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SANTIAGO DE CUBA: The sweet spot for salsa
THIS was my first salsa dance session and I could not have asked for a more bewitching setting. Stepping out on a palm-studded beach near Trinidad in southern Cuba, I was instantly lost in Latin music.
I had come to the island with a group of travellers all keen to shimmy too and our trip was one to make the heart of any dirty dancing hopeful skip a beat.
The island is the world’s biggest exporter of musical dance styles, especially those that let the hips and booty do the talking.
Rooted in its West African slave and Spanish colonial cultures, its thrilling creations – salsa, rumba, mambo and more – have been pumping out floor fillers for decades.
But if a more leisurely sensual charge is your thing then no matter where you go on the island there is sure to be a cobbled plaza where you can soak up a serenade from musicians in old-style zoot suits and nifty straw trilbies while you sip a minty rum cocktail (mojito) under a flame tree’s vermillion blossoms.
Every place I visited, from the colourful capital Havana to funky Santiago, catchy melodies, many from The Buena Vista Social Club’s famous repertoire, would rise from rooftops and spill on to streets making me feel I had been catapulted into an enormous concert that I never wanted to end.
Some of my best hours though were spent on shady terraces mastering moves from maestros.
ANCON BEACH: Perfect for a salsa session
In Cuba take nothing for granted, it is all part of the charm
A few I must say were definitely mangos. That’s local slang for a handsome hunk and once you have seen trees there festooned with the fruity globes you realise what a compliment that is.
I also became adept at knowing my bongos from my congas and can knock out some mean drum beats now thanks to a percussion masterclass.
Music and dancing are reason enough to discover Cuba, but there is now the ‘go before it’s too late’ one too.
Frozen in a time warp, part Communist Russia part 1950s America, the country that’s like nowhere else is hovering on the cusp of momentous change.
The US’s embargo-lifting olive branch to leader Raoul Castro and his 55-year-old revolutionary socialist regime, coupled with steady spread of privately owned businesses, should improve life for its 11 million patient and patriotic citizens.
But some fear opening doors will usher in mass-market conformity, and unique Cuba will end up indistinguishable from many other sunny spots.
For now though horse and traps ferry children to school along empty, litter-free highways, umbrellas substitute for sun cream and the only advertising remains those immense billboard slogans rousing Cubans to stay on message: United, Vigilant and Combative (Unidos, Vigilantes y Combativos) and Until Victory Always (Hasta la Victoria Siempre).
HAVANA: Glorious colours at every turn
In Havana’s ornate Unesco-protected Old Town residents nap on wooden lattice balconies or chat in the shadows of crumbling Baroque buildings whose enticing open doorways and half-shuttered windows turn visitors into voyeurs in a trice.
So blurred is the line between street and home the whole quarter seems just one front room, naturally shabby chic and crammed with period collectibles.
The most fun way to get a taste of what life is like with locals is to book into casas particulares (private homes with rented rooms), a long-standing tradition here.
The Old Town’s 19th century Hostal Casa Vieja was the plushiest of my trip with mosaic tiled floors, antique rocking chairs and pendant lamps.
But it was typical too of my other stays: a spacious air-conditioned room, comfortable bed and ensuite shower with fresh guava or mango juice, omelette and empanadas (small pasties) served for breakfast.
Lovers, lonely hearts, entertainers and families, they all gather to let off steam on the Malecon, 2.4 miles of curving promenade and Havana’s people-watching paradise framed by spectacular Atlantic views.
Photo opportunities abound from the candy-coloured convoys of classic American cars to the city panorama from the top floor bar of Ernest Hemingways’s bolt-hole, the art deco Hotel Ambos Mundos.
I loved pausing for a coconut ice cream break beside the 18th century Plaza Vieja’s graceful porticos and wandering across Revolution Square, a stern concrete plain dominated by a towering sculpture of Cuba’s favourite poster boy and national hero guerrilla Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
A fine spread of pumpkin soup, seafood paella, slow roasted beef and the staple rice and beans in a paladar (Cuban private restaurants specialising in home cooking) followed by a couple of Havana Specials (white rum, maraschino liqueur and pineapple juice) set us up for a big night.
There is no better way to get into the swing of Cuba than to catch the Buena Vista orchestra and its dazzling salsa floor show. To see performers at the top of their game we took ringside seats in the Havana Café, a cavernous night spot oozing retro glamour with vintage classic cars and bi-plane suspended from the ceiling.
DANCE EXTRAVAGANZA: Havana Cafe and Buena Vista Show
“In Cuba take nothing for granted, it is all part of the charm,” was the wry advice from our Intrepid Travel guide Tony whose immense knowledge made all the difference as we drove south down deserted highways past the hulking skeletons of failed factories and oxen-ploughed fields of sugar, rice and cassava, to Trinidad.
The city is Cuba’s best preserved colonial jewel, a Caribbean fiesta of coral, turquoise and sunshine yellow facades where the chants of melon sellers rouse travellers from their rest and dapper old chaps, with hair cuts sharper than any Premier League striker’s, pose with giant cigars.
It was on nearby Ancon beach that I had my seminal Latin dance moment followed next day by a rewarding formal lesson in the House of Salsa’s flower-decked courtyard.
That cracked it, my worries about having legs of cement were over and I began my new era that night on the alfresco stone terraces of the Casa de la Musica, with partners from our group of travellers, many polished performers but some, phew, at the breakthrough stage too.
The dancing continued, watching this time, at our next stop Camaguey, nicknamed the Corinth of the Caribbean for its classic architecture, home of distinctive tinajon clay water jars and the country’s ballet capital.
The city has another treasure too, the Plaza del Carmen arts quarter featuring street sculptures of townsfolk and the fantastical paintings of Martha Jimenez whose works depicting ordinary women display a sometimes less celebrated side of Cuban life.
By the time we got to Santiago, the island’s carnival capital and musical sweet spot, our twinkle toes were itching again and there were no shortage of top partners.
At first I suspected there were a lot of porkies being told when so many locals introduced themselves as salsa teachers. But it turned out to be true because of major restoration work that has temporarily closed some venues.
The legendary Casa de la Trova was open though and treated us to some soothing boleros before we headed for a funky late night live band session at Artex La Claqueta, an alfresco bistro and dance club popular with locals.
MUSIC: Trinidad serenades in every beautiful cobbled square
By then I was quietly confident I had the ‘back 123, forward 567’ formation nailed and was even throwing in some subtle grinds.
But after a couple of turns I was in for a reality check.
What I thought was a request to dance from a woman took me back - was this a Cuban custom I was unaware of?
Buying time I hesitated with a polite “I’m not very good.” “That’s right,” she replied brightly “we noticed, that’s why I want you for my son,” gesturing to an awkward-looking lad behind her.
I was briefly cheered when I accepted my next partner, a 40-something astonishingly handsome dude. I managed to navigate the number without a howler only by dint of some very cautious footwork and minimal hip gyrations, so I was utterly bemused by the admiring glances of onlookers as he led me back to my seat.
Then all was made clear when I saw the stunner mobbed. It turned out he was a soap (telenovela) TV actor, and no he did not ask to sweep me off my feet again.
So not quite Dirty Dancing nirvana, but hey, I was keeping up with the Cubans - sort of.
My last dilemma was back in Havana with only 24 hours left, yet with still so much to see.
An Urban Adventures guided tour of the Callejon de Hamel, an atmospheric shrine-lined alley devoted to worship of Santeria, the Cuban religion that’s a heady mix of Catholicism and African Yoruba tribe beliefs, is worth it just to glimpse a world many ordinary Cubans frequent.
Hanging out with the spirits proved hot work so there was only one place to go next, the Old Town and the recently restored Old Wood and Tobacco Warehouse, a key part of Havana’s industrial heritage and now reopened as brewery and festivals venue including one this year in celebration of cigars.
All gleaming vats and stripped wood, enjoying chilled beer on its airy patio overlooking the port you get a tangible sense of contemporary Cuba on the rise.
Just a step away was my best shopping spree of the holiday in Feria de Artesania, another converted warehouse tightly packed with all manner of handicraft stalls including pearly necklaces, crochet dresses, ceramics, musical instruments and packs of fine cigars stacked next to beautifully carved humidors.
And now the time had arrived not just to gawp at one of those classic cars, but cruise in one too.
Christian’s 1956 Chevy, like most a family heirloom, does just 15 miles to a gallon of petrol and is worth up some £20,000 although he never plans to sell.
Swooping along the Malecon perched on the back seat was pure showbiz and genuinely glamorous too.
We rounded off the ride in super chic fashion with a sundowner at the Nacional hotel, Havana’s icon.
Its icy white walls and towers, like a monumental wedding cake, have dominated the sea front since the 1930s.
This was the place where Sinatra, Brando and Dietrich as well as mobsters partied until Castro called time. But it retains its allure with A-listers the world over and it is easy to see why for when you linger over a Nacional mojito in its cool gardens, you realise you are in the presence of greatness.
My last dance moment was drawing closer, but joining the raucous ranks at the Casa de la Musica for some lively Latin style routines wasn’t quite enough. It took a smooth shuffle on a rooftop as the sun came up to be sure – oh yes, I had had the time of my life.
Intrepid Travel (0808 274 5111/ intrepidtravel.com1) offers a 9-day Cuba Music and Dance trip led by supremely knowledgeable local guides starting and finishing in Havana from £1,055pp (two sharing), including B&B accommodation in guest houses, and activities (percussion workshop, interactive band night, professional dance tuition in Trinidad and optional dance class in Santiago).
Flights, booked separately but also through Intrepid, are with Iberia and start from £575 per person and via Amsterdam or Paris.
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