Dance your heart away in Cuba with specialist tour operator, Caledonia Worldwide - Scotland on Sunday Travel
Having never been to Santiago de Cuba, the second city of the island of Cuba, I was sceptical when I was told it was oddly similar to Edinburgh, my hometown. Around half a million inhabitants, lots of cultural events and festivals year round, hills in the background and the sea always within sight of the city centre. This all turned out to be true.
I was travelling to Santiago to join a two week group dance holiday alongside other travellers from around the world, all organised and facilitated by Edinburgh based specialist tour
operator, Caledonia Worldwide. There were diverse personalities, ages and backgrounds in the group: a Danish couple, beginners to dancing as a couple, both on sabbatical and living
life to the full; a hip young Australian man; a dance proficient Italian woman; four ladies from the USA and others from England. We all connected over daily dance lessons, mojitos,
hiking the Sierra Maestra mountains, beach trips and nights out in local dance venues. The majority of the group were solo travellers, but it did not take long for us to bond.
The local Cuban team comprised of not Our Man in Havana but Our Woman in Santiago, the ever efficient overseer, Odalis; our tour leaders Aylin and Naomi, who both spoke incredible English, were very organised and loved to have fun; our dance partners and teachers and wonderful hospitable homestay hosts. We felt very welcome and involved as Caledonia Worldwide was celebrating its 25 th anniversary, organising dance, music and cultural tours in Cuba since 1998.
On our first day of dance classes, we were introduced to our professional Cuban partners. Coming primarily from Ballet Folklorico Cutumba, one of the main Santiago dance
companies, they were all very highly trained. The classes were held in a colonial style building and our typical daily schedule was an hour of Son to start the day (a traditional
Cuban dance, where Salsa found its roots), an hour of another Latin rhythm in the middle, such as mambo or chachacha to help us style our dancing, and in the last hour we focused
on the star of the trip, Salsa. Our main dance teachers, Coco and Laima, both lead dancers with Cutumba, were very adept at improving each person’s weakest points. The dancers all
had incredible attention to detail and were unfailingly supportive and patient. As we started to wither from the concentration and heat, we were served perfectly timed cold water, fresh
guava juice and coffee which swiftly revived us, ready to dive right into the next class. As part of the trip we went out on organised nights out to practice our salsa with our
internationally renowned dance partners and to the most picturesque of venues. Casa de la Trova is one of the top places in the city to hear live traditional Cuban music, featuring both
afternoon matinees and evening concerts. We even managed to see the multi Latin Grammy award winning local band Septeto Santiaguero on our last night.
On our tours around and outside of the city, our professional local guide Yenia demonstrated her vast knowledge and love of Santiago de Cuba with a fascinating city tour on the first day visiting sites that contributed to the Cuban Revolution. A few days later, we scaled La Gran Piedra, a huge boulder wedged 1,234m above sea level. On our descent, we visited La
Isabelica, a former coffee plantation, and La Granjita, Castro’s hideout for his revolutionary army.
It was already a big trip, being Caledonia’s 25th birthday – celebrating so many years of travel and culture in Santiago de Cuba. Company founder and director Kath Bateman has
been dedicated to Cuba for a long time and has made a name for herself and Caledonia Worldwide in Santiago. I felt like I was accompanying a celebrity, her being greeted with joy
up and down the city, and shoutouts from MCs in every salsa club we visited. We had the honour of bearing witness to Kath receiving a Cuban state award for her 25 years of
devotion to the performing arts, the first time a non-Cuban has ever been recognised in this way. Kath is respected for the work she has done for the people of Santiago, and that was
clear to see.
As guests of Caledonia, we were treated to a week of performances and concerts held in celebration of FIDANZ, the international dance festival held biennially in Santiago. Top local
dance companies performed each evening: Danza del Caribe presented incredible feats of contemporary; Ballet Folklorico del Oriente and Kokoyé performed traditional Afro-Cuban
and a group from Guantánamo delivered some hip hop. The dedication, passion and skill of the Cuban performers gave a compelling impression, leaving us all inspired and joyous. The
club where local musicians played after each night of shows filled the dance floor with performers, FIDANZ participants and us, the only non-Cubans in the place.
Another highlight of FIDANZ was being included in a festive opening procession led by dancers in carnival costume and congas pounding out the rhythm recognised by everyone in
Santiago. A pulsating combination of rhythm and colour coaxed locals out, dancing down the street. Conga in Santiago has a similar effect to ceilidh in Scotland – everyone recognises
the rhythm, knows the steps to dance and enjoys the community spirit. There we were, the Caledonia team and clients, parading down Calle Enramadas (the main street) with our
signature purple t-shirts boasting, “Caledonia Worldwide, 25 Años en Santiago de Cuba, 1998-2023”.
All of this activity combined into a whirlwind of exhilarating dance classes, hot weather, high emotions (plenty of tears), wonderful new connections, incredible dance performances and
memories for us all to cherish for years to come. This trip was my first with Caledonia, and it is one I am bound to remember for the rest of my life.
Caledonia Worldwide, est. 1996 - delighted to be celebrating 25+ Years!