Though the range of consumer products available in Cuba’s shops is slowly expanding, quality and choice are still generally poor – cigars, rum, music and arts and crafts remain the really worthwhile purchases here. The late 1990s saw the first modern shopping malls emerge, predominantly in Havana, but outside of these and a few of the grandest hotels, shopping comes with none of the convenience and choice you’re probably used to. Almost all shops actually carrying any stock now operate in convertible pesos, but a pocketful of national pesos allows you the slim chance of picking up a bargain.
National-peso shops are often poorly lit and badly maintained, and some understandably won’t allow foreign customers, giving priority to the national-peso-earning public. Though they are often half-empty, it’s still possible to unearth the odd antique camera or long-since-deleted record, while others specialize in imported secondhand clothes. The most worthwhile are the casas comisionistas, the Cuban equivalent of a pawnbroker. These can be delightful places to poke around, frequently selling vintage and sometimes antique items, from furniture to pocket watches and transistor radios.
With the price of the world’s finest tobacco at half what you would pay for it outside Cuba, it’s crazy not to consider buying some habanos (the term for Cuban cigars) while on the island. The national chain of La Casa del Habano stores accounts for most of the cigars sold in Cuba, with around ten outlets in Havana and lots more around the country, often in classy hotels; cigars are also sold in airports, gift shops and a lot of the less classy hotels, too. The industry standard is for cigars to be sold in boxes of 25, though you can find them in boxes of ten or fifteen, and miniatures in small tins too.
There are currently around thirty different brands of Cuban cigar. The biggest names and generally the most coveted: expect to pay upwards of $75CUC for a box of Cohiba, Montecristo, Partagás, Romeo y Julieta, H. Upmann and Hoyo de Monterrey cigars – and for the top dogs or rarest smokes, like Cohiba Esplendidos or Montecristo A, don’t expect much change from $500CUC. Like most habanos brands, these are all hand-made, but if you’re buying cigars as souvenirs or for a novelty smoke, you’d do just as well with one of the less expensive, machine-made brands. The most widely available are Guantanameras – though connoisseurs wouldn’t touch them with a bargepole, at between $20CUC and $30CUC a box you can at least make a purchase without having to ring your bank manager. First-time smokers should start with a mild cigar and take it from there; it makes sense to try a machine-made brand given the lower cost, but of the hand-made brands Hoyo de Monterrey are relatively light.
The biggest business on the black market is selling cigars to foreign visitors, with the average price of a box representing at least as much as the average monthly wage. If you spend any time at all in a Cuban town or city you will inevitably be offered a box of cigars on the street. You can find boxes for as little as $10CUC, but no self-respecting salesman is likely to sell the genuine article at that price and they will almost certainly be fakes.
If you leave Cuba with more than fifty cigars, you’re theoretically required to make a customs declaration; and must also be able to show receipts for your purchases. Sometimes you may be asked to show receipts even for fewer than fifty cigars; if you can’t, you risk having them confiscated. Although most travellers are not checked when leaving, you’re obviously more at risk of having cigars confiscated if you’ve bought them on the black market.
Along with cigars, rum is one of the longest-established Cuban exports and comes with a worldwide reputation. Although there are a few specialist rum shops around the island, you can pick up most of the recognized brands in any large supermarket without fear of paying over the odds. Rum is available in several different strengths, according to how long it was distilled; the most renowned name is Havana Club, whose least expensive type is the light but smooth Añejo Blanco, which will set you back $3–5CUC. The other, darker types increase in strength and quality in the following order: Añejo 3 Años, Añejo Especial, Añejo Reserva, Añejo 7 Años, Cuban Barrel Proof and the potent Máximo Extra Añejo. Other brands to look out for include Caney, Mulata and a number of regional rums like Guayabita del Pinar, from Pinar del Río, and the excellent Santiago de Cuba. The maximum number of bottles permitted by Cuban customs is six.
First introduced to the island by French plantation owners fleeing the 1798 Haitian revolution, coffee is one of Cuba’s lesser-known traditional products. It’s easy to find and excellent quality, mostly grown and cultivated without the use of chemicals in the rich soils and under the forest canopies of the three principal mountain ranges. Supermarkets are as good as anywhere to find it, but there are a few specialist shops in Havana and elsewhere. The top name is Cubita, but there are plenty of others like Turquino, from the east of the country, Serrano, and even a couple produced under cigar brand names Montecristo and Cohiba.
Books and music
The Cuban publishing industry is still recovering from the shortages of the Special Period, and bookshops here are generally disappointing, with a very narrow range of titles. Stock is often characterized by nationalist and regime-propping political texts, from the prolific works of the nineteenth-century independence-fighter José Martí to the speeches of Fidel Castro, and other titles unwavering in their support of the Revolution. Perhaps more universally appealing are the coffee-table photography books covering all aspects of life in one of the most photogenic countries in the world. There are both CUC and national-peso bookshops; the latter often stock academic texts as well as Cuban fiction, and are a good bet for back issues of Cuban magazines at bargain prices.
English-language books are few and far between, but two or three bookshops in Havana and at least one in Varadero and Santiago de Cuba have a handful of foreign-language titles, usually crime novels and pulp fiction.
Some of the most comprehensive catalogues of CDs are found in Artex stores, the chain responsible for promoting culture-based Cuban products. Most provincial capitals now have a branch, and there are several in Havana. Look out also for Egrem stores, run by one of the country’s most prolific record labels and sometimes stocking titles hard to find elsewhere.
Arts and crafts
One of the most rewarding Cuban shopping experiences is a browse around the arts and crafts – or artesanía – markets. Cuba has its own selection of tacky tailored-to-tourism items, but if you want something a bit more highbrow there are plenty of alternatives, like expressive African-style wood carvings, a wide choice of jewellery, handmade shoes and everything from ceramics to textiles. Haggling is par for the course and often pays dividends, but shopping around won’t reveal any significant differences in price or product.
Look out also for the BfC logo, a seal of above-average quality and the trademark of the Fondos Cubanos de Bienes Culturales, shops selling the work of officially recognized local artisans. Artex shops also make a good port of call for crafts, though they tend to have more mass-produced items.
Antiques and vintage memorabilia
In recent years, with the expansion of private enterprise, Cuba’s immensely rich bounty of antique and vintage furniture and memorabilia has come onto the open market. Though still quite hard to track down, the rewards for doing so are some extraordinary collections of books, maps, ceramics, glassware and jewellery, as well as Art Deco furniture and all sorts of 1950s memorabilia, from postcards and magazines to cabaret coasters, glasses and swizzle sticks. Look out also for 1970s revolutionary posters and collectable 1990s Cuban baseball cards. You’ll find the richest vintage pickings in Havana and Trinidad.