When it comes to partaking in Colombian night life, I’d give us an A for effort, but a C- for accomplishment. This is sad. The streets of Cartagena and Medellin throb with the sound of salsa, and guidebooks rhapsodize about how you can dance till dawn. Our friend Howard reported witnessing hours of dance action when he was here last spring. Given that Michael and Stephanie met through salsa (and are polished dancers), enjoying a true Colombian salsa club seemed imperative.
We tried first in Cartagena at the Habana Club, the venerable Cuban institution. The interior is cool and retro, and I enjoyed my Cuba Libre, but we learned that the band wouldn’t begin to play until sometime after 10:30 – too late for Steve and me that night. Although Michael and Stephanie stayed later, they reported the next morning that there had been so little room for dancing (in between the bar and the tables) they weren’t tempted to join in for long.
In Medellin, we tried again. This time our destination was a club where Howard’s young fellow travelers had danced long after midnight. Travel writers rave about this place, and reports of a 9-piece live band on Thursday and Saturday nights further encouraged us. (This was last Thursday night.) After dinner, Michael, Stephanie, Steve, and I grabbed a taxi, arriving at the club around 9:30. The presence of a bouncer at the front door who extracted a 10,000-peso (about $3.50) cover charge from each of us seemed promising. Recorded salsa, cranked up to a deafening volume, filled the dim interior. But inside we found only one other couple, huddled over a bottle of agua ardiente. We ordered drinks and waited. This time we learned that the band wouldn’t arrive until 11, and none of us had the fortitude to hunker down and wait.
Michael and Stephanie flew home from Medellin early Saturday. But Steve and I had one more night in the big city, and I knew how I wanted to spend it — enjoying tango. Although Buenos Aires is the obvious Mecca for that, Howard had told us about his visit to a Medellin tango bar, Salon Malaga, and before the trip, I had confirmed a local enthusiasm for tango when I learned online that an international tango festival was scheduled to unfold (sadly, just days after our departure.) I checked Salon Malaga’s website and read about the weekly “tango show” they hosted every Saturday at 5:30 pm. When we were in Buenos Aires, Steve and I had enjoyed a superb tango performance at a local cultural center; in the hope of seeing something similar, I called and made a reservation for us.
Once AGAIN, after we arrived and settled in at a table, no sign of any show was evident. Still, the scene at the Malaga was pretty entertaining.Almost every inch of wall and pillar space held photos, records, newspaper articles, plaques and awards, and more. At the table next to us, a very tall man in a black suit and fedora nursed a whiskey on the rocks. His shirt collar was white but the rest of it was covered with tangerine stripes that perfectly matched his tie. He fixed me with a penetrating stare. His tablemate had clearly tossed back so many shots of agua ardiente that his speech was slurred, and I couldn’t understand much of it, but what I picked up was that Black Fedora was a great tango artist from Argentina. This seemed credible (he certainly looked the part).
What I couldn’t believe was that no food was to be had at the Malaga. Every other institution in Colombia seems to offer food for sale, including the ubiquitous street vendors. To meet the requisite minimum expenditure, it seemed our best choice was a bottle of Argentine malbec. Drinking that on our empty stomachs would probably only improve our tango-dancing prowess, we reasoned.
Sometime long after 6, a guitarist and a keyboard guy did arrive and played tango classics as well as one can without most of the classic tango instruments. The club owner (manager? Impresario?) sang several songs and then yielded the floor to a grand dame of tango who belted out several numbers with great style. But neither of they (nor his tipsy companion) could persuade Black Fedora to take the stage. He did deign to join in with the Dama at one point, and his tango-singing ability was truly impressive.
Throughout all of this, no one was dancing! This would have been unimaginable in Buenos Aires. If not splendid, the Malaga’s music certainly was danceable. But I noticed that almost none of the women were wearing anything resembling dance shoes; I saw flats and even sneakers.
About this point, I also remembered that the video clip Howard sent me, taken during his visit here, showed the club jammed with people dancing what looked suspicously like …salsa. Having polished off our bottle of wine and getting hungrier by the minute, Steve and I finally gave up…
Why the tango club and tango festival if people don’t actually dance tango? I have no idea. Maybe like their salsa-dancing counterparts (and the tango-dancing ones in Buenos Aires), Medellin’s tangueros don’t go out until much, much later. As for us, we returned to the excellent Italian joint where we ate the first night, across from our hotel. We were lucky to get a table. It was the final game for Colombia in the first round of the Copa America, and every restaurant in El Poblado was jammed. Fans spilled out of the restaurants and into the streets. They screamed ecstatically, when Colombia scored a second point against the 3 racked up by Costa Rica. But the rally never turned into a rout. Everyone looked a bit deflated, and I could relate to the frustration of getting close — but not close enough — to achieving something that would have felt so good.