Perfume bottles from Habana 1791. (Photo: Alexandra Perron)
HAVANA — The United States and Cuba resumed diplomatic relations in July 2015 after severing ties 54 years ago. I just came back from two weeks of backpacking across the beautiful—and capitalism free, sort of—island country of Cuba, where I schlepped without my 10-step skincare routine and carried an assortment of portable, multi-use products in my Patagonia pack instead. Cosmetic stores are non-existent in Cuba, except for a few products sold in the government-owned tourist stores — sorry, beauty junkies, Sephora is everywhere, except for Cuba. Nonetheless, Cuban women tend to be immaculately made up, even in the humidity, and while this sounds stereotypical, there is something very glamorous and confident about a country in which everyone, young and old, male and female, knows how to shake their hips.
El Capitolio in Havana. (Photo: Noël Duan)
Cuba is well known for its preservation of colonial and post-colonial artifacts, from Spanish and French architecture to Afro-Cuban salsa to rum still produced in the original Bacardi factories. But alongside these cultural favorites, there are relics of a vibrant beauty industry based on traditional European methods and Caribbean ingredients. These apothecaries and perfumeries are relics of a colonial past that actual Cubans, with an average monthly income of $20 per month, do not frequent. Keeping this disparity in mind, these beauty points of interest offer a look back at the rich and contentious history of Cuba, from its pre-Christopher Columbus Mesoamerican settlers to its Spanish and French colonizers to its socialist revolution.
Steam distillery for perfume making in Havana. (Photo: Noël Duan)
Perfumes at Habana 1791. (Photo: Noël Duan)
Perfumerie Habana 1791. (Photo: Noël Duan)
Habana 1791, located in an 18-century mansion, is a popular house of handcrafted fragrances with scents like mariposa, the state flower, and tobacco, a colonial export. Visitors can watch perfume making at Habana 1791 done through traditional extraction techniques like steam distillation. The mariposa fragrance, for example, is extracted through the method of enfleurage, in which the extract is absorbed by wax before extraction by alcohol. This method is not efficient and is discouraged in modern perfume industry, which requires perfume made in mass amounts. However, at Habana 1791, you can still view this ages-old process in action.
Droguería Johnson in Havana. (Photo: Noël Duan)
One of the colonial-era pharmacies of Havana, located around Habana 1791, is Droguería Johnson—yes, of Johnson & Johnson—which has been standing since the eighteenth century. Nowdays, it sells a few token medicines in case you have a cold or headache, but the porcelain jars sitting on the shelves and encased yellowing recipe book are why the crowds gather. Back in colonial Havana, pharmacies made the medicines in-house, and locals would gather at the counter to watch and hang out. Droguería Johnson specialized in medicinal elixirs and B-complex formulas, in addition to perfumes and insecticides.
Farmacia La Reunión in Havana. (Photo: Noël Duan)
Another nearby pharmacy-museum. Farmacia La Reunión is a working apothecary, founded in 1853, and famous throughout the Caribbean for its homeopathic medicines. Nowadays, you can come in to look at the high, elaborately decorated ceilings and weigh yourself on the heavy-duty scale.
Traditional perfume-making tools. (Photo: Noël Duan)
While many American cosmetics companies have been unable to reach Cuban soil due to the trade embargo, one can only imagine the enthusiasm once more beauty brands are sold in Cuba. The only major cosmetics brand I saw was an old Lancôme advertisement, starring Julia Roberts in a tourist shop. When I landed at the Havana airport, I struck a lively conversation about my boss, Yahoo Beauty editor in chief Bobbi Brown, with the female border control officer who was questioning me. “Ah, Bobbi Brown? She owns a famous makeup store,” she explained to her male counterpart, shaking his head in confusion while looking at my passport. “She’s famous! She’s big. Welcome to Cuba, Noël. Tell Bobbi to come next time.”
Droguería Johnson, Calle Obispo No. 260, Esquina Aguiar, La Habana, Cuba.
Farmacia La Reunión, Teniente Rey, Esquina Compostela, La Habana, Cuba.
Habana 1791, Mercaderes No. 156, Esquina Obrapía, La Habana, Cuba.