The story goes that Hemingway went to Cuba for a fishing trip, but then loved it so much that he moved there years later. He ended up living in Cuba for 20 years. Needless to say, there are plenty of Hemingway sites to check out on a trip to Cuba which I was determined to hit.
Mariska was on board for the adventure, and I told her what we needed to hit on the Hemingway checklist after our Hotel Ambos Mundos adventure that we’d already had. It wasn’t incredibly long, but there were two important bars and then if we felt like venturing outside of the city, we could see his villa.
So naturally a Hemingway tour wouldn’t be complete without a bar crawl, so one night we decided to go out on the town and visit the places he favored, starting with Bodeguita del Medio.
This is a tiny mojito bar where he used to hang out. And while we on the subject, mojitos in Cuba are muy bueno. The rum is fantastic. Plus not being able to import/export vastly with other countries means that most of the things that they use in food and drinks are local, which tends to make the options limited, but also amazing if it’s done correctly.
There was a salsa band playing in the corner with minimally four people at a time that took up the majority of the bar. We would simply indicate the number of mojitos that we wanted on our fingers, and that, being seemingly the only thing on the menu, was what was handed to us.
The bartender nodded to acknowledge the number we needed and then added the glasses to the end of what I imagine was the world’s largest assembly line of mojitos. It was five bucks a piece, so relatively cheap for what was know as the world’s best mojito.
Because it’s so small, people spill out into the streets with their drinks and dance to the music. That is what I loved the most. People were always out, drinking and dancing salsa, happy and content wherever we went. There was something magical about being out in the streets, with salsa music wafting out of a bar somewhere.
I frequently think of Communist countries as being suppressed and downtrodden. These people don’t make that much money, and live their lives without what we have come to believe are the basic necessities of life being from a more privileged place, yet somehow they seem so much happier and seem to have a zest for life that is hard to find.
We watched as people danced in the street, swaying to the music, drinking mojitos to our hearts content until we decided it was time to move on to the next Hemingway bar, El Floridita, which legend has it is where he helped to invent the daquiri frappe.
This bar also had a live band in the corner, singing songs about revolution and Che Guavara. We couldn’t find a place to sit, so Mariska spotted someone in the corner and said we could sit with him. I suggested that maybe we don’t invite ourselves into his table. What if he had friends coming? What if he wanted to be left alone?
Mariska laughed and asked who wouldn’t want two blonde girls to join him at the table. Plus she added that he looked nice, and both of us being solo travelers at some point in our lives would have appreciated the kindness of people like ourselves chatting to them for the evening. And that’s the start to how we met and added another solo traveler to our journey: The Russian.
He was shy at first, probably because Mariska and I aren’t at a shortage of words sober, so when we drink neither of us shut up. I’m sure we are a lot to handle together meeting for the first time. But once we got to know him, he was very kind to us, and introduced us to the banana daquiri, which was a revolution in the daquiri world and became one of our go-to drinks for the rest of the trip.
Behind us, two old men kept staring at us. I was about to tell Mariska that I was getting checked out by men in their 70’s when she turned to me and said, “Those men will not stop staring at me.”
“I was just going to tell you they were staring at me. It’s so weird.”
We enjoyed the music until the bar closed, and The Russian was kind enough to buy our drinks for the evening, even though we commandeered his table. Then he mentioned something weird that happened in the bathroom.
“You know those two men that were sitting behind you? Well they approached me in the bathroom and asked if I was a prostitute and how much.”
“WHAT?!?” we both exclaimed.
We were all laughing, and then Mariska and I, mildly offended that we wouldn’t be the objects of interest in all of this, made sure our translations were right and he didn’t mean that the men thought he was our pimp. He confirmed that he was the one they wanted. Mariska and I still took it with a grain of salt, maybe for our dignity, maybe for our sanity. I still haven’t decided.
I understood the appeal if Hemingway got stories like these every time he went out to the bars in Havana.
The next morning, I had a plan to get to Hemingway’s villa, Finca La Vigia. It involved us renting one of the vintage cars that are so well-known around Havana. I would splurge on this for two hours as it was what I really wanted to do. I knew it would cost a lot, but the trip hadn’t been overly expensive so far. And when in Havana…
This is where Mariska and I balance each other out as travelers. I had the plan of transit, and she was going to haggle down the price for me. I feel incredibly uncomfortable going to a country that my country has shat on financially and then haggling them down as if they don’t deserve any more money than their low wages.
Mariska doesn’t back down though. I want instant gratification. I don’t like when I have to wait 5 minutes for a bus. She has the patience and skill to have the conversation for 10 minutes, hold her ground, and tell me when to walk away, then go back to solidify the deal. Somehow the 120 CUC car rental where he was going to drive us 30 minutes outside of the city, wait for us while we were in the museum, and drive us all the way back cost me 50 CUC. I was more than impressed.
We visited Hemingway’s home, and I took pictures on my phone until my battery, now on day 4, was at 8%, which I knew I needed to save to text my cousin once I landed at LAX on my way home the following evening. It worked out perfectly, and as we were driven back into the city, I felt like I’d accomplished most of what I’d aimed to do.
This city had grown on me in the short time I had spent there. It was a rocky beginning for me, but I finally understood the magic behind Havana and had a hunch as to why it was so appealing to Hemingway.