Tango in Buenos Aires pales in comparison to the spicy-hot salsa popular in Havana, with an evocative colonial ambience and vivacious nightlife as the perfect backdrop
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION Havana is on the northern coast of western Cuba, 90 miles (150 km) south of Key West, Florida POPULATION 2.1 million
VISITORS PER YEAR 800,000
DAYTIME TEMPERATURES Jan: 72°F (22°C); Apr: 76°F (25°C); Jul: 82°F (28°C); Oct: 79°F (26°C)
Lovers of Latin music and dance could be forgiven for thinking that Buenos Aires, with its passion for tango, is unrivaled as a place to learn dance. But anyone who has spent time in Havana would beg to differ – Cuba’s capital city is considered to be the global destination for Afro-Latin dance.
From the sentimental son to sizzling salsa, music and dance are the pulsating undercurrents to Cuban life. Everywhere you go in Havana, you are surrounded by melodious rhythms. The soft notes of Spanish guitars echo along cobbled streets full of the romance of history, while the throbbing beat of brassy salsa tunes rises above the wheezing of patched-up cars from the 1950s clattering past centuries-old cathedrals and castles.
The Cuban love of salsa reflects an instinct for gaiety that turns material adversity on its head. Couples dance in the street to overtly sexual numbers and by night, younger Cubans flood the city’s nightclubs.
Women are whisked onto the dance floor and whirled around to thrilling timba, a recent salsa craze that’s both energetic and innovative. Buenos Aires and tango seem tame in comparison. If salsa whets your appetite for dance, why not also try rumba, the African soul of Cuban music. Its dance rhythms can be either sensual and dynamic, or slow and sad.
And who better to teach you the complicated steps than Cubans themselves, deemed the world’s finest dancers? Several hotels in Havana offer classes, as do local troupes and freelancing tutors. You can also sign up for package tours that teach you how to swivel your hips like the Cubans.
After class, you can sip mojitos and smoke fine cigars in bars such as El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio. Then, you can up the ante and let your hair down dancing on stage at famously colorful cabarets, such as the Tropicana. Add to that the city’s simmering pre- revolutionary allure. Habana Vieja (Old Havana) is a treasure-trove of magnificent colonial buildings, many of which have recently emerged from restoration as hotels, restaurants, and museums.
Dance classes are taught in Vedado, an early 20th- century district imbued with effusive Art Deco, Beaux Arts, and Modernist structures with a tropical twist. Most of the venues, hardly changed since the 1950s, offer a glimpse of a once-gilded era.
Getting There and Around
Havana’s José Martí International Airport on the outskirts of Havana is served by flights from Europe, Canada, and Latin America. The city has an efficient and inexpensive, albeit crowded, bus system. Taxis are plentiful, although the main tourist spots can be explored on foot.
Where to Eat
Dining is not a strong point, and the best bargains are in paladares (private restaurants). The best of these is La Guarida which gets packed. The area is unsafe to walk at night, so take a taxi.
Where to Stay
The atmospheric Hotel Raquel, is an Art Deco masterpiece.
When to Go
Oct–Apr are the coolest months; summer can be stiflingly hot.
Budget per Day for Two
US$170 for food, travel, and accommodations.
FORGET TANGO IN BUENOS AIRES?
THE BUILD-UP The capital of Argentina has plenty of European sophistication and style, and tango, the melancholic dance that evolved in the brothels of 19th-century Buenos Aires, draws many visitors to the city. Several first- class restaurants host tango shows in the evening, dancers perform in the streets of San Telmo and many studios teach you the moves.
THE LETDOWN Tango in Buenos Aires feels like a well-worn cliché. The dance form’s explosion of popularity has resulted in a flood of foreigners. The barrio (quarter) of San Telmo gets crowded with gawking tourists, especially when cruise ships are in town. And dance studios are often packed with tourists on learn-to-dance package vacations.
GOING ANYWAY? When you’re done watching public tango in San Telmo, just pick up a free copy of El Tangauta for a listing of tango clubs. Take time to browse the barrio’s antiques markets. In summer, sit out the midday heat in one of the city’s shady parks.
4 MORE DANCE DESTINATIONS TO RIVAL BUENOS AIRES
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC, CARIBBEAN The locals of this Caribbean hotspot move to merengue, a high-energy, frantic, fast-paced dance characterized by slow turns.
SALVADOR DE BAHÍA, BRAZIL This city situated in northern Brazil is the capital of thumping samba beats and is famous for its annual carnival, when hordes of revelers descend on the city to join in the celebrations.
CALIFORNIA, USA West Coast Swing is synonymous with southern California. All connoisseurs of the dance can sign up for a class in Los Angeles to perfect the swing patterns which number more than 5,000.
THE LEVANT AND ISTANBUL, TURKEY The Levant, an area that encompasses the Eastern Mediterranean region, gyrates and swivels to the sinuous beats of belly-dancing, and Istanbul is an alluring place to learn this mesmerizing Middle Eastern dance.