Cuban craft, like Cuban music, thrives on improvisation. “Access to materials can be challenging,” says Cynthia Vidaurri, a Smithsonian researcher who is the curator of the institution’s Folklife Festival on Cuba. “This can mean certain crafts are not produced on a regular basis.” Local markets are a good source, but great finds can be scored at bus stops when traveling outside of the capital.
Soda Can Toys
Tin toys like this beer can helicopter can be found at Arriani Veloz Darias’s booth in the Viñales Market. Her collection also includes a camera made from a Coke can and a car that began life as a Fanta container. Mercado Valle de Viñales, Pinar del Río Province.
A repurposed beer bottle holds a marinade made from limes—just the thing to add zest to your lechón asado con mojo (roast pork) or braised beef, vaca frita (literally “fried cow”). La Esperanza, Calle Cuarteles No. 12, between Cuba and Aguiar streets, Havana.
Leather Cohiba Cigar Case
Now that visitors can bring back a hundred dollars worth of cigars, why not stash them in a leather case imprinted with the magic name Cohiba—once Fidel Castro’s preferred brand? (It’s also the most counterfeited. Best not to buy yours from a gray-market vendor.) Found at many booths in the Mercado San José, Avenida del Puerto, on the corner of Calle Cuba, Havana.
Habana 1791 Perfume
Scent summons memory, so for instant recall of your trip when back home, pop the top of your ceramic flagon from the Habana 1791 perfumery. Fragrances feature exotic and tropical scents such as jasmine, tobacco, orange blossom, vetiver, and mariposa, the national flower. Habana 1791, Calle Mercaderes No. 156, Havana.
Sustainable Wood Pipe
Craftspeople throughout the island use sustainable woods, such as teak, guayabillo, and jiqui, to whittle small mementos like this pipe, purchased in a booth at the crocodile farm of the Boca de Guamá tourist complex. Kilometer 19 on the road south of Australia, Playa Girón, Matanzas Province.
Marbleized Box of Dominoes
Walk around any neighborhood, especially in the evening, and you’ll find a foursome playing that other national game (besides baseball)—dominoes. Listen to the clack of tiles (fichas) and the triumphant “¡Me pegué!” of the winning player, who slams his final piece on the table. This box of dominoes is wood, covered in marbleized paper. Alma, Calle 18 No. 314, between 3rd and 5th streets, Playa, Havana.
The ultimate wake-up call is a café Cubano, a thimbleful of black brew topped with a layer of caramel-colored foam. The industry, nationalized after the revolution, is on the rebound after years of neglect; Nespresso even plans to import Cuban coffee to the United States. El Elixir, Palacio de la Artesanía, Calle Cuba No. 63, Havana.
Local Pearl and Turquoise Necklace
Necklaces made of seeds such as black watermelon, red coralillo, and black jaboncillo are easy to find and inexpensive, but for a more refined look, Lien Vela Almodovar marries local freshwater pearls with turquoise beads as blue as the Caribbean. Mercado San José, Avenida del Puerto, on the corner of Calle Cuba, Havana.
Benny Moré Record
The great Benny Moré (who sometimes spelled his first name Beny) couldn’t read a note of music, but the “wildman of rhythm” wrote and sang many Latin standards. Vendor Brian Torres has a record player so that customers can listen before purchasing. Plaza de Armas, between O’Reilly and Obispo, Cuba Tacón and Barillo streets, Havana.