With so many picture-perfect spots and interesting landmarks to discover, strolling through the streets of Cuba’s capital is no dull affair. Taking a moment to appreciate the glistening waters as you stride through the Malecon seaside promenade, snapping pictures of Old Havana whilst walking down the busy Obispo Street or enjoying the sight of colonial buildings as you step through the majestic boardwalk of Paseo del Prado, are all true highlights and practically musts of your Havana city tour. Although these avenues are certainly stunning and well worth the exercise, the capital is home to other lesser-known gems that capture part of Cuban identity.
Two alleys, small in size but great in value and meaning, could make your visit to Havana all the more authentic and special: Callejon de Hamel and Callejon de Los Barberos. Set in the lively neighbourhood of Centro Habana, the first is of special interest for music aficionados as well as for those looking to get a feel of what the more “unpolished” yet incredibly charming side of Havana is like. The second, set in a corner of beautiful Old Havana, is a colourful tribute to the hairdressing trade and the location for many emerging small entrepreneurs.
Including both spots in your Havana itinerary could provide you with a more authentic experience that unveils the interesting African roots of Cuban culture, as well as give you a taste of what life in the city is like from modern Cubans’ perspective and their take on private businesses. Read on if you would like to find out more about these interesting alleys.
Callejon de Hamel – a celebration of Afro-Cuban music, dance and religion
Set between Aramburu and Hospital streets in Centro Habana, this narrow two-block long alley has over the years become a shrine to Afro-Cuban culture. Situated three blocks from the Hospital Hermanos Almejeiras, the Callejon bears the name of a wealthy trader Fernando Hamel who maintained the entire underprivileged district.
Welcoming visitors with exciting and bright murals and surprising artworks made out of objects as random as bathtubs, Callejon de Hamel is a place with a truly vibrant and tantalising ambience. Surrounding buildings, which are lined with brightly-coloured paintings and sculptures that depict rituals and deities, show the humble nature of the neighbourhood.
Salvador Gonzalez Escalona, the Cuban artist responsible for the alley’s beautiful decor, describes his Afro-Cuban style as a mix of surrealism, cubism and abstract art. After spending more than two decades of producing artworks in Cuba, as well as the U.S., Norway, Italy and Venezuela, the self-taught artist began adorning the alley outside his apartment with art in 1990.
The surrounding Cayo Hueso neighbourhood once had a dangerous reputation, but Salvador’s art has helped to change perceptions of the area. Visiting Callejon de Hamel should be perfectly safe for tourists, but it is always a good idea to keep your belongings safe and with you, so that occasional pick-pockets and hustlers aren’t “blessed with a lucky find”.
Rumba spectacles on Sundays
In addition to its funky street murals and psychedelic art shops, the main reason to come to Havana's high temple of Afro-Cuban culture in Centro Habana is the frenetic rumba music that kicks off every Sunday at around noon. If you are a fan of rumba, or would like to get acquainted with this genre’s flavourful and catchy beats, Callejon de Hamel is the best place to witness a truly amazing performance.
Listen out for the fast-paced interlocking drum patterns and lengthy rhythmic chants, accompanied by lively moves that “possess” the soul of the dancers as they shake their hips and sway their arms and legs to the infectious music. It is important to note that the origin of these rhythms and dance moves are profoundly spiritual and answer to Afro-Cuban religions like Santeria and Palo Monte. Both music and dance are performed to be powerful enough to summon up the spirit of the orishas (Santeria deities).
Background story of Afro-Cuban religions and music
To provide you with a little background information, the music that is valued among this culture originated as far back as the late 1500’s being identified as Yoruban sacred music, which originally came from Nigeria. From the inception of slavery, African religions made their way to the Caribbean island. When they were sent to the Americas to work in sugar plantations, the Afro-Cuban slaves were forced to convert to Catholicism.
As a way of maintaining and disguising their beliefs, they started comparing their own deities to Christian saints. This led to syncretism wherein, for example, the Catholic San Lazaro, resurrected from the dead by Christ, became connected with the orisha Babalu Aye, ruler of contagious diseases. Contemporary Afro-Cuban religion has three main practices: Santeria, Palo Monte, and Abakua. The first two are largely syncretized with Catholicism, African elements outweighing the Catholic ones, while Abakua is a secret society for men.
Since the musical elements were a fundamental part of the religious rituals, African descendants continued to develop their music and dance. They were forced to leave behind their native African musical instruments, so instead, they replicated them while incorporating other European instruments, which were guitars, mandolins and tubas.
As the centuries passed, the African influence merged with Spanish musical traditions to create various authentic Cuban genres, including rumba. This religious music is an important part of the Afro-Cuban ritual, with specific chants, rhythms and instruments such as the “batas” a holy drum that should only be played by males and that takes an important role when summoning spirits in the Santeria parties.
A tantalising artistic experience in Centro Habana
Although the music and dance spectacles, as well as the brightly-coloured artworks, are the biggest highlights of Callejon de Hamel, the alley also boasts an art shop, a bar selling cocktails and other refreshing drinks as well as a restaurant, in case you work up an appetite after joining in some dancing yourself.
Even when the alley has become rather popular amongst curious and eager travellers, Callejon de Hamel is far from becoming a tourist trap. The musical rumbas on Sundays are a charming spectacle oozing energy and showcasing the Afro-Cuban roots of Cuban cultural identity. The infectious rhythms may even get you busting some moves!
Callejon de Los Barberos – a bohemian alley with tons of style
Set within the picturesque cobblestone streets of Old Havana, Callejon de Los Barberos, also known as Callejon de Los Peluqueros (Barbers’/Hairdressers’ Alley) is often missed in the tours of the old town. Only steps away from the Museo de la Revolucion, this quaint alley is home to a mix of art and history that glorifies the trade of hairdressers in the Cuban capital.
How did this small area of little over 100 metres transform into an interesting landmark? A great part of this flourishment was due to one creative neighbour. When in 1999 Gilberto Valladares Reina, known in his Santo Angel neighbourhood as Papito, started a project he called Cortearte, it is likely that there were very few people in Havana that could fully understand the scope of his undertaking.
Tribute to hairdressing and fertile ground for emerging businesses
Today, the alley greets you with a replica of the appointment of the first barber in the ancient villa de San Cristobal de La Habana: his name was Juan Gomez, and the year was 1552. Further along, you will stop and admire the unique design of the sign posted on the walls of 10 Aguiar Street: Artecorte, Casa Museo de la Barberia (Hairdressing Museum).
Once you cross the threshold and climb the stairs, you will discover that the walls have been turned into a fascinating gallery with allegorical drawings depicting the art of cutting and treating hair. Every detail of the museum transports you back to past times, even as far back as the colony.
Papito’s private initiative has been multiplying spontaneously since this first idea. Now, the short boulevard boasts other charming small businesses: Roberto Gonzalez inaugurated his Studio/Art Gallery, designer Pedro Perez set up a shop selling traditional clothing such as the well-known guayaberas, and Luis Carlos Benvenuto, owner of the Artists’ Cafe, has joined the small community contributing to the cultural liveliness of the place with activities related to urban cinema. As a follower of the outstanding Cuban filmmaker Humberto Solas, he hopes to promote the love for the cinema by carrying out community improvements actions.
At the far end of the Callejon you can also find La Farmacia Bar-Restaurant. It restored the building’s original uses in the 1940s when it was first a restaurant and later a pharmacy. This is the ideal place to stop by for delicious tapas and drinks, the establishment’s hallmark.
Some of these spots in the alley also collect and rescue old objects such as cash registers, typewriters and barbers’ chairs. This habit allows visitors to know more details about the past life of the city and that of its inhabitants. But more importantly, it aims to participate in the future, something that is very positive and speaks highly about the city to come.
Blossoming community project
The revival of Callejon de Los Barberos has not only brought a special magic to this place and drawn the interest of local and foreign passers-by. This enterprise does more than collect profits; it is accompanied by improvements to the living conditions of neighbours and other community members. The essence of Papito’s project, one that reaffirms the historical and social importance of hairdressers and hairdressing salons in Cuba, is providing new entrepreneurs with a chance to thrive.
Over the years, Gilberto Valladares has exhibited his ability to bring people together and show them how they can be successfully useful. He has drawn into the enterprise a group of young unemployed school dropouts, and has taught them the secrets of cutting and styling hair. One truly inspirational example is that of a group of cute girls who have been able to learn a greatly valued profession.
Saying goodbye to Callejon de Los Barberos in style
Whilst you are visiting the Hairdressers’ Alley, why not go in for a cool hairstyle or cut in a beautiful salon with chairs from the 50s? Coming back with a new look from holidays will probably be one of the most remarkable souvenirs to take home. It would also be an added value and a cherished memory from your journey knowing that you were part of helping small entrepreneurs blossom and bettering the living conditions of community members.
Take walking in Havana to the next level
Whether you have visited the Cuban capital before or are discovering it for the first time, make your upcoming trip unique by visiting these two beautiful and interesting alleys. Test your feet to the speedy and contagious beats of rumba music, gaze at colourful artwork and learn a little about Afro-Cuban religion at Callejon de Hamel. Visit the Hairdressers’ Museum, observe artworks at a private art gallery, grab a bite at one of quaint the private-owned cafes and find out more about community projects at Callejon de Los Barberos. Make strolling through Havana all the more meaningful by adding these two colourful alleys to your journey.