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Coppelia: the legendary Cuban ice cream parlor

by WNC

If you ever decide to take a tour around the Vedado district of Havana city, you will most probably notice the long lines that form on the corner of 23 and L. Both during weekends and weekdays, from early morning to late evening there are always people patiently waiting in endless queues. These are the lines to Coppelia – Cuba’s most famous and visited ice cream parlor.

Now known to every Cuban and most tourists visiting the island, Coppelia emerged as Fidel Castro’s idea back in the 1960s. His ambition was to create a place where all Cubans could afford as much ice cream as they want, and also, to surpass the American ice cream brand “Howard Johnson”, which was thought to be the best at the time, offering 28 different tastes of ice cream.

Fidel trusted this idea to his companion Celia Sanchez, who directed the whole project, naming it after her favorite ballet – Coppelia. The architect chosen to carry on the construction of Coppelia was Mario Girona, who build the two-story building in the form of a UFO.

Opening Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor in Cuba

Coppelia finally opened on June 4, 1966, offering 26 different flavors of ice cream. Some people say that the original recipe of Coppelia ice cream was developed by Fidel Castro himself. He also ordered the best machines from abroad, to make his dream of producing the best ice cream in the world come true.

When Coppelia first came to be, all Cubans were delighted. Senior Havana citizens still recall the ice cream that was served at the time with nostalgia. The quality was excellent, the prices were very low, and there was a big choice of flavors – people stuffed themselves full, and always left Coppelia being satisfied.

Changes in Ice Cream quality

However, soon things changed completely. In the 90s Cuba experienced tough times, known now as the Special Period. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country lost its major source of economic support, which caused it to enter a crisis. As a result, there was a deficit of milk, which affected ice cream production. Nevertheless, despite all the hardships, Coppelia kept working and serving ice cream, although now the variety of flavors was reduced to two or three, and the quality of ice cream also suffered.

Those who remember the time before the Special Period state that the quality was never restored. However, others say that recently Coppelia’s ice cream has been improving. This is due to a recent visit to the parlor by President Diaz-Canel, who expressed his dissatisfaction with the service offered by Coppelia. Since then, the prices in Coppelia slightly increased, indicating a possible improvement in the quality of the service, but there still is the scarcity of choice and other issues that have characterized Coppelia for the last decades.

Ice Cream in Cuba after Coppelia

With the development of small businesses in Cuba, other ice cream parlors opened in Havana, and Coppelia is no more the only place where a family or a group of friends can gather to eat ice cream, as it was before. Now new places such as the famous among Cubans “Gelato” come to be, and rapidly gain popularity due to the high quality of its ice cream and the good service. However, the lines at Coppelia remain as long as ever, despite the existence of such rivals. The reason for the unbeatable popularity of Coppelia is that there is no other place where the ice cream would be affordable for anyone in any amount. Besides, it is already a tradition to many Cubans: to stand for long hours under the hot sun just to eat ice cream.

If you want to feel like a Cuban during your vacation on the island, a great way is to visit Coppelia for a scoop of ice cream. It opens at 10:00 am every day, but the first customers start arriving at least an hour before. You may choose the line for the indoors or the outdoors area. When it is finally your turn, you will have to decide among the available flavors (on an average day, you may consider yourself lucky if there are three options available), and wait for your ice cream, which will be served in a plastic bowl with syrup and cookies. Don’t be surprised if they ask you to share tables with a stranger: with the number of guests waiting outside, and the lack of tables, it is an efficient method to speed up the process. Coppelia is the perfect place to feel the spirit of Cuban life while enjoying a wonderful sweet treat.

Image By BitBoy (Flickr user) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/bitboy/1936008359/in/album-72157603035523428/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21072804

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