A Latin Affair: Discovering Santiago de Cuba and Trinidad

BEHIND the unassuming timber door and beneath the white leather couches lay a  black and white tiled floor.

It might have been a humble lounge room but some quick manoeuvring of furniture made it into the perfect dance floor.

About four streets from the main drag of Santiago de Cuba, we were quickly put through the paces.

Forgetting the weight of the humidity for an hour each day, my friend and I realised Cuban salsa was a little different to previous classes we had taken.

We spent most of the first lesson on the base step, a cross behind move to each side.

Carlos built up our moves so that after a couple of lessons we were sure we could give it a crack on a real dance floor.

He might have mentioned something about us needing to practise a lot but, in our minds, we were more than ready to be twirled around by the Cuban hombres.

Carlos spoke only Spanish but he’s easy enough to follow if you ask him to show you the moves first.

In the Tivoli district – a French quarter with red-tiled roofs on homes overlooking the harbour – there’s a street that has what’s been described as a New Orleans feel.

Casa de Las Tradiciones and Casa de la Trova are most likely to draw you in.

There’s live bands and plenty of willing local hombres and mujeres, ready to show the tourists a good time on the dance floor.

If you stay till closing, you might be lucky enough to secure a ride home when a security guard turns taxi driver for a few bucks in his bomb, I mean classic, car.

Outside our dance classes, the humidity hung heavy like a trench coat worn on a 40-degree day but Santiago de Cuba is charming nonetheless .

Santiago de Cuba is hot and humid but the soul of Cuba is also a hotbed of dance and music.
Santiago de Cuba is hot and humid but the soul of Cuba is also a hotbed of dance and music.Rae Wilson

On street corners you’ll see men playing mahjong and dominoes, kids using yo-yos and vendors selling veggies from carts.

Watching a woman running down the street while cradling her toddler’s bleeding head and screaming for help was just one of the bizarre things I encountered in Cuba.

But even more head-shaking was her climbing into a falling-apart car filled with people and the door flying open as they whizzed around the corner – presumably to a hospital.

Much more pleasant an experience was La Arboleda – there’s usually only one ice-cream flavour but make sure you line up with locals and don’t listen if they try to send you to the more expensive sit-down section. Amazing.

And if you notice people carrying buckets around the area – they are usually going to fill them up with ice-cream. Odd but I get it.

The Rex is one of the few places in town with wifi – sit up the top floor with a mojito and watch the world go by.

Beneath is a main plaza which makes for good people watching and the frequent trucks packed with people.

Given Don Facundo Barcadi based his first-ever rum factory here, it’s worth paying a visit to the Bacardi Rum Factory and the Barrita de Ron Havana Club.

Santiago de Cuba is a short plane ride from Havana but a long way from anywhere by bus.

There’s a night bus that drops off in cities all the way to Havana.

It’s 12 hours overnight to Trinidad – but you should buy your tickets while you’re in Havana because they only let you buy the tickets one hour before departure in Santiago which might leave you looking for accommodation again.

TRINIDAD

Trinidad is a photographer’s dream – cobblestoned streets, houses painted myriad pastels and classic cars on every street.

Kids are just as likely to be playing in the street as dragging a stubborn animal along.

Many deliveries are still made using horse and cart along the cobblestones – from flour to refrigerators.

The perfectly preserved Spanish colonial settlement was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in the 80s.

It also offers more great opportunities to practise those dance steps.

The alfresco Casa de la Musica offers lives music from mid afternoon until late evening on a stage flanked by stunning steps.

Plenty of men scour the crowd for dance partners.

If you don’t fancy dancing, just have a mojito or try the local (read: lethal) cocktail canchánchara on the steps to soak up the atmosphere.

But the place to be for the younger crowd is “The Cave” – known as Disco Ayala.

This late-night nightclub – open from 10pm to 3am – is literally inside a cave. It’s super cool.

There are bars all the way up Simon Boliviar Street if you need a top-up.

When you get to the end of those, turn right and keep going up the gravel and you’ll find in on the left.

Trinidad also has a great 30-minute hike above the cave with great views over the area, tours to a nearby waterfall and is close to beach.

A taxi to nearby Ancon Beach – which has umbrellas and lounges for a measly fee – costs about $8.

Charming Cuban men will fetch your drinks for you while you soak up the rays.

Just watch out for stinger season – ouchy.

DANCING: Dance teacher Carlos Lam offers personal classes for $10US per person for an hour at his home at 664 General Portuondo (formally Trinidad Street) near the corner of Calvario and Moncada, Santiago de Cuba.

He and wife Poaiguk also have a lovely room out the back for hire as a casa particular. Cuban mobiles: 52837715 or 52837706. Email: carlospoi@nauta.cu

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