest complained about parishioners who preferred a lie-in during December's Christmas masses to attending sermons sat in his pews. He decided to take action into his own hands and summoned locals to wander around town making as much noise as possible - bashing boxes, tins and wood - to force people out of their beds. The tradition of Las Parrandas was born.
We got to Remedios a few days before the spectacle for the party having booked our casa particular, see tips below, well in advance.
We met guide Lazaro who filled us in on the rules and regulations so we'd know what to look out for in the coming days. He told us about the two competing sides: 'Los Carmelitas', who represent the district of El Carmen, wear a caramel colour, and are symbolised by a 'gavilan' (hawk). And the Sanseries who represent the San Salvador district, sport red as their colour, and bear the symbol of a 'el gallo' (cockerel).
To tell the difference, Remedianos often wear neckerchiefs imprinted with the bird of their barrio, Lazaro told us. He also explained exactly what gets judged on Christmas Eve:
"In the plaza they put up a structure, known as 'trabajo de plaza' (square work). This is the most beautiful thing that night that is judged. It can't fail on any electrics; it can't have white spaces on its facade, and it can't have much space between each decoration.
"Each barrio is also judged on its polka music, and most importantly on the number of fireworks."
In Remedios, there is no official judge; the jury is by way of the popular vote of the Remedianos on the night.
Heading out into the rose-pink plaza a few days before Christmas Eve we could see the scaffolding and the cranes finalising the topping out of the trabajos. They towered over us - vast multicoloured frames at 27 metres high and wired with a thousand light bulbs.
All the bright coats of arms of the main cities of Cuba decorated the base of the San Salvador structure, and on peering behind we were equally fascinated by an extraordinary tangle of wires, tinkering engineers and boxes. All around the square, locals scurried around while festival stalls were assembled and street food was served. There appeared to be a run on bottles of rum and beer and we started to worry that the town might run dry!
I made my way to the secretive HQ of both barrios.
Every summer there is a competition to decide on the theme; in 2013, the town chose Dante's Inferno; in 2014, Japanese culture was celebrated as it was the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of the Samurai in Cuba.
At San Salvador's workshop, the Cubans told me it takes around 300 locals to build the floats, and they'll use around 13,000 light bulbs across 'el trabajo' and the floats. My eyes bulged at the thought. And, as well as around CUC$21,000 both barrios receive from the state for the festivities, a further US$15,000 is collected from Cubans living abroad to boost the coffers for this important tradition.
On the other side of town, at El Carmen's workshop, I saw workers assemble huge polystyrene pink-horned dragons, Chinese lanterns cast from drink cans, and a transformer from an old Russian TV was being used to power a cutter for stencils.
"It's all about recycling here..."
Ismail, a former Director of the Parrandas Museum in Remedios, told me. He also explained:
"Most workers here are all local artists and we all pull together. This tradition has been going for 200 years and it unites people from all jobs, colour and classes and once we have finished with our creations they will be used in other carnivals around Cuba.
"You know, Las Parrandas is part of every Remediano."
At the countdown to the 8pm kick off on Christmas Eve, Remedios' plaza swelled with locals, Cubans from all over the country, and foreigners.
All the town's light had been sucked up by the two towering 'trabajos de plaza' so the plaza appeared to be only illuminated by the dozens of tiny lamps on popcorn stands.
Just after 8pm. the thousand bulbs on San Salvador's Trabajo burst into life and a colourful light show flashed through the night.
A microphone boomed with shouts of:
¡Viva los Quinientos!, ¡Viva el gallo de San Salvador! ¡Viva los quinientos anos de historia!1
At which point a cockerel crowd very loudly and we sniggered.
Rousing classical music pounded out of the speakers before salsa beats rippled across the square moving most of the locals to dance. No matter if they were in flats or sky-high heels, the Cubans were on their feet turning through the night.
Last December, the El Carmen barrio failed to light up their Oriental-cum-Maya fantasy Trabajo, which was led by a model Jaguar creature, but the festival couldn't wait. The sky was bombarded with fireworks that lit up the sky like giant sparklers.
From El Carmen's corner of the square, the polka parade twirled flags, banners and a model of a hawk on top of a pole. Trumpets, trombones and clarinets played a hypnotic marching tune and the crowd danced after them. Fireworks blasted above us, the church bell tower looked like it might go up in flames, and smoke billowed across the square. It was merry chaos - exhilarating and scary.
There was meant to be a pause while Midnight Mass took place but the party continued with the crowd swaying to the music, and dodging the firework fallout.
We ran from one side of the plaza to the other, adrenaline pumping, and screaming as we tried to avoid the firework showers. We tried to take refuge in the church but the doors were shutting so we kept on running, dodging the fiery rain.
San Salvador's float paraded out - a huge Indian temple and mammoth elephant but El Carmen's golden dragons did not make it.
We headed to bed exhausted - along with the earplugs - as the fireworks continued until dawn.
Finally, some tips
- You need to book your hotel (there are now three in town) or casa particular months in advance. It's best to arrive a few days before Christmas Eve to bed down and ensure your reservations are honoured. We witnessed overbooking at the hotels.
- The private dining scene in Remedios is woeful. You would be best to eat at your casa particular, or in the hotels.
- Taxis and collective taxis run back and forth to Santa Clara. There is also a Viazul service once a day from Santa Clara to Remedios and vice versa, CUC$7.
- Keep your hire cars in garages or out of the city centre due to the crush and the fireworks.
- Beware of pickpockets.
1 Roughly translated as: Long live the 500th anniversary! Long live the cockerel of San Salvador! Long live our 500 years of history!