Just the thought of going to Havana is exciting. When you think of Havana, images of the 1950s nightclub scene before Castro come to mind: ladies in cocktail dresses or ball gowns and men in white suits or dinner jackets; jet setters dancing the rumba with chorus girls in Carmen Miranda type costumes; roulette wheels overflowing with cigar smoking gamblers; the presence of mafia types like Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano; drinking tropical cocktails. And no one captures this image better than Ernest Hemingway who made his home outside of Havana from 1939 to 1960—a hard drinking, cigar smoking, fisherman and hunter who lived a life synonymous with my image of Havana.
Recently on a day trip to Havana, I set out to discover the life of Ernest Hemingway there and to recreate in my mind what life was like for him. As you arrive in Havana (we were on a cruise ship), your first impression is that this city is stuck in a time warp. Old cars punctuate the roads and the buildings look like they are a backdrop for an old Hitchcock movie. But to capture Hemingway, your first stop must be his house in Cuba, Finco Vigia (30 minutes outside of Havana). The house is now owned by the Cuban government and located in an area that must have been quiet and remote when Hemingway lived there (although no longer).
Hemingway wrote a number of books and stories here—most notably The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Although you can’t enter the house (you are only allowed to peer in through the windows), the house seems sparse and void of any elaborate decoration. There are animal heads in every room (including a water buffalo head in his bedroom) and you think this house could be any rustic lodge or hunting cabin—there is no sense of Cuba or the Caribbean. The house is perfect for a cocktail party and a place where many guests can be (and were) entertained. There is a guest house and a pool where you can feel the likenesses of these guests, including Frank Sinatra, Charlie Chaplin and Ava Gardner. His boat, Pilar, is also dry docked by the pool. Another image of the man comes to mind: catching the biggest fish and transporting it back to the house for dinner just like the Old Man.
Hemingway purchased the house in about 1940 and lived there with his wife at the time, Pauline. But that marriage didn’t last, and he ended up with two more wives who also lived there, including Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh, who he married in 1945 and who remained his wife until his suicide in 1961 (he had relocated to Kellum, Idaho). But the house does not have any feminine mystique to it. It is clearly a house for a man (dark wood furniture), a hunter and someone who wanted to capture a sense of danger and masculinity—themes that emerge in his writings.
Hemingway lived there until 1960 (a year after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959). The government of Cuba claims the house was donated to them when Hemingway left, while his wife suggests otherwise, including an emergency evacuation of his manuscripts after his death arranged by Jackie Kennedy. You don’t find this out from your guide. In fact, there is little information shared by the guide on Ernest Hemingway, his books or his life. But you do get a sense of him. And the house triggers a sense of curiosity about his books and about his life.
After touring the house, it was time to walk the streets of Old Havana and see Hemingway’s watering holes (plus have a few of his favorite tropical drinks). First stop is the El Floridita Bar. It is very crowded, and you may have to join others at a table. But the daiquiris are pretty good, and the bar atmosphere is fun.
There is a statute of Ernest Hemingway at the end of the bar that was added recently and there are photographs of Hemingway. The bar is located at the end of Calle Obispo (Bishop Street).
A short walk from there is the Hotel Ambos Mundos (at the corner of Calle Obispo and Mercaderes), where Hemmingway maintained a room before he bought the house outside of Havana. Room 511 has supposedly been restored to what it was like when Hemingway lived there.
But be careful. This is a very touristy neighborhood and there are restrictions on US citizens entering the hotel since the hotel is owned by the military. So we weren’t allowed to go in.
Sloppy Joe’s should be your final stop. This bar (with its first location being Hemingway’s favorite watering hole in Key West). Although the location in Key West has been portrayed as Hemingway’s favorite, the roots for Sloppy Joe’s (including the sandwich) are really in Havana. Joe originally opened the bar at the corner of Agramonte and Animas streets in 1917 and his nickname was Sloppy Joe. Hemingway convinced an American to open a bar in Key West under the name Sloppy Joe’s — just like the bar he frequented in Havana. There the loose meat sandwich was created based on a similar Cuban sandwich. The bar in Havana was closed after Castro took power but reopened in 2013.
Buy a t-shirt there and look at the photographs of Hemingway, Errol Flynn and others who experienced their Havana Club rum. And don’t forget to order a Sloppy Joe sandwich with the rum—even though the sandwich originated in Key West.
There is much to experience in Havana, but focusing on the life of Ernest Hemingway allows visitors to experience another time and another place. It is a walk into a culture and life style that no longer exists. And it makes you want to reread that book of his you were required to read in high school with a new perspective.