Travel writer Shelley Seale leaps off the page and into a version of Cuba that only Hemingway could imagine
“Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.”
Ernest Hemingway wrote these words in one of his many masterpieces of literature, The Old Man and the Sea. The short novel is famed for its depiction of Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman who is pitted against a giant marlin in a life-and-death struggle. Through it and other writings by Hemingway (both personal and published), his love for the country of Cuba, where he lived for 20 years, is evident.
Once in Cuba, it’s easy to see what the pull was for Hemingway. The tough, hard-drinking, and hard-living writer was drawn to the raw energy of the place; the music, food, and culture. Indeed, the entire nation exudes passion, sexuality, rebelliousness, and a spirited pride in their place in the world.
The Old Man and the Sea was the great writer’s last major work of fiction published during his lifetime (1952), winning a Pulitzer Prize and leading to his award of the Nobel Prize in Literature two years later. Here are a few places that influenced him that you can see today:
The coastal fishing village and lifestyle that it depicts, like most everything in Cuba, is virtually unchanged today. The Bay of Cojímar, just east of Havana, was the inspiration for the setting of the book, and a memorial to the author sits in the harbour: a large bust ringed by six columns. Local fishermen created the memorial, using pieces of bronze from their own boat fittings. The plaque reads: “In loving memory of the people of Cojímar to the immortal author of The Old Man and the Sea.” A short walk away, you can have drinks (another favourite among Hemingway’s pastimes) at La Terraza de Cojímar, the seaside bar on which the Terrace in based on in the novel.
Hemingway himself frequently fished for marlin in Cuba; it was in fact through the sport that he met a young Fidel Castro for the first, and only, time. In 1960 — the same year that U.S. sanctions against Cuba were imposed — Castro won Hemingway’s fishing competition. The next year, “Papa” was gone, having left this earth and life by his own hand.
Perhaps the best place in Cuba to find the ghost of Hemingway is at the home he made there with then-wife, Martha Gellhorn. Finca Vigia is located in San Francisco de Paula, a small suburb of Havana about 14km (9 mi) east along the Carretera Central. The hilltop home and land was purchased by Hemingway in 1940, and was also the home to his fourth wife, fellow reporter Mary Welsh, after he and Martha divorced in 1945. The so-named “Lookout Farm” was the perfect spot to write, relax, and go sailing on his boat, the Pilar. In fact, Hemingway finished his book For Whom The Bell Tolls here, as well as The Old Man and the Sea.
After Hemingway’s death, the home fell into disrepair and a derelict state until it was fortunately preserved and restored. Finca Vigia is open to visitors daily, with many of the couple’s original furnishings, personal artifacts, and Hemingway’s hunting trophies still on display. There are also thousands of photographs, personal documents, and five very rare scrapbooks.
In Havana, there are also many places to chase Hemingway’s ghost. You might start at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where he began writing For Whom The Bell Tolls, in room 511, on a typewriter that's still there. The 1920s hotel was built during the height of Cuba’s prosperous heyday, and is painted a bright Caribbean salmon colour. Don’t miss the delightful and lively piano bar in the lobby — of which Hemingway was the most popular patron. Michael Palin and his film crew stayed here while filming their documentary, Hemingway Adventure.
Another favourite watering hole of the larger-than-life man was Bodeguita del Medio. Like much of the “Hemingway trail” in Cuba, this bar has morphed into a popular tourist attraction that is usually very crowded and hard to get into, and you won’t find many Cubans here. It’s worth at least a walk-by, however, with its walls covered in autographs from its many other famed patrons, including Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende, and Nat King Cole. But the mojitos are expensive and not as good as other places, making it perhaps not the best place to linger and try to conjure up Papa.
Floridita, on the other hand, is much more the “real deal.” In Havana, this is perhaps the bar most associated with Hemingway. Yes, it is still popular with tourists, and therefore generally crowded; however, it is also a much more authentic place that still retains the spirit it had during Hemingway’s era. Local bands play live music here regularly, and the separate restaurant on the other side of the bar/lounge area is well-regarded and always heavily booked (if expensive).
Like the Bodeguita, Hemingway was not the Floridita’s only famed customer. Spencer Tracy, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ava Gardner, and Errol Flynn are just a few of the other names of people who joined him there. Along the bar, in the very back corner, is a life-sized bronze statue, created by Cuban artist Jose Villa Soberon, of the writer on his favourite barstool. If you time it right, you can cozy up to it between photograph-takers. Historic memorabilia and photos line the walls, so it’s not difficult to melt into the vibe here and begin to feel as if you might be in 1950s Havana.
While attempting to channel this version of Cuba, one is easily reminded of one of Hemingway’s most memorable lines from For Whom The Bell Tolls:
“The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for, and I hate very much to leave it.”
G Adventures runs a number of departures in Cuba encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.
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