Cuba has a culture of necessity and this tour of will show you how Havana artists use their can-do attitude to transform unusual materials into art. Visiting the Callejon de Hamel, Havana street art, museums and artisan markets will show you a colorful side of Havana that goes beyond its well known music scene and classic cars rides.
Cuba has a make-do attitude. As my casa particular host put it, “In America, you have ten choices, in Europe they have five choice, here in Cuba, we only have two choices.” Then he smiled and shrugged and showed me how he had used re-purposed hardware and wood to design a creative and comfortable guest room that would fetch a hefty sum were it located in Napa Valley.
This is typical of Cuba. Nearly six decades of economic squeeze by the American embargo and the withdrawal of Soviet welfare in the ’90’s has served to reduce consumer choice in Cuba. But it certainly hasn’t squelched Cuban creativity.
One of the more obvious manifestations of the make-do culture is the eponymous classic American-Cuban car. They look like restored classics but they are truly more like classic Frankenstein. My Viñales guide was constructing a mash-up of a classic 1940’s Crosley with a modern Daewoo engine and custom bumpers. It is a multi-year labor of love that has him driving all over the country hunting down custom parts.
But cute guest rooms and Franken-cars have practical and commercial value. However, elsewhere in Cuba, the made-do attitude has stimulated creativity and art for its own sake. And no where is that more on display than in Havana where you can experience outsider art in Callejon de Hamel, see hidden street art and talk to artisans at work.
Get prepared for your trip with this list of what to take to Cuba.
Outsider art in Callejon de Hamel
Havana’s Callejon de Hamel (or Hamel alley) is the brainchild of artist Salvadore Gonzáles. In 1990 he began painting murals with an Afro-Caribbean theme outside of his apartment in Hamel. His art evolved into sculptures and later opened a children’s art gallery. The alley became a thing which then attracted musicians and rumba dancers. Salvadore’s art has taken over the alley with a riot of color and whimsy that travels down the street and up the sides of the buildings.
Like the Franken-cars and cute casas, Salvadore’s creations are representative of Cuba’s make-do culture. He uses re-purposed materials like scrap metal, old bathtubs, industrial machinery, construction rubble and animal bones to construct his sculptures.
Here is Salvador González himself, chilling with a fine Cuban cigar in one of his bathtub/sculpture/benches.
In addition to benches, the bathtubs have also been transformed into poetry alcoves.
“Grandmother, why do the people fight?”
“For love and respect”
“And the powerful?”
“For gold and idleness”
Havana street art can be found all over the city, but few of the murals have the scale and ambition of those in Callejon de Hamel.
And the messages go right up to the rooftops.
“Water without limit”
There is no shortage of whimsey in Hamel.
Get inspired by the written word with this epic reading list for Cuba
Visiting Callejon de Hamel in Havana
When to go to Hamel
Hamel might seem like a gallery but it’s a street like any other in Havana and you can visit anytime. If you’d like your Cuban street art syncopated with some cha-cha-cha, then go on Sundays. Starting at noon, there is music and rumba dancing in the alley. However, there is an argument to be made for going on a weekday, as I did. That way, you can avoid the crowd, giving you space to stand back and soak up the art. I also recommend going during the day. There are lights in Callejon de Hamel, but you will miss the subtlety of the murals if it’s too dark.
Guide or No Guide?
There are huckster “guides” willing to offer you a tour. This will include a brief history of the alley delivered in Spanish. Your guide will then speed walk you through the interesting parts of the alley and into the nearby bar which has “the best mojitos in Havana”. He will then shove you into González’s gallery and upon your exit, he will strong arm you for a tip or a $10 CD purchase.
There are other locations in Havana that also offer this sort of impromptu tour (the Castillo de la Real Fuerza in old town is one such site) and they can indeed be valuable and entertaining. But beware the hard sell in Callejon de Hamel. There is nothing to prevent you from demanding that your guide slow down or to simply do your own self-guided tour.
Getting to Callejon de Hamel
It’s located just a few blocks up from the Malecon about halfway between the Hotel Nacional and the Capital. It would take you about 20 minutes to walk there from the Havana Vieja or the Capital. Or you can grab a cab for ~$7.
Here’s a handy planning guide for visiting Havana.
Other Outsider Art, Crafts and Street Art in Havana
Callejon de Hamel isn’t the only place where Cuban creativity is on quirky display. There are artists expressing themselves with street art, mosaics, screen prints and paintings all over the city. And they are doing it with color, humor, strange objects and a very Cuban sensibility.
Havana Street Art
Unlike the well-organized street art in San Francisco, or the location-specific murals in San Diego, street art in Havana is scattered throughout the city. This is also an extension of the Cuban make-do attitude with artists taking advantage of small bits of available space and random paints. My best advice for you is to keep your eyes open because you’ll find interesting pieces in doorways, alleys and city parks. But for your best chance of seeing Havana street art, take a stroll in the following locations:
- Through Havana Centro. Walk four blocks west of the Capital and then down Galiano toward the Malecon. This street also has a lot of 1930’s Art Deco architecture and beautifully tiled storefronts.
- On the Paseo de Martì. Go south from the Malecon to the Capital. In addition to the murals, there are also arts & crafts for sale along the Paseo. Another oddity is the Paseo’s open air real estate marketplace. Since the country lacks a traditional real estate market, the residents once again make-do by shopping for homes among agents holding up plastic signs in the park.
- Tucked into odd corners of Old Havana. Poke your head into doorways, alleyways and vacant lots and you’ll be rewarded with the odd mural or stencil.
Fusterlandia is outsider art in the most literal sense. José Fuster may have been inspired by Gaudi’s designs in Barcelona but he has made his art distinctly Cuban. He began by covering his house and fountains with colorful mosaics. The works became a community art project when the designs spilled out of Fuster’s lot, into his neighbor’s homes and down the block. It doesn’t cost money to visit Fusterlandia but you will need to take a 30-40 minute taxi ride which will cost you ~$15-20.
Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market
The Almacenes artisan market features original works by Cuban artists. It’s located in a huge dockside warehouse next to the cruise terminal. When you enter, you will initially pass a gauntlet of tourist-friendly wares featuring Cuban cars on small canvases and other knick knacks. But go deeper and you’ll find more original works in the southern and western edges of the building. All of it is modern and colorful and I was surprised by how much of the art featured edgy or political messages.
The market is open everyday from 10am-6pm and is a 15 minute walk south from the Plaza de la Catedral in Havana Vieja.
Taller Experimental de Gráfica
The taller is a print-makers workshop with artisans making-do by painstakingly carving woodcuts by hand, manually-rolling screen prints and designing etchings. The workshop floor is an active work space with a gallery component, so you can watch the artist at work, ask them questions about their craft and then purchase a piece right on the spot.
The workshop is open Mon-Fri 10am-4pm. Entrance is free and the workshop is located in a small alley just off Plaza de la Catedral in Havana Vieja.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
The Bellas Artes building was established in 1955 and houses a large collection of modern and contemporary Cuban art. While some of the works have a European sensibility, most of them seem distinctly Cuban. Like the Havana street art and Fusterlandia, many of the works are very colorful and there is a great deal of post-revolutionary hyperrealist art featuring symbolic themes of suffering and nationalist patriotism. Be sure to visit Bellas Artes’ great museum store.
The museum is located in Havana Vieja at Ave. Agramonte and Trocadero. It’s open Tues-Sat 9am-5pm and Sun 10a-2p and the entrance fee is $5.
Plan your trip to Cuba with your Lonely Planet Guide to Cuba
You may not think that sculptures made from bathtubs would be your bag but I found the quirky art in Havana to be delightful. Checking out the street art, seeing Hamel or chatting with a print artist is not a typical tourist activity but it will show you a side of Cuban creativity that you otherwise wouldn’t see. Buen viaje!
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