Fascinating life of Ernest Hemingway in Cuba: vintage car tour
SPONSORED – Certain things come to mind when you think of Havana. Rum, cigars, vintage cars and Ernest Hemingway. As complicated as he was fascinating, the American writer left a long-lasting effect on the literary world and here in Havana. Armed with curiosity, we decided to follow in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway’s Cuba and learn more about his time on the island. Of course, the best way to do so was with one of the vintage car tours in Havana.
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Who was Ernest Hemingway?
Ernest Miller Hemingway was born in suburban Chicago in 1899. That means he was born two centuries ago in a very different world. For some reason, I found that fascinating. Hemingway became a journalist, novelist and short-story writer who was also an adventurer and a hunter. His contemporaries and later generations greatly admired his writing and the man himself.
He published numerous works that strongly influenced 20th-century fiction and literary styles. Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954 and a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953.
I must say that although we were both aware of who Hemingway was, we didn’t know that much about his life. Sure, most people might know something about Ernest Hemingway in Cuba, maybe can name a book or two, but as it is with those that died in the past, they become less known to later generations, and Hemingway is no different. Whether you are a hard-core fan or have no idea who he is, his story is captivating.
Hemingway lived in Cuba for two decades. He was a celebrity of his day and had many famous friends that visited his home in Cuba, the Finca Vigia. Cuba and Havana, in particular, were a different world in those days. It was a playground for wealthy Americans, mobsters and celebrities.
Hemingway was a complicated man, and I’m not entirely sure I found him to be a likable one. He drank a lot, hunted, and liked many women, even married four of them. I guess not that much of a difference between men with influence in our current world. We had to find out more about this complicated man.
Hemingway before Cuba
Hemingway was from a generation that lived through both World Wars. He worked as an ambulance driver for Red Cross in Italy during WWI until he was severely injured. During WWII, he worked as a journalist in the trenches and was present during the Allied invasion of Normandy as well as the liberation of Paris. He literally witnessed history in the making.
In between the two World Wars, Hemingway also worked in Chicago and Toronto before moving to Paris. We were surprised at the Toronto connection, especially since the paper he wrote for, the Toronto Star, is still around.
During the 1930s, he lived in the U.S., went on a Safari in Africa, where he got sick, and later covered the Spanish Civil War. He wrote and lived in Europe and America, finding inspiration in the world around him. Then, in 1939, he sailed his boat to Cuba.
Ernest Hemingway in Cuba
Today, the arrival of Ernest Hemingway in Cuba seems very unremarkable. Just a man taking his boat to an island, he then made his home. So many decades and political events later, such an act is almost unthinkable. What a different world he lived in.
Once he arrived, Hemingway lived in room 511 in Hotel Ambos Mundos and drank his way through Havana’s local bars. You can visit La Bodeguita del Medio and the Floridita bars in Havana on your own as you enjoy a famous Hemingway cocktail or a dozen, as he was known to do.
These places have become very touristy, which detracts from the Hemingway’s Havana we wanted to experience. On our last trip to Havana nine years ago, the Floridita was an interesting bar with few tourists and many locals. Today, the only locals are the staff.
Walking around Havana is akin to what Hemingway’s experience must have been like. The city, celebrating its 500th birthday, hasn’t changed much from his days. As Havana seems frozen in time, it’s easy to picture Hemingway strolling around, taking in the vibrancy of the city around him. Following his steps is an adventure in itself.
Finca Vigia – Hemingway house in Cuba
A trip to Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s house in Cuba, is an opportunity to see where the author lived. Located in the small village of San Francisco de Paula, Finca Vigia means “lookout house” in Spanish. During his time, the house was in a remote spot on a hill with unobstructed views of Havana.
The house was built in 1896 by the Spanish architect Miguel Pascual y Baguer. Hemingway bought it in 1940, so his wife (at the time) Pauline could stay there instead of at a hotel. That marriage didn’t last long, and it was Hemingway’s last wife, Mary Walsh, who left a lasting mark on the house. Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea here. These books became his most celebrated works.
There are other ways to get here, but arriving in a vintage car seemed like a blast from the past. I had no idea what to expect at Finca Vigia, but once we got here, I understood why Hemingway loved this place. The tree-lined road to the house with extensive grounds was a little unexpected. Honestly, I didn’t know too much about Hemingway’s house before we came, and I was glad I didn’t.
The house itself is a single-story, pale-coloured structure with large windows and a winding terrace. Although it was built in 1886, Finca Vigia feels almost modern. It’s simple, elegant and orderly despite the extensive décor of many books, mementos and everyday objects. You can’t actually walk inside the house, which was a bit disappointing, but you are able to see much of the house through the roped-off doors and windows.
The house, filled with so many of Hemingway’s personal belongings, is like a time capsule. You can see his desk and the spot where he wrote, standing up, obsessively tracking his weight on the bathroom walls as well as the many animal heads he collected as trophies from his hunting days.
The tower with a view
Outside the main house is a tower with clear views of Havana. The space on the main level became a place for Hemingway’s numerous cats, while the top floor held a writing room. The story goes that Hemingway entertained a young woman there on multiple occasions, and nobody was allowed to interrupt their time, not even his wife. These sessions lasted for hours, making you wonder what transpired between them.
Hemingway also used to keep an eye on visitors arriving at Finca Vigia from the tower, deciding whether he wanted to let them in or not. Our private tour guide also told us that he watched Ava Gardner swim naked in the pool from that same spot. I guess it must have been quite a sight.
Today, the pool itself is water-free, but its charm is still there. Nestled between the trees and shrubbery, it must have been quite the place back in those days. Dismayed by Ava’s nakedness, Hemingway’s wife, Mary Welsh, left a bathing suit for her to wear. Ava responded by marching to the house from the pool in all her naked glory. I’m sure Hemingway loved every minute of it.
The boat and the guest house
Pilar, the boat that brought Hemingway to the island, is now on display in what was once a tennis court. Hemingway wanted to use it to ambush German submarines off the coast of Cuba during the war. An ambitious plan, although one that didn’t happen. As far as boats go, this one looks very ordinary, its claim to fame being its famous owner.
The former guest house is now a bit shabby. Hemingway’s wife, Martha Gellhorn, converted a wooden garage into a guesthouse for visitors, including Hemingway’s sons. Far from housing famous visitors, the building now functions as offices and meeting spaces for the museum director and staff.
The grounds on the property are extensive. Hemingway often invited the local children to play baseball on the property and hosted cockfights, apparently a popular pastime in Cuba. He was well-known and liked by the locals, and many speak fondly of his legacy.
Hemingway’s house in Cuba is one of the most popular attractions for visitors. There are buses filled with people arriving throughout the day. The crowds rushed through the site and have a loud guide that shouts information as everyone snaps random shots. We were delighted to have a personalized experience and a dedicated tour guide that answered our questions and provided interesting tidbits and information while we took our time looking around. It was a pleasant experience.
La Terraza de Cojimar
Our next stop on the trail of Ernest Hemingway in Cuba is the small fishing village of Cojimar. Hemingway was a frequent visitor to the area as he enjoyed fishing and drinking at the local bar La Terraza de Cojimar. What was once a popular hangout for celebrities is now very touristy. We arrived between tour buses, so we managed to enjoy the back room to ourselves, again enjoying our tour’s intimate and personalized nature.
As we sipped on our very strong drinks, Hemingway’s favourites, of course, we admired everything from the views to the decorations. It’s easy to see the appeal of Cojimar and the way Hemingway himself shaped it.
Hemingway’s table, prominently displayed in the corner spot, offers fantastic views of the Cojimar Bay. What is even more fascinating are the numerous photographs of Hemingway on the walls. There are few of him and Fidel Castro, often leading to the speculation that the two were great friends. The reality was that the two men met only once during a fishing tournament and only conversed for a few minutes.
The story goes that after Hemingway’s death, the locals collected metal pieces from chain links, propellers and anchors to cast a bronze bust of the writer in his memory. Today, you can see it standing under arches across the remnant of a small Spanish fort known as the Torreón de Cojímar. The fort, built in 1649, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and provides a nice addition to the already lovely coastline.
After our fill of drinks, we head over to the El Ajiaco restaurant in Cojimar for an authentic Cuban lunch that was simply a feast for the senses. And what goes with a great lunch? More drinks, of course. Hemingway would be proud.
The life and death of Ernest Hemingway
I must say that I didn’t know much about Ernest Hemingway’s personal life. He had four wives and numerous affairs. Hemingway loved women, and it seems he often transitioned from one marriage to the next one. He had three sons with two different wives. His youngest son Gregory became Gloria Hemingway later in life and died in a jail cell. His relationships with his family were often tense and tumultuous.
Often described as having an overtly macho personality, Ernest Hemingway had a penchant for bloodshed, war, guns, booze and hunting. He survived wars, plane crashes and encounters with wildlife. He suffered numerous head and body injuries and disorders not fully understood in his day. He was also a heavy drinker.
He was a successful and influential writer with an impressive career under his belt. Toward the end of his life, Hemingway’s mental and physical health started to deteriorate. Experts suggest that he suffered from bipolar disorder, which contributed to his demise. Before he died, Hemingway received numerous electroconvulsive therapy treatments, which most likely contributed to his depressed state.
Like his father before him, on a sunny morning, Ernest Hemingway put a shotgun to his head and killed himself in his home in Ketchum, Idaho, just days before his 62 birthday.
It seems that many members of the Hemingway family suffered from mental health. Besides Ernest, his father, Dr. Clarence Hemingway, two of his siblings, Ursula and Leicester, and granddaughter Margaux Hemingway also took their own lives. The Hemingway story is dark yet fascinating, even so, many decades later.
Havana vintage car tour with Rolling Havana
When you’re in Havana, people offering tours in vintage cars will approach you almost all the time. Some of them are better than others, and the value you get varies, including the price. We did our Ernest Hemingway in Cuba tour with Rolling Havana, and we loved every part of it.
The tour was an insightful look into the life of what many say is one of America’s greatest writers. Our excursion was personalized and provided us with a more intimate experience. We weren’t part of a large crowd shuffled around in a big bus with a loud tour guide. Instead, our whole experience felt less touristy and more personal.
From dealing with the owner, the drivers, the tour guides and everyone who served us at the restaurants, the whole process was seamless. Rolling Havana is a young company, but you wouldn’t know it from the professionalism and customer service we received. The company offers a variety of tours of beautiful vintage cars organized during mornings, afternoons or evenings. There are many different tours to choose from, including the Hemingway one.
As the Internet is very recent in Cuba, the best way to contact Rolling Havana is through the company’s Instagram for prices and detailed tour information.
Disclaimer: Our tour with Rolling Havana was complimentary. However, my opinion, views and photos are my own.