San Juan Bautista de Los Remedios

San Juan Bautista de Los Remedios – or Remedios as it is commonly referred to – holds the distinction of being the 8th oldest village in Cuba.  It is a beautiful village located halfway between Santa Clara and Cayo Santa Maria.  With no sight of other tourists around us, Remedios adequately paints the laid-back, Caribbean vibe found in rural Cuba.

Jay and I found ourselves in Remedios twice on this particular day – once in the morning to visit the Cathedral and once in the afternoon on our return from Santa Clara to have a bit more time to explore around the main plaza.  If you find yourself in this village one day, then here are my Top 3 recommendations:

Iglesia Mayor of San Juan Bautista 

The Iglesia Mayor of San Juan Bautista – or Church of St. John the Baptist – is the main attraction in Remedios.  Not only is it the oldest Catholic church in Cuba at around 500 years old, but it is one of two churches found in the main plaza of Remedios.  This is the only plaza anywhere in Cuba where two churches can be found in the same block.

Golden Altar

Cuban Altar

Praying at the Altar

 

 

 

 

 

Iglesia Mayor of San Juan Bautista

Shepherd

Exterior of Iglesia Mayor of San Juan Bautista

 

 

 

 

 

Tours can be done here Monday to Friday between 9am – 5pm.  The main highlight of Iglesia Mayor of San Juan Bautista is the altar, which is decorated with 13 pillars made of Gold.  The gold was not discovered until a renovation project that happened during the 1940s as it was hidden under white paint – a technique to hide the precious metal from pirates during Cuba’s earliest days as a Spanish colony in the 1500s.

Driver’s Bar

With a name like that, Jay and I were intrigued to go inside for a drink.  While the rest of our group went to a different bar just off Plaza Isabel II to sample a local Cuban drink, we headed for a couple of beers in Driver’s Bar, which is located right across the Iglesia Mayor of San Juan Bautista along a quiet side street.

Driver's Bar Inside Driver's BarJay & Me at Driver's Bar Newspaper Ceiling Ford Advertisement Our Bartenders at Driver's Bar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have no idea where the name of this bar originated or how long it has been open as our bartenders didn’t speak English, but we enjoyed the laid-back environment given that there was only two other people there – a local couple – with us plus the two bartenders.  The walls were covered in various illustrations, including a Ford car advertisement from 1958, while the ceilings were covered in old newspaper articles.  After having a couple of cold Cristal beers, Jay and I head over to Plaza Isabel II.

Plaza Isabel II

The Plaza Isabel II is the main town square of Remedios.  Right in the middle of the plaza is a small park where you can sit in the gazebo and watch life pass you by or chat with the locals if your Spanish is up to par.  Since I enjoy taking artistic photos of my travels – or at least I try to if I can – the plaza gave me plenty of opportunity to practice with the plethora of colonial buildings nearby.

Bust of Jose Marti Remedios Market Souvenirs Plaza Isabel II Jay Buying Maracas Coconut Monkies & Dominos

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you fancy trying out your bargaining skills, then there is a small market located right beside the Iglesia Mayor of San Juan Bautista for visitors to pick up some homemade souvenirs.  Jay bought a couple of maracas for his Son, and a photo frame to put one of his wedding photos in, which is why we were here in Cuba in the first place.   As for myself, I bought a hand painted Cuba “license plate” to hang up on my wall back home.

If you really want to get “off-the-beaten” path in Cuba and really see how the locals live, then Remedios is the place to be.  There is something truly serene and tranquil in this gem of a town that is worthy of a visit on your way to either Santa Clara or to the resorts of Cayo Santa Maria.

Categories: Cuba, North America, Weech's Wanders | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Canes & Trains:  A Visit to the Museo Azucarero Marcelo Salado

Caibarién is a small fishing village in the province of Villa Clara in Cuba.  It is on the Northern coast of Central Cuba and one of the last villages you pass through before driving North along the 48 kilometer causeway that leads you to the all-inclusive resorts of Cayo Santa Maria, which is where I had stayed for a week in November 2014 for Jay’s destination wedding.

Prior to arriving at our resort – the Memories Paraiso Azul – Jay and I had talked about taking a day trip to Santa Clara to visit Che Guevara’s Mausoleum.  We were able to book a tour through our resort for 65 CUC/person (approx. $75 CDN).  The only reason for stopping in Caibarién on this tour was to visit the Museo Azucarero Marcelo Salado (or Sugarmill Museum).

If there was ever a remote tourist attraction in Cuba, then this certainly would be it.  Most (if not all) budget backpacking tours completely by-pass the Northern region of Villa Clara, so the only way to get to here from Cayo Santa Maria is through booking a day trip to Santa Clara with your resort.  Otherwise, you might be lucky to hitch a ride from a local or take a bus if you base yourself in either Caibarién or the nearby village of Remedios instead.

Museo Azucarero Marcelo SaladoInside the RefinerySlavery PunishmentRefinery MachinerySugar CaneSugar Cane ProcessorEngine WheelsSugar Mill SelfieInside Museo Azucarero Marcelo Salado

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During your visit at the former sugarmill refinery, visitors watch about a 10 – 15 minute video explaining the history of sugar cane production in Cuba.  You learn about how sugar cane is harvested, the history of sugar cane production in Cuba, and why Fidel Castro was forced to shut many of these refineries in the late 90s/early 2000s after the rapid decline of sugar prices on the world commodities market.  The tour around the refinery lasts for about 30 minutes with time to some photos for another 15 minutes or so.

After wandering around the refinery and snapping a few pictures, we moved onto the Museum of Steam Locomotives.  Steam trains were an important part of transporting refined sugar to the port of Caibarién so it could be shipped back to Spain for consumption.  Here at the park are several models of steam trains on display.  All-in-all, we spent about 10 minutes here as we were taking a steam train to Remedios next.

Museum of Steam TrainsSimon Bolivar Steam TrainFront End of Steam TrainDecommissioned Sugar RefineryMarcelo Salado Steam TrainRemedios TrainTrain JumperTrain to Remedios

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remedios Train Station

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For those who truly want to travel off the beaten path in Cuba, and visit the Museo Azucarero Marcelo Salado on your own, here is the location and hours of operation (as of November 2014):

Location: Villa Reforma, Carretera a Caibarièn, Remedios.

Opening Hours: Monday – Friday, 7am – 4pm

Admission: 3 CUC

While there is no official website available for this Museum, all you need to do is ask for directions to the big crab statue just outside the village of Remedios.  The refinery is about 3km east of this junction and you may be able to hitch a ride with a local as hitch-hiking is quite common – and relatively safe – within Cuba.  All cars are owned by the Government and only a limited amount of Cubans have been designated the right to have one.  Cubans are “encouraged” to pick up people along the way if they are heading towards the same direction.

Categories: Cuba, North America | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Lacrosse – Canada’s Game

When people think of Canada’s past time, they automatically think of hockey.  And who can blame them?  The National Hockey League’s most successful team is the Montreal Canadiens with 24 Stanley Cup Championship wins.  Brantford, Ontario native Wayne Gretzky is the all-time scorer in the NHL with 2857 points.  Finally, Team Canada just came off back-to-back Gold medals for both the Men’s and Women’s teams at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.  However, hockey is in fact a co-national pastime of Canada with lacrosse.

Originating from the First Nations people as early as 1100 AD, lacrosse is one of the fastest and oldest sports on Earth.  Lacrosse is played professionally under the National Lacrosse League here in North America.  Earlier this year, I decided it was time for me to attend my first Toronto Rock game — one of 9 teams currently active in the National Lacrosse League.

Toronto RockRock GoalRock Scoreboard

 

 

Wings Goal

Tied GamePhiladelphia Wings



Philadephia Wings PlayersToronto Rock BannersToronto Rock Cheerleaders

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since most people probably have never heard of lacrosse – let alone played the sport – I figured I would explain some of the basic rules here.  Please note that teams can either play indoors (box lacrosse) or outdoors (field lacrosse).  The following information will focus solely on box lacrosse.

Basic Rules:

  • Teams can play with 5 players (3 forwards & 2 defense) plus a goalie
  • Games are divided into 4 quarters each quarter 15 minutes in length
  • A 30 second shot clock is implemented so teams must take a shot within that time.
  • The shot clock resets any time the opposing team touches/loses the ball
  • Face-offs require players to line up the heads of their sticks to fight for possession.
  • There are no offsides in lacrosse
  • The majority of penalties in ice hockey apply to box lacrosse
  • Lacrosse games cannot end in a tie – sudden death Overtime is applied instead

As you can see, lacrosse incorporates many elements of American football, basketball, and ice hockey.  All three sports are hugely popular within North America, so it should be no surprise that lacrosse has gained in popularity over time as a result.

Rock vs. Wings Evan Kirk's Possession Wings Goal

Toronto Rock Possession

Leblanc Goal Another Rock Goal

 

 

 

Group Shot - Rock GameRock Win Rock - Wings Handshake

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you are ever in Toronto between January and April, then by all means make an effort to attend a Toronto Rock game if you can.  Ticket prices range anywhere from $25 – $80 CDN.  Games are held at the Air Canada Centre where the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors also play, so getting the location is both easy and convenient whether you drive to downtown Toronto or take public transit.

While the National Lacrosse League is a “professional sports league,” players rarely make enough money to live on their salaries alone.  Many have regular 9-5 jobs, so they play in this league for the pure pleasure and passion they have for the sport.  Thus, the quality of play is top-notch for what isn’t considered to be one of the “Big 4 Sports Leagues” in North America (National Hockey League, Major League Baseball, National Football League, & National Basketball Association).

For more information on the Toronto Rock, you can find their website here.

Categories: Canada, Miscelleneous, Ontario | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Weech’s Travel Map

There is a viral hit making its rounds on the Internet where people can “map out” the places that have visited in the World.  You can get your own travel map from Matador Network, but in the meantime, here are the “countries” that I have set foot on in my lifetime.

Ray’s Travel Map

Ray has been to: Argentina, Austria, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Cuba, Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Italy, Jamaica, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands Antilles, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Sint Maarten, Switzerland, U.S. Virgin Islands, United States.

How many countries have you been to?  Which ones?

Categories: Argentina, Austria, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Cuba, Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Italy, Jamaica, Lichtenstein, Mexico, Miscelleneous, Monaco, Paraguay, Switzerland, United States, Weech's Wanders | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Cuba Tourism Visas & Currency Exchange Tips

Cuba is a fascinating country to me not only because it is one of the largest islands in the Caribbean, but because the US trade embargo that still exists with Cuba allows you to take a glimpse of what life was like in 1959.

I have just recently come back from my second visit to Cuba after spending a week in Cayo Santa Maria for a friend’s wedding, so I wanted to share with you some quick tips about Cuba tourism visas and currency exchange practices.  Before I begin, please note that Americans are legally not allowed to visit Cuba.  So, the following information will apply to Canadians and Europeans in particular.

Tourism Visas

Like many developing countries worldwide, it should come as no surprise to you that a Visa is required to visit Cuba.  Rest assured, this is probably one of the fastest and easiest Tourist Visas to get as a Canadian or European citizen.

Cuban Customs Card

Cuban Customs Card

Unlike my Brazilian Visa or Argentinean Reciprocity fee that I had to arrange for in advance, I simply just had to fill out a Customs form and a Tourist Visa card on my flight before we landed in Santa Clara airport.  The Customs form simply asks for your name, age, sex, citizenship, Passport number, flight number, and anything to declare, including any items for donation.  Please note that it is quite common for visitors to Cuba to bring donation bags of clothes, toiletries, and other common household items that are either too difficult or too expensive for the average Cuban to get.

Cuba Tourism Visa Card

Cuba Tourism Visa Card

The Tourist Visa card just asks for your name, birth date, citizenship, and Passport number.  There are two halves to the Tourist Visa card – one for arrival and one for departure.  Make sure you keep the second half in a safe place as it will cost you about $20 Canadian to buy a new Visa card should yours be lost or stolen as we found out when one of our fellow travelers lost his Son’s card.

Currency Exchange

Now that we have covered Tourist Visas, the next thing to take care of is Cuban currency exchange.  Cuba has to two types of currency – the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).

The CUP has been around since the late 19th Century and was at a par against the US dollar during this time.  When Fidel Castro successful took over Cuba in 1959, and turned it into a Communist state, the CUP was then pegged on a par with the Soviet Rouble.

Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC)

Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC)

 

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the CUP was forced to once again to peg itself against the US dollar.  However, the value of CUP declined so much (about 125 Pesos to 1 US dollar) that Castro introduced the CUP in the early 2000s.  The CUP is the only legal tender that Cuban visitors can use and can only be exchanged within Cuba.

But where can you go to exchange your money in Cuba?  And what currency should you bring?  Those are both excellent questions.

What Currency Should You Bring to Cuba?

Let’s first address the currency question.  Unlike every other country in the World, you do not want to bring in US dollars to Cuba.  I repeat.  Do not bring US currency with you!  The banks will ding you 10% plus the currency exchange rate of the day.

I learned this through our resort staff who were so quick to exchange any CUCs I had on me for the American tips that they received from other visitors.  One US dollar to them would only be worth about 60 or 70 cents at best once they convert them back into CUPs.

So, the only currency you should bring with you to Cuba is Canadian dollars or the Euro.  The majority of Cuban tourists are either Canadian or European, anyway, particularly Russians and Eastern Europeans.

Where Can You Exchange Your Money for Convertible Pesos?

As far as where you need to exchange money, you will need to find a Casa de Cambio.  There are typically three options – the airport, your resort or the local banks.   Having been to Cuba twice now, my suggestion is to avoid exchanging currency at the airport as they typically give you the worst exchange rates.

Casa de Cambio

Casa de Cambio

Preferably, it is best to go to the nearest bank where you are staying, like I did back in November 2010 when I went to Veradero with some friends.  Unfortunately, this was not an option for me the second time around as Cayo Santa Maria is on a remote chain of archipelago islands just off the Northern coast of Santa Clara province.  So, the only option that Kooks and I had was to exchange our Canadian money at our resort.

Since I was anticipating on doing a couple of day trips from our resort, plus have some extra money on me for tipping around the resort, I exchanged $200 CDN at a rate of 1.1769 (or just shy of 170 CUCs).  Yes, you read that correctly.  The CUC is apparently more “valuable” than the Canadian dollar, which is such a load of crap.

$200 Canadian = 170 CUCs (as of November 2014)

$200 Canadian = 170 CUCs (as of November 2014)

Thus, if you are going to stay on an all-inclusive resort as most visitors do, then only exchange your money on a “as needed” basis.  Also note that most Cuban resorts do take major credit cards, so you can use that as a form of payment for day trips if needed.  Just be careful not to completely rely on your credit card during your time in Cuba as not all towns or businesses are equipped to handle them.

Finally, there is a Departure tax of 25 CUCs that you must pay when leaving Cuba.  So, make sure you exchange some money for that as no other currency or form of payment will be accepted.

Once you have completed these two necessities, then just sit back and enjoy the beautiful beaches or look for opportunities to get off the resort to explore the countryside.  Cuba is one of the most unusual countries I have ever been to, and I will share more of my stories about my visits there along the way.

Categories: Cuba, North America | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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