For decades, the tightly state-controlled Cuban economy meant that all businesses, from department stores to shoe-shiners, were in the hands of the state. Today, though, Havana is slowly evolving; new economic rules on private ownership are allowing ordinary Cubans to open their own stores and businesses. Under the changes, artists of all kinds have started to showcase and sell their work in galleries which double as private shops.
The Cuban capital hasn’t been a shopping destination since the 1950s, but these boutique shops are leading the way to change.
Clandestina – 99% Diseño Cubano
Brainchild of young Cuban designer Idania del Rio, Clandestina (clandestinacuba.com) is perhaps the leading example of the new entrepreneurial spirit in Cuba. The canvas bags, t-shirts and posters on sale play with revolutionary slogans and imagery, turning them on their head to create an original and provocative brand. They’ve even coined the local version of ‘I love NY’, capitalizing on Havana’s newfound trendiness under their own trademark: ‘Actually, I’m in Havana’.
La Casa de Belkys
Not strictly a boutique shop, but rather two-floors of every item imaginable, this is the go-to place for treasure hunters. This antiques bazaar in Vedado is actually someone’s home; Belkys and her family live here (Calle 2, #607 between 25 and 27). Give yourself some time, as there are thousands of pieces ranging from antique glassware and porcelain ornaments, to second hand house decorations, to lamps and furniture. You can find items from every period of Cuban history; turn over the teacups and you may see they were ‘Made in the USSR’.
This welcoming boutique shop is the perfect reason to take a stroll out to Miramar, Havana’s shaded upscale neighborhood west of the city (facebook.com/AlmaTiendaCuba). Owner Alex Oppman has traveled across Cuba to carefully select pieces from local artisans in different provinces; each piece is unique and hand made from natural or recycled materials. Whether it’s jewelry, embroidered cushions or a vintage cigar humidor, this is a great place to pick up a high quality gift or souvenir from your Cuba trip.
The designers behind this new shop will turn almost anything into a lamp. Housed in the foyer of a 1950s building in Vedado’s main avenue, this quirky shop is worth a peek (Calle 23 between 8 and 10). An old iron, a meat grinder and a piece of a tree trunk were only some of the objects doubling as lamp stands during a recent trip. For fans of contemporary Cuban interior design, there are pieces here that range from trendy to downright weird. And if you have a crazy idea of something that you would like see turned into a lamp, they also make to order.
Piscolabis Bazar and Cafe
Perfectly located just steps from Havana’s 18th century cathedral, this eclectic shop run by a group of Cuban artists features a wide range of decorative and functional items for the home, as well as jewelry and some clothing (piscolabishabana.com). The designers make modern creations from iconic objects of Cuba’s past. For example, a glass water bottle from the middle of last century doubles as a lamp stand, and parts of an old watch have been deconstructed into a necklace in another of their unique pieces. Should you need a pick-me-up, you can indulge in an energizing espresso from the attached cafe.
Looking for a more permanent memento of your time in Cuba? Then head to La Marca (lamarcabodyart.com). The young collective who runs this tattoo parlor maintain it at an international level of cleanliness and hygiene, so you can be sure you’ll be inked with properly sterilized needles. The Cuban government has traditionally had a difficult relationship with tattoos and, despite the fact that lots of Cubans have some form of body art these days, there’s still no official recognition of the practice.