Cigar Aficionado

With its discos and live music, the Cuban capital offers a number of ways to let off steam

Havana by night isn't what it used to be. The streets are usually quite empty and the lights are dim, giving it an air of a place out of time, out of history. So, as you pull into a crowded parking lot, consider it fair warning that you've returned to the bustle of the present. The taxis rumble in, unloading tourists, and then head off to pick up another carload. The newcomers have to negotiate the gauntlet of locals loitering in the parking lot, looking for an escort to get them inside, past the tight security phalanx guarding the nightclub entrance like a prison. Don't be put off. Everyone is ready to party.

If you notice the hangers-on swaying slightly in the shadows, it doesn't take long to figure out why. While paying the $15 admission, you feel the music reach into the night, swirling enticingly around you; the rhythm seductive, the beat relentless. As you slip past the burly doormen, onto the broad terrace that leads down to the dance floor bathed in neon, you wonder at first where all the people are. But as you arrive at one of the tiny tables ringing the dance floor, the answer will be right in front of you: everyone is dancing, locked in complex Latin minuets. Soon, however, the DJ slows the beat, lets the mood drop a bit, and suddenly the dancers are milling around the tables, or rushing off to primp before a mirror somewhere. The air is laced with a heady mix of the Cuban night: heavy perfumes, lust, sweat and the smoke from countless cigarettes and cigars. Welcome to the Macumba Havana nightclub, one of La Habana's largest, and right now the hottest. And so, the crowds make the 30-minute drive from old Havana toward the airport to check out the party.

The good news is that there are three nightlife options aside from the discos in Cuba. The bad news is that there are three nightlife options. In a city of 2 million, with an ever-present crowd of expatriates and diplomats, as well as a stream of tourists, all three are likely to be jammed anytime you stop by. So, be prepared to wait if you are visiting one of these clubs, and don't automatically drive off to explore other options since you'll likely encounter the same conditions, if not the same people. None of the spots we enjoyed are particularly large, especially when compared with the Tropicana Night Club or the disco at the Comodoro Hotel. Nevertheless, each has its charms and a week's stay affords more than enough time to check out each club and choose which you'd like to revisit.

A trend is emerging, however, that should definitely be encouraged: a variety of high-quality live music. The settings permit relaxation and the enjoyment of a fine cigar, for locals and tourists alike, without the blatant traffic in ?companionship? so prevalent in the discos.

Of course, it's almost impossible to talk to anyone about Cuba's nightlife without the subject of the Tropicana coming up. The show is the stuff of legend. But it is also time consuming, in part because it is a major logistical effort to arrange transportation to and from the Tropicana, and because the show isn't short. If you absolutely have to see the traditional, big Cuban stage show, then opt instead for the nightly production "Cabaret Parisien." It's staged in a more intimate theater in the Hotel Nacional, right in the middle of La Habana. You'll experience the same old-fashioned, large-cast Vegas-style revue, but you'll be closer to the performers, and the music selection is a bit funkier, not frozen in the 1950s. What the performers lack in skill, they more than make up for with enthusiasm. Best of all, when the show is over, you can walk out and head down the hill to the next spot on our tour, El Gato Tuerto, or the One-Eyed Cat.

Located a few minutes' walk from the Nacional just off the Malecún, this small club has an old-school feel, small tables set cheek by jowl and a postage-stamp stage wedged into a corner at the end of a long bar. The entertainment varies nightly, but essentially, El Gato Tuerto is a jazz bar. Trios and quartets back up singers belting out Latin standards. The crowds are diverse, and always include locals as well as Latin American tourists and the occasional gringo. Everyone seems to know the place well. Dancing breaks out spontaneously in the tiny aisles, each person effortlessly avoiding the waiters as they dispense drinks and banter.

The bar has a small cigar list, but bring your own. You can't be sure where the in-house selections originate. There is a small proper restaurant on the second floor, but skip it and spend your time in the ground level bar where the music is. By the way, don't be distracted looking down at the small pond beneath you as you cross the bridge to the entrance -- El Gato Tuerto's massive door pivots out and will quickly dispose of the unprepared. Maybe it's an early warning device, alerting staff and patrons alike to the presence of newcomers. Once inside, and seated upstairs, order a drink, light up, and you'll quickly become one of the gang.

Still in the vicinity of the Nacional? A short taxi ride in the other direction from El Gato Tuerto is La Zorra y El Cuervo. This is a larger, more lively joint, and consequently draws a more diverse crowd. Patrons stand several-deep around a bar that rounds to a corner to better serve the elbow-shaped room. The stage is larger, so bigger acts strut their stuff here, often joined by audience members, who bring their instruments in order to sit in on a few tunes. This room also has the feel of a clubhouse, where locals hang and eye the visitors. But everybody who comes for the music seems welcome. Like most clubs that offer live music, La Zorra y El Cuervo has a bouncer at the top of the stairs and someone inside collecting a modest cover charge. It's worth it.

The next stop requires a taxi or a car: the Salon de Boleros. It is above the restaurant Dos Gardenias in Miramar, through the tunnel from Vedado. This is the most elegant setting we encountered. It has a good-size stage and a bar at the back for those who haven't been lucky enough to score a table. As the name implies, the room features singers who specialize in boleros, the folk ballads of Cuba, which are rooted in the countryside. If you have enjoyed a meal at La Cecilia, you're only minutes away. Hop over and make a night of it. Ask your hotel's concierge to make a reservation. If you've smoked your last cigar during dinner, don't worry; on your right as you enter Salon de Boleros is a very nice humidor with a limited, but lovely, selection of cigars, which are all legitimate. A glass of rum, a good cigar and sweet music. What more could you ask for?

Just a few more Havana nights.