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Cuba Part 7: The Tropicana

This is Part 7 of a multi-part series on Cuba. The Tropicana has been on my bucket list for years, but I honestly wasn't sure that I would ever get the chance to visit Havana, let alone hit this famous hot spot. The travel restrictions and strained relations between our two countries made a trip unlikely at best. So, when I was able to go on this dream trip, I insisted on adding the famous show to an already jam-packed itinerary.

I am fairly certain that Tony our guide thinks I'm crazy. It's only taken him a few short days to figure it out! I'm currently insisting that I want to go to the Tropicana show after our very long day trip to Viñales. It's the only time we can work it into our itinerary while we are in Havana, and I am not budging on this one. I am going to see the Tropicana show, and no one is going to talk me out of it. How could I come all the way to Cuba and not see one of the most famous cabaret shows in the world? So, as usual, he and my husband humor me and my crazy ideas. Thus, after a very long day touring the Viñales Valley, Tony drops us back at our Airbnb to shower and have dinner before picking us back up to take us to the Tropicana for the evening show.

We booked our tickets the day before. When booking a seat at the Tropicana, you cannot reserve a specific spot. You choose between three levels of seating, and they assign your specific seat when you get there. After much consideration, and with the recommendation of Tony and the ticket vendor, we chose the second level. They felt the first level was too close to really enjoy the show and the third level could be a bit harder to see around all of the people seated in front of you. As you can see from the photos, our seats were more than sufficient!

Since they assign your seats when you get there, we want to ensure that we arrive a bit early. So, Tony drops us off an hour before the show is set to start. When we check in at the desk, the woman informs us that we cannot go inside for another half-hour or so and suggests that we go into the adjoining restaurant and have a drink at the bar. When I step inside, I feel as if I am on a cruise ship. There is a violin playing, the diners are all dressed up, and the servers are wearing what I would consider old-school uniforms. When I hear a ton of English being spoken all around me, I realize I have essentially stepped into a dining room full of cruisers! Apparently there is an American ship docked in Havana tonight. We head to the bar in the back of the restaurant and order up two piña coladas.

Since we have a little time, we also decide to take advantage of the wifi connection at the Tropicana and use the wifi cards that Wijincuba (our tour provider) so thoughtfully provided to us. To get on the internet in Cuba, you must have both a public wifi connection and a wifi card (you must buy the wifi cards in designated local stores, and the lines to procure them can be absurdly long). The wifi card gives you a certain amount of time on the internet. You use the code on the wifi card to access it and logout when you are done. This is my first real encounter with Cuba's "internet." It it MUCH slower than the old AOL dial-up of my childhood, and every time you think maybe you're making progress, it doesn't connect or starts loading the page again. It literally takes us twenty minutes to send two emails with a picture attached. Cuba is definitely an "unplugged" experience. (Honestly, it is kind of nice on a vacation, but it would be inconvenient if this was daily life.)

After our drinks, it's time to head into the show. We walk down a chandelier-lined hall between the restaurant and the open-air show venue. On our way in, I am handed a red carnation and my husband is given a cigar. The Tropicana has definitely turned into a full blown tourist spot. Locals do not attend--not only can they not afford the steep ticket price, but the show itself is clearly aimed at visitors. We are seated one table back from the stage. Since it is a Monday night, the show is nowhere near sold out. So, there aren't many people seated around us which gives us plenty of space to spread out and have a great, unobstructed view of the stage. Our server comes over to see if we want to order anything else to drink, but included with our ticket price is a small glass of champagne, one cola mixer and 1/4 of a bottle of rum which I find to be more than enough.

Shortly after, the lights go down and the show begins. An ensemble of scantily clad dancers appears on a tiered stage to our left singing about the Tropicana. And just like that, we are launched into a two hour high-paced dance show. The show encompasses what Cuba is known for--cultural music. The costumes and choreography are just there to emphasize it all the more. The show may be considered a bit "tacky" by some with all of the loud colors, sequined, and feathers, but I loved every bit of it. Over 200 performers make up the ensemble, and the show's music runs through the gamut of Cuba's musical genres. It highlights much of the cultural diversity of Cuba. The show plays into Cuba's history, including a segment dedicated to slavery and another to the island's tradition of farming.

The show flies by surprisingly quickly. There are acrobatics acts and solo numbers mixed in with the faster paced ensemble dancing and singing. The performers make excellent use of the venue's space dancing up raised platforms, across the circular stage, and even down the aisles. While a lot of things may have change since the Tropicana's founding in 1939, the talent of its performers has not. Dancing at the Tropicana is a coveted job, and many try out for the honor. You can tell the performers take pride in their work from start to finish. I am sad to see the show end!

The night club opens up a disco afterward, but even I have my limits; I am beyond exhausted and ready to head back. When we come out of the show, there are a ton of taxis lined up to take guests back to their hotels or cruise ships. After our encounter the night before with the taxi drivers outside of the Hotel Nacional trying to overcharge us, we are armed and ready to haggle. I know the price should be no more than 20-25 CUC. So, when the first driver we encounter readily agrees to 20 CUC without argument, I should see warning bells going off--but it's been a long day, and I just assume that he figures he's surrounded by a lot of competition. When he starts to walk away from the group of haggling drivers and line of marked taxis, I begin to wonder where he's parked. A block down the street, around a dark corner, he gestures to a very old, beat up car. This does not alarm me so much--we are in Cuba after all. However, when two of the car doors do not even open, and as we climb in, I can feel some kind of gritty dirt on the seat under me, I begin to wonder what we have gotten ourselves into.

The Tropicana is quite a ways outside of Old Havana in the Marianao district, and I don't remember the exact route that Tony took to get here, but when the driver turns onto a dark street that looks unfamiliar alarm bells start going off. We have been feeling so comfortable in Havana that our usual street smarts in foreign countries was clearly not operating in full capacity when we got into a stranger's car. My husband reaches over and squeezes my hand, clearly indicating that we're now both having similar trepidations about this questionable decision. Americans are known to carry a lot of cash on them because American credit cards don't work in Cuba*, and we have a fairly nice camera on us. I'm just working out in my head how to say, "You can have the camera and the money, but can I please keep the memory card" in my rusty Spanish when he turns onto a main drag and, we both realize we're heading back toward the Malecon after all. Apparently the driver simply took a short cut--and cut about five years off of my life in the process.

Interestingly, when we tell Tony this story the next day, he is quite practical about it. He says a lot of people saw us leaving the Tropicana with that driver. If something had happened to tourists attending the Tropicana show, a huge scandal like that would have the government/police all over it. He feels we were quite safe as anyone would know better than to attempt something in that scenario. Still, it is a good reminder that it's always smart to think before hopping in a random car!

Other than our mini-adventure at the end of the night, visiting the Tropicana for a show has been everything I'd hoped it would be. The music, dancing, colorful costumes, and ridiculously large headdresses are exactly as I'd imagined. As I reflect back on our insanely long day, I find that every minute of it was worth it. We have managed to fit a long weekend's worth of adventure into just this one day. After a day like this, I can't imagine what the next day will bring. We crash into bed, already dreaming of our next adventure planned for bright and early at the Bay of Pigs...

Things to Note for Tropicana Visitors: 1) The Tropicana has a dress code (no shorts or sneakers). 2) The show is pricey, at the time of our purchase, the lowest level tickets cost 75 CUC, mid-level 85 CUC, and the most expensive 95 CUC. 3) The car ride from Old Havana will take 20-30 minutes, so account for that when planning out your arrival time. 4) They charge 5 CUC for permission to take photos during the show (pay at the door).

*With a few rare exceptions. See "Everything U.S. Citizens Need to Know About Travel to Cuba" for more information.

Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins

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