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Remedios

The tiny old city of Remedios is considered one of Cuba's colonial highlights. It's 45km (28 miles) northeast of Santa Clara on a direct two-lane highway. There's not a whole lot to see in Remedios, but that's part of its charm. The small Plaza Martí sits at the colonial center of Remedios, watched over by the beautiful Iglesia de San Juan Bautista, with its stunning baroque-style altar covered in 22-karat gold and celebrated pregnant Madonna statue (open Mon-Fri 9am-noon and 2-5pm and Sat 2-5pm).

For several weeks at the end of each year, the quiet town of Remedios becomes the site of one of Cuba's great street parties and religious carnivals, Las Parrandas. The infectious revelry keeps things lively throughout the holiday season. Everything culminates on Christmas Eve in an orgy of drums, floats, and fireworks. The whole thing allegedly began in 1820, when the local priest sent some altar boys out to bang on pots and pans and scare some parishioners into the midnight Advent Masses. It later evolved into a sort of battle of the bands and fireworks between two sections of the small town. Today, the festivities drag out over the weeks leading up to Christmas Eve, and have even spread into neighboring hamlets. Still, Plaza Martí in Remedios is the place to be, and the night to be there is December 24. Be prepared to stay up late, and bring some ear protection. If you're not here near year's end, pop in at the Museo de las Parrandas, Calle Máximo Gómez 71, where you can get an idea of the pageantry by examining the small display of photos, costumes, and floats. It's open Tuesday through Saturday from 9am to noon and 1 to 6pm and Sunday from 9am to 1pm; admission is CUC$1. No visit to Remedios would be complete without at stop at the atmospheric Café El Louvre (tel. 42/39-5639), which is set on a corner facing the town's central plaza and church.

For trips to the cay, contact Cubacar, Carretera Caibarien (tel. 42/39-5555).

Currently, the only hotel option in Remedios is the quaint and modest 10-room Hotel Mascotte, now rebranded as a Hoteles E hotel, Máximo Gómez 114, between Calle Margal and Avenida del Río (tel. 42/39-5144; www.hotelescubanacan.com; CUC$60 double), which faces the small central park here. The same Hoteles E chain will eventually open the Hotel Barcelona just two blocks away. However, there are also various casas particulares within a few blocks of the central park. Of these, head first to Hostal Villa Colonial, Calle Antonio Maceo 43 between Avenida General Carrillo and Fe de Valle (tel. 42/39-6274; www.cubavillacolonial.com), which has a gorgeous front room, two guest rooms, and friendly owners; or to the delightful Hostal el Patio, Calle José Antonio Peña 72, between Antonio Romero and Hermanos García (tel. 42/39-5220); or to La Paloma, Balmaseda 4 between Máximo Gómez and Ramiro Capablanca (tel. 42/39-5490), which faces the main square and boasts huge bathrooms, but has no real outdoor space; or to Casa Rivero Méndez (Hostal El Chalet), Calle Brigadier González 29, between Independencia and José Antonio Peña (tel. 42/39-6310), a 1950s house with Art Deco ironwork, two rooms, parking and a terrace.

La Cayeria del Norte

About 8km (5 miles) east of Remedios, you'll hit the small coastal town of Caibarién where Virginia from Villa Virginia, Ciudad Pesquera 73 (tel. 42/36-3303) will give you a grand welcome and help you with transport if necessary. Just outside of Caibarién, you'll come to the toll (CUC$2 each way) for the 50km (31-mile) pedraplén, or causeway, that leads out to la Cayería del Norte, a small string of tiny islands, mangrove swamps, and coral reefs with some of the nicest beaches in Cuba. There's the small Aeropuerto Las Brujas (tel. 42/35-0009) close to the toll; AeroCaribbean operates charter flights to here.

While the beaches on both Cayo Las Brujas and Cayo Santa María are spectacular, perhaps the premier beaches in this area are Playa Ensenachos and Playa Mégan, both on Cayo Ensenachos. The protected waters here are as crystal clear as you can imagine, and you can usually wade out a couple hundred yards without the water getting much above your waist. However, these once public beaches are now the exclusive domain of guests at the new Royal Hideaway Ensenachos. The hotel charges half the price of their rack rate for a day pass that includes access to its beach and facilities, and can be bought at their reception desk. Villa Las Brujas charges a bargain CUC$15. From Santa Clara taxis charge CUC$65 for a day trip, including Remedios. Public beaches include La Salina, Punta Madrugilla, which is good for snorkeling, and Perlas Blancas.

Aside from premier beaches, the hotels listed below offer a wide range of watersports activities, nature tours and bird-watching outings into the mangroves here, and organized tours to Remedios, Santa Clara, and beyond.

The Marina Cayo Las Brujas (tel. 42/35-0013/0213; www.gaviota-grupo.com; gaviotatourscsm@enet.cu) is next to Villa Las Brujas and offers catamaran cruises, diving, and aquabike tours.

In addition to the resorts listed below, the Barceló Cayo Santa Maria Beach Resort, the newest and largest property on these cays, has partly opened with 624 rooms. This massive megaresort (with more sections under construction) will eventually offer 2,780 rooms across four hotels. All three of the Sol Meliá properties (Meliá Cayo Santa María, Meliá Las Dunas, and Sol Cayo Santa María) share the delightful Aguas Claras Spa.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.