Indoor Jungles and Transvestite Acrobats: The Mega Dance Clubs of Latin America

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Latin culture is all about dancing, from great street festivals like Rio’s Carnaval to smoky Buenos Aires tango joints. Discos and dance clubs featuring every genre of music have always had a place there as well, but recently, as the region has modernized and integrated with the rest of the world, the mega club has become a Latin specialty. Following the example of global party cities like Berlin, Las Vegas, and especially Ibiza in Spain, many Latin American cities have opened giant dance complexes, designed to attract party-loving local youths and tourists. These clubs capture, for better or worse, two strands of Latin culture. First is the drive to party all night long, to get down and dirty along with a mass of swaying, sweaty bodies. Second is the ubiquitous separation of people into grades and classes. Make no mistake, Latin America’s mega clubs are expensive to get into, many charging $100 for the cheapest weekend ticket. And once inside it becomes clear that a hundred bucks will not get you the premium drinks package, or across the security cordons into the VIP rooms, or backstage with the star DJ performing that night. Everyone is equal on the dance floor, except that some are more equal than others. Still, for those who can swing it, these spots are must-visits while in Latin America.

Cancún, Mexico, long a vacation town for locals and a favorite Spring Break destination for American students, pioneered the mega club in Mexico. Big clubs like Señor Frogs have been filling up since the late 1980s, but the last ten years or so have seen the club scene blow up to a whole new level. At the top these days, are two massive party complexes: The City and Coco Bongo. The City is the largest dance club in Mexico, able to fit up to 7,000 people and routinely selling 5,000 tickets a night. Mexican and foreign DJs whip crowds into a frenzy with a mix of techno, house, and disco beats. Coco Bongo, which easily fits 2,000 partiers, has made its name by offering lavish performances for the crowd to dance along with. Dancers and acrobats will perform homages to classic songs from Madonna or Maná and also to popular movies. Sometimes the atmosphere is more that of a concert than a club, but the lights and the booze and the throaty singing of the crowd makes for a different type of wild night.

You don’t have to be at a beach town to experience Cancún-style parties. Most big cities in Latin America now boast mega clubs, each with its own gimmick to make up for the suffocation and shoving from the humongous crowds and for the steep entrance price. Club Pacha, in Buenos Aires, is over twenty years old but still popular for its signature aristocratic atmosphere: housed in an old colonial mansion overlooking the River Plate and decorated with minimalist white surfaces, it sells old-school good taste and class. Also in Buenos Aires, but on the other extreme of the taste spectrum, Niceto Club (also known as Club 69) entertains patrons with hordes of transvestites and cabaret-style dancers, going for crass and bawdy where Pacha goes for glamour. For lovers of urban debauchery there is the Cha Cha Cha Club in Bogotá, forty-one stories up in a swanky building penthouse. For those looking for an open-air party like no other there is the Lost Beach Club, near Guayaquil, Ecuador, complete with a cave-like amphitheater decorated with hanging spiders and bats to add a spooky vibe to the evening. In Santiago, look for Club La Feria; in Lima, head for Ophera, Nébula, or Gótica.

But no Latin country parties quite like Brazil, and so it stands to reason that Brazil will boast the biggest and baddest dance clubs in the region. Säo Paulo’s Disco Club is favored by the city’s elite, often features traveling movie stars and many of the city’s supermodels. Its counterpart is D-Edge club, a punk-inspired center of electronic music that, though deliberately grungy, still caters mostly to the middle and upper classes who can get through the door.

For the top spots, though, you’ll have to leave the city. Sirena, which for many years reigned as Brazil’s top club, is located in the high-priced beach community of Maresias. Thousands of party-hungry paulistas tired of the traffic and noise of the city will make the three-hour drive on Saturday night to get lost inside Sirena’s lush jungle setting and world-class sound systems. In Balneario Camboriu, another out-of-the-way beach resort town, two younger contenders currently are vying for the honor of being Brazil’s hottest dance mecca. The Green Valley Club, which some point to as the best club in the world outside Ibiza, brings in the crowds by signing the top DJs and letting them loose on a massive dance floor that, rumor has it, has been stuffed with up to 8,000 people. Not too far away is Warung, on the beach of Itajai, a more upscale and music conscious venue that nevertheless can rumble with the best of them.

Each of these clubs promise an unforgettable experience, the opportunity to get lost in a crazy world of dance and giant crowds yearning for a good time. At the same time, each one makes it impossible for patrons to forget where they stand in the party hierarchy. Differently colored bracelets distinguish those who may consume PREMIUM products from those who must make do with local beers and spirits. Separate rooms, marked by the ever present velvet ropes, are reserved for those who can pay extra or for those famous enough that they don’t have to. Much of the adventure, particularly for local partygoers, is the quest to get to know a bartender, a bouncer, the club owner’s wife’s hairdresser, so that the experience will be a bit more exclusive, and therefore more memorable. If you are lucky enough to find yourself inside Coco Bongo or Sirena, make sure to enjoy it, but also keep in mind that such places are closed to the majority of Mexicans and Brazilians, and that each of them, regardless of how far inside they let you go, will always have one more velvet rope, which you will not be good enough to get through.

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