Habaneros bemoan the lull in American tourism to the Cuban capital right now, but for those who continue to visit, this is a magical moment in time.
While the crush of visitors has lifted, the opening of the private economy for the last decade means that there are now atmospheric cafés, bars, galleries and immersive experiences hidden away in the fabric of the Caribbean’s most sophisticated city – if you’ve the patience to find them.
On a gritty, busy street in downtown Central Havana, tucking into a gourmet chocolate pastry means sampling the new entrepreneurialism of Cuba. Alberto González worked in Michelin-starred European restaurants before returning home to open Salchipizza, a small, whitewashed bakery selling many different types of bread including gluten-free, rice, onion, aubergine, corn and ham-olive-and-cheese rolled pastries.
“Since the revolution, Cubans have made do with tasteless ration bread. I wanted to bring people more,” he says. There are also light lunches of cheeses, slivers of pork, deconstructed tamales and more.
The choice of the un-upwardly mobile neighbourhood, where he grew up, was deliberate. González wants to encourage change and positivity. Each business, such as his bakery, is a little miracle that survives despite changing regulations, lack of incentives, scarce materials and patchy wifi.
“Very few black Cubans like me start businesses,” he says, “whether that’s through fear, or lack of capital, but I want them to feel inspired. For me it was important to do it here in my home, not in Miramar, which has everything.”
Artisanal pieces are often sold en masse in Havana, but to browse a well-curated selection without the hustle you can now head to Miramar, the leafy district that Alberto has swerved. Here, tree-lined avenues set back from the ocean breezes are lined with the mansions of the pre-Revolution wealthy, many now converted to embassies.
A few doors down from the International School of Havana, expat Panamanian Alex Oppmann has opened Alma, which champions Cuban artesanía.
In the foyer of a pink mansion, woven bags, panama hats, ceramics, guayabera shirts, embroidered cotton dresses, wooden spoons, handmade soap and jewellery shine out.
“Cubans are incredible artisans,” says Oppmann, noting that the lack of materials means locals are inventive with recycling and repurposing.
Back in the febrile atmosphere of old Havana, the tight Unesco-protected colonial grid with handsome townhouses in a faded rainbow of desolated colour opens out onto little Parque Cristo, around which many funky new businesses are gathering.
Here, Square Mile catches up with El Individuo, a Latin jazz and Cuban swing-influenced ‘poetic rapper’. He’s signed to Guámpara Music, founded in 2015 as Cuba’s first independent production house and urban music label.
Guámpara has four artists, an electro DJ, a dancehall singer and a modern singer of Cuban bolero sub-genre filin. El Individuo, whose real name is Rafa, taps into a delicate form of expression for rap.
“I look for a language that is between vulgar and intellectual,” he says. ‘Mil Razas’ –‘A Thousand Roots’ – his popular track – raps about the many versions of blackness. “I don’t engage with public debates on race, but sing from my own emotions,” he says.
Outreach is an issue in Havana with few places to perform. “There’s a lot of spirit, but little money.”
This is also why there are few private galleries. Yet some are evolving, such as Arsenal Habana just outside the dismantled city walls in the neighbourhood of Jesus Maria, an area “not touched by tourism or cultural institutions,” according to its founder, the artist Sandra Pérez Lozano.
“Havana is a city of artists, with very few places to show art,” says Lozano. Arsenal Habana provides a space for poetry readings, talks across artistic disciplines, exhibitions and parties.
At the other end of the spectrum sits Taller Chullima, the studio of artist Wilfredo Prieto, open by appointment, which occupies a monumental former engine repair factory on the banks of the River Almendares. (In Havana, artists can request disused industrial spaces for a ten-year period on subsided rent – a mere dream for foreign artists.)
While Square Mile visits, a dance troupe is limbering up next to installations that include an epic-sized cling film ball and two giant Alpine boulders kissing.
Collaborations at the studio will peak during the Havana Biennale in April and May, when the world will descend on the city for free art, parties, talks and fun, and have so far included chefs, a geo-thermal scientist, dance and theatre troupes, industrial designers and architects.
If art culture has ever been sophisticated in Cuba, Cuba’s food culture, which died a little death during the Special Period after the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving Cuba in tatters, has transmogrified.
Jama restaurant in Habana Vieja illustrates the niche, but growing, interest in Japanese-Cuban fusion.
Carlos Alonso Acosta is a protégé of Tomas Erasmo Hernandez, erstwhile chef for Fidel Castro. He opened Jama last year, with a small open kitchen and a pernickety presentation.
“I’ve assembled a team of young, creative chefs who are malleable and open minded,” says Acosta.
Pan-Asian and Cuban flavours fuse, with sushi and pickled quail eggs, pork belly taco, ceviche with maize toast, and the spicy-sweet freshness of the blood red ají cachucha pepper fried into a tempura.
Just around the corner, 29-year-old Claudia Ramos has created a pearl of a bar with her American partner Chris.
The Conga Room (also known as Elegguá bar, or ‘that bar with no name’ – as for a while it didn’t, and that, for some, has stuck) is a red-lit walk-up.
This is a small, thoughtful affair that shines a spotlight on Cuba’s rich culture of Afro-Cuban rumba. A group of white-clad rumberos rules the bunker-like space, one brandishing a machete.
“What we are trying to do is recreate the energy and spirit of a Sunday rumba in a solar [a Cuban tenement],” Ramos says. A young, bohemian Cuban and foreign crowd mingle here into the small hours.
Elsewhere abandoned properties have been temporarily repurposed as music hubs by the HAPE collective, started by Italian expatriate Giuseppe Scrufari Hedges and Benjamin Gutiérrez. One night it could be the rooftop of a 1920s cigar factory, another a 1950s villa designed by Frank Martinez, another night a brutalist mid-century firing range that even the locals didn’t know about. Amid Havana’s raw, untapped possibilities, the venues for atmospheric soirees are endless.
After all this, one needs to place to go to sleep. While corporate hotel chains flex their muscles in Havana, the new opening has allowed a small clutch of boutique apartments and tiny hotels to flourish. Our own apartment epitomises what is possible in Havana in terms of rental, and just how difficult that is for the entrepreneur to set up. Willy Santiesteban’s two apartments, nicknamed Twins, take up one floor of a 1940s block in Old Havana. They are deco-influenced with a luxuriant spaciousness, exuding a minimalist vintage chic and finish that’s hard to encounter here.
“All of our furniture is crafted in Cuba, so even the legs of the kitchen table can dance salsa,” says Santiesteban. “But it was really hard to achieve this quality, when even getting paint can prove nigh on impossible.”
Other entrepreneurs are miraculously running whole hotels. The only boutique hotel in Havana bearing the ‘Small Luxury Hotels of the World’ plaque, Italian-Cuban duo Andrea and Diana Gallina’s pied-a-terre Paseo 206, has a small Italian restaurant, ten regular suites, a junior suite and a rooftop suite with a Jacuzzi terrace and 1950s Gio Ponti furniture.
“The private sector is a toddler learning to walk,” says Andrea. “Training is key, suppliers are unreliable, and no fast internet is an obstacle. As there are no import licenses for the private sector, we adopt a farm to table strategy. We find solutions. We’re betting on the future.”
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The Essential Havana Guide
Where to go for whole-wheat sourdough, gluten-free loaves and seeded breads.
A sexy, stygian little old-town restaurant with a Japanese-Cuban twist.
Aguiar #261b e/ San Juan y O’Reilly; +53 78642252
The Conga Room or ‘Eleggua Bar’
Strong cocktails and ambience; masterly hypnotic rumba from about 10pm.
Aguiar #209 e/Tejadillo y Empedrado
Havana’s amazing party pop-up crew seem to pull off anything, anywhere.
The first independent production house and urban label in Cuba, support urban music that springs from the islands’ musical roots.
Listen at guampara.bandcamp.com
Upcycled Cuban artisanal pieces curated into a shop full of takeaway pieces.
Bags, T-shirts and other pieces printed with Clandestina’s tongue-in-cheek slogans and offbeat designs.
Wilfredo Prieto’s collaborative studio and workshops by the River Almendares.
Calle 6 e/9na y 11na, Playa
Sandra Perez showcases up-and-coming Cuban artist talent such as Ernesto
García Sánchez. facebook.com/ArsenalHabana
A stunning refurbishment of two 1940s-era Art Deco apartments.
An elegant, welcoming, ten-room boutique hotel on a tree-lined avenue under the umbrella of Small Luxury Hotels of the Cuba.
Cuba Private Travel curates bespoke travel to Cuba with a specialism in showcasing creative new businesses.
Lydia Bell is a London-based writer and editor, specialising in copywriting, content creation, and journalism. lydiabell.co.uk