Helado in Bayamo

Socially acceptable gluttony deserves celebration.  Where else in the world can you stroll through the park, four ice cream cones in hand, licking ferociously, and maintain an air of dignity?  Fidel Castro, that ominous and malicious dictator, has allowed his citizens this great indulgence.  Perhaps because he has created a health care system capable of handling the side effects of this unhealthy habit, he lets this absurdity continue.  Being the vain, prim, and politically correct Americans that we are, we sat at Plaza de la Revolución in Bayamo (south east Cuba) in awe of the daily helado frenzy.  Hobbling old men, hip youngsters, and suited businessmen—no one can resist Cuba’s helado.  In no time, we too could pound down 5 or 6 ice cream cones a day.  In Bayamo, the helado stand is not marked with any sign nor does it adhere to any regular schedule.  But when the helado arrives, the entire town knows and hastens to the park, bringing along any container capable of holding the creamy delight, the bigger the better.  To join the tumult gracefully, here are a few suggestions…

  1. Know what flavor you want when it’s your turn to order: vanilla, chocolate, fresa, or montecado (my personal favorite).  Dilly-dallying will annoy the hungry crowd.  State your flavor, take your cones, and get the hell out of the way.
  2. Never, ever leave with only one cone.  Fill your arms and start licking. 
  3. Never, ever pay in convertible pesos.  If your bad Spanish, white skin, or obvious rebellious attitude don’t reveal your tourist status, paying with the tourist currency will.  (Cuba has two currencies: convertible pesos and national pesos.  At the time of our visit 1 convertible peso = 25 national pesos, 1 US dollar = 0.89 convertible pesos).  Have national pesos ready, coins only.

Though Bayamo, in terms of attractions, offers little more than a collection of modern sculpture, the helado craze here is worth the trip.  Cubans the country over gorge themselves with cheap helado, but the mania in Bayamo is truly a phenomenon.  Big bad communism has stripped the Cubans of their basic human rights (free education; brilliantly designed and accessible healthcare; and the elimination of poverty aside, of course).  But in our beloved democracy, never have I seen a businessman free (of social norms and judgment) to carry an armload of ice cream cones, tongue wagging, simply savoring life’s small confectionary pleasures.

(photo from: terminalia.org)

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