Rules are Rules. Especially when it comes to ice cream.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream. Visit Coppelia’s in Havana for the ice cream and the chance to experience the many oddities of Cuba.

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.

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Looking out across Havana’s Harbor from Hotel Nacional. The blue skies in Havana were ever present and even this photo doesn’t do them justice.

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.

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To the left! Cuban ice cream for “touristas.” 

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.

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One scoop of vanilla ice cream at the Coppelia in Havana.

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.

Outtakes from Cuba

Travel restrictions to Cuba are back. People much wiser than me will share their position on the topic while I’m just sharing a few of my favorite images from my trip.

The world moves fast and many times my writing doesn’t keep up. Case in point: my January trip to Cuba. New restrictions placed on travel to Cuba (for U.S. citizens only) mean Americans can no longer travel the way I did.

Many people will write more elegant thoughts on why President Trump’s reversal of Obama’s looser restrictions is right (or wrong, to be fair). Here’s my brief thought: its wrong.

I don’t agree that tourist dollars go straight to “the government” as stated in the reversal of travel restrictions. It’s my opinion that mandating US travelers visit Cuba under a “cultural exchange” tour is ridiculous. You think the government doesn’t dictate where these tours go? Give me a break. Further, these tours are triple the price of solo travel or making your own arrangements as a group.

Sadly, what’s done is done. I agonized about going to Cuba. I hadn’t traveled in a large group, or with this group of people, our accommodations were made last minute and overpriced. Yes, I also thought about traveling to a communist country. Its something I’d never done before. While some said, “it’ll be a breeze” you just don’t know what to expect or what can happen. Ultimately, a friend convinced me to say yes. I’m glad I went. It was such a unique experience. Perhaps even the equivalent of travelers bragging rights.

Because it’s an experience many people now won’t have, I do feel conflicted about writing about. I don’t naively believe I have millions of readers. I write as a hobby, primarily for myself. But, if you actually take the time to read my musings (thank you), isn’t it a bit like putting dessert in front of a child while saying, “sorry not for you?”

While I wrestle with my own inner conflict (a bit of sarcasm)… here are a few of my personal favorite images from Cuba. Enjoy!

Colors of Trinidad, Cuba
The colors around the city of Trinidad are like nothing I’ve seen. Soft pastels that are just beautiful while calling out to be photographed. 
The band played on
By the time I left Cuba, I felt like something was missing if we weren’t being serenaded by musicians. It a way of life for many Cubans but it was a treat to sit in cafes listening to salsa, mariachi or something else.
Fishing Off the Malecón
The Malecón is a five mile highway along the coastal portions of Havana. Its a long walk from Old Havana to the famous Nacional Hotel, where travelers folk for fancy drinks and lovely views of Havana Harbor. I loved seeing the locals out fishing (and of course blue sky and ocean) along the way.

Packing for a trip to Cuba

Heading to Cuba? Here are my notes on what you must bring, probably should bring and absolutely don’t need to bring on your trip.

Passport: Check, Ticket: Check, Tourist Card: Check.
A Cuban visa (or tourist card) is just one of the documents you’ll need to pack.

Packing for a trip to Cuba* is an experience unlike any other. At least, that’s how I remember it. The list of government-required documents –health insurance, visa– takes time and legwork to track down. Once you’ve checked that box, the challenge shifts to what kind of stuff to throw in your luggage. Temperatures are warm year-round because Cuba is close to the equator. It’s usually sunny and in the summer months, sunny and humid.

With that in mind, pack clothing that’s comfortable and keeps you cool. Air conditioning is not universally available in shops and restaurants, and where it is available it may be on the fritz, or just off.

To offer a little more guidance on “comfortable” I’d suggest you dress moderately; nothing risqué or showy. No need to dress as if you are visiting an Orthodox church, but generally I’d err on the humble side. Packing one slightly dressier outfit in case you want to visit one of the fancier restaurants in the major cities like Havana is enough.

But, what I want to focus on is the other “stuff” that—in my experience—nobody talks about. To make your trip fun, I’m passing my learnings along. Having these items will increase your enjoyment and peace of mind.

Here’s what you must bring, probably should bring and what can be left at home when traveling to Cuba.

Must Bring. As in, don’t get on your flight without these items.

Cash. Outside of your passport and travel documents, cash is king. Food, drinks, shopping, lodging—all of it has to be paid for in cash. Once you hit Cuba, credit and debit cards are almost universally useless. They aren’t accepted and you most certainly cannot withdraw money from ATM’s.

Savvy travelers swap dollars for Euro’s, Canadian dollars or Mexican pesos (I didn’t know anyone who used pesos, but heard it mentioned in conversation) before leaving the US. That’s because changing currency in Cuba is tricky. There is a 3% processing fee to change any currency to CUC (convertible pesos, the tourist currency). But be warned, if you are changing dollars to CUC, you get the privilege of paying an additional 10% “processing fee.” Ouch, the fun of being caught up in politics.

One thing to consider is, because of the amount of cash you’ll be carrying, a traveler’s money belt is a smart way to keep the majority of cash. Then carry few denominations in your pocket. Not that you have to worry about muggings. Aside from pickpockets, Cuba is one of the safest countries for travelers. There may be many poor neighborhoods, but there are no “bad” ones.

Another item to consider the exchange rate is about 1-to-1 CUC to dollar, and slightly better for Euro. This is not the same currency that Cubans use. You’re paying much more with a CUC than a Cuban peso, but prices remain comparatively reasonable. A good meal, when you find one, will cost a quarter of what it would in the States.

Two other considerations—1) where, and 2) how much money to exchange? Changing dollars at the airport is the only alternative we found. Any airport you arrive at will have a money exchange, and this is often (but not always) the best rate you’ll find. We exchanged the majority of our Euros there, and then once at a major hotel in Havana.

How much to exchange depends primarily on your budget. Still—exchanging money back to dollars is a losing proposition. So whatever you’re going to exchange you should spend. Rest assured, your money makes a positive difference in Cuba’s economy.

Probably Should Bring. These things aren’t must haves, but you’re better off bringing.

First aid kit. Nothing complicated like you are planning for a Zombie apocalypse, but a supply of band aides, bug/mosquito spray, aspirin, Pepto, and Kleenex (which comes in handy for places that don’t offer toilet paper). Stomach upset can quickly derail a vacation, so it’s not a bad idea to speak with your doctor about antibiotics, or other items that need a prescription.

Tip: Carry medications in their prescription bottles, especially controlled substances, to avoid problems with Cuban officials.

How important is a first aid kit? Only you can say. But, my entire mini kit was emptied helping other people on my trip before we left Havana.

Host gifts. You’ll read that sundries like toothpaste and shampoo are expensive and difficult to find in Cuba. While things are better than in the past, both of these facts (not alternate facts) remain true.

You’ll want to show your gratitude for strong Cuban coffee and a delicious homemade breakfast when staying at a Casa Particularas.

If you are staying in a Casa Particularas (highly recommended over state-run hotels), it’s good form to bring your host a small gift of toothpaste, shampoo or soaps. Or, you can bring something from your own hometown. The Cuban people were extremely friendly and open to receiving small tokens of gratitude.

Even if you aren’t staying in a Casa Particularas, these small gifts can be given to hotel staff like the concierge and housekeeping staff. As far as how to present the gifts, do it with respect. I explained I was thankful for the host’s help to make my stay in Cuba extra pleasant, and because of that, I wanted to offer a small gift in appreciation.

Spanish phrase book. Because you can’t readily access Wi-Fi or the Internet, apps like Google translate aren’t an option. Therefore, consider a Spanish phrase book. If you are traveling without someone proficient in Spanish, and venturing outside a major city, then I urge you to consider one. “¿Dónde está el baño?” will only get you so far. By the way, tipping is expected in public bathrooms—have your wipes and pocket change ready.

Definitely Don’t Need to Bring. You’ll be grateful you didn’t waste space in your carry on with these items.

High-heeled shoes (wedges, platforms). Outside of major cities in Cuba, and even in some areas of smaller cities like Trinidad and Cienfuegos, roads are dirt, uneven cement, and cobblestone. You won’t want to navigate these streets in anything other than flats.

Adaptors. Cuba’s electric grid is U.S. compatible, so you don’t need adaptors to charge up your camera and mobile phone (for photos or games, since Cuba blocks U.S. carrier signals).

 

*Sorry folks! This content is primarily applicable to U.S. travelers. This is especially the case related to travel documents and currency exchange. Other information is what I’d consider more “globally appropriate.”

 

Cuba and The Rule of Four

Travel is a privilege, but sometimes travel is also political. When our former President opened up diplomatic relations with Cuba, clearing the way for wanderlusts to start visiting, I began to get serious about visiting this forbidden-to-US-citizen’s-island.

I started by hitting the books, beginning with Cuba Information Manual by Michael Bellows. It’s an older book, updated recently, about travel around Cuba. Why does this matter?

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Via la Cuba! Street art in Trinidad, Cuba.

Cuba is a communist country. Bellows lays out all the various rules (drugs in Cuba will result in prison) and regulations (tourists can only eat tourist ice cream) that you need to take into consideration (hot water for your shower is a luxury in many places) when visiting. Some of the rules aren’t relevant anymore. Some are. And, like many guide books, it’s a bit of a “take it with a grain of salt.” You’ll have to decide, based on your own itinerary, how much is applicable. Bottom line, if you read this book and panic, this might not be the right place to visit.

If you are still in, as I was, then I suggest finding a travel guide. You can certainly opt for “DIY” planning. But I wouldn’t. I’m not sure it’s worth it and the risk of getting stuck at a government run, over priced hotel, is real. Ask around, it’s surprisingly easy to find a “friend of a friend” who lives in Cuba and tapped his or her entrepreneurial spirit by starting a business helping travelers.

One thing travelers don’t tell you about Cuba – there is a Rule of Four. The Rule of Four is an unwritten occurrence in Cuba. It happens largely in restaurants but can happen shops. The rule is that every fourth thing you order or ask will be forgotten. Seriously. It’s not an insult or a deliberate thing.

As a communications professional, this is consistent with delivering a point or a key message. We always tell brands or spokespeople to give no more than three points. That’s all people can remember. I think, in Cuba, much of the staff is mildly proficient in English. They forget the fourth item because they are trying so hard to speak to you in English and remember the first points of your order, the fourth just drops.

My other theory behind the Rule of Four has to do with food scarcity. Throughout Cuba there is an insufficient supply, or amount, of many foods. The most common items we observed being consistently unavailable were cheese, jamon (ham) and by the end of our trip beer. I’m not an economics professor but its a bit of supply and demand. It’s expensive to “stock up” on these items. And, it’s just how Cubans live. Out of something? No big deal, wait until the next delivery.

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Croquetas. A delicious but rare snack in Cuba.

Of course, travelers from Europe and especially the US don’t think this way. Some travel companions advocated that Cuban restaurants should know better and order larger qualities of popular items. That’s just not the way it works in Cuba. It’s also not a question of “getting a larger fridge.” (For the love of whatever God you may worship, PLEASE, do not say this. Its insulting to Cubans and fuels the rampant stereotype that Americans are idiots.)

Outside of restaurants, even in a taxi, the fourth question you ask the driver is likely to be forgotten. In shops, the fourth item you want see and negotiate for, is also, forgotten.

Now that you know about the secret Rule of Four, prepare yourself by ordering food or asking questions in batches of three. Seriously. It works.

With a new President residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s hard to say how much longer Americans will get to experience this entertaining Rule of Four. After I wrote this, I discovered the administration is conducting “a full review” of US polices on Cuba. I fear embargoes will return and ease of travel will be a thing of the past.

It’s a shame. From my perspective, this only hurts Cuban’s who are inquisitive and friendly beyond your wildest imagination. If you’ve stumbled on my infrequent writings, do know this information could be dated as soon as I hit publish. Check the status of US-Cuban travel rules before moving ahead. Of course you can still visit via Mexico and other Caribbean countries like many people have for years before. But you won’t get that precious stamp in your passport.

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Cuban Passport Stamp: Check