Havana has a few amusement parks for children. I know them all like the back of my hand, because I have visited them over and over with Martin; my 7-year-old son. So if you want to take your little ones to have some theme park fun in Havana, let me offer you a sound advice; start with Jalisco Park.
Jalisco Park is the oldest amusement park in Havana and that is why it has kept its original name in English. It was built during the first half of the XX century, prior to the Cuban Revolution. I already knew about this fact, however it made new sense to me one day when I was queuing with my child for his ride on the big wheel. A grandfather surprised me by telling his grandson: "I used to play here in Jalisco Park when I was a chamaquito" (in Cuba, "chamaquito" is the diminutive of "chama", meaning child).
Judging by Jalisco Park's popularity among habaneros, if you've never visited it, you might take it for a large theme park in which a child running from its mother's side could easily get lost. However this legendary park's area does not exceed 60 square metres, and this is precisely one of the many peculiarities that make it special.
Hidden among the greenness of almond trees on the centric corner of 23rd and 18th streets in the Vedado vicinity, Jalisco Park displays great contrasts. On one hand it upholds the warmth and familiarity of a neighborhood park, and on the other hand; it's a miniature of what you'd today call an amusement park in its most urban and contemporary sense, but displaying a naïve style from some other time.
What will you find here?
Among its star attractions you'll find a dwarf size roller coaster that's still big enough to command nervous, loud laughter and excited screams from children. My son Martin loves it, especially when he takes the front seat on the first carrier as he loves the adrenaline rush.
But there's more, the big wheel offers children a great view of the Vedado vicinity. A legion of vintage style ponies enlivens the merry-go-round. They preserve their antique appearance where they seem to have been drawn and coloured by a school child. Airplanes, boats in a pond, cars; all of them in a small scale, are some of the other attractions that make Jalisco Park look like it has come out of a storybook.
I for one, like a semi-open outdoor space to celebrate birthday parties. However, these celebrations sometimes end up being semi-public. If you come over with your young one on a Sunday, you'll probably be able to enjoy a live Cuban style birthday party with clowns, pinatas and all-time Cuban nusery rhymes and music for children. Most probably, you and your offspring will be offered a piece of cake and be welcomed to join in, never mind that you're not acquainted with the family - it's about spreading the joy.
The park also features a small stage decorated with pictures of Elpidio Valdes, the Cuban children's Asterix, which frequently holds clown and puppeteer performances, as well as games carried out by the children visiting the park.
How to get to the park?
The park is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., to whoever wishes to "submerge himself into this small metal paradise". The latter was the famous quote of legendary Cuban singer and composer, Carlos Varela's who in one of his songs, speaks fondly and nostalgically about the park that stands as a tribute to innocence, friendship and life, as time goes by.
Another of the park's features which I greatly appreciate is its privileged location. Located on 23rd Street, Vedado's most important and well- connected avenue, it can be easily reached from virtually any point in the city. For example; If you take a taxi from the Habana Libre hotel or from any other prominent hotel in Vedado like El Nacional, El Presidente or El Melia Cohiba; it will only take 5 to 10 minutes to reach the park's front gate. If you were in Old Havana or in its so called Casco Historico (historic centre), 15 minutes by taxi would be enough to drop you there.
The price of each ride for Cubans as well as for foreigners is practically symbolic since it is only 50 cents CUP, which is less than 3 cents US dollars and less than a British penny! It's also true that the rides are very old and somewhat rusty so the price is more than fair - an absolut steal! They've recently started charging 50 cents more for the rollercoaster and the big wheel, the two star attractions, which now cost 1 peso CUP each. There's also a cafeteria onsite where you can get some refreshments, buy traditional Cuban sweets, lollies, ice cream, etc.; most of them made in Cuba, and all at very affordable prices.
Jalisco Park today
Entry to the park is free and you only pay for the rides your children go in. During weekdays it's often quieter but it can get a bit more crowded on weekends, especially when there are birthday celebrations held at the party corner onsite, but you'll never have to queue too long for a ride.
The boat ride is often out of order, especially in the summer months when the artificial pond dries out faster and the water isn't always promptly replenished. But aside from this you'll find that everything is normally in good working order. Beyond the classical old attractions a wave of Cuban enterpreneurs is breathing a new air of life into the park as they've brought in modern attractions like bouncy castles, trampolines and remote controlled cars, all of which you can have access to for 5 Cuban pesos (CUP) a bit more expensive but still less than 12p!
Because of the limited variety of rides and their tiny size, most rides in this park are suitable for children aged between 2 and 8. More than anything older children will find the rides to be infantile except for the rollescoaster, the only one that truly provides excited thrills.
What does Jalisco Park offer?
Visiting Jalisco Park is not only to step in a realm of joy and excitement for small children, it's also a walk into the past; into some sort of living museum. It will enable you to imagine what the amusement parks of your parents and grandparents looked like. The park's magical simplicity has witnessed the childhood of many generations of habaneros. Grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren still remember or speak of it, as an old cherished friend.
I only got to know Jalisco Park as an adult because I was born and raised in another Cuban province, 200 km away from Havana. However, every Sunday I feel grateful for its existence, watching my child going on the rides; as if each were his first. I'm grateful to those sometimes noisy metal devices that persist in defying time, to continue offering happiness to more and more young habaneros.
Jalisco Park is among all of Havana's parks; the oldest, the smallest, the less modern, but undoubtedly, the most authentic. Other parks easily outdo it in terms of size and choice of rides, but there will always be boys and girls experiencing the joy of life as it goes ‘round and ‘round, thanks to the loyalty of this old little park that refuses to give in to the passage of time.