Cuba’s premier Las Vegas–style nightclub is the Tropicana (Calle 72 #4504 y Línea del Ferrocarril, Marianao, tel. 07/267-1717, www.cabarettropicana.com , entrance CUC70–90, cameras CUC5, videos CUC15, dinner CUC10), boasting more than 200 performers, a fabulous orchestra, and astonishing acrobatic feats. Famous international entertainers occasionally perform.
The cabaret takes place in the open-air Salón Bajo Las Estrellas (Tues.–Sun. 10 p.m.). A superb violin octet—the Violines de Tropicana—entertains early arrivers. The entrance fee is outrageous but includes a quarter bottle of rum with cola, a glass of cheap champagne, and a cheap cigar.
Purchase tickets at the reservation booth (10 a.m.–6 p.m.) or directly at the entrance from 8:30 p.m. (call ahead to check availability); however, it’s best to book in advance through your hotel tour desk, as the show often sells out. It’s also a 20-minute taxi ride downtown. Whole or partial refunds are offered if the show is rained out. Cocktails cost CUC5.
(Beware rip-offs by the waiters, who typically wait until the end of the show to bill you for any incidentals, then disappear without giving you your change as you get caught in the rush to depart.)
The Tropicana also has two eateries: the elegant sky-lit Los Jardines, serving tasty continental fare (6 p.m.–1 a.m.), and the 1950s diner–style Rodney Café (noon–2 a.m.).
Tropicana, the prerevolutionary extravaganza, has been in continuous operation since New Year’s Eve 1939, when it opened (in the gardens of a mansion — Villa Mina — that once housed the U.S. ambassador) as the most flamboyant nightclub in the world. The club soon eclipsed all other clubs in the grandeur and imagination of its productions.
The Congo Pantera revue, which simulated a panther’s nocturnal hunt in lush jungle, established the Tropicana’s trademark, with dancers in the thick vegetation illuminated by colored spotlights — the name Tropicana melds the word trópico (tropics) with palma cana (fan palm).
In its heyday, international celebrities such as Nat “King” Cole, Josephine Baker, and Carmen Miranda headlined the show, which was so popular that a 50-passenger “Tropicana Special” flew nightly from Miami for an evening of entertainment that ended in the nightclub’s casino, where a daily US$10,000-bingo jackpot was offered and a new automobile was raffled every Sunday.
Talent scouts scoured Cuba for the most beautiful models and dancers. The more than 200 performers are still handpicked from the crème de la crème of Cuba’s singers and dancers, though the latter no longer dance topless.
In 2005, the Ministry of Tourism, headed by a new, austere military figure, took control of Tropicana. Immediately, it was announced that the infamously erotic show would be tamed down and replaced with “Drums in Concert,” a theatrical show with more emphasis on stage sets and high-tech lighting. Even the dancers bemoan the change, which meant goodbye to much of the gratuitous skin marked by the opening act.