Hemingway lived in Cuba on and off for over 30 years. Not surprisingly, the Cuban gestalt – a conglomeration of its people, places, climate, culture, and history – makes its way into the stories of Hemingway. It’s a place where the writer fished, wrote, drank, wandered, and loved. Hemingway was an American, but he is still is one of the best-known figures in Cuban history, right up there with Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and José Martí. This is, no doubt, thanks to government propaganda, which uses Hemingway’s experience in Cuba as a way to attract tourists. Still, it’s fascinating to learn more about the man and the myth, and find out just what is was that kept him coming back for over three decades.
First, the History
Hemingway first visited Cuba in 1928 while stopping on a layover to Spain. He spent three days in Havana and slept at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, which is where he would stay whenever he visited for the next decade. He returned to Cuba in 1932 — this time he brought two friends with him, and the three fished for marlin in the Gulf Coast. In 1939, Hemingway came back to Cuba and lived in the Hotel Ambos Mundos. It was during this period that he separated from his wife Pauline. He later met the woman who would become his third wife, Martha Gellhorn.
The couple bought Finca Vigía (Lookout Farm), a one-story house set on a beautiful piece of property just outside of Havana. Hemingway spent almost twenty years in this home. He would travel to Cuba during the winter to escape the snows of Idaho and continue his work. While here, Hemingway wrote Islands in the Stream, A Moveable Feast, and The Old Man and the Sea. Today, you can visit his home-turned-museum and see the rooms where Hemingway wrote, read, and slept.
In 1942, Hemingway made a proposal to the U.S. embassy in Havana — he wanted to turn his fishing boat, the Pilar, into a Nazi hunter. He would, he said, supply his boat with machine guns and a trained crew. Ostensibly, the boat would be collecting specimens for the American Museum of Natural History, but in reality it would be searching for Nazi U-boats. The plan was approved, and the Pilar was launched off the northern coast of Cuba shortly thereafter. Gregorio Fuentes, who helped operate the boat from 1938 until Hemingway’s death, took part in the adventure. The two men patrolled Cuba’s northern caysfor two years, and on several occasions spotted and reported Nazi boats. The entire adventure would serve as fodder for Hemingway’s novel Islands in the Stream.
The arrival of the Cold War meant that Hemingway was forced to decide between the U.S. and Cuba, and he chose the former. He left in 1960; a year after Batista was ousted. He returned to Idaho and committed suicide in July 1961.
After the author’s death, the Castro government seized Finca Vigía. Hemingway had, however, left the property to his fourth wife, Mary Welsh. The government allowed Mary to remove the majority of his manuscripts and letters, but required the rest of the home to be left as is. The home reopened 20 years later as a museum.
¡Viva la Revolución!
There’s been a good deal of speculation on how Hemingway felt about the Revolution. In Cuba, Hemingway is portrayed as supportive of Castro’s guerilla movement. There are a few quotations that seem to support this idea. His widow, Mary Welsh, said “Hemingway was always in favor of the Revolution.” And in some of his novels, Hemingway seems to be sympathetic towards the revolutionary cause. In Islands in the Stream, which was written during the Batista era, Hemingway writes, “There is an absolutely murderous tyranny that extends over every little village in the country.” However, in the very same book, a character says, “The Cubans…double-cross each other. They sell each other out. They got what they deserve. To hell with their revolutions.”
During his lifetime, Hemingway never openly discussed whether he supported Fidel or the Revolution. After his death, however, the Castro regime portrayed Hemingway as having been sympathetic to the revolutionaries. Castro even went so far as to say, “All the works of Hemingway are a defense of human rights,” and also claimed that For Whom The Bell Tolls inspired his own guerilla warfare during the fight against Batista.
Interestingly enough, Hemingway and Castro only met once. It was during the 10th Annual Ernest Hemingway Billfish Tournament in 1960. Castro, then the new leader of Cuba, was supposed to present the trophy to the tournament’s winner. However, he ended up landing the largest marlin and won the prize for himself. A number of jovial-looking photographs exist from the meeting between Hemingway and Castro, but the two were reported to have only made small talk amidst the formalities.
Museums and Marinas
There are a number of places to encounter the ghost of Ernest Hemingway today in Cuba. Foremost among those are museums dedicated to the great author.
The Ernest Hemingway Museum is located at Finca Vigía just outside of Havana. Hemingway’s home of twenty years is now a wonderful museum. Visitors aren’t allowed inside, but you can peer through doors and windows to see the house as Hemingway supposedly left it. His book and magazine collections adorn the house, as do the heads of the animals that he hunted. Finca Vigía is also home to Hemingway’s storied boat, the Pilar.
During the 1930s, Hemingway frequently stayed at the Ambos Mundos Hotel. From his fifth floor room, Hemingway enjoyed lovely views of the harbor and Havana Vieja. As the story goes, Hemingway started For Whom The Bell Tolls in Room 511. Today, this room has been turned into a small museum, portrayed as the author may have left it. The hotel lobby has several framed photos of Hemingway.
Set just six miles (10 km) east of Havana, the small fishing town of Cojimar is where Hemingway docked his boat, the Pilar. The town served as inspiration for the village in The Old Man and the Sea, and was also home to Gregorio Fuentes, Hemingway’s fishing partner who may have served as a model for Santiago in the novel. Fuentes died in 2002 at the age of 104. Cojimar is also home to La Terraza, a restaurant and bar where Hemingway often stopped after a day on the water. It’s touristy, but is still a fun place to grab a bite to eat. Nearby is a bust of Hemingway—in 1962, local fishermen donated metal from their boats to have it made.
Havana’s marina is named after Hemingway and is the place where Hemingway’s annual fishing tournament is held. The tournament began in 1950, and for the first three years, Hemingway won the trophy. The fishing was put on pause during the tumultuous years of 1961 and 1962, but resumed in 1963 following the Bay of Pigs invasion. Now in its 65th year, the tournament draws fishermen from around the world, who come here to hook marlin, tuna, and wahoo.
A Drink With Papa
It’s no secret that Hemingway loved to drink, and today there are two bars in Havana Vieja that keep his memory alive—El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio. At La Bodeguita, there’s graffiti on the wall that’s attributed to the writer. It says, “Mi mojito en La Bodeguita, mi daiquirí en El Floridita.” It’s disputed whether this was actually written by Hemingway or used as a marketing gimmick after the writer’s death. Nonetheless, Hemingway loved these two bars, and visiting them is a fun way to pass an afternoon or evening.
El Floridita is set near Parque Central. The bar and restaurant opened in 1819, and in the 1950s, Esquire magazine named El Floridita one of the best bars in the world. It’s not quite the same as it once was, but it still has a certain old-timey appeal. The place feels sophisticated with its 1930s aesthetic. Barmen wear bowties and serve chilled drinks across the mahogany bar.
While Hemingway lived in Havana, this bar was a favorite hangout of his. The writer came here to drink and chat, and even brought a number of other notable intellectuals to El Floridita, including Tennessee Williams and Jean-Paul Sartre. It’s said that Hemingway especially loved the bar’s daiquiris, and today El Floridita continues to crank out this tasty rum-and-citrus drink in record numbers. This is the drink to order here; it’s touristy and expensive, but the appeal of drinking one of Hemingway’s favorite drinks in one of his favorite bars is undeniable. Hemingway’s own daiquiris, however, were served sugarless because he was a diabetic.
There’s a big, bronze statue of Hemingway leaning against the bar at El Floridita—tourists pose next to it and take pictures with their arms around the legendary author. Photos of Hemingway, including one with Fidel, surround the bar. While here, you’ll see people smoking cigars and sipping ice-cold drinks. There is often live music, and local poets sometimes sell handwritten poems to the bar’s patrons.
The other bar that you’ll need to visit is La Bodeguita del Medio. Located just a half block from La Catedral, this bar was originally a carriage house for an adjacent home. It eventually became a bodega, where proprietor Ángel Martínez sold food and drinks to locals. In the 1950s it had a bohemian appeal, drawing writers, musicians, and journalists into its smoky interior. Past visitors include Pablo Neruda, Salvador Allende, Nat King Cole, Gabriel García Márquez, and Ernest Hemingway.
La Bodeguita is known as the birthplace of the mojito, although this claim is widely disputed. Regardless, it’s a fun place to stop in and have a drink while wandering around Havana Vieja. The walls of La Bodeguita are covered with the signatures of visitors, some of which date back several decades. Old posters and photos of famous patrons (including Hemingway) hang from the walls. Musicians sing near the front of the bar.