Last time I went to a theme park in Cuba it was the more off the beaten path Parque Lenin on the outskirts of Havana (some 20 km from the city centre) that my family took me to. I was probably aged nine at the time and it was quite a big deal since it was quite far away from us (by Cuban standards, taking into account the poor public transport system and the cost of petrol to get us there and back) but in the city centre there weren’t many options beyond the badly weathered Jalisco Park in Vedado (which I hear may get renovated soon?) so we ventured there instead. I remember relishing the experience as I didn’t know how long it would be until we could afford to go back, and at the same time longed for a similar park closer to me, like the ones my parents often talked about and used to enjoy when they were kids - the closed down Coney Island, named after the one in New York’s Brooklyn.
During my entire childhood in Havana (or at least what I remember of it) there was no Coney Island to speak off, the park lay abandoned and completely closed off to the public, its attractions rusting and rotting under Cuba’s relentless sun and steamy heat. I remember only ever seeing it from afar, spotting its ruins as we passed by in a car or bus, with my parents always pointing at it with an air of nostalgia of their long-gone childhood.
Fast-forward to a good two decades or so and, after years of investment and renovations the former Coney Island reopened to the public with a new name “Isla de Coco”, in a nod to Cuban cartoons and superheroes like “Capitan Plin” (who is from Isla de Coco, or Coconut Island, as it would translate) or “Elpidio Valdes” the charismatic independence fighter or “mambi” who always triumphed over the Spanish troops with his ingenuity and courage.
That was in 2008, or more specifically on 29th December 2007. Shiny, new attractions replaced the ruins of the old ones, all of them imported from China, and some new entrepreneurs of the private sector offered pony rides, bouncy castles and all manner of snacks. It wasn’t as grand as it once was according to how my parents remembered it (perhaps looking back with somewhat tinted glasses, as we tend to do when thinking of something or someone we loved?) but it wasn’t bad either. It was a new option that brought much joy to Havana’s children and still does to this day, despite having closed down on a few occasions since, to carry out renovations and repairs (well, at least they’re giving it better maintenance this time).
I stopped by in June last year during my trip to Havana in the hope of viewing its interiors and getting a feel of the park my parents spoke so fondly off. As my luck would have it the park was closed down that Sunday morning and when I spoke to the ladies in reception they told me there were significant repair and maintenance works taking place at the time as the park geared up to the busy summer season of July and August. Fair play, I thought, I wouldn’t want those kids on a school summer break missing out on a few park attractions. I was glad they were getting the park into tip-top shape.Even from a distance, I could see the cranes and through the gates I even saw a few piles of dirt, perhaps signalling to the installation of new facilities. I thanked them for their information and vowed to return. In the meantime, I walked around to catch a glimpse of the park’s attractions through the iron gates.
What to look forward to
Though I can’t guarantee that all attractions will be working during your visit, you’re bound to be able to choose from quite a few, even more so now that newer additions are in place. There is the quintessential roller coaster, as well as a cosmonaut ride for those seeking a faster-paced adrenaline fix. Other popular rides include the flying elephants, the rocking (more like swinging) boat, the rocket ship, bumping cars, slingers, merry-go-rounds, a Ferris wheel, and so on. There’s something for kids of all ages, and parents too.
One of the most popular attractions for youngsters is the Pillow Fight, where kids tumble down on a mattress floor and the battles can last for hours and hours. There’s also live entertainment on some days, especially on weekends, with clowns, mimes and magicians.
In addition, you’ll also find other attractions run by private individuals such as bouncy castles, trampolines and pony rides. When hunger pangs strike you’ll find plenty of snack vendors, a rare chance to tuck into popular local treats, from “turron de mani” to “chicharron de viento”, “tartaletas” and more universal ones like pop-corn, ice cream and sandwiches. As expected, there are also stands selling toys, balloons and knick-knacks.
The characters you’ll come across come from local comics and storybooks, so perhaps a welcome respite from the over-commercialised Disney and Nickelodeon characters. A chance for your children to learn about other cultures’ cartoon heroes and heroines.
Where to find it
You’ll find the park in the Playa municipality of Havana, very close to the sea, more precisely at the point where 5th Avenida and 112 Street meet. It opens Friday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Entry to the park is a mere peso, just 1 CUP (which amounts to 0.04CUC roughly, less than 1 pence in pounds sterling!) but access to each attraction is paid for separately and each ride costs 6 CUP (around 0.25 CUC). Still, it’s super cheap for tourists’ pockets! Even if you don’t find the attractions all that great, looking back in perspective you’ll conclude they were amazing considering you paid next to nothing for them!
The circus next door - Carpa Trompoloco
The official headquarters of Cuba’s national circus (Circo Nacional de Cuba, often abbreviated as CIRCUBA) sits right next door to the Isla de Coco theme park, so much so you might think it another of the park’s attractions. The huge, eye-catching tent is unmissable, with its traditional white and red stripes. Check out the schedule or billboards in front to find out when you can catch one of their spectacular shows. This gigantic tent can seat up to 2,000 people and entry tickets are priced at 1 CUC for tourists (different prices in CUP apply for Cubans) with kids aged two and under go free. Box tickets cost $15 CUC for tourists (or 30 CUP for Cubans). The spectacles are totally worth the visit. The circus usually opens on weekends only, with performances scheduled at 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.