Puerto Vallarta's attractions, activities offer a taste of Cuba

PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico -- Sitting in the warm breeze of the open-air theater at the Hotel Melia Puerto Vallarta, I couldn't resist clapping along as the dancers onstage interpreted music and dance from around the world, while laden with sequins, feathers and flashy costumes reminiscent of a smaller-scale version of Havana's Club Tropicana.

The reference to Cuba is not a mistake. These were Cuban-born, Cuban-trained dancers, after all. But rather than traveling to Havana or Varadero to see some of Cuba's talented performers, I was in Puerto Vallarta, the unlikely home of a number of Cuban-influenced attractions and activities.

Indeed, travelers who want a taste of Cuba but don't want to tangle with the U.S. embargo should consider Puerto Vallarta.

The trip could start with reservations at the Melia Puerto Vallarta, an attractive, inclusive resort that features nightly entertainment from a gifted troupe of professional dancers from Cuba.

The performers were auditioned in Cuba and brought to Puerto Vallarta a few months ago by Sol Melia to perform. Every night of the week features a different show, with themes ranging from Le Moulin Rouge to Broadway musicals to a round-the-world salute to countries where the Sol Melia chain has hotels. This lively entertainment is a good diversion for all Melia guests, as part of the inclusive price.

Even though the Melia's cuisine is tasty, a Cuban-themed visit to Puerto Vallarta must also include a trip to the tourist-friendly center of town, where La Bodeguita del Medio serves up Cuban cuisine and music nightly.

Named after the celebrated bar and restaurant founded in Havana in 1942, this comfortable restaurant features a ground-level dining area on the Malecon, facing the popular waterfront, as well as an upstairs dining room with pleasant views of the waterfront and the bay.

Weekly Cuban salsa parties enable diners to work off some of the pork, rice and beans they enjoyed at dinner. After sampling a couple of mojitos -- a drink with rum, lemonade and mint leaves -- it's easy to imagine the atmosphere of the original Havana restaurant.

La Bodeguita's gift shop sells artistic Cuba T-shirts and other souvenirs of the Caribbean nation. The items are made in Mexico, but travelers may want to hold on to those receipts in case they need to prove to suspicious U.S. customs inspectors where the items were bought.

Of course, Cuban cigars are legendary, and there are plenty of places to puff in Puerto Vallarta, including La Bodeguita del Medio. According to the Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board, La Bodeguita has a contract with the Cuban government to import Cohiba cigars -- a popular Cuban brand -- and also to bring Cubans to work at the restaurant for six-month periods.

Cigar enthusiasts also can watch rollers working on custom-made cigars at the Guantanamera Cigar Club Bar, which serves drinks to accompany the smokes. Surf's Up Coffee and Cigars, meanwhile, combines Cuban cigars with Mexican coffee and Internet access. (Surfing the Web is another popular pastime in Puerto Vallarta.)

What brings these things Cuban to Puerto Vallarta? According to the Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board, it's not because of any recent surge in the city's Cuban population (there are hardly any Cubans living in Puerto Vallarta, locals say).

"The presence of Cuban things in Puerto Vallarta, like restaurants, cigar stores and hotel activities, is due solely to the fact that tourists like it," said Aaron Hernandez, a representative with the Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board.

"For example, I can tell you that for Canadians right now, everything Cuban is very much in style, and the hotels take advantage of this to attract more clients to their hotels."

It's also been a chance for a select number of Cubans to travel abroad. "Being able to visit Mexico has been a wonderful experience," said Felix Mustelier, a 28-year-old dancer at the Melia Puerto Vallarta. After studying dance in Santiago, Cuba, he spent several years performing at the Hotel Internacional in Varadero, Cuba, which decades ago was one of the first resorts to attract big-name stars from the U.S.

Mustelier said that among the many acts he performs, he liked the chance to do numbers that represent his own country. "Cuban music is in my blood, and I love the costumes," he said.

Apparently, the talents of Cuban artists like Mustelier have had a positive effect on business in Puerto Vallarta. The Melia's contract with the Cuban dancers expires in November but, according to the hotel's public relations director, it is to be renewed.

Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board
Phone: (888) 384-6822
Web: www.puertovallarta.net

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