Tanja Buwalda, originally from Ireland, fell in love with Cuba and Cuban food so much that she decided to move here for a few years. While living in Havana, she discovered Coppelia Ice Cream, an ice cream parlor that goes way beyond traditional American corner ice cream shops. This place attracts enough locals that there are lines out the doors and a whole system of rules to follow. It’s all worth it though, as Buwalda explains here.
Visit Buwalda’s website for more stories from her life in Cuba.
By Tanja Buwalda
Coppelia, an ice cream parlor in Havana’s Vedado district, is a city institution and one of the best places to experience the “real” Cuba. From little old abuelas to teens on their first date to rock-and-rollers with their rats (yes, pet rats are a thing), it seems like everyone from Havana comes here, minus the tourists. In fact, it’s one of the few places where I don’t feel like a tourist.
Built in 1966 with a flying saucer tower at its center, the building is a monument to the space age architecture of the era. Fortunately, it’s just two blocks from my house so I don’t have to use public transport to get there. Unfortunately, its location makes it all too easy to pop out for ice cream on an increasingly frequent basis.
In Cuba, knowing how to wait in line is an important skill, and Coppelia elevates it to an art form. The multiple seating areas—gardens, ice cream counters, spots in the flying saucer tower—each have their own entrance and line. I always opt for the shortest queue. Ask for who is el último, or the last person in line, and stand behind them, or at least in their general area. Make note of how el último is dressed: As the line progresses it bunches up, making it easy to mistake your place. And in Cuba, nothing starts a row quicker than someone cutting in line, except maybe baseball.
My Coppelia queue tool kit consists of the following:
- a sun umbrella
- water (waiting in the sun is thirsty work, and I don’t trust the quality of the water here)
- a plastic container (for taking ice cream home)
- a newspaper (two reasons: for reading while in the queue, and to wrap around the plastic container and keep it cool on the walk home)
Once inside, line directors let you know where to sit. Small parties should be prepared to share tables with strangers, and everyone is expected to vacate their table once finished. No lingering here, as hundreds are waiting outside.
You can order up to five scoops at a time. Being a creature of habit, I always order the 5 peso ensalada mixta (mixed salad), the largest serving of five scoops. Most Cubans I know will have at least two ensaladas mixtas, and it’s not uncommon for a family to order twenty ensaladas mixtas to share. Many, like me, order ice cream to-go before leaving. On a recent visit, a woman nearby ordered sixteen ensalada mixtas, five of which she ate at the table. The remaining eleven she put into her container, which she kept in a glamorous black handbag.
The flavors at Coppelia change daily (chocolate, strawberry, almond, coconut, pineapple), with three to seven options to choose from. Visiting before lunch gives you the best chance of having the most flavors available, plus a better selection of cake and cookies from the street vendors outside.
Coppelia is always especially busy in the summer, though you’ll still have to wait in line in winter. However, after a lot of research, I’ve discovered that lines are shortest on rainy days. So my final tip: Head for ice cream when it rains!
Coppelia: 2111 Calle L, +53 7 8326184. Open from 10am until 10pm Tuesday to Sunday.