Crank up the salsa

Cuba is the place to go if you want to learn how to really sashay, writes Larissa Ham.

Our Cuban salsa instructor demands, ''Look at me like you love me!'', his face just centimetres away on a sweat-soaked Havana morning.

He sashays effortlessly across the tiled floor, an open window providing minimal relief from the heat as salsa beats pour out of an old CD player. ''Moooove your body. One, two, three!''

Leonardo, a former doctor, has swapped his stethoscope for salsa shoes and has landed my amiga and me on day two of our Cuban adventure. Having caught the salsa bug in Melbourne, we're here to learn from the best but we're off to a nervy start. ''Move your shoulders!'' he says, as we double over with laughter.

In Cuba, the Castro-loving Caribbean island still largely cut off from the world, one thing hasn't changed - music's in the blood, and salsa dancing is as natural as walking.

Stumble on to any dance floor, on almost any night of the week, and you'll find fat Cuban cigars ain't the only things smokin' in one of the world's hottest travel destinations.

The men in Cuba talk about salsa in a similar way that Aussie blokes do about AFL, and many - not Leonardo, he's a cool customer - are especially keen to show off their skills if there are new senoritas in town.

''Daarlings, in Cuba, 98 per cent of men are 'salsa teachers','' says the owner of our homestay, Yanila, throwing her hands up in the air. ''You are two young, beautiful women travelling. Of course, they are going to be attracted to you.'' Keep talking, Yanila.

Yes, Cuba is good for the ego - if a little annoying - with whistles, some slightly leery hissing noises and exclamations of ''Que linda'' (''How beautiful'') coming from almost every corner.

The bonus to that is there's no shortage of dance partners to terrorise as we spin our way around the island, from Havana to the colonial town of Trinidad and the rough-and-tumble dance floors of Vinales.

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In Trinidad, we walk to the main square each balmy night to dance at open-air venue Casa de la Musica. It's Cuba how we imagined it - music pumping, passion, Cuba - libres and dancers whose rapid-fire twists and flourishes defy the imagination.

During the day, we hone our skills with a former professional cabaret dancer. Her tiny front room looks worn out; her dancing anything but. The lessons are $5 an hour.

On our last night of hip-wiggling in Havana, our taxi driver delivers a passionate rendition of My Heart Will Go On as he drives to the old town. ''In Australia, do they like romantic music?'' he asks.

That night, on a smoky dance floor, someone steps on and breaks my sandal. I motion to my partner, but he just keeps spinning me.

In Cuba, it seems nothing stops the salsa, as we realise next morning at 5am, when an old Chevrolet taxi rolls up to take us to the airport. The driver flips down the sun visor to reveal a built-in CD player and, as we take off, the salsa music is cranked to full volume.

Ah, Cuba.

THE FACTS

Fly Return flights from Cancun (Mexico) start from about $380, San Jose (Costa Rica) from $480 and Cartagena (Colombia) from $430, skyscanner.com.au.

Stay Hosteria Cartacuba, Calle 17 #1105, Vedado, Havana, cartacuba.co. Price is 35CUC (about $39) a room.
Casa Rogelio Inchauspi Bastida, Simon Bolivar #312, Trinidad, casa rogelio-inchauspi-bastida.com. Price is 30CUC a room.
More options: mycasaparticular.com (book before you travel - internet is scarce)

Eat Restaurante Carmelina de la Paz, Piro Guinart 239, Trinidad, carmelinatrinidad.com.

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