Cuba’s heart beats to the rhythm of Salsa

Cuba and music.  The two go together like rum and coke.  We knew we would love the music and dancing vibe… but we didn’t realise quite how much.

I have danced for about 15 years, never specifically salsa, but thanks to my last dance partner Rob I can get by with a good lead.  Dean had decided that if ever there was a time to learn, then Cuba would be it.  So off we went with great expectations and sometimes these can be a bad thing.  However in Cuba you can expect the world with the dancing and music scene, and you most certainly will not be disappointed.

The local professionals in Santa Clara. Oh and check out the dude in red!

The local professionals in Santa Clara. Oh and check out the dude in red!

Our first introduction came during a late afternoon stroll around Santa Clara . We stumbled across a band playing in the main plaza.  The word stumble is probably a bit inaccurate really…… the band were creating quite a spectacle, which the salsa loving locals fully embraced and the square broke out into dance (Imagine a Cuban flash mob).  Later that night the party shifted to the bandstand where a huge ensemble provided the entertainment. I spent all evening watching feet, working out how to make my steps look as good as those of the locals’.

We quickly learned this was just the beginning. Every city had its focal points, but sometimes the better music was just the impromptu affairs. In Trinidad there was a lovely little square where four men sat playing with a guitar, a set of drums and random other percussion. In Holguin the weekly Saturday street party literally got us dancing in the streets.

The beautiful musical city of Trinidad

The beautiful musical city of Trinidad

For me, the real musical highlight was Trinidad – a city that prides itself on the music scene.  On a very hot and humid day we turned a corner to hear graceful tunes playing from Casa De Trova – a famed music hall.  We looked at each other, and didn’t even have to say, ‘shall we go in’ – the decision was made.  We spent a couple of mornings just listening to the band, and I even made friends with the band front man.  Twice my age, he had more than twice as many salsa steps as me and I took great pleasure in following him around the stage.  I think we got almost more claps than the professional teachers who were there…. Although I’m sure the claps were aimed in a, ‘oh she’s having a go’ way.

Arguably my favourite night in Cuba came when we went to the Casa Musica in Trinidad – if you only do one thing in Trinidad, then this should be it.  At the top of a staired-terrace, the setting was perfect.  Bands play day and night, and we set up camp on the front row.  There were some simply AMAZING dancers there.  During the evening we were joined by a Swiss lady who was learning to Salsa in town.  She was very good by all accounts, and urged me to approach someone for a dance.  I picked my song (and my strapping 6 foot Cuban) and not-so-confidently walked up and asked him to dance.  In the ballroom world it is not the done thing.  In the Cuban world anything goes!  A couple of dances later and I felt proud of myself!  Dancing under the moonlight at the Casa Muscia in Trinidad was something I will never forget.

In Baracoa we were treated to the dancing front man.  With what looked like a tight-permed mullet, this all singing, all dancing Casanova could certainly move!  He asked me for a Bachata, and made a beeline for me every time we were there.  They played in a couple of different bars, each of them just as good.  I’ve never danced at the same time as someone singing before, but I recommend it!

Not to be outdone Dean decided this was his chance to shine too, and shine he did.  In Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba we took some salsa lessons.  123, 567 – he mastered it!  Our challenge now is to keep it up.  When no one was looking we would have a twirl, or when walking past a bar we would pick out the beat.

Plenty of places to learn a few new moves

Plenty of places to learn a few new moves

Our biggest bit of advice for Cuba is to keep your ears open and go with the music flow.  More or less every lunch or drink stop was guided by where the music was playing.  We might only have caught the end of a set but in some cases it was so good we had to have a second Pina Colada to wait for them to start again!  Generally speaking after a session the basket came round, and if you wanted you could buy CDs.  We bought a couple from our favourite bands, however everywhere else we put a few coins in the pot.  I saw some people refuse, but for us it was a very small price to pay for the incredible entertainment and enjoyment it provided.

As for keeping up with the Cubans, I don’t think I ever looked quite as good, but I certainly gave it a good shot!  No one will ever judge you or stop from trying in Cuba – so even if you only know some wedding dancing moves, get up there, have a go and join the fiesta!

– Natalie

5 Things You Need To Know Before Visiting Cuba

Cuba is a dream destination for many people. Stuck in a strange mix of the 1950’s and 2000’s the country is sure to enthral you. However being isolated from the rest of the world for so long has presented the country with many challenges and a better understanding of what to expect with help you fully appreciate how unique Cuba is.

1. Currency

Cuba has two currencies, one for the locals and one for the tourists. However it is not as simple as that. For certain commodities locals have to use the tourist currency and depending on how local you go tourists may need the local currency. The local money is called the ‘Moneda Nacional’ or abbreviated as the MN. The tourist currency is called the ‘Cuban Convertible Peso’ generally referred to as the CUC (pronounced say-oo-say). Generally speaking the exchange rate is 25 MN to one CUC. It is only when you start comparing between the two do you realise that there is no real conformity when it comes to price comparisons. There is talk that as Cuba opens up more and closer ties with the west are established one currency is likely to disappear and the locals fear it will be the MN.

Posters in the windows of banks help you to get the right currency

Posters in the windows of banks help you to get the right currency

2. Accommodation

Hotel accommodation is government controlled in most instances, expensive for the services provided and overall pretty basic. A far better option is to stay in a ‘Casa Particular’ or private homestay. Rooms are normally very clean if a bit small, far cheaper than the hotels (at around 35 CUC plus or minus) and for a few pesos extra will provide a decent breakfast or a huge home cooked three course dinner. We know where we would rather see the money going.

Relaxing in our Casa

3. Food

Cuba has had to learn to be relatively self sufficient which means outside of Havana choice can be quite limited. Breakfast is normally eggs a mixture of fruits (normally a combination of pineapple, papaya and guava) juice and coffee. Lunch across the entire country consists of ham and cheese sandwiches or pasta with Tomato sauce. Even when a menu looks like it has a wide variety expect the waiter to cringe and sadly inform you they only have the above lunch options! Dinner is normally pork or chicken and occasionally beef served with beans and rice. If you are a fish lover rejoice! The biggest choice you have is with fish. Shell fish is also incredibly cheap with a whole lobster costing only around $10-12 USD!

When it comes to drinking bottled water can be expensive and in some towns scarce (such as Baracoa), but beer is cheap and rum is almost cheaper than water. They make their own soft drinks in Cuba so your Cuba Libre, or rum and Coke, will be rum and the local cola. Fresh juices can also be quite hard to stumble across, quite surprising considering the tropical location. But if everyone is Downing a Havana Club there is no need for much else.

4. Transportation

Transportation across Cuba can be tricky. While the distances are not great road conditions can be pretty poor, even some of the new roads. Car hire is expensive and parking in larger towns can be problematic and intercity buses run on a very limited timetable, often once daily or once every two days. Train travel is even less reliable, in fact the only train we saw in two weeks was stationary in Santiago and didn’t look like it was going anywhere in a hurry. In many instances if there is enough of you hiring a taxi to drive you from one city to another may actually work out to be the most time and cost effective option.

5. The People

The people are the highlight of Cuba and their heart beats to the rhythm of Salsa! They are super friendly and incredibly giving, something that people around the world who have very little always seem to be. We never felt threatened, bothered or harassed during our time there and people generally just wanted to know where you were from and what you were doing in Cuba. You can almost guarantee a great evening out in a local music hall, a friendly chat in a city park or square, even the souvenir hawkers and taxi drivers will normally only ask onece and when given a friendly refusal will smile and wish you a pleasant day! Where else but in Cuba!

Armed with this little bit of knowledge and some pre trip preparation Cuba will dazzle you. It is hard not to get caught up in its unique blend of Spanish, Caribbean and Africa culture. Over the next few weeks we will be expanding on these topics, but in the meant time, ‘ Viva Cuba Libre!’

–  Dean