My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita.
In Havana, you are never more than a stone’s throw away from a good drink. La Habana Vieja moves to the sound of music pouring from its bars; the sounds of strumming son and reggae drums fill the cobbled streets as the rum flows and the salsa sways.
Some of these drinking establishments are stone cold classics; former stomping grounds to politicians, movie stars and literary greats – many immortalised in the writings of Ernest Hemingway or ‘Our man in Havana’ by Graham Greene. The classic drinks are still very much the name of the game in this city; with only two types of beer available – Cristal and Bucanero – it is best to stick to the well-trodden path of mojitos, daiquiris and Cuba Libres.
So where should you go to down rum like Papa Hemingway and dance the night away to the rhythms of Cuba?
La Bodeguita del Medio
Empedrado No. 207 | e/ Cuba y San Ignacio
During the day it is hard to miss La Bodeguita del Medio due to the crowds amassing in the street trying to capture photographs beside its graffiti strewn walls. They are here to see the establishment made famous by Ernest Hemingway; the author notoriously spent many hours sipping mojitos at its wooden counter.
Back in 1942, Havana’s most well-known bar was actually a small grocery store. Its owner, Ángel Martínez, gradually began to branch out into selling food and drink and La Bodeguita del Medio’s reputation grew. You get the impression that it hasn’t really changed much in the intervening years with the exception of the memorabilia, historic photographs and graffiti covering every surface. Pablo Neruda, Nat King Cole, Salvador Allende and Fidel Castro have all scratched their name into the walls here, as has practically everyone that has passed through the bar’s swinging saloon doors.
This is real Havana history – it is said that the Mojito was invented within these four walls – and although it is now more likely to be filled with tourists rather than locals, how can you not pass by without stopping to try Cuba’s most famous drink.
I tried to enter La Bodeguita del Medio mid afternoon but found it a little too busy. However, stopping by in the late evening the crowds had dispersed and the bar was practically empty, save for a few hard drinking locals and a four piece band bashing out Son rhythms on their battered instruments. The mojitos were both pricey ($4) and bad – but the atmosphere more than made up for it.
Calle Obispo no.557 corner of Calle Monserrate
Walking into La Floridita the first thing to catch your eye will probably be the words ‘La Cuna Del Daiquiri’ (“The Cradle of Daiquiri”) embossed on the front of the plush, red bar. For it was here that the bartender Constante Ribalaigua invented the frozen daiquiri way back in the early 20th century.
Opened in 1817 under the name Piña de Plata, and renamed El Floridita in 1914, the bar became world famous thanks to Ernest Hemingway, who was a regular customer. It is said that Hemingway originally came into La Floridita to use the toilet but upon exiting the bathroom he decided to have a taste of the drink that all the patrons seemed to be imbibing. He tasted one and said: “That’s good but I prefer it without sugar and double rum”. A new drink was prepared by Constante and the Papa Hemingway cocktail was born. From then on Hemingway was unable to be separated from both the bar or his favourite drink, arriving at 10 o clock each morning to settle in his favourite corner, a newspaper in hand.
Today a constant stream of tourists pass through its doors in order to see the life size statue of Papa Hemingway stood in his favourite spot, his regular seat roped off in tribute. The bar has limited appeal to locals due to its touristy nature and high prices but it is worth stopping so that the well trained, smartly dressed bartenders can fix you a Papa Hemingway special – Papa’s favourite cocktail with a splash of grapefruit juice. It is said that he managed to knock back 13 of these drinks in one sitting – but at 6 CUCs a cocktail, your wallet may not want to challenge him even if your stomach is willing.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba
Calle 0 esq. 21, Vedado
No hotel in Havana has a storied history quite like Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Upon its grand opening in 1930, the Hotel Nacional epitomised the glamour of Cuba and has welcomed mobsters, actors, and some of the world’s leading politicians.
Its guest book reads like a who’s who of famous faces; Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Jean Paul Sartre, Marlon Brando and Alexander Fleming have all walked the halls here. Most notoriously, the hotel was also the site of the famous 1946 mobster summit, as depicted by Copolla in The Godfather Part II, when Lucky Luciano and fellow hoods decided to carve up control of Cuba.
Aside from mobsters and famous faces, the Nacional de Cuba seems to be a hotel in perpetual turmoil. On the 4th September 1933, the hotel was the site of a bloody siege when members of the Cuban army that were loyal to Fulgencio Batista’s coup assaulted the hotel, causing extensive damage in what was later to be known as the Battle of the Hotel Nacional of Cuba. Following Castro’s revolution in 1959 the hotel’s casinos were closed and the hotel nationalised, cause it to be neglected and many of the rooms fall into disrepair.
The hotel is still a shadow of its former glory – worn around the edges and its crumbling facade barely betraying its past grandeur. However, wander into one its many bars and you will find them much as they were in the days of Lucky Luciano; gleaming wood panelled counters and a panoramic vista of Havana Harbour. Memorabilia and photographs of the glory days fill the walls and the hotel gardens provide the perfect setting for a mojito sundowner.
Calle Zulueta No. 252 e/ Ánimas y Virtudes. Habana Vieja
Sloppy Joe is a name synonymous with that most quintessential of American sandwiches but few people know that its roots lie somewhere as un-American as Cuba. The story begins way back in 1917 when José Abeal y Otero opened a bar on a corner in Havana Vieja that quickly became the rowdy meeting spot for American tourists and ex-pats during the prohibition years. Due to his dishevelled nature and shabby demeanour, he soon became known to the patrons as Sloppy Joe and was convinced to rename the bar.
Hemingway was a common presence in the bar along side celebrities such as Alec Guinness and Noel Coward and it is said that it was Papa himself that exported José’s popular loose meat sandwich across to the States.
“No Havana resident ever went to Sloppy Joe’s because it was the rendezvous of tourists.” Our Man in Havana
The quote from ‘Our Man in Havana‘ was undoubtedly true in the bar’s heydey of the 1950’s and is even truer today. After the Castro regime nationalised nearly all private enterprise, effectively closing the bar in 1965, it was left to decay until the government began restorations in 2007. HIstorians and architects recreated Joe’s as faithfully as possible, complete with the wood panelling and mahogany bar (once thought to be the longest in Latin America), just with the added embellishments of historical photographs and movie memorabilia hanging from its walls. Tourists still flock here for a Sloppy cocktail and Sloppy Joe sandwich, but with a price tag of around £10, this is a little too steep for most Cubans who on average earn only double that amount each month.
Yes, it’s touristy but it’s a little piece of both culinary and literary history in the centre of Havana.
The Mojito Myth
In Havana, countless people will inform you that Ernest Hemingway’s favourite drink was the mojito and that he was often to be found at his favourite bar, La Bodeguita del Medio, with a minty cocktail in his hand. A handwritten note hangs on the wall at La Bodeguita reading “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita.” and signed by Papa Hemingway himself. Surely this is enough evidence that Papa was passionate about his cocktails? Apparently not.
For a man that was an avid diarist, especially when it came to what and where he drank, there is no written evidence that Hemingway actually set foot in La Bodeguita. There’s not even a mention of him imbibing a single mojito anywhere in his writings.
It turns out that the note was actually a marketing tool. The owner of the bar, Ángel Martínez, was throwing around ideas on how to drum up business with Hemingway’s journalist friend Fernando Campoamor and the idea came to them…
“We were trying to figure out how to help his business, and someone said, ‘Mi mojito en La Bodeguita, mi daiquiri en El Floridita.’ It was a funny joke, nothing more … Well, I had these things at home in Papa’s handwriting, so they hired a graphic artist to imitate it.
It may have started as a joke but it worked wonders. Even now hundreds of people flock each day to sample Papa’s favourite cocktail.
It turns out that if you want an authentic literary cocktail in Havana, you’re best sticking to La Floridita.
Do you have any favourite drinking spots in Havana? Let me know in the comments.
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