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
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
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
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
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
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
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