A few blocks down from the Hotel Nacional de Cuba is Coppelia, an ice cream parlor. It’s here where you can not only try the ice cream but experience the many oddities of Cuba, and in some ways, communism.
When you start telling people you are traveling to Cuba, especially Havana, you’ll hear stories about the “amazing” ice cream. Coppelia’s isn’t easy to find but its hard to skip if you are stopping by the Hotel Nacional for the stunning views of the Havana harbor, the seawall and the city overall.
It’s at the corner of La Rampa (23) and L in Vedado district. If you are at the Hotel Nacional, it’s about a 15-20 minute walk straight down L Street. The neighborhood has an academic feel, and then somewhat suddenly, you’ll stumble on a futuristic looking spot (there is a flying saucer tower at the center) with lots of people walking around. Depending on the day, you may also see long lines that are common with Coppelia.
As you enter the shop’s mostly outdoor space, Cuban’s are directed to the right and tourists to the left. We were specifically told to avoid the tourist ice cream. Its more expensive, the flavors aren’t as wide and the experience overall isn’t the same. Armed with this knowledge, we steered ourselves to the right.
Cuba, however, had other plans. Did you know Coppelia’s has their very own ice cream police? We were hunted down in line and forcefully told “tourista.” While we weren’t yanked out of the line, it was clear by la policia that we were bucking the rules. I never got the impression that locals would have objected or been offended by our presence. But, we never made it that far. In Cuba, rules are rules. They are to be followed even when they seem dumb. Even when the enforcer can’t explain the logic or rationale of the rule. So, we were forced to the path on the left.
The ice cream selection for tourists was limited (vanilla, chocolate, raspberry), scooped out of a trailer looking to mimic a 1950’s dinner, and served in old fashion glass dishes. In fairness, the selection could have been limited due to the Christmas/New Year’s holiday. Suppliers are on holiday, which limits deliveries of necessary ingredients.
Tables are communal, grouped for parties of four and six so its possible to have the experience of sharing you sweet snack with strangers. Overall the ice cream was underwhelming. It was ice cream, sure, but it lacked any lingering flavor or unique quality. It could be that dairy products are so difficult to come by in Cuba that isn’t a treat in a literal sense but in an economic sense. In Cuba, if you are prosperous, you can visit the Coppelia. Perhaps people don’t care what it tastes like. It’s the act of being there.
Interestingly, we got to the Hotel Nacional by walking along the Malecón. Along the way we stumbled on an ice cream parlor. I don’t remember the name but we walked in, managed to navigate a communication barrier, and were served a wild concoction of flavors –mango, pineapple, banana with a small square of cake at the bottom. This, THIS, was the ice cream I think everyone describe to us. Amazing. Despite the uncommon flavors, they mixed together. And the cake was sweet, spongey and absorbed the melted ice cream in this perfect way. It was a real treat in every sense of the word.
I’ll have many fond memories of my trip to Cuban. The quest for ice cream will always stand out. Mostly because of la policia. But really it’s a lesson about getting off the beaten path while you are traveling. Traveling with a large group, most people took cabs everywhere. We split off into a smaller group, and walked everywhere. Everyone had fun but I maintain we saw and experienced the best of Cuba. How do I know? Because I just (somewhat vaguely) told you where to find the real, amazing ice cream.
If you are curious, I found this write up on Coppelia from a Cuban writer. While this was closer to the experience I was hoping for, I wouldn’t change a think about my excursion.