In February 2000 I went to Cuba on a quasi-legal, fully hosted, eco-tourism bike trip. The trip took me from Havana to the city of Pinar Del Rio and back, through Vinales, Copey, Las Terrazas, Puerto Esperanza, and many points in between. The rest of the group and I rode about 400 miles over a two week period.
It was all great, I relished the departure from western comforts and gritty realism of it all. I returned to the U.S. heavy in knowledge about the reality of U.S. political effects on other countries, and feeling strident in my plans to make the world a better place.
But, despite all my save the world plans and perspective, I did do one thing in Cuba that a good eco-tourist would not have done. I went to the infamous Club Tropicana. And, here is my story about that.
After a day of hanging around Old Havana, the craft market, and the Malecon, I took a taxi (not pedi-cab) back to the private house where I was saying, in Vedado near the Plaza de Revolution, around 4pm. The rest of the bike-tour members had all flown out of Cuba by then (to Mexico) and I was alone.
I wanted to go to the famous Club Tropicana, but was having second thoughts. I debated my desire to go with social sensitivity. The cost for one night at the Tropicana is $60 U.S., much more than most Cuban’s earn in months. I was feeling some guilt, but hemmed and hawed because this would be my only opportunity, and I had originally planned this to be part of my adventure well before leaving for Cuba. I decided this was IT, and would go.
Consulting my guidebook (Lonely Planet) I duly noted the Tropicana telephone number, then asked the house owner, Vera, to call and make my reservation (I don’t speak Spanish, she does). Vera calls the number, I hear her asking for “uno reserva para senora” for tonight (noches), lot of si’s, hear Tropicana, some hesitation, then apologies and laughing at
our end. The telephone number in the guidebook is wrong.
Note: in Cuba (like in New Orleans, here in the U.S.) at cemeteries, bodies are not buried under the ground. Instead, bodies placed in above ground caskets, then the decayed remains are removed a couple of years later to make room for the next occupant.
What had just happen with that phone call was Vera had reserved a casket for me for that night, that all being possible. It was confirmed until she said “Tropicana”.
Phew! Anyhow, she got the right number and made the call for me. Turned out no reservations were needed if no dinner was desired (as my plans were). It was first come, first serve. I needed to get there soon, and the guide book said the show started at 8:30pm.
I showered for the night, my newest 6-legged friend trapped under a large ashtray inside the shower enclosure (the thing wouldn’t run away and it was too fierce to step on it). As I was leaving the house my outfit was sized up by Vera’s eyes, with amazement – in other words, I was dressed in the only clean sweatshirt I had left. At least I’d brought one (knit) skirt in case I needed to dress up. By this point in the trip, I had already given away the rest of my clothes. So off I go, blue sweatshirt, blue travel-skirt, sandals, to a fancy nightclub.
Exit to the Tropicana: I waited in line for a very long time to get my one little ticket (sort of a Cuban thing, waiting in lines). The man taking the walk-ins muttered that he had forgotten his eyeglasses, thus he had to struggle to find an isolated, open seat out of the 700, most already reserved, possibilities on a teeny seating chart. When I say wait, it was some 10 minutes per person. He also took my passport, recording the passport number into his computer, before getting on to the reservation. (I tried to be an atypical American, meaning I was quiet and patient about waiting.) Finally he found me something, I thrust my $60 cash to him (everyone else – Italians, British, Germans, were using plastic) and I rushed right in.
I should have waited for awhile.
The usher looked puzzled as he lead me to my seat, but he did say to enjoy the show.
The guidebook was wrong again.
I had arrived almost two hours before the show started.
I sat at the end of a long table for 10, alone, among dozens of other, fully empty tables, until 9:30pm. It was lonely! I didn’t have anything to do except study the little map of Havana I happened to have brought in my skirt pocket. Then, when people finally did start arriving it seemed as if my table was the last one to be seated.
I can tell you this, people do notice if you stare at them, even if they are busy eating. I wasn’t enjoying my lonely cola with the same satisfaction that their chicken was bringing to them. My glass smelled like it was washed in perfume. (I checked the one next to me, same thing, perfume.) Maybe they mixed up the Cascade with the Calgon.
I might have been the only – obviously – American person there, and was definitely the only unescorted woman. I was the only person wearing a sweatshirt, only woman wearing no cosmetics, and definitely was the only one wearing deet, not Georgio… (Next time: beaded dress.)
Finally some Brits showed up for the other nine seats. They were on their own version of a hosted tour, complete with bracelets with their Hotel name imprinted on them. They’d flown from Central Cuba to see the Tropicana, be in town for a couple of days… The guy next to me offered to sell me his hotel bracelet for a fiver. They told me I wasn’t supposed to be in Cuba, and how did I get to stay in a private home, wasn’t that illegal? (*sigh*). I switched over to cervezas and callously drank it straight from the bottle.
The Tropicana stage, round, is under an open roof (is an open roof an oxymoron?). (If it rains the show is canceled.) There are two spiral staircases, one each side of the stage, the steps individually lit with neon. There are two more wide, high stages, one each side, and some individual stages for soloists. Everything has neon. The music was big band, Afro-cuban, and African.
The show started with a tiny ballerina pirouetting gracefully. Then the music swells up, and dozens of women, some men, descend. Picture g-strings, 3″ eyelashes, not much else. None of the colors they wore are found in nature. It was spectacular from the first second.
The famous chandelier headwear-clad women come out, and to my strange satisfaction, one of the flame-shaped bulbs was burned out.
After that it was two solid hours of pure entertainment, fabulous shoulder moving music, and talented dancing. I suspect the aged (22 year old) ballerinas from the National Ballet end up at the Tropicana. There is no question but it was sensuous. The Brits at my table frequently were looking into their Havana Club instead of at the stage. The climax was when a lithe, beautiful dancer made a swan dive from 40 feet high to waiting arms. She was so graceful that she seemed to move in slow motion. I got teared up a little about it.
After that, all the tall, buxom dancers came out and invited the men in the audience to dance salsa with them. The guys at my table refused though. Bunch of dud Brits, if you ask me. No men were sent out for us, or at least for the one single woman in the place, to dance with. My only complaint!
Back in Vedada the next morning Vera told me that it was a good thing that I went to the Tropicana, saying that everyone who visits Cuba has to go to the Tropicana, that it is part of Cuba.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our North America Insiders page.