Vacationing in Cuba has been illegal for Americans for more than 50 years. Actually, it is not illegal to go there; you just can’t spend any money. The second an American spends a penny on Cuban soil, he or she is breaking the laws enacted after the post-revolution trade embargo imposed by President Kennedy in 1961. Since then, travel to Cuba had been heavily restricted and generally limited to a very few sanctioned tours. Relations have thawed a bit recently, with most Americans now qualifying easily for licensed tours, but it is still illegal for Americans to travel independent of such tours. And since – shockingly – the amusement parks are not on tour itineraries, Americans will have to wait a bit longer before they can visit them legally. Meanwhile, Canadians, Europeans and other nationalities can freely enjoy what few coaster thrills the country has to offer.

There are five known coaster-containing parks, four in the ballpark of Havana, the capital, and one in the beach resort of Varadero, a short hop east of Havana. There may be additional parks on the easternmost parts of the island, but none has yet been verified. In the five known parks, there are six coasters in total, all steel. None is thrilling, and operation is hit or miss. It is difficult to find reliable information about park opening hours, but they all seem to be open on weekends.

Cuba is yet another country that is not on most enthusiasts’ radar. As a coaster destination, perhaps it should not be. But as an interesting tourist destination that has some coasters to ride, you might consider it. Just plan to hit the parks on weekends and you won’t be frustrated.

Parque Lenin

This is Cuba’s largest park, located a fair distance from central Havana. The amusement area of this large, open green park is actually called Parque Mariposa (“butterfly park”). The park opened in 1972 and the amusement area in 1978. It is difficult to trace an accurate history of the coasters that have run here in previous years. ACE’s Guide To Ride, published in 2000, contains a photo of a red looping-Zyklon-like coaster. RCDB contains photos of a non-looping green and white coaster by TOGO, taken in 1985. Regardless, neither of these coasters remain. Sometime after 2008, the park appears to have received a huge ride package from the Chinese firm SBL; it appears that all rides currently at the park were made by this firm. All seem to be in various stages of disrepair.

Oruga is a standard Wacky Worm / Big Apple with a dark green caterpillar train. The undulating track that makes the caterpillar look like it’s crawling is minimal. It’s a slow but smooth ride. The ride costs one ticket for children, two for adults (two pesos each ticket, in the convertible currency used by tourists).

The other coaster, Montaña Rusa, is a loop-corkscrew. Those who would shudder at the thought of riding such a Chinese knockoff coaster can breathe easily; it is not operational, and has been for quite some time. Remnants of at least four different coats of paint – all peeling – can be seen on the structure. It may run again, but no one knows when. Locals have said that the government has lost interest in maintaining the park. If this is true – and it certainly appears to be – this coaster will not be running again anytime soon.

Close to this coaster is a set of seven unnamed pendulum shuttle rides (U-shaped track with a single car that glides back and forth after being released), one of which was out of commission.

Isla Del Coco

This is perhaps Cuba’s best ride park. It is both famous, having been mentioned in a popular Cuban song, and historic. Formerly known as Coney Island, it was home to a PTC-built, Herb Schmeck-designed woodie that opened with the park in 1951. According to one local person, the park fell out of favour after the revolution of 1959. It and the coaster, Montaña Rusa, limped along until the early 1980s, when the coaster was closed. The park may have closed at this time as well. The coaster sat idle for several years and was eventually demolished. At one time the park also had a small steel coaster similar to the one at Parque Jalisco (see below), also present until the 1980s. There is no trace of either coaster now.

The new park, Isla del Coco, was under construction on the site of the old Coney Island in 2007 and probably opened within the year. Today, it seems all rides here are again courtesy of SBL. As a group, they are in a better state of repair than those at Parque Lenin. The major rides have highly amusing signs that use cartoon characters to communicate the ride restrictions. Each one appears individually painted.

The coaster, called either Montaña or Montaña Rusa depending on which sign you read, is a fairly large, Flitzer-like coaster with single cars. (It is SBL’s Space Trip model, essentially identical to the coaster of the same name in Shijingshan Park, Beijing.) The cars look a bit shabby – my seatbelt was so rusted that it almost froze in the closed position with me in it – but the track looks recently painted and solid. The ride itself was fast and very smooth – until the very sudden brake before the final curve into the station.

Todo En Uno

This park, located on the south side of the peninsular resort town of Varadero, is a combination of amusement park, kiddie playground, eateries and small shops. Hence the name, which means “all in one.” Like the other Cuban parks, there really aren’t any extreme rides here. The coaster, called (surprise!) Montaña Rusa, is a Galaxi-like model built in 2002 by an unknown manufacturer. It is fairly fast and smooth, but nothing exceptional.

Parque Jalisco

This tiny, cramped kiddie park – maybe a city block in size – is close to the Cemeterio Colón (Columbus Cemetery), which is actually a pleasant destination for strolling if you like looking at ornate gravestones. The park is less impressive. It is home to a handful of small kiddie rides, among them a tiny gravity coaster of the Schiff/Molina/Miler variety. This park may be open during the week, but the coaster, Montaña Rusa, only runs on weekends. Adults are normally not allowed to ride. However, as I was lucky enough to find out, showing one’s coaster club card to the right employee – generally a very casual, friendly group – and doing a bit of schmoozing in Spanish may get you what you want.

The coaster is about as much fun as one of its size can be. The cars are reasonably comfortable, you get several circuits, and there are even a few halfway decent lateral Gs. The only drawback is the interminable wait for your turn. The train can fill up with kids. Their parents buy sheets of tickets and keep handing them to the operator at the end of each ride, so the kids never get off. Your best hope is that one cowardly kid gets scared and wants out, or one mother eventually runs out of tickets.