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Since the early 16th century, Havana’s harbour has been a centre for trade and shipping. Installations mushroomed as the harbour’s commercial activities grew. Today, these former establishments are being restored and refurbished as part of the City Historian’s Office transformation efforts of the historical quarter of Old Havana.
In 2009, the famous open-air crafts market near the Plaza de la Catedral in Old Havana was relocated to the former Almacenes de San José on the Port of Havana. This harbourside warehouse was built in 1885 and is considered the oldest depository in Old Havana. The sober and imposing façade that looks out onto the city conceals the building’s steel structure, which has endured the passing of time and is perfectly preserved.
After a painstaking restoration process of almost three years, the huge edifice is now the Centro Cultural Antiguos Almacenes San José. Conceived as a cultural centre with art exhibitions, theatrical performances and recreational activities for children, among other, its most significant offer is undoubtedly the handicraft on sale.
Unlike other countries in the world, and Latin America in particular, Cuba does not have a strong tradition in producing handicrafts. It is therefore really surprising to see how Cuban artistic handicraft has developed over the last three decades.
At Almacenes de San José, Havana’s artisans have an ideal place in which to exhibit and sell their handicrafts.
Leather items are predominant here, mostly functional yet beautiful accessories in the form of handbags, large and small; wallets; men’s, women’s and children’s shoes; sandals and belts.
Ceramic items include plates, cups and saucers, demitasse sets, bowls, earthenware pots in which to cook paellas, toys, and miniature and large-scale decorative figures.
Toys, masks, and ornamental items made of papier-mâché stand out for their brilliant colours.
The clothes sold here are traditionally made of linen and cotton. Look out for guayaberas, the traditional Cuban men’s loose linen shirt, although more contemporary garments for the whole family are also sold. Home-made knitwear—crocheted blouses, dresses, boleros, skirts, hats, shawls, scarves—is a substantial part of the textile department.
Paintings by self-taught and street artists can also be bought at this crafts fair. Popular themes, reproductions of favourite corners in Havana, natural and urban landscapes and everyday scenes are exhibited and sold in an improvised gallery.
Sculptures made of Cuban hardwoods—mahogany, cedar, majagua, ebony, ácana, quiebrahacha—are on sale next to little boxes with secret compartments or trays with marquetry decorations.
Natural fibres from coconuts, yarey and guano from palm trees, and malangueta are used to make baskets, handbags, hats, mats and even jewellery. Colourful necklaces, bracelets and earrings are made from bright red, orange, black and white seeds.
Beautiful handcrafted humidors, packs and other tobacco accessories can also be found at Almacenes San José.
Afro-Cuban percussion instruments, such as bongos, congas and bata drums, are on sale. Other musical instruments include guitars, claves and maracas.
The Centre also has exchange houses and a National Patrimony Office that issues the necessary certifications for exporting certain items, such as artwork.
Several cafeterias offer snacks, beverages, fresh fruits, coconut milk and the very Cuban Saoco (aguardiente, honey and coconut milk).
The view of the bay from the rear end of the building is one treat that is not on sale, it’s there for free.
The Centro Cultural Antiguos Almacenes San José is today one of the most visited cultural and commercial complexes in Havana.