Visit the literary legend’s Cuba.
By Renée S. Gordon
Cuba is a hot travel destination in every sense of the word. “Discovered” on Columbus’ first voyage in 1492, Cuba is simultaneously the largest island in the Greater Antilles plus an archipelago with more than 4,000 small islands. The main island is 776 miles long and is made up of beaches, marshes, mountains, plains and tropical forests.
The first settlement, Baracoa, was established in 1511 after nearly all indigenous people were wiped out. An influx of Europeans, Africans and Chinese settled in Cuba; each ethnic group added a layer to the culture of the country that can be seen in its art, architecture, cuisine and music.
Ernest Hemingway initially discovered the natural beauty, bounty and warmth of the Cuban people for three days in 1928 while en route to Spain. He and his family booked a room in the Havana Hotel Ambos Mundos. Four years later he returned to fish for marlin and two years after that he purchased a boat, El Pilar, that he docked in the tiny fishing village of Cojimar while he boarded at the Hotel Ambos Mundos. Eventually Hemingway purchased a hilltop home and lived there until he left Cuba after the revolution. He referred to himself as a “Cubano Sato,” an ordinary Cuban.
Today, you can tour five major sites on the Ernest Hemingway Trail, each of which provides insight into what the literary giant most loved about Cuba. All tours are accessible, and self-guided (thus there’s no language barrier).
Hotel Ambos Mundos, Hemingway’s first home in Cuba, is located in the heart of Old Havana. The five-story, Colonial-style hotel was constructed in 1923 and restored 73 years later. During Hemingway’s 1932-39 residence he occupied room 511, now preserved as a museum, that features several personal items including the Remington typewriter upon which he started writing For Whom the Bell Tolls.
The lobby offers a piano bar, comfortable seating and is itself a mini-museum. Adorning the walls are pictures of the author at various stages. A large open-grilled elevator is the same one he would have ridden to his room and you may take it to the rooftop terrace for cocktails and a view of the city below.
Both of Hemingway’s two favorite Havana bars still exist, have changed little and continue to serve his signature drinks. They are tourist draws but also essential stops on the Trail.
La Bodeguita del Medio is noted not only for its drinks but also its Cuban cuisine. Here Hemingway was known to favor the Cuban highball, a mojito. One of the most famous displays in the bar is an autographed (supposedly), framed statement: “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita.” The walls are filled with photographs of the author, inscriptions and graffiti.
La Floridita is possibly the most famous of Hemingway’s haunts and is considered “la cuna del daiquiri” or “the cradle of the daiquiri.” The Silver Pineapple opened in 1817 and was renamed in 1914 because of the large number of North Americans who frequented the establishment. An ascantinero, the bartender/owner during Hemingway’s time, is believed to have created the frozen daiquiri.
The atmosphere in the bar is fantastic and tourists are ever-present, but no Hemingway tour is complete without a daiquiri from La Floridita. The daiquiri was reportedly the author’s favorite drink and he is said to have drunk 13 doubles in one sitting—not the sort of culinary feat we recommend you try to replicate! Drinks without rum as well as live music are offered. Photographs and a bust of the writer decorate the venue. In addition, a life-sized statue of the author by José Villa Soberón stands behind a red velvet rope near his favorite bar stool.
In 1940 Hemingway purchased an 1886 hilltop home for $12,500 in San Francisco de Paula, which is ten miles from Havana. The home, Finca Vigia or Lookout Farm, was his residence until he left Cuba permanently in 1960. During his years there he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. Upon his death in 1961 the government took over the estate.
You cannot enter the house but are allowed to peer through doors and windows. Tours are self-guided and include the house, garden, tower, pool and boat. The home looks as if Hemingway just stepped out. It is filled with trophies, personal items, furniture, 9,000 books and his personal typewriter that’s placed atop a bookcase because Hemingway wrote standing due to an old injury.
His fishing boat El Pilar is on view near the pool. It is painted in dark colors, unlike other Cuban fishing vessels, because Hemingway was the only American allowed to patrol Cuba’s offshore waters hunting for German U-boats. He was equipped with hand grenades, binoculars and a Thompson machine gun. President Roosevelt requested that civilians volunteer to patrol the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico in 1942. The volunteers became known as Hooligan Navy. They were mandated to patrol and if necessary alert the military. Hemingway the adventurer obviously had other military ideas.
A few miles from Finca Vigia is the tiny fishing village of Cojimar. It’s the setting of Hemingway’s 1954 Nobel Prize winning novel, The Old Man and the Sea. He docked El Pilar there and it is widely believed that the title character is based on his fishing guide Gregorio Fuentes. In the novel the old man promises to visit the Shrine of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, in Santiago de Cuba if he lands his fish. Hemingway gifted his 23-karat Nobel Prize Literary Medal to the Virgin of Charity.
La Terraza de Cojímar is a restaurant and bar that was frequented by Hemingway. In remembrance, the bar is decorated with photographs and paintings of Hemingway and Fuentas. In the attached restaurant Hemingway’s table is indicated with a historical sign. From his table you can observe one of the views that inspired his book.
The main street is a bayside promenade and a small stone fortress currently housing the coast guard. Hemingway Park is midway the promenade. Inside a neo-classical pavilion is a bust of Ernest Hemingway created by villagers in his memory in 1962 from donated metal after they learned of his suicide. He gazes contemplatively out to sea.
Hemingway’s influence on world literature has not diminished. “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” was the first American movie to be filmed in the country since 1959. Scenes were shot on actual locations, many of which are on the tour.
My recommendation is to take a cruise: It’s the the best way to experience all that Cuba has to offer. The most affordable and immersive all-island tour I’ve found is Celestyal Cruises, which promises to help you “Experience The Real Cuba.” All of the above sites are part of a Havana tour and include an accompanying guide, specialty drinks and guaranteed access to sites. All Celestyal Cruises immerse you in the culture through more than port excursions. On-board activities and events amplify your experience with lectures, classes, folklore shows, and Cuban crewmembers. Most impressively, activities are designed to coincide with port visits to help ensure that you have some basic knowledge of what lies ahead before your cultural encounters.
Cruise itineraries vary in length and ports of embarkation/ports of call as well as schedules, themes and pricing.
– Photos by Renée S. Gordon
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.