16.03.2002 - 22.03.2002
View Cuba March 2002 on GregW's travel map.
“And on the left is the famous bar, La Bodeguita Del Medio, that was Ernest Hemingway’s favorite place to get Mojitos,” the nattily dressed tour guide told us.
“Remember where that was,” I excitedly asked of my traveling companions. Havana, Cuba can’t help but bring to mind images of starlets in sequined dressed and their tuxedo-clad companions drinking and gambling before flying back on silver floatplanes to Miami. And certainly many stars did haunt the streets of Havana in the 40s and 50s, including Cary Grant, Ava Gardner and Esther William. But Havana is most strongly linked with Ernest Hemingway – Ernesto to the locals, who never quite took to Hemingway’s self-given nickname of Papa. And short of running rum up to Florida or battling the sea in a fishing boat, I got the best of Hemingway’s Havana – I followed in Papa’s footsteps and drank where he drank.
“An intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools,” wrote Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Given all Hemingway drank, he must have met many fools. Hemingway was a notorious drinker. Hemingway fell into that group of drinkers with a writing problem, as coined by Brendan Behan. Of course, Hemingway had a lot of problems – he ended up taking his own life in 1962, only 3 years after leaving Cuba, his home since 1940. Ironic for a man who said, “the real reason for not committing suicide is because you always know how swell life gets again after the hell is over.”
Hemingway’s downfall came at the same time as the fortunes of his island home started fading. After the U.S. placed an embargo on Cuba in 1960s to protest Castro’s expropriation of an estimated $1 billion in U.S.-owned properties, most of Havana fell into disrepair. The buildings and cars that frequent the streets are circa 1950, and few of them have been painted or repaired since that time. However, Castro’s government has been working for decades to restore and maintain old Havana, and was rewarded in 1982 by UNESCO declaring the area a World Heritage Site. The area has a number of beautiful colonial buildings housing museums (and cigar shops). Within the cobblestone streets of Old Havana sits La Bodeguita Del Medio.
“My Mojito in La Bodeguita, My Daiquiri in El Floridita,” wrote Hemingway. I had never heard of the Mojito prior to my trip to Cuba. My first introduction to the concept of the drink was from our tour guide, who mentioned the drink made from a mix of rum, mint, sugar, lime juice and a splash of soda as the unofficial drink of Cuba. And I decided to make my first introduction to the actual drink at the place where Hemingway went for his.
La Bodeguita was not hard to find, being one of the most touristed spots in Old Havana, we just followed the crowds. I am not sure who first coined the phrase “hole in the wall,” but if they had been using it to describe La Bodeguita, they couldn’t have been more correct. The tiny bar area that is open to the street is perhaps 20 feet deep and 20 feet wide, and the walls are covered with pictures of the notables who drank there, including famed Hollywood swashbuckler Errol Flynn. Looking at the graffiti covered walls and cramped, noisy atmosphere, it seemed like an ideal place for a swashbuckler to drink. We pushed through the crowd to the bar, and ordered our mojitos.
In a moment of Mojito-fueled inspiration, I decided I would get a picture of myself that could be added to the walls of La Bodeguita. Unfortunately, with the number of elbows in my back and sides in the crowded bar, I ended up looking in the picture like I was in pain, not the kind of thing you want memorialized in one of Havana’s biggest tourist attraction. Throwing away the picture, I have only my memories of La Bodeguita, and La Bodeguita has no memories of me at all.
The Hotel Ambos Mundos was built in the 1920s, and Hemingway often stayed in room 511 during the 1930s where he started writing For Whom The Bell Tolls. His fifth floor room has been saved as a “museum,” which is open for visitors for two dollars (though guests of the hotels get to visit it for free). The room contains his books, typewriter and a number of pictures of him doing Hemingway-esque things like shooting and killing things. But more important to me as I stumbled through the Hemingway drinking tour was the lobby bar at Hotel Ambos Mundos.
What, or if Hemingway drank in the lobby of the Ambos Mundos is information that is lost to the ages. I decided to have another mojito. We took our seat in the bar looking out on the lobby. The wood paneled bar and nice wood furniture afforded an excellent view of the tiled, open-air lobby, with its grand piano. A breeze wafted in through the open windows. Sipping on my refreshing citrus drink in February, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, I was not sure how Hemingway got much work done. Then again, Islands In The Stream, which he started writing while staying at the hotel wasn’t published until after his death, so maybe he didn’t get so much work done here after all.
Our third stop of the day was the second bar mentioned in Hemingway’s saying – El Floridita. There are rumours that Hemingway’s pronouncement that he drank his mojitos at La Bodeguita might have been a favour for the owner of La Bodeguita, a friend of Hemingway’s. However, there is no doubt that Hemingway did drink often at El Floridita. His place at the bar has been preserved, awaiting his second coming. And if there were one thing that Hemingway would probably do if he came back to Earth, it would be drink. And if he were going to drink at El Floridita, known as the “cradle of the daiquiri,” he would have to drink a daiquiri.
“The great ones that Constante made had no taste of alcohol and felt, as you drank them, the way downhill glacier skiing feels running through powder snow and, after the sixth and eighth, felt like downhill glacier skiing feels when you are running unroped,” wrote Hemingway in Islands In The Stream. The classic daiquiri is sugar, rum, lemon and crushed ice. Hemingway had is own special brand of “powder snow,” the “Papa Double,” consisting of no sugar, double rum and grapefruit instead of lemon. Did I mention the double rum?
We grabbed a table in a corner and ordered daiquiris (just the classics, after 4 mojitos and a couple beers at lunch, I didn’t need the double shot of rum) with some beer chasers. I knew that daiquiris are a bit of a girly drink, however, if Papa was drinking them between wrestling with marlins and knocking out macho fiction, I figured I could safely drink one.
Hemingway loved Cuba and it was the inspiration (and in some cases, the setting) for many of his works. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for The Old Man In Sea he dedicated the prize to the people of Cuba. Old Havana captured some of the glamour and potency of the Cuba where Ernesto lived and drank, almost bringing back to life those long dated black and white photos of the stars that adorn the walls of the bars in Old Havana. Ernest at the bar, Cary at the piano and Ava and I enjoying a Papa Double – now that would be a picture worth putting on the wall.
La Bodeguita Del Medio, Calle Empedrado 207
Hotel Ambos Mundos, Calle Obispo 153
El Floridita, Calle Obispo 557