Cuba’s New Ice-Cream Carts

Regina Cano

Snow cone vendor in Havana. Photo:
Snow cone vendor in Havana. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES — Today, Havana’s ice-cream carts roll into the city’s neighborhoods hoping to draw the children with Christmas jingles or the theme music of American cartoons.

I still remember that, throughout my childhood and until the onslaught of the Special Period in the early 90s, the “Ice Cream Carts”, small trucks that sold ice-cream in the currency one’s salary was paid in (when one could make ends meet with these), would drive around Havana, announcing themselves with Johann Strauss’ “Blue Danube”, and that these were extremely popular in those happier times.

Back then, this waltz would set off a veritable race from the neighborhood’s houses to the place the truck had parked in. Children and adults alike would dash to the familiar “Truck”.

Old people would forget their pains. Pregnant women would run to the truck, holding their “bundles” (bellies); other women, holing their children in their arms, would follow. No few foods, left on unattended stoves, would burn to a crisp. And the children, well, suffice it to say that not even the dogs stay put.

The arrival of the ice-cream truck was cause for celebration across several neighborhood blocks, for people knew there was no shortage of popsicles, ice-cream sandwiches, cups, quarter-gallon or gallon tins, and that there would be enough to supply the entire family, today and tomorrow, satisfying young and old alike.

Carrying people’s favorite flavors (chocolate, strawberry, almonds and others) and the less popular ones (vanilla, caramel or malt), these trucks sold large quantities of ice-cream, for the flavor and texture of the Coppelia brand was, and continues to be, the best in people’s minds.

Back in those days, this brand of ice-cream had no competition, as it does now, with the emergence of Nestle’s wide offer, which is sold in Cuban Convertible Pesos (hard currency).

Today, one can buy Varadero ice-cream at the Coppelia ice-cream parlor, in Vedado, or two or three other parlors in more peripheral neighborhoods. One can also purchase Flamingo, Alondra, Bim Bom or Guarina-brand ice-cream at most so-called hard-currency establishments. But no ice-cream you can buy today compares to the Coppelia brand, when it was sold at an affordable price in Cuban pesos and was of the highest quality.

Today, what people refer to as ice-cream carts are generally bicycles, tricycles or other similar means of transportation which the ice-cream man or woman – a self-employed vendor – rides down the street,  followed by children, who are perhaps those who need these delights the most (or so their parents, who sacrifice their own pleasures to treat their kids, unable to afford both, believe), as the heat makes one thirst for something that isn’t always a soft drink, some juice, a guarapo (sugar cane juice) or granizado (snow cone).

And though these ice cream vendors no longer offer a quality, creamy and rich ice-cream (as we like it), an ice-cream as delicious as the one we used to enjoy, able to draw the crowds it did, there’s still no shortage of people who buy from them.

Nostalgia for the little things (which often swell into bigger things) sometimes finds its way into the hearts of parents, who cannot always treat their children to those sweet things they enjoyed as kids.

Regina Cano

Regina Cano: I have lived my entire life in Havana, Cuba – the island from which I’ve still never left, and which I love. I was born on September 9, and my parents chose my name out of superstition, but my mother raised me outside the religion professed by her family. I studied accounting and finance at the University of Havana, a profession that I’m not engaged in for the time being, and that I substituted for doing crafts, some ceramics, and studying a little English and about painting. Ah! – concerning my picture: I identify with Rastafarian principles, but I am not one of them. I wear this cap from time to time, but I assure you I just didn't have a better picture.

7 thoughts on “Cuba’s New Ice-Cream Carts

  • The problem is the Cuban government makes it very hard for private groups to import into Cuba and control the items until sold to the consumer or private non government factory in Cuba. Many people from Canada have been misled by the Cuban government about private business opportunities.

  • As long as these carts are privately-owned by Cubans, go for it. But the fact is in the past year — having travelled to the four corners of Cuba — we could not help but notice there’s not one place on the island without its blue Nestlé freezer brimming with ice cream and other sugary crap from one of worst corporate evildoers on this Earth.

    The problem of illegal and forced child labor by Nestlé is rampant in the chocolate industry, because more than 40% of the world’s cocoa supply comes from the Ivory Coast, a country that the US State Department estimates had approximately 109,000 child laborers working in hazardous conditions on cocoa farms.

    In 2001, Save the Children Canada reported that 15,000 children between 9 and 12 years old, many from impoverished Mali, had been tricked or sold into slavery on West African cocoa farms, many for just $30 each.

    How come Cuban labor unions and/or la Asemblea Nacional have let this happen ?

    Source : ILRF (International Labor Rights Forum), Dec 2005

  • hi Regina, everyone –

    thnx for the great article. i was under the impression however, that the sounds of the ice cream vendor have been silenced for many years, going far beyond the special period and into the early 1960s. i’d be very interested to hear anyone’s thoughts on this, or even their own personal experience with the sounds of the ice cream vendor on the streets of havana. thank you so much.

  • How dastardly of the US to insist the Cuban regime pay for imports! Given how Castro seized all US owned property in Cuba without so much as a peso in compensation, US firms should insist on the opportunity to get rooked again.

    At the very least, US businessmen ought to enjoy the hospitality which the Cuban government is currently providing to two Canadian businessmen, now residing at an all-inclusive resort, ” La Condesa”, near Havana.

  • No misrepresentation here, Griffin, only the habitual dissumulation on your part! You know perfectly well that the U.S. policy requires Cuba to pay cash in advance for the food it purchases (and farmers in the Mid-West, not to mention apple growers here in the People’s Republic of Vermont, have complained about this requirement). Since Cuba has limited hard currency, it would be more useful if the U.S. allowed Cuba to exchange its agricultural products, like sugar cane, cocoa beans, mango, pineapple, grapefruit, etc. for ice cream.

  • Michael,

    There is no excuse for your continuing ignorance of and or misrepresentation of the US embargo. You know perfectly well that US companies and individuals can ship food to Cuba. The embargo applies only on importing products from Cuba to the US. Ben & Jerry’s or any other US based company can ship food to Cuba for sale or as a charitible donation.

    It’s great to see the ice-cream carts have returned to the streets of Havana. More private business opportunities will improve the lives of ordinary Cubans.

  • I, too, can remember enjoying the old, pre-“Special Period,” Coppelia at Calle 23 y L in Vedado, circa 1969 and 1970, when I was helping out in the “Zafra de los Diez Millones.” May the old Coppelia flavors–and quality–return, and at prices Cubans can afford, too! In the meantime, maybe those Vermont progressives Ben and Jerry can send down a shipment or two (they often donate truckloads of their ice cream to charitable causes here in Vermont and elsewhere. (Perhaps this is even more possible, since they sold their company to the Dutch Unileaver Corporation. As a condition of the sale, the Dutch corporation promised to continue Ben and Jerry’s progressive policies and, as a Dutch corporation, it should not be beholding to the U.S. embargo against Cuba.) I remember patronizing their first ice cream parlor, which they opened in an abandoned gas station across the park from the Burlington, Vermont, city hall, circa 1977 or ’78. They’ve come a long way since then!

    Incidentally, my very first job, as a high school student growing up in Miami in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, was selling ice cream from one of those three-wheeled bicicycle carts (with the freezer on the front). One summer day (or school year weekend, I can’t recall) I remember carting, in the ice-cream freezer, my disassembled Stephen’s single-barreled shot-gun, and donating it to the Movimiento 26 de Julio at one of their headquartes, at the Restaurante Paulo in NW or NE section of Miami. This was when the rebels were still up in the Sierra Maestra, so it must have been the summer of 1957 or 1958.

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