Cuba Journal: Hemingway villa a look inside Cuba’s most famous ex-pat

Ernest Hemingway’s living room in his villa outside Havana.


I’m sitting on a stoop outside Havana’s microscopic bus terminal wondering if I can get a ticket to Trinidad. For the bus terminal of a major Latin American capital, this place looks more like a coffee shop. The office is the size of a 7-Eleven with a parking lot smaller than a baseball infield. It’s the only major bus terminal I’ve ever seen in a suburb.

I decided to go to Trinidad on the southern coast instead of Matanzas on the north after a talk with Katarina, my host in Havana. Yes, Trinidad is a traditional colonial Cuban town with narrow cobblestone streets and tons of packaged tourists. But Mantazas is the jump-off point to Varadero, Cuba’s first example of tourism gone berserk. It’s one continuous stretch of all-inclusive resorts where I hoped to slip between and feel the sand between my toes. Apparently I won’t have to do any sneaking in Trinidad. There are hardly any resorts and the beach is just as good.

Cuba is just getting the hang of this tourism thing. Yesterday, I went and saw Cuba’s greatest tourist-turned ex-pat. Ernest Hemingway lived in the Havana suburb of San Francisco de Paula from 1939-1960, buying a villa on a hill. It’s here where Hemingway went from an internationally acclaimed writer to a literary god. It’s here where he won the Pulitzer Prize for penning “The Old Man and the Sea” not to mention “For Whom a Bell Tolls” and “Islands in the Stream.” Each one had a Cuban theme and perfectly blended the pace of life in pre-revolution Cuba.

Frankly, much of Hemingway’s writing reads like a zipcode directory: “Rain comes down. Rain is cold. Rain is good.” That’s about it. But I adored “The Old Man and the Sea” and his newspaper work, gathered in the collection, “Dateline Toronto,” is among the best newspaper writing I’ve ever read. His feature on Benito Mussolini was absolutely brilliant and made me feel like I was in Il Duce’s office.

Fidel Castro befriended Hemingway who railed against the heavy-handed human relations of Fulgencio Batista, the corrupt capitalist Castro overthrew. So he embraced Castro’s revolution and Castro embraced back. Numerous bars in Havana show the same two photographs of a very gray Hemingway whispering in the ear of a smiling Castro, wearing his signature battle fatigues, in 1960. When Hemingway returned to the U.S. that year, they turned his villa into a museum.

Hemingway’s tower where he penned “The Old Man and the Sea.”

The problem is getting to San Francisco de Paula is something out of public transportation hell. Hardly anyone has cars in Cuba and public buses cost almost nothing. Thus, nearly everyone in Cuba takes buses.
The San Francisco de Paula bus leaves from Capitolio Nacional, a slightly taller exact replica of the U.S. capitol. At night when Havana is dark and the Capitolio appears as a black monolith, it looks like a mockery of Cuba’s relationship with Washington. Built from 1926-29 with Cuba’s endless mountain of sugar money, it used to hold the Cuban Congress. But since Castro’s coup it has held the National Academy of Sciences and is the site of one of the more confusing bus systems in the Caribbean.

I had to practically circumvent the entire building to find the P-7, hidden behind a squadron of sleepy pedicab drivers, known as bici-taxis, who half-heartedly asked if I wanted a ride.

Cuba boosted its vapid public transportation system with some new bending buses, the ones seemingly the size of a city block with the accordion center that folds at curves. Besides more food, better salaries and a decent mojito, Cuba needs bigger buses. The line to get on was 200 people deep and as I neared the bus I could see black, brown and white faces pressed involuntarily against the windows. They looked like the dogs I saw kept in cages in Chinese public markets.

I had only my little London 2012 backpack but it had my expensive camera and irreplaceable cell phone. I held it like it was a newborn child as I squeezed my way between dozens of bodies. I strategically placed myself behind the driver who said he’d tell me when we reached Hemingway’s place. I had a better chance of hearing him sing the score to “Guys and Dolls.”

Hemingway’s bedroom.

The nine-mile trip took 45 minutes. We stopped at every hamlet and more bodies pressed in without anyone seemingly getting out. I really don’t think Hemingway ever traveled this way into town. Fortunately, Cubans are Latins and Latins always smell good. There was no need to breathe through my mouth.

I asked a woman where Hemingway’s house was and her frown turned into a huge grin.

“Casa de Papa! Fantastico!” she said. More than half a century later, he’s still a legend here. I wonder if they know my name in my Denver Post classifieds office.

San Francisco de Paula is a scruffy, quiet town with tiny ma and pa retail stores with little inventory and fewer customers. The driveway to Hemingway’s starts at the street and curves up the hill where I was immediately transported into another world, back when Cuba was a bustling tourist destination, the rich were rich and the gardens bloomed every day. I heard tropical birds squawking as I walked up through a sentry of palm trees. The house, by Cuban standards, is massive. It’s cream colored and the veranda must be 150 feet long. A huge whipperwill tree shades visitors in cast-iron chairs, no doubt the same way it did for Eva Gardner and Castro before.

Hemingway’s writing desk.

Hemingway rented the place in 1939 and bought it the next year. He named it Finca la Vigia, meaning “Lookout House” as it looks out over all of Havana. He stayed until 1960, in time to usher in Castro and usher out Batista’s brutal regime which Hemingway hammered on a regular basis. It probably didn’t help Batista’s PR when thugs robbed Cuba’s most famous ex-pat who had a way with words and a world-wide audience.

The house – they call it, accurately, a villa – is in pristine condition. Everything is in place. It’s a long, airy place with heads of wildebeests, impalas and cape buffaloes among his many trophies from his days in Africa. Every room is complete with a writing table, desktop knickknacks and books. Tons of books. Every shelf is crammed with literature, complete with tattered covers and faded authors’ names.

The dining room has four seats with the glazed brown eyes of a pretty impala staring down at the meal.
I read two terrific Hemingway books before I left. “The Old Man and the Sea” of course but I loved “Hemingway’s Cats.” It not only chronicled his life-long affection for my favorite animal but detailed his life around the villa. It said he mostly wrote in a three-story tower with a narrow spiral staircase which ends in a study with a writing table, a tiny typewriter and a view all the way to Havana and the sea beyond. Who couldn’t write this well with this kind of view?

Hemingway’s trophies from his big game hunting trips.

Then again, there were plenty of distractions. Down a tree-lined walkway was a huge, deep swimming pool where Eva Gardner would come swim in the nude. Beyond that, for museum purposes, his famous boat, El Pilar, is on blocks to show the simple vessel where he performed most of his famed deep-sea fishing feats.

Oh, what life must’ve been like in a tropical paradise in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The war was over and the world was falling in love again. Mankind hung on every word he wrote from this lofty, sultry nest.
It’s not quite the same thing as sitting in Boulder’s Panera writing about Colorado’s quarterback problems.

Unfortunately, standing next to Hemingway’s writing table didn’t inspire me to write. It inspired me to drink. The museum’s larcenous snack bar had cold beer for $2 and over a delightfully cold Banconero I started chatting with a tour guide who spoke flawless English.

I’ll call him Mario, even though he said, “I want a more interesting code name. Mario is too much of a stereotype.”

Short, stocky with typical Latin good looks, Mario has aunts and uncles in the U.S. and paid attention in school where they teach English. He, too, has dreams which he’ll never realize as long as the Castros are alive. As a tour guide, he sees the Castro question from a different perspective. Lifting the embargo would mean more tourists, more hotels and more business for him, not to mention more money. He makes a whopping 20 CUC a month.

“With tips I make good money for a Cuban,” he said.

I asked him if he worried that too much tourism too soon would destroy the Cuba as he knows it.

“Some politicians say it’s a threat to our identity,” he said. “It makes sense. People would be more interested in learning English than Spanish. We’ll be closer to Puerto Rico. But it’s not bad for us.
It’s something we can manage.”

His other tour guides chimed in occasionally. The Cubans carry a tough veneer. On the outside they are happy, always moving to the music that seems to fill every square inch of atmosphere during the day. But inside they are frustrated and miserable, poor and a little angry.

But unless you ask, they keep quiet. It’s not unlike 1970s Hungary.

“It’s our culture,” he said. “We’ve had so many problems for so many years. The only solution is to keep on smiling. If there’s music, women and drinking and you can’t improve it, don’t complain.”

We talked about Castro’s 1959 revolution. His parents may have been around then but he only read about it. In America, Cuban-Americans rank the Castro takeover as arguably the most disastrous event in history. When I’m in Miami talking to ex-pats, it sounds as if everyone was ordered out of their nice houses and only to boats for Florida.

The pool where he entertained celebrities such as Eva Gardner.

“There was NEVER an eviction in Cuba,” he said, holding up his index finger for emphasis. “If you own a company there are new rules. If you’re unhappy with the rules, you can leave. In any revolution, things change.”

I told him Castro did make things better for the average Cuban. He slowly shook his head.

“It improved,” he said. “For a while. The biggest mistake was aligning too much with the Soviet bloc.”

Yes, when the USSR fell in 1991, so did Cuba. Everyone still talks about Castro’s speech telling everyone that things will change. Shortages will occur.

They’re still occurring.

I talked to Katarina this morning and when she grew up they received monthly rations of everything they needed, including luxury items like rum and chocolate and rare fish. Now these are her monthly rations: three kilograms of rice, one package of coffee, half a kilogram of cooking oil, 10 eggs per person, a package of spaghetti and some sugar.

“Of course, I buy more,” she said. “I can’t live on one package of coffee. I drink coffee all day.”

Maybe she should switch to rum. I have.