CaribbeanVirtual Travel Tales

Havana, Cuba

Image: Michele Spinnato

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!

Yo grito, tu gritas, todos gritamos por el helado!

Leroy and I have made a virtual dash for Cuba for the express purpose of eating ice cream. Helado, in Spanish. It’ll all make sense in a minute. Especially when I mention that the temperature is set to reach 33° Celsius in Havana (that’s 91.4 for you Fahrenheit folk) and that the humidity is already at 87%.

This is my third visit to Cuba and Leroy’s second, but we had a sudden urge to go again today. A virtual trip was the only option open to us this time around, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Getting to Cuba is a horrendous, drawn-out journey from Australia in real life, no matter whether you go via the US and Mexico, or Canada, or through South America, and I wasn’t sorry to miss even a second of it.

That said, there’s no way we were going to miss the ride into town from the José Martí International Airport or the opportunity to haggle with the drivers of the gorgeous, ramshackle old American cars (coches Americanos) that Wim Wenders inadvertently made famous in his 1999 film, Buena Vista Social Club. There are still an estimated 60,000 of these pre-1959 cars on the road in Cuba and many of them are in Havana.

I noticed the ramshackle quota was significantly down on last time, and that there were many more refurbished cars around — refurbished on the outside, at least. To me, that meant there was more money around too. Or more money for people with access to tourists. The two-tier economy Fidel Castro had been trying to avoid since the 1959 Revolution.

We were in luck, and made a deal with the first driver to approach us. Lucas took us down the stairs and out through a back way, to where his 1950s red Buick sat awaiting us. With a white roof and tail fins, it was magnificent. He grinned as he saw our wide-eyed expressions. Leroy swung into the front seat and I clambered into the back. I was pleased to see a large hole in the floor near my feet, but I’m sure Lucas would have preferred it wasn’t there.

The ride into town down Avenida de la Independencia was noisy (thanks to the hole in the floor) and I couldn’t really hear the conversation Leroy and Lucas were having in the front, but I was buzzing with excitement. We were back. The sun was shining, the palm tree fronds stirring in the slight morning breeze and the air already honey-thick. People on the footpaths were going about their business and I felt a moment of guilt at being on virtual holiday while others had to work.

We arrived in the Vedado neighbourhood, with its wide tree-lined streets and gorgeous old buildings. Lucas dropped us outside the modernist Yara cinema and gave us a scrap of paper with his mobile number with a request to call him for the return trip. Mobiles weren’t really a thing last time I was here, so that was interesting.

In an old mansion on Calle L, Café-Galería Mamainé had been completely altered from its original use as a residence: recycled furniture and found objects, paintings covering the walls and lots of locals. Leroy could pass for Cuban, I decided, and I was secretly chuffed that we were greeted in Spanish. We each ordered a café cubano, basically an espresso with a slight layer of crema, along with a cheese omelet and dense ginger cake to share.

Fortified, we wandered down to the Malecón, the eight kilometers of seawall that skirt the city. The waves pound the side continuously and I’m amazed that the thing is still standing. I’ve seen photos of large waves crashing over the top, but it’s nothing like that today.

We joined others on top of the wall, legs dangling over the rocks just below. We got into conversation with a young couple sitting along from us, something that happens all the time in Cuba. Ángel and Valeria told us they were university students — Ángel studying psychology and Valeria medicine — and each living at home. They looked a little sheepish and admitted that they should have been in class for the last day of the semester, but wanted to spend time together instead.

They were super-excited when we explained we were in Havana to eat ice cream, naturally (and accurately) assuming that the eating would be done at Coppelia. We asked if they’d like to come with us, as our guests. Subsidised by the state, ice cream in Cuba has been the one post-revolutionary luxury available to all Cubans. Providing you are willing to queue for it, as much ice cream as you can eat. In the 1960s, Fidel Castro established a chain of state-run ice cream parlours (heladerías) and commissioned the flagship building in Havana. A cross between a UFO and a church, the Heladería Coppelia up near Cine Yara is a sight to behold.

It’s hard to explain just how much ice cream and Coppelia mean to people, especially older people who have experienced many of the tremendous changes that have happened in Cuba. Life under the dictator Fulgencio Batista, American business and agricultural interests, and mafia-run hotels. The revolutionary years and a whole reworking of their society from capitalism to socialism. The US-imposed trade embargo. A Soviet alliance and a shift towards communism. And after the collapse of the Eastern bloc, a slow drift back to selective capitalism by way of severe food and fuel shortages of the early 1990s – the ‘Special Period‘.

So, here we are in the long, slow queue at Coppelia, patiently waiting for our encounter with the famous ice cream and chatting with two 20-year-olds who haven’t seen any of that. They know the stories, of course.