Music is a part of Cuban life, but for some reason I wasn’t expecting anything like this
Meet at the cave bar at midnight. These are the instructions given to me by the backpackers I lazed in the village square with in Viñales. We drank bottles of cheap, excellent rum, smoked fat Cuban cigars and listened to a local troubadour pluck his classical guitar and sing about all the pain in his life. Until he started up Hotel California. “When you get to Trinidad, we’ll meet at the cave bar,” they said. It’s the one place in the town that everyone knows about in advance, other than the long, almost deserted beach.
Trinidad is a town trapped in time. There are none of the art deco buildings left over from Batista’s rule like in Havana. It is one pastel-coloured colonial house after another, with little church spires poking their crosses above the shingles. Tourists sit on the large steps climbing out of the back of the awkwardly cobblestoned square. I bump into the Viñales backpackers here, it is one of the few places to try and get online, and we buy a few bottles of Havana Club and some Cohibas to prepare us for the night.
A little bit after 11, we climb up the hill through the backstreets, scrabbling over the cobbles. The best clubs are always difficult to reach. The journey there and home can be as much of an experience as the night itself. Local people have set up stalls in front of their houses and shout at everyone who walks past: “Mojito, mojito.” Up a steep, dirt track we find the queue. An obligatory Englishman, who has climaxed too early in his excitement and drank more than enough, is beginning to cause trouble.
Once the queue starts to move I discover that the club is actually in a cave. Down steps cut into the rock and through a narrow fracture, we follow the rumble of the bass into a cavern. A bar has been carved out of the stone. The dancefloor is on a large ledge above; it is already full of backpackers and locals skanking to the off-beat of the dancehall.
We dive into the crush and start to flail, some better than others. The DJ, stood in a booth by the rock, plays Rihanna and some Latino hip-hop, and we’re squeezed even more. Mojito spills onto the bare rock under our feet while we’re pushed from one side to the other. The floor is a heaving mess of bodies and condensed sweat trickles down the crags on the wall.
The bar is empty save for two girls salsa dancing and an older man defiling them with his stare. Everyone else is on the floor. Our mojitos are made by the time they’re ordered and we get back into the mix. The snaps of a snare crack across the room, an 808 kicks and the throng dances low. For the Cubans, unable to dance, sing or play while the country mourned Fidel Castro for nine days, it must be a release. Only a few days have passed since he was buried in Santiago de Cuba.
In no other country I have visited is dance so ingrained. Everyone here knows the salsa, rumba and mambo. Music spills out onto the street from the window of every third or fourth house. Every homemade rickshaw has a speaker fitted under its seats that pumps beats as the driver pedals around town. One of my hosts even organised for a salsa instructor to teach me how to stumble backwards and forwards around her living room while a lobster boiled in the kitchen for dinner: “One, two, three – five, six seven and mambo!”
Deep in the cave the party continues. But I plan to hike to the waterfall nearby in the morning. I stagger back up through the caverns, down the hill and past the stands still shouting about their mojitos. Other tourists slip up the hill and stumble over to the makeshift bars, too drunk to resist the lure of more rum. The cave club is the one place that every backpacker knows.