Spectacular, gaudy, decadent, or a combination of all three, Havana’s cabarets espectáculos definitely deliver. From the incredible and infamous two-hour show at the Las Vegas style Tropicana nightclub to small campy shows followed by steamy disco, here’s where to go to experience it all.

Las Vegas Cabaret. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Las Vegas Cabaret in Vedado. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Centro Habana and Cerro

Cabaret Nacional (San Rafael, esq. Prado, tel. 07/863-2361, CUC5), in the dingy basement of the Gran Teatro, has a modest espectáculo nightly at 10pm. The campy show normally doesn’t begin until later and is followed by a disco. A dress code applies. It packs in Cubans on weekends for steamy dancing; ostensibly only couples are admitted.

Vedado and Plaza de la Revolución

The most lavish show is the Cabaret Parisien (Calle O, esq. 21, tel. 07/836-3564, CUC30, or CUC58 with dinner), in the Hotel Nacional. The Cubano Cubano show is offered Sun.-Fri. at 10pm and is followed by a Latin dance school. The dinner special (CUC50-70) is best avoided. The place is cramped and fills with smoke, and while the show is nowhere near the scale of the Tropicana, it has plenty of color and titillation and avoids the long trek out to the Tropicana.

The Cabaret Copa Room (Paseo y Malecón, tel. 07/834-4228, CUC20, or CUC45 with dinner and cocktail), in the Hotel Habana Riviera, hosts a cabaret (Wed.-Mon. at 10:30pm). The venue often features the top names in live Cuban music, such as Los Van Van. It’s one of Havana’s top spots for serious salsa fans.

A classic Harley-Davidson, an old Pontiac, and a 1957 open-top, canary-yellow Chevy add a dramatic effect.Catering mostly to a tourist crowd, Habana Café (Paseo, e/ 1ra y 3ra, tel. 07/833-3636, ext. 147, nightly 8pm-3am), adjoining the Hotel Meliá Cohiba, offers cabaret at 8:30pm. A classic Harley-Davidson, an old Pontiac, and a 1957 open-top, canary-yellow Chevy add a dramatic effect, as does an airplane suspended from the ceiling. Entrance is usually free, but a CUC5 consumo mínimo applies (entrance costs CUC30 when top bands such as Los Van Van and Charanga Habanera play). Legendary percussionist Amadito Valdés plays on Thursday night.

Playa (Miramar and Beyond)

The small open-air cabaret at La Cecilia (5ta Av. #11010, e/ 110 y 112, tel. 07/204-1562, Fri.-Sat. 10pm-3am, Fri. CUC5, Sat. CUC10) draws monied expats and Cuba’s youthful hipsters for the disco that follows. Top bands often perform (CUC20-25).

Cuba’s catwalk divas strut at La Maison (Calle 16 #701, esq. 7ma, Miramar, tel. 07/204-1546, Thurs.-Sun. 10pm, CUC5), renowned for its desfiles de modas (fashion shows) and cabaret espectáculo in the terrace garden of an elegant old mansion.

Tropicana

Cuba’s premier Las Vegas-style nightclub is the Tropicana (Calle 72 #4504 y Línea del Ferrocarril, Marianao, tel. 07/267-1717, nightly 10pm, entrance CUC75/85/95, cameras CUC5, videos CUC15), which has been in continuous operation since New Year’s Eve 1939, when it was the most flamboyant nightclub in the world (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).

Sexy Las Vegas-style cabarets, such as Tropicana, remain a staple of Cuban entertainment. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Sexy Las Vegas-style cabarets, such as Tropicana, remain a staple of Cuban entertainment. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Patrons watch mesmerized as a troupe of near-naked showgirls parades down the aisles wearing see-through body stockings and glowing chandeliers atop their heads, while rainbow-hued searchlights sweep over scantily clad, gaudily feathered, long-legged showgirls parading among the floodlit palm trees. The show boasts more than 200 performers, a fabulous orchestra, and astonishing acrobatic feats. The two-hour cabaret takes place in the open-air Salón Bajo Las Estrellas; on rainy nights, it’s held in the Salon Arcos de Cristal.

The entrance fee is outrageous (CUC95 gets you a stageside seat) but includes a bottle of rum with cola, a glass of cheap champagne, and a cheap cigar. It’s best to book in advance through your hotel tour desk, as the show often sells out. Beware rip-offs by the waiters, who often wait until the end of the show to bill you for any incidentals, then disappear without bringing your change.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Havana.