In Cuba, salsa “really comes alive,” said James Vlahos in National Geographic Traveler. Though I’m not Latin American, I discovered the music in my 20s, “have dabbled with the dance ever since,” and ultimately realized that salsa dancing “makes me happier than almost anything else.” With the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba warming, my wife and I decided “the time had arrived” to travel to the land where the music’s key ingredients were born—to hit the best clubs and immerse ourselves in the full spirit of the music.
Wandering one night in Old Havana, we decide on a whim to follow a well-dressed couple after we see them dismount from a horse-drawn carriage and duck down an alley. Threading past the crumbling façades of colonial-era palaces, we “emerge, astonished, onto a plaza filled with people.” All of them are eating, laughing, and drinking, while a salsa band plays on a stage set in front of the bell towers of a Gothic church. “Stumbling upon great live music is common in Cuba”: Given that the nation’s average monthly salary is $20, most Cubans can’t tote around iPods but instead “produce their own daily soundtrack, with gusto.” Yet even as we begin to link the passion of salsa to the overall spirit of the island, we experience “calmer energies” too. We enjoy a relaxing stay in Cienfuegos, a city of airy 19th-century architecture, before heading to Trinidad—“what some consider the prettiest small colonial town in Cuba.” I’m riding a horse past Trinidad’s white churches when I hear salsa music blasting from someone’s home and begin anticipating a “final-night blowout” back in the city.
While Havana “has many venues for listening politely to Cuban classics,” Casa de la Música isn’t one of them. “Club music pounds my chest like a mallet” as strobe lights illuminate the gyrating bodies surrounding me. This is a place to dance—“after many drinks”—with a partner or with a stranger, which is what I do. With my wife’s blessing, I invite a Cuban woman to dance. Out on the floor, I try a move I’d worked at during a lesson earlier in the day. “You dance salsa!” my partner exclaims.
U.S. citizens can visit Cuba legally using a licensed operator, such as InsightCuba.com.