Ernest Hemingway spent much of the 1940s and 50s in Cuba, where he penned The Old Man and the Sea. This summer, my sister and I spent several days in Cuba and visited some of Ernest Hemingway’s haunts.
Until recently, visiting Cuba has been prohibited due to travel restrictions for Americans, passed in 1963 after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Those travel restrictions have been lifted. Take a literary journey and retrace our steps.
Sloppy Joe’s (Freddy’s Bar)
One block from our room at Hotel Parque Central, mosaic tiles appeared beneath our feet, announcing that we had found Sloppy Joe’s. Commemorated as Freddy’s Bar in To Have and Have Not, Sloppy Joe’s was renovated and reopened in 2013, after 54 years of neglect. Dark wood paneling and display cases filled with rum bottles line the walls. Large square columns showcase photographs of mobsters and Hollywood celebrities who have visited, including a shot of Hemingway with Noel Coward and Alec Guinness. At the 59 foot bar, the longest bar in the city, we nibbled Spanish peanuts and ordered the Sloppy Joe, a cocktail made from brandy, Cointreau, Port and pineapple juice. With the 1950s Cuban music playing in the background, It was as if Hemingway could be there today.
Our next stop was the Floridita, established in 1817. It was Hemingway’s favorite haunt and was featured in his novel Islands in the Stream. Inside, a life-sized bronze statue of Hemingway leans against the mahogany bar in his favorite corner. He often ordered what is now known as the “Hemingway Special” or “Papa Doble”- a double shot of rum and no sugar. They have the best banana chips we’ve ever tasted (thin and crispy and salted), free at the bar, and the best daiquiris in town. A blue ceiling, heavy red curtains, and Art Deco furnishings evoke an elegant time and place. We had our first taste of live music in the city at the Floridita, where a 4-piece combo played on the miniature stage.
Room 511, Hotel Ambos Mundos
We made our way through the concrete rubble of a ripped up street to the pink Hotel Ambos Mundo, built in 1924. We took the original Otis screened cage elevator to the 5th floor to see Room 511, a small tidy room, kept as a museum. Hemingway stayed here off and on during the 1930s, when he began writing For Whom the Bell Tolls. The room contains a bed, a small bathroom, and is decorated sparsely with fishing rods, old magazines and other memorabilia. A Royal typewriter sits on a desk in the center of the room. Next to the typewriter is his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 1954, typed in Spanish. The rooftop bar, with its cooling breezes and views over tiled rooftops of Habana Vieja, is not to be missed.
La Bodeguita del Medio and Hemingway’s Mojito
Of all the bars we visited, La Bodeguita del Medio had the most authentic atmosphere and was excellent for people watching. It opens right onto the street and has just enough room for the bar itself, a few seats, and the uniformed 4-piece combo crammed in the corner, just an arm’s length away from my stool. The blue walls were covered in signatures, the most famous of which is attributed to Ernest Hemingway and reads: “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita.” My mojito appeared, mint leaves uncrushed, and it was delicious. If you go, buy one of the stogies they have for sale and smoke it for me – it is my one regret of the whole trip.
Cojimar and The Old Man and the Sea
The next morning, we headed out in the back seat of a red 1955 Cadillac El Dorado convertible with our guide, Roosevelt. Our destination was Cojimar, a small, former fishing village, and the setting of The Old Man and the Sea. Cojimar was also home to Gregorio Fuentes, Hemingway’s friend, and skipper of Pilar, Hemingway’s sport-fishing boat. When Hemingway died, all the fishermen in the town donated brass fittings from their boats to be melted down to create the Monumento Ernest Hemingway. This bust of the writer looks out to sea from a rotunda, near the 1649 Spanish fortress, El Torreón. Two shirtless men fished from the wooden pier, one without a pole.
We stopped at La Terazza, a clean and breezy restaurant with dark wood and beautifully tiled floors. The bartender charged my phone and camera while I read The Old Man and the Sea at Hemingway’s favorite corner table. I ordered the Coctel Fuentes, turquoise blue like the sea, and drank it while being serenaded by a trio of musicians, who I tipped with a pack of guitar strings and CUC$5.
Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s Home
From 1939 to 1960 Hemingway lived at Finca Vigia in the suburb of San Francisco de Paula, 8 miles east from the city center. Here he wrote Islands in the Stream, Across the River and into the Trees, A Moveable Feast and The Old Man and the Sea.
The house and grounds were opened to the public in 1994 as Museo Ernest Hemingway. We drove up the long, shady drive, through the lush grounds to the one-story Spanish colonial, built in 1887. We weren’t permitted to enter the house, but were able to clearly see the interior through the open windows and doors. The rooms are filled with 9,000 books, mounted animal heads, and replicas of the original bullfighting paintings by Picasso, Miro, and Klee, that used to hang here. In the bathroom, tour guides pointed out where Hemingway recorded changes in his weight on the wall. There was also a jar in the bathroom that contains a preserved lizard that one of his cats had killed.
We climbed the steps of the four-story tower to see his first typewriter, a portable Corona #3, given to him by his first wife Hadley, in 1921. He wrote standing, it was explained, due to a war injury. Then, we followed a palm-lined path leading to a concrete swimming pool, where Ava Gardner once swam naked. Nearby, two small buildings serve as display rooms for photographs of Hemingway and his guests relaxing and smiling on pool-side furniture. His wooden boat, Pilar, is nearby, as are graves of four of his dogs. Many of his 57 cats were buried in the terraced garden behind the house, overlooking the city of Havana.
Learn more about Ernest Hemingway: