Cuba is a large island with so much to see and do that it can feel overwhelming to the visitor, so it’s good to go there with a travel plan in mind. Whether you are interested in Cuban culture, or simply want to learn more about one of its most revered adopted citizens, a Hemingway tour is a great way to get to know the island better.
Hemingway’s experiences of Cuba, like all good Cuba tours, start in Havana. He had been living in Key West, Florida, with his wife at the time, Pauline Pfeiffer, but had already developed a fascination with Cuba (which was so geographically close but so culturally different). When he met Martha Gellhorn there, a journalist with whom he became instantly fascinated, it was the final push he needed to leave his life in the United States behind. During a seven year period, as Hemingway’s relationship with Pauline gradually soured, Hemingway based himself at the Hotel Ambos Mundos. He enjoyed the fabulous views over Cuba’s capital which stretched all the way to the habour (where he went fishing in his boat Pilar), and found the hotel an inspiring and carefree place in which to write. The prices may also have had something to do with it – Hemingway only paid $1.50 per night, a rate at which many of us would choose to live in a grand hotel, were it still available today.
This old Havana hotel is at 153 Obispo, and ideal for your first afternoon cocktail in Cuba, or even to stay in if your budget stretches to it. A standard room, while not still not expensive in terms of European standards at £59 (or 89 USD at the time of writing), is comfortably in the luxury bracket when it comes to Cubans. Whether you choose to base yourself here, or pop in briefly, it is not hard to imagine Hemingway dominating the piano bar at the Ambos Mundos with his overarching presence. If you choose to take a tour of the hotel, including his room (511), you can see his formidable bar bills which have been preserved for posterity for visitors. Tours are available daily and you can contact the hotel for more information.
From the Ambos Mundos it makes most sense to retrace Hemingway’s steps to the Finca Vigía, the villa on the outskirts of Havana which he decided to buy. Having fallen in love with the island, Hemingway decided he needed his own space and he sought a large villa with a garden and a swimming pool which was much like his home in Key West. He set up a writing room there, as well as an extensive library and bar area, as befits any serious novelist, and the house is now a museum where you can see his possessions and furnishings (though only from behind a rope – visitors are not allowed in for the preservation of the property). Finca Vigía is located in San Francisco de Paula about 11 kilometres outside of Havana and although there are local buses which go there, taking a tour is probably the easiest way of visiting. If you decide to use a taxi, it should only cost around 10 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs), while entry to the museum is 5 CUCs . Opening hours are usually 10am-4pm, though you are advised to check this ahead of visiting.
Another major stop on a Hemingway tour of Cuba is to go on from the Finca to nearby Cojimar, where his fishing boat Pilar was moored and which proved the inspiration for The Old Man and the Sea. You can stop for a drink here at The Terrace Bar which serves freshly caught fish, though it has mixed reviews on Tripadvisor. A bronze Hemingway bust overlooks the beautiful port, staring wistfully out to sea.
Other sites where you can get a feel for how much Hemingway loved Cuba (he considered himself a ‘Cubano Sato’, or half breed Cuban) are bars such as La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana where he concocted and drank daiquiris and mojitos. Then there is Hemingway Marina, located nine miles to the east of Havana, which was named after him. The Hemingway International Billfishing tournament is held here annually as deep sea fishermen try to catch marlin, tuna and other big fish.
There has been talk of building a large luxury hotel in the marina dedicated to Hemingway, a thought which would no doubt have him rolling in his grave. As with every aspect of this beautiful island – try to see the Hemingway sites and points of interest before it becomes too touristy. Cuba is changing at a rapid rate and who knows how long it will retain its old world charms….