Private Cuba

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Discover Cuba's most exciting project after years of institutionalised government control that restricted Cubans' enterpreneurship skills. Cuba's blossoming private sector has been born again; bigger, brighter and better than ever with many daring and innovative Cuban entrepreneurs crossing the boundaries and overcoming severe limitations to provide the island with attractive alternatives to run-down state facilities and a scarcity of certain items.

From £2439 per person

The private sector has been taking Cuba by storm ever since Raul Castro announced reforms to the government’s paternalistic approach towards employment, blaming over-employment in state-owned businesses for a number of economic inefficiencies. Since the enforcement of the new reforms in 2010 to modernise Cuba’s economic model, a number of private enterprises have been flourishing state-wide, although certainly most noticeably so in the capital. Here we enlighten you on the best ways to get the most of Cuba’s private sector and support the local growing economy.

A series of structural government reforms to Cuba’s economic model announced by President Raul Castro in 2010 marked a historic moment in Cuba’s history of more than 50 decades of practically sole reliance on the state to provide employment, transport and housing. As the government urged for a need to restructure its economic model, explaining that it’s previous approach no longer worked for the evolving Cuban society, whilst making clear that all future changes would still be in line with the island’s irrevocable socialist nature, the groundwork was laid to allow for a freer (although still restricted) market.

An introduction to the evolution of Cuba’s private market

Since the triumph of the Revolution, Cubans had relied on the government to secure them jobs, and although small private businesses started being established during the late 90s (after the fall of the Soviet Union dramatically cut supplies of goods) these were mostly limited to people setting up food stalls, usually at their houses’ front porch or windows and typically selling things like homemade pizzas to go, sandwiches, juices and coffee.

The famous “paladares” that are so popular and widespread today were also born then but at the time of their emergence they were subject to severe limitations which saw many closing later on due to restrictions. Later on the government forced the closure of many others because of irregularities like setting up more tables than was allowed (there was a limit of 10 initially which now stands at 50), serving restricted items or surpassing established revenue limits. The same goes for "casas particulares", they were crated during that time and although not as evolved or widespread as now, they paved the way for Cuba’s future private accommodation sector.

Many believe Cuba’s is a thing of the last few years since reforms were announced, but the private sector (legal and illegal) in Cuba had in fact been growing slowly for some time prior to 2010, with non-state related contributions to the economy rising by 18 per cent in the previous three years. Perhaps this was one of the things that prompted Raul Castro to ease legislation regarding private property and entrepreneurship.

So, shortly after he took on his brother’s role as President of Cuba he gave a public speech announcing gradual reforms for the opening of the private market, recognising the urgent need for a remodelling of Cuba’s economy framework. He said Cuba’s model no longer worked and a reliance on state employment had brought about inefficiencies and over-employment.

More freedom was given to Cubans to set up private business (albeit with limitations) and the whole country was urged to take on an entrepreneurial role if able to. The letting go of the umbilical cord with the state was deemed necessary in order for the government to be able to continue supporting important pillars like free education and healthcare. At the same time some job positions considered to be an unnecessary burden to the economy and to the functioning of state companies were slashed and one million public sector jobs were scrapped. Simultaneously, Cuban banks started issuing loans for entrepreneurs in an unprecedented move that saw many line up at the banks with their business proposals. All of this contributed to hordes of now unoccupied workers to look elsewhere in the market and find innovative ways to earn their keep.

And that’s how in the last three to five years Cuba has seen a drastic increase in private businesses popping up everywhere, from paladares that can rival (and even surpass) any restaurant of its kind elsewhere in the world, to lively and quirky bars with live entertainment as well as private accommodation of all kinds and found in all categories, going well beyond the early basic casas particulares which were more like homestays that were once limited to spare rooms rented within a Cuban household. The levels of sophistication have been elevated in all areas and new regulation has allowed for more competition as the evolving private Cuban market further develops and innovates in order to survive and stand out from the crowd. And nowhere is all this more noticeably clear than in Havana; where it all started. The capital, in many areas where the private sector is concerned is light years ahead of the rest of Cuba, with the most modern facilities and most innovative private business varieties found here.

Sluggish pace despite efforts that bear fruits

Even when many argue that the amount of reforms to the Cuban economy is still insufficient and that the pace of change is still very slow-moving, Cubans have never been known for rushing to do anything and the government even less. Specially when all manner of private enterprise must be conducted in a way so that it doesn’t heavily compete against state-run companies.

As a matter of fact, in 2013 Raul Castro issued a warning against those trying to push the government to issue further reforms by stating that: "those pressuring us to move faster are moving us toward failure” and that “every step we take must be accompanied by the establishment of a sense of order.". This was followed by a government crackdown on illegal private cinemas and video gaming salons. The state declared that these kind of unauthorised establishments stretched the boundaries on the kind of private businesses allowed under the new reforms.

Some say the process of freeing markets in Cuba has been halting lately or has come at a crossroad, but further liberisation of the economy endangers the socialist system the government fought so fiercely to create and so zealously protects. No further drastic move will be made in this area without the state ensuring that Cuba’s socialist society remains fully protected.

For now the Cuban government is keen to promote a mixed economy, with all key sectors firmly under the state’s control but allowing opportunities for small to medium-sized enterprises. What does the future hold for Cuba’s private sector? We’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, there is private business in the capital to pick and choose, and we show all the areas in which you can experience and contribute to Cuba’s emerging private sector.

Private Accommodation – from chic and modern boutique properties to grand colonial mansions

The creation of what is popularly known as “casas particulares” (the Cuban equivalent to a B&B or homestay, although the concept has now stretched to cover entire houses, villas or boutique properties entirely rented out to guests) had a rather shy and slightly shambolic start during the late 1990s. How they have evolved since then is nothing short of remarkable.

Although more popular (and significantly more evolved) now than ever; casas particulares in Cuba have been around for years. In 1997 the government gave official permission for Cubans to host tourists inside their homes and rent out private accommodation in the form of rooms within their household. So, very soon, those who could afford it, or had large enough houses to spare a room or convert unused space inside their apartments, either made conversions to accommodate foreign visitors or spruced up spare rooms. In the beginning most where very basic by most tourist standards, even when by Cuban standards they were refurbished above the level of the average Cuban household but most facilities like toilets and fridges were limited or had to be shared with the household living at the property.

Nowadays it’s extremely rare to find privately rented rooms in Cuba (especially in Havana) that don’t come with their own en-suite toilet facilities, in-room TV set and private use of a mini-fridge - and that’s even when the rooms rented are inside of a house lived in by the owners. They usually have separate quarters separated from the guests’ rooms or have carried out some kind of renovation work to give guests more privacy. Nowadays the only spaces commonly shared are the dining room and kitchen, with most casas particulares resembling B&Bs where owners or designated cooks prepare breakfasts made to order and sometimes also offering home-cooked dinners.

But it wasn’t until the late 2000s that private accommodation in Cuba took off and started to develop at a never-before-seen rate. Entire homes were converted, rooms were spruced up and modernised, facilities were updated and fresh paintwork completed the makeover for many existing or newly set up casas particulares. And now that after the 2010 reforms Cubans were finally allowed to buy and sell real estate properties (before if they wanted to move they had to go through a complex house-swapping system called “permuta”) many Cubans living abroad have invested back in the country or helped their families abroad with loaned money to set up businesses or buy properties. Indeed many homesick expats have also viewed it as an opportunity to go back to living in the island with a new way to prosper back home

If seeking to stay in a casa particular, your main options are the following private accommodation types:

A room inside a house shared with hosts - following the old school approach in which most casas particulares were established, these either belong to the group of the eldest and earlier of Cuba’s famous homestays or are brand new ones recently set up following the original format. Regardless of size and whether they are housed inside large colonial mansions or modern apartments; most privately rented rooms in this category now include private sanitary facilities, like en-suite bathrooms or shower rooms, as well as individual mini fridges and in-room TVs (sometimes DVD players and mp3 players are also part of the amenities). Air conditioning and hot water are also standard and other extra facilities or perks vary across different properties in accordance with the price range. Some offer uber modern décor, furnishing and facilities while others in-keep with their original colonial structure and exhibit all manner of quirky vintage paraphernalia. Ultimately, it all depends on the kind of experience you seek, the location you want to be based in as well as your individual taste and your budget. With a host living onsite (whether in adjacent separate quarters or in one of the rooms) you will get the opportunity to interact with a local individual, couple or family and get so much more from your experience. Many of these hosts also host special dinners, offer to provide breakfast or on-request meals as well as laundry service. They can also help put you in touch with other locals offering services like private taxis and recommend the best places in the area to visit, the top evening venues, and so on. How these casas function vary, but typically they offer daily housekeeping and at least once or twice weekly towel change.

A room inside a house shared with other guests – these type of casas particulares function almost like a hotel in the sense that whilst no host resides on the property, someone is probably in charge of handling check-in or check-out, and there might (or there might not) be a designated manager who stops by the property at certain times during the day, an onsite cook, small restaurant or bar and daily housekeeping. In the majority of cases these are entire houses with all rooms used to accommodate guests who only share facilities in common areas like living rooms, outdoor spaces and kitchen. Many facilities are available to use at guests’ discretion, like internal or external patios, spacious living rooms and sometimes even pools. Most of these offer self-catering facilities while others come with their own small snack bar or restaurant.

An entire flat or apartment – as the name suggests, these are entire flats or apartments that were former lived-in residences and have now been refurbished for private rent. Often found in centric, vibrant locations at the heart of cities (most notably in Havana) many of these are on higher floor to offer panoramic city and sea views and some are stylish penthouses with luxury extras like Jacuzzi, hot tubs and even plunge pools! As these get more and more sophisticated, the only limit will be your budget, although there will always be plenty of economic yet charming options. Some of these often offer long-term rentals for long-stay visitors or business people staying longer in Cuba than the average tourist and who are therefore more suited to a private flat with sole use of self-catering facilities than in a room sharing a house with hosts or other guests. These are also more suitable to families as they offer more space and the comfort of a home away from home while still working out cheaper (in most cases) than some hotels.

An entire house or villa – now this is where you can have some real fun, an. True, you might be missing the charms of a onsite host (although some hosts do pop in to welcome guests and some live in a back-house at the rear of the property or on converted upper or lower floors with separate entrances to ensure guests utmost privacy) but you’ll get a level of freedom and benefits that you otherwise wouldn’t. Having an old colonial house or vintage Cuban mansion all to yourself for a week or two is priceless and many certainly relish the opportunity to feel like a. Some of these are found in centric city locations or in tranquil suburbs and outskirts amidst lush gardens and many of the ones in the upscale residential neighbourhoods of Miramar, Siboney or La Vibora come complete with private full-size pools. Others are perfectly poised overlooking the sea or near the beach, with most beach villas in Varadero, for example, being rented out as full houses or villas. Owners of these properties are usually on-call 24/7 or have designated housekeepers available at all times. Needless to say many of these properties (apart from daily housekeeping) also offer extra services like onsite chefs or onsite bars or restaurants. These type of casas particulares tend to be at the pricier end of the market all but can work out cheaper if travelling with large groups.

These listed here are the four main categories in which you can classify the varied (and increasingly diversifying) main types of private accommodation available for rental in Cuba, but there may be slight and not so slight differences among them all that set them apart from the rest. With Cuba’s private boom become a more competitive sector every day, many innovative owners look for ways to stand out from the crowd and offer something unique. From artsy abodes full of contemporary local art for the art-loving crowd to last century dwellings exuding aged glamour to quirky residences full of mix-and-match décor from every time period imaginable, if there is one thing that casas particulares in Cuba aren’t is boring.

Some of these even come with the added quirk of a 50s classic car available for rental for an extra fee per day, although usually it also includes the driver as most Cuban vintage car owners do not easily relinquished their treasured beauties to any other driver, and quite rightly so, as there are many tricks involved in keeping these relics on the road, so they should only be in experienced hands.

Should you stay in a casa particular? Most definitely you should, even if it were only for the charm of experience a deeper level of local culture or for the convenience of having a home away from home or for the unique “vintage” aspect, there’s no doubt there are many reasons why making at least part of your stay in a casa particular will give a new dimension to your Cuba holiday. And, with the extremely competitive prices at which most casas start (between 20- 35 CUC) it’s sometimes an easy, no-brainer step up from some run-down state-owned hotels. Besides, behind these casas there’s the hard work, sacrifice and dedication of many Cuban families, so you can bet you’ll be better looked after than at a hotel where staff may be indifferent to your individual needs. Cubans in casas particulares are eager to please and do everything possible to make your stay extra special…just give them a chance and you won’t regret it!


Private transport in Cuba

For years, private (and public) transport in Cuba had been practically inexistent or found operating strictly under the radar with a few unlicensed private cars doing certain routes in Havana while other private car owners offered illegal door-to-door taxi services. Elsewhere in the country private transport was virtually unheard of. So, as a tourist you had two main options (with only one of these being reliable enough) choose one of the state-owned taxi companies or coach buses operating for tourists exclusively or try your luck with Cuba’s chaotic public transport (something we would strongly advise against). Of course, there were some locals offering private taxi services, but the only way to come across one of these was by touring around centric areas where many would approach tourists and offer them a ride for a discounted rate (in comparison with state taxi agencies like Panataxi).

But the 2010 reforms announced by Raul Castro changed the private transport panorama drastically and not only did more car owners rush to get licensed as private taxis but a new and more upmarket luxury market emerged where the owners of Cuba’s most luxurious four-wheeled vehicles offered rides for a fee.

Almendrones – the local term for the classic American cars from the 50s, these vintage beauties are what most tourists dream of when envisaging private transport in Cuba. Coming in all shapes and colours, many of these have been so immaculately preserved and groomed that they shine like brand new. From cool convertibles to classy Cadillacs, Chevrolets, Hudsons…you name it, they have it. How to find one? Well, you’ll see plenty lined up by the Capitolio building in Old Havana and sometimes elsewhere in the roads, parked near hotels and tourist centres. Cuba’s proud classic car owners will give you a ride or two, you could even hire out an almendron (complete with chauffeur) to drive you around the city throughout your stay. It might not come cheap if you plan on using one every time for every journey, but it’s definitely an experience if only for a day – a real must-do in Cuba!

Collective cars – aimed mainly at the local market of commuters, these typically consist of the more run-down version of classic cars or almendrones, which operate certain routes along the city for $10 pesos CUP (a little less than 50 cents in CUC). This phenomenon is exclusive of Havana and was born out of the scarcity of local buses operating frequent routes, so local entrepreneurs came up with the idea of offering rides along determined routes to better serve the local market, stopping to pick up as many passengers as can fit in the vehicle (which means it’s often not the most comfortable of rides). But it’s an extremely (though limited) cheap way for tourists to travel around the city and get to some of the capital’s main points of interests and centric avenues. That is if you don’t mind the crowded cars and the general hustle and bustle. Many drivers are happy to pick up tourists and try to entertain a conversation, as sometimes other passengers might do. Definitely an experience to immerse in the local daily grind if you’re prepared for it!

Airport transfers – upon exiting the Jose Marti National Airport in Havana you’ll find plenty of private taxis owners coming up to you and asking if you need a ride. Their cars range from modern air-conditioned vehicles to spruced up Soviet era Ladas, classic American cars to everything in between. You can agree the fare before hopping on but the standard is 25 CUC and in most cases you won’t be able to haggle the price down. Having said that prior to getting to Cuba you could contact a local driver to pick you up from the airport and agree on a price before jetting off to Cuba.

Private minibus – yes, these are available although their services aren’t as widespread as average private taxis and perhaps not as easy to find. Nevertheless, even just by asking around someone is bound to put you in touch with a private mini bus or mini van owner if you’re travelling to Cuba with a larger than average party. In the near future some may start setting up websites (although internet in Cuba is still very precarious) and you might be able to arrange your private transport needs beforehand, like is the case for YotellevoCuba.com, where a team of Cuban entrepreneurs have their online portal allowing you to get in touch with up to three private drivers in Cuba who each gives you quotes so you can decide before getting there.

Private Restaurants

The Cuban paladares of today are nothing like the humble establishments that were set up when its concept first emerged in the 90s. Once improvised in the patios of homes, or by setting up as many tables as they were able to fill inside their dining rooms or outdoor spaces (like terraces, patios or gardens) while subject to strict limitations in the number of diners they could serve, nowadays most paladares are standalone in the fact that they have taken over entire homes who have been completely transformed into private restaurants. Only a few remain where hosts still live onsite although often on quarters entirely separate from the dining areas.

In their early beginnings, most paladares were limited to offering hearty and generous dishes of typical Cuban fare and perhaps a few Italian selections like pastas and pizzas. Paladares have evolved so much to this day and so incredibly that some reach the heights of haute cuisine, as is the case with Le Chansonnier, probably Cuba’s priciest paladar, serving fine international cuisine and fusion cuisine with a strong French avant-garde accent in an elegant and subdued ambience. Sleek and sophisticated inside, this is such an exclusive and expensive paladar that it’s very unlikely you’ll find Cuban diners inside. It has its own website available in four languages so this alone speaks for its level of superiority in comparison with most others, especially considering the fact that internet access in Cuba is dire and very limited. You can read the full extensive menu online and even make reservations.

But there are many other private restaurants in Havana also offering refinement and beyond that others featuring unique edgy design, artsy décor, quirky touches and a wide variety of dishes, from Spanish tapas to specialty sandwiches, oriental dishes, Japanese sushi and even Russian and Indian food! They are indeed diversifying at a tremendous pace as each strives to offer something unique and appealing to an already well-catered clientele and an ever increasing number of foreign visitors.

But the most legendary, internationally famous and oldest of all paladers in Cuba is La Guarida, certainly the most iconic of all, responsible for feeding a varied array of celebrities who’ve visited the island, from the former Queen of Spain to Jack Nicholson, Rihanna, Pedro Almodovar, Naomi Campbell, Steven Spielberg, JayZ and Beyonce, Tom Jones and even Bollywood actresses. This also has a very good, frequently updated website with its own blog, the full menu listed online and an online reservation system. It’s not in the cheapest end of the scale but due to its rich history as the setting of Cuba’s Oscar-nominated film Fresa y Chocolate (1993) and for the long list of icons that have perpetuated its name and kept it at the top of places to dine in Havana. As they call themselves this is “the paladar of paladares” and with reason too. Its shabby chic décor represents the decaying Havana of the so-called “Special Period” of the 90s yet its food is top quality international and traditional Cuban fare. One not to miss!

Some of the most popular paladares in Havana include La Fontana (where Rihanna popped in to try some local food just minutes after landing in Havana), Doña Eutenia, San Cristobal La Cocina de Liliam and Atelier. These all have been around for a few good years, and they have remained consistently good throughout, they have stood the test of time, surpassed quality standards each time and thus remain top favourites among locals and tourists alike. They are sound choices when in doubt and they never fail to please. Prices range from good value to the higher end of the spectrum but neither of these can be considered expensive by most tourist standards; you’ll find the menu prices to be mid-range in most cases.

What most of these have in common is that they offer soulful and honest Cuban food with generous portions and quality ingredients; they are the essence of what the original Cuban paladares stood for and even though some have evolved in décor and variety of dishes, they remain true to their original roots, which is par of their recipe for success. You simply cannot go wrong with either of these.

Of course you’ll find cheaper options with tasty fare, such as El Idilio, an unpretentious venue in sunny spot of Vedado, serving Cuban classics off a chalkboard menu in the open kitchen. It also has a barbecue area with breezy outdoor seating. Café de los Artistas is another incredibly popular one and while it may be a little hard to find in a small alley surrounded by other little restaurants in Old Havana, its varied selection of drinks and dishes doesn’t disappoint. Food is fresh and well prepared and the décor is truly special as the café is house in a brick and stone cavernous space with arched doorways. Lastly, one of the latest ones to come in the market, the Mediterraneo Havana has often been praised as the best paladar in the Vedado municipality, with an extensive menu featuring delicious regional Italian and Spanish specialities. A good wine list also helps set the mood to perfection.

New paladares are opening at an incredible pace, with innovative concepts and more international cuisine expanding Cuba’s previously limited culinary horizons. As an often cheaper and much better quality alternative to government-owned eateries, private restaurants in Cuba offer a world of choice paired with unique ambience and sometimes striking décor.

Some of the latest and most modern to grace the paladar scene in the capital include Otra Manera, owned by a Cuban people who were previously living in Spain and where one of them trained as a sommelier in Ferra Adria’s famous El Bulli restaurant. With sleek minimalist décor and an oriental influence, it serves Spanish-Cuban fusion dishes with fresh ingredients provided by a local organic farmer.

Two worth mentioning include the paladar Sol y Son in Trinidad (which also offers lodging) Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso in Viñales, Pinar del Rio. The former has been described in Lonely Planet as “a veritable museum piece” due to its collection of antiques. It offers solid good food for a good price and the live entertainment of a local troubadour in the elegant setting of a colonial patio – truly superb! The latter is housed in an organic local farm with plenty of local charm and the most amazing views over the Viñales Valley. Think large hearty portions, a soothing rustic setting and delicious flavours full of tradition and soul. A truly unforgettable dining experience in rural Cuba.

Private nightlife – from clubs and bars to drag nights

This is one of Cuba’s newest experimentations with private services outside food and lodging which all existed in some way before the 2010 reforms to private property and the private market.

This is where locals are taking risks beyond what was already tried and tested to compete with an already well-established range of government-owned nightlife venues. At the moment the offer is still limited and there is nothing in the form of a big nightclub or disco in the private sector, but slowly and surely they’re getting there.

Private bars

There’s quite a selection of private bars springing up everywhere in Cuba, but decidedly more so in Havana than anywhere else, where the choice is more modern, eclectic and varied.

One of the most popular among locals and visitors alike is the Sangri La in the municipality of Playa. Small and cosy, this inviting club with attractive modern décor and sleek interiors offers good food, good rinks and good music in the form of live performances as well as. Former Real Madrid football player, Raul Gonzalez Blanco, better known as simply “Raul” came here to party during his short visit to the island in May 2015 as did popular Grammy award-winning Cuban duo Gente de Zona. Bands come to play here often and when not, good music plays on the background with the hottest Latin and international tracks. This is the place to get acquainted with Cuba’s party scene in an exclusive, refined atmosphere with outstanding service.

Sia Kara is yet another fantastic option for a chilled night out with good music playing in the background (there’s a live pianist most evenings) and regular concerts staged by popular musicians in every music genre, from salsa to jazz. In contrast with the Sangri La this is probably not the place to come to dance, as it doesn’t really have a dance floor and its style is far more laidback and subdued; the ambience decidedly more demure. Nevertheless, people who come here know how to have a good time and you’ll often find clientele joining famous visitors in showbiz and joining them in singalongs. Definitely a good place to further immerse in Cuban folklore and artsy night scene.

Private clubs

Private bars in Cuba are aplenty and growing, but the same can’t be said for nightclubs as the offer in this area still ranges from limited to non-existant, depending on what you consider a nightclub. There are some private clubs hosting frequent live music performances, but some of these (like King Bar) also host stand-up comedians on some nights, so they can’t be said to be a nightclub in the sense of a disco with pumping music and DJs – in fact there’s nothing like this in Cuba’s private sector, so if this is what you’re looking for you’ll have to look into other government-owned venues like Macumba, Salon Turquino in the Habana Libre hotel or the Habana Café in Melia Cohiba. They all offer DJ sessions usually preceded by special shows.

Having said that, Escaleras al Cielo in Havana is a trendy bar and club that functions as a nightclub or “discotheque”, as they call themselves. They host frequent live performances from a variety of artists in every music genre and after the performance is over the dance floor is lighted up ready to welcome dancers to the DJ sessions that go all the way into the early morning.

King Bar is another up-and-coming trendy nightlife venue oozing character and modern glamour. This privately owned hangout spot offers an outdoor terrace where various grilled specialties are cooked to order and where you can also select from a tapas menu. Happy hour takes place daily from 5 to 8 p.m. with 2x1 on cocktails and other special offers. If you happen to stop by at lunch time they offer an executive lunch with starter, main, dessert and drinks for just 10 CUC! But, let’s dig into what really matters…its evening and nighttime atmosphere. Well, King Bar frequently hosts special guests in the form of singers or music bands as well as stand-up comedians, it’ll all depend on the night you choose to visit and what’s on. You’ll have to checkout their website if you want to find out in advance. Generally speaking however, Tuesdays host Cuban comedian Osvaldo Doimeadios while Sundays welcome a local pop or salsa band to get everybody on the dance floor. Thursdays give space to Spanish music with popular tunes from Paco de Lucia, Alejandro Sanz and Melendi performed by Reynier Mariño y Su Grupo.

Private trade

Private trade in Cuba comes in several forms and whilst some of it operated strictly on the black market for many years, after the reforms most have become licensed or affiliated to some sort of private cooperative group. Having said, that there are many areas that are still not covered by the official government licenses and yet daring private sellers still risk it and operate on the black market, selling everything from couture clothing to hygiene products and decorative items. Read on to find out more about Cuba’s booming private trade, the official and the unofficial.

Local arts and crafts

If interested in purchasing local handicrafts straight from their craft artists you have two handicrafts markets to choose from in Havana: the one at La Rampa in the Vedado municipality and the one housed inside the San Jose warehouse in Old Havana, facing the city’s harbour. These are the two largest and where you’ll find the most variety but other smaller ones do exist in Varadero and other large Cuban beach resorts.

Antiques – dealers and art collectors in Cuba

Whereas private antique dealers and collectors aren’t that widespread and not that easy to find in Cuba, some indeed do exist but stumbling upon them is not an often recurrence. Of course that’s not to say that there’s a shortage of antiques in a place forever frozen in time such as Cuba and steeped in so much vibrant and powerful history as this nation is. Antiques abound for sure, collectors, perhaps not so much and they’re not that widely publicised. But if you’re really keen, there are a few in Havana (elsewhere they’re even more limited and often unheard of) that are fully dedicated to collecting, buying, repairing and selling every kind of collector’s items, form porcelain vases to furniture of all designs and styles.

Such is the case of Amanda Rodriguez, who inherited her father’s talent for collecting, preserving and restoring ancient relics and later developed it as private enterprise that became her way of life. Beautifully displayed, at her hosue you’ll find outstanding collections of chinaware (from plates to glasses, jugs, tea pots, decanters to full dinner sets), silver cutlery in original cases, oil lamps, porcelain flowers, candlesticks, Moroccan tea tables and other eclectic pieces in a collection that spans from the 18th to the first half of the 20th century, and which includes some Russian pieces (from Cuba’s strong affiliation to the Soviet Union for nearly two decades) up to the 1980s.

Like Amanda, quite a few in Havana’s neighbourhood of Vedado have converted spacious areas in their home to showcasing fine antiques available for sale. Some request prior appointment and phone call while others are open to the public most days of the week. The only way to find out is to call in advance and get in touch.

Some of the ones to contact in this area of Havana include:

Milagro – Curator and promoter of Visual Arts (call ahead for an appointment, afternoon and night only)
Address: Calle A #610 entre 25 y 27, Vedado. Telephone numbers: 833 6140 / 05 241 6321

Belkis – collector of glassware mostly; including glass and porcelain, plus some furniture
Address: Calle 2, #607 entre 25 y 27, Vedado. Telephone number: 830 4124

Mirtha: collector of mostly large ceramic vases and chandeliers plus some furniture.
Address: Calle 6 #601 entre 25 y 27, Vedado. Telephone numbesr: 836 0695 / 05 346 8397

Elia Rodriguez: collector of mostly furniture plus some glasses
Address: Calle 4, #305 entre 13 y 15, Vedado. Telephone number: 830 1725

Ibrahim: collector of furniture mostly plus some antique clocks
Address: Calle 35, #251 esq. 4, Vedado. Telephone number: 883 3272

But beyond these listed here, there are many more art collectors, curators and sellers all dotted around the city; you might even find some antique paraphernalia sold on a street corner by a local vendor with everything from coins to inkwells, stamps and cigarette holders to jewel cases and jewellery – all dating back to at least a century or two.

If you’re really interested in buying some antique items in Cuba you’re better off asking around, speaking to locals and trying to do your own research. Art collecting in Cuba is getting really interesting, more so now that more entrepreneurs are opening up to the trade, and with the affordable prices most private sellers ask for their pieces you’ll feel like you’ve walked away with a high-value bargain!


Art - private studios and galleries

Although in Cuba the concept of “private galleries” per se is prohibited, you can find private studios from individual artists and curators, where pieces can be bought but are not advertised for sale – a devious way of saying yes; you can sell it, but don’t make it that obvious.

If interested in snatching up art pieces you’ll find more than one place to obtain it from. You’ll have no trouble spotting a private art studio if strolling around Havana’s most centric downtown or Old Town areas. Old Havana for example is dotted with private galleries where artists exhibit and sell their works privately. Such is the case for Marta Elena’s art studio, found within the neighbourhood and local community project of Barrio del Santo Angel. You can browse her cheerful, colourful paintings lining up the walls of her studio from floor-to-ceiling, which themes that strongly revolve around Havana, the feminine figure and cats. She also devotes some of her private space to showcase the works of other local artists who have nowhere to display their paintings. As part of a community project by buying her art you’ll also be giving back to the local neighbourhood.

But this is not the only place in Old Havana where you can find artists’ studios, far from it in fact, as there are many others concentrated on the area. Two of the most important ones belong to artists Choco (with a workshop called Taller del Sol Eduardo Roca Choco) and Nelson Rodriguez.

Elsewhere in Havana you find the Estudio Figueroa-Vives managed by Cristina Vives, Studio 61 in Havana’s Playa municipality, the Avistamiento Gallery in 10 de Octubre, El Apartamento in Vedado and Asscher Studio in Vibora, with the work of acclaimed Cuban artists, Glauber Ballestero and Lorena Gutierrez.

Outside Havana there’s the Casa Obrador in Santa Clara and the Estudio Potrony in Santiago de Cuba. Online one of the best websites exhibiting Cuban contemporary art for sale is Moleiro’s Gallery at moleiros.com

Clothing, accessories and decorative items

The private sale of items of clothing, accessories and decorations in Cuba is strictly clandestine and done by local door-to-door sellers who often have a well-established network of loyal or frequent clientele. Because the government’s reforms do not yet include this category of private business, the black market responsible for providing Cubans with these array operates under the radar and with some difficulty.

Many argue the reasons that these items are restricted or limited in Cuba’s private sector because the government is not yet ready to compete with entrepreneurs on these areas (given how much pricier these items are sold in government stores, often of inferior quality and severely lacking variety). So the need and the demand is there for alternatives, but local clandestine vendors don’t have it easy. They have to overcome many hurdles in order to be able to sell supplies at competitive prices and now the Cuban government is even making it more difficult as two years into the reforms the government decided to impose steep charges to the custom duties of several imports coming from mainly from Miami, cutting off the bloodline supply of Cuba’s private sellers (or re-sellers as the term is more fitting in this case).

So, while there are no privately owned shops selling these kinds of items, an interesting clandestine project has been in the works for some time with some private sellers going online and setting up business pages on Facebook and separate website to attract customers. Such is the case of Clandestina 99% Diseño Cubano where the sellers not just sale their items, they actually make them. From a variety of T-shirts to quirky pillow and cushion covers, these entrepreneurs have launched their business from their flat in Old Havana where they print their own designs.

More like these have opened up recently despite the limitations, like the striking Psicolabis shop in Old Havana, the only one of its kind to exist in Cuba’s private sector and selling a quirky mix of locally made objets d’art, clothing and decorations. Likewise, Pedro's, a Cuban tailor, opened up his private business at his home from where he designs his own textile creations and takes orders for custom-made items. Like him, many others tailors and seamstresses in Cuba operate under the radar, filling the gap of much-needed innovation in the island's limited fashion sector.

Of more international acclaim is Cuban fashion designer Jacqueline Fumero who has her own private boutique set up in Old Havana’s Barrio del Santo Angel neighbourhood, again part of the local community project there. Although she doesn’t reside in Havana, she does tend to her shop (which also has a refined café serving delicious crepes and pastries) on occasional visits and personally stocks her jewellery and clothing collection. One of Havana’s most elegant and glamorous private spaces in which to enjoy a cool or hot drink and browse a variety of handmade haute couture items (priced as such so no bargains to be found here).

Sales of accessories and decorative items in the private sector (outside of what’s sold on crafts markets) is very limited in Cuba, with handmade decorations sold in private shops being a rarity. But some do exist, and perhaps more than we think as many operate under the radar, on the limits of legality and are better known locally by word of mouth.

The finest example of a private shop selling handcrafted decorative items for the home is Estudio Cleo in Vedado, beautifully set up in the front porch of a private home and housing a collection of inspiring objects, in a variety of colours, patterns and design. The decorations are still very basic, but many are picturesque and it might be hard to resist taking something home. In Villa Clara, in the small town of Cardenas, there’s yet another popular private shop called La Chero and in Varadero Decorarte is the signature name for a company specialising in graphic design and decoration of merchandise and other varied paraphernalia.

Catering, events management and hospitality services

One are where Cuba’s private sector has been fast developing and evolving to reach the realms of international quality is the area of events coordination and party planners. The most prestigious and elite of these is Aire de Fiesta, founded by an enterpreneuring lady and her professional team of decorators, designers, architects, photographers, stylists and videographers. They have taken care of every decorative aspect of high-profile weddings in Cuba like Carlos Acosta’s. They are most famous for the spectacular wedding decorations they can create (with a full range of well-designed wedding themes, from beach to vintage to classic elegance and rural settings) but don’t limit themselves to just that. They also decorate a variety of events from business banquets to birthday parties. They have their own very sleek and modern website in English and Spanish.

Private caterers for special events like birthdays, weddings and parties are also varied and widespread in Cuba, their quality varies, but it’s not hard to find a few to choose from and get different quotes – although you’ll find very few of these on the web, locally by asking around you can many people to point you in different directions.


Private gyms and spas

This is one of the newest and most innovative areas in Cuba’s private sector and they’ve propagated like gun powder stretching far and wide across the country, although mainly (and heavily) concentrated around the capital. With some makeshift gyms in converted garage spaces already in existence before the reforms took place, only a year after they became official Havana had over 300 private gyms. Although previously lacking and virtually unequipped with no more than a few weights and rusting machinery, the shiny new gyms of Cuba today feature modern state-of-the-art treadmills and bikes, as well as pilates balls, aerobic steps and much more. The best and largest are no longer housed inside spare rooms, halls or garages, but many entire homes have been completely converted into full-size gyms with all the trimmings. Some even feature separate saunas, steam rooms and Jacuzzis. They also come with personal trainers and fitness instructors offering a variety of classes, from circuit training to aerobics, spinning, yoga, pilates and even Tai Chi.

A membership at many private gyms starts at around 5 CUC per month and the most sophisticated of these private gyms can cost up to 50 CUC per month, making them very competitive (and sometimes bigger and better) against the ones at hotels which can charge up to 60 CUC in monthly membership fees.

Some gyms include massage areas with a variety of therapies on offer and some combine the workout areas with a separate spa.

And talking of spas and massages, this is yet another new area that has taken Cuba by storm. If you head to one of the local Cuban websites where locals put up listings of the services they offer (like porlalivre.com or revolico.com) you’ll find a saturation of freelance masseurs and masseuses offering their services either inside their equipped homes or on a door-to-door service.

But there are actual spas and beauty salons in Cuba, privately owned and with standards as high as you’d find in a hotel or resort. One of these is Salon Madrid, owned by Rafael Orama, Cuba’s most famous facialist who includes Susan Sarandon in his list of famous clients. In his private facilities he applies a variety of facial treatments, from clay to sulphur masks made from natural (and often locally-sourced ingredients). Many of the treatments he offers are handmade but many other facialists in Cuba’s private sector resort to importing beauty products from Miami and Mexico.


Community projects financed by local entrepreneurs

Some of the most moving spin-offs spurned from Cuba’s private sector are the community projects funded from the earnings of some of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs, giving back to the local community in the form of financing facilities for youngsters in deprived neighbourhoods, offering apprenticeships to idle youth living in very poor districts who would otherwise be destined to a life of crime and poverty.

ArteCorte – the hairdressers’ alley in Barrio del Santo Angel

This is the most phenomenal of community projects in Cuba financed by the private sector, it’s the biggest success story of its kind that’s already paying dividends to a small, previously run-down neighbourhood of Old Havana. Founded by Papito, as he is affectionately called in the area, a successful hairdresser and much-loved local legend who devoted part of his personal fortune to propagate his love of the barber/hairdressing profession, ArteCorte is a project of love and dedication. In his eagerness to elevate the humble profession of hairdressing to new levels he created a hairdressing school giving apprenticeships to vulnerable members of the local community and getting idle youngsters into work (away from trouble). The school is funded from the profits of his very vintage barber shop (quite a site to behold, whatever you do in Old Havana don’t miss a stop here!) and inspires youngster to get off the streets and acquire new skills, be it in the many hairdressing shops set up in this quirky alley or at some of the area’s private restaurants (whose profits also partly contribute to the local community and the creation of recreational areas for children and retirement homes for the elderly. A truly exemplary work that we hope soon gets copied and pasted in many other vulnerable areas around the country.



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