During the 1950s, Havana’s most prestigious shopping destination was the Centro Habana intersection where San Rafael and Neptuno converged with Galiano. At its heart, on the corner of San Rafael and Galiano, stood El Encanto, the most renowned of the department stores, occupying an entire block and boasting the patronage of Hollywood stars like Lana Turner, John Wayne and Errol Flynn. In 1961 the store, which by this time had been nationalized, was burned to the ground, the result of a bomb attack in the tumultuous early years of the Revolution.
Five decades later and general neglect coupled with the effects of the US trade blockade has left the area sorely dilapidated, and instead of swanky shopfronts, it’s now peppered with a selection of artless hard-currency stores and murkily lit peso shops. Rather than unearthing great retail finds, the real pleasure here is spotting the vestiges of a glamorous past in the old shop signs, marble pavements, faded interiors and elaborate tiled frontages that dazzle amid the ruins. In particular, look out for the Hotpoint mosaic on San Rafael esq. Industria; and the stylish flourish of lettering spelling out Fin de Siglo along the building on the corner of Aguila and San Rafael, once a fancy five-floor department store featuring a hair salon decorated with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, now the scene of a huge, jam–packed ground-floor market selling secondhand clothing and other goods; and the Flogar logo imprinted on the dusty glass frontage of the large, half-empty store at Galiano no.42, where once mannequins displayed the latest fashions in the Macy’s-style window displays.
The only department store to have been fully redeveloped since the Revolution is La Epoca, reborn a little less than a half-a-century after it first moved into its home on the corner of Galiano and Neptuno in 1954, becoming the third largest department store in Havana at the time, employing over four hundred staff. Locals flock here today to buy counterfeit brand clothing, electrical goods and homewares, though the current design of its five floors owes more to modern supermarkets than the chic interiors of yesteryear.