Our Girl in Havana: Salsa on the streets of Baracoa
I arrived to dancing in the streets. There was an all-women conga line proceeding down the dusty road, circling back on itself and returning to the small hall where it had started, a bottom-shaking, whooping caterpillar. As they wound past me - sweating under the weight of my rucksack - they beckoned me to join in. With just a moment’s thought, I threw down my bags and joined the party. That set the tone for my entire experience in Baracoa.
Located on the far eastern tip of Cuba, an area known as the Oriente, this is Cuba’s oldest and most unique city. Surrounded by verdant jungle covered mountains, it was cut off from the rest of Cuba for hundreds of years. This was where troublesome revolutionaries and outcasts were exiled, though Siberia it is not. With an abundance of natural resources like coconut, cacao, bananas, yellow sand beaches, and a tropical climate; I would happily take exile here.
This partial isolation accounts for the unique culture with excellent local cuisine and a Caribbean party spirit. In 1964 they constructed La Farola, a 55km road cutting through some of the most dramatic scenery in the country, which suddenly opened up Baracoa to the rest of the world.
Dance is intrinsic to this place. The women on my first day were predominantly mothers who danced while the kids were in school. One afternoon, on a walk up to Museo Arqueologico to see the burial chambers and petroglyphs on display here, I came across El Ranchon. By day this popular hilltop disco hosts classes for school kids to learn salsa. Pairs of ten-year-olds twirled and twisted in the afternoon sunshine, and I realized why everyone here dances so well.
On my first night I headed to El Patio, a small, busy bar with live music and a labyrinth of dancers every Thursday and Friday night. After refusing the first three offers, I finally was dragged onto the crowded floor feeling embarrassed. My partner, a local nicknamed Pequeño and an incredible dancer, somehow led me in a semblance of salsa despite my mal-coordination, occasionally saying, “Just listen to the music.” This wasn’t very encouraging, but each time I got a little better, until finally I would accept any offer of dance that came my way.
Every evening, the square outside the Casa del Trova fills up with locals and tourists, a band plays on the steps, and soon dancers gather in number and pace, a starlit spectacle. Every Saturday night here is Carnival. The street is cordoned off, food stalls roast hogs and chickens, families congregate around the al fresco tables and giant sound systems blast out from windows above. The youth of the city are out in full force, and everything revolves around the dance floor. Salsa threesomes form with the most impressive dancers creating a stunning complication of limbs, utterly mesmerizing to watch.
Anyone with an interest in dance and music should come here. But no matter how shy you are or how many left feet you have, this is somewhere to knock back some rum and coke with the locals and don your dancing shoes.
Tyler Wetherall is a freelance travel writer and editor. Follow her on twitter @tylerwrites