Malecon, Havana Centro. Taut-bodied spear fishermen assemble gear while sinewy boys in surf trunks crowd-please with kamikaze dives into the water. Vendors troll along with cones of roasted peanuts and bags of popcorn. Vintage Chevys, Fords, and Ladas sail past.
Walk south on the Paseo de Marti (also called “el prado”), a grand tree-lined 19th century promenade that connects Parque Central with the Havana Harbour. Snag shots of Kid Chocolate’s boxing gym, chess players, colonial, and art deco along the way before a fill of pastries and stiff espresso at the Pasteleria Francesca beside Hotel Ingleterra. Lopsided rosquillas (ring donuts), bugle-shaped caracols filled with custard and guayaba pastels (guava cake) cost 30 to 75 cents.
From the pedestrian-only Calle Obispo (Bishop’s Street), join the slow-moving mass of people browsing the shops selling bespoke perfumes, makeshift art galleries, the helladio (ice cream) vendors’ flavors, and stores for everything from rare books to nautical maps to cheese graters and live birds. Be prepared for a barrage of restaurant staff trying to pull you in for drinks and snacks by flapping menus open in your face as you walk by.
Head toward Hotel Ambos Mundos (Obispo #153, esq. Mercaderes). Squeeze into the tiny lift and ask the jovial operator to see room #511 where Ernest Hemingway pounded out Death in the Afternoon and started the Green Hills of Africa. For $2, you can have a voyeuristic look at his writing quarters, typewriter (under glass), vintage photos, wardrobe, and Louis Vuitton trunk. After?
It’s probably time for a mojito on the rooftop of the hotel ($3).
Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm) is a hilltop retreat Hemingway purchased in 1949, after seven years in the cramped confines of Hotel Ambos Mundos. Located 18km from the city in the suburbs of San Francisco de Paula on Carretera Central, it’s now a museo; tickets are $4. Though a public bus does pass by his property you can opt to hop in a classic ’52 Olds (about $40 from the Hotel Ambos Mundos) for safety, speed, and, well, cool factor. You might want to heed this local’s warning: “If you get on the P9 bus, you will lose something. For sure.”
At Finca Vigia, look through the wide doors and windows at Papa Hemingway’s African trophies (water buffalo and antelope), claw foot tub, pickled lizards, and imposing library. This is where he completed The Old Man and The Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Be sure to check out his old boat, El Pilar, dry-docked near the pool where Ava Gardner skinny-dipped. The dog cemetery honouring his beloved Black, Negrita, Linda, and Neron can be found under the shade of the poolside fig trees.
Buy a mojito ($3) in the parking lot before heading back to Centro Havana.
Refresh, regroup, and grab your bikini. Buses run to Playa Del Este every half hour ($5 return) from Parque Central or take a taxi to Playa Tropicoco for $20 (you can negotiate a pick-up time with the driver). At the beach, flag a roaming bartender for cold Cristals and a table. Umbrellas are available for a small fee. Watch for the vendors selling clusters of grapes on a stick, pineapple and peso pizza (so named because it costs one peso) or order a hefty grilled fish or pork sandwich, dressed simply with mayo and tomato ($5).
See the Malecon at night, when the drop in temperature brings out an even bigger throng. People lay out impromptu picnics and share bottles of rum. This is a good time to check out the fisherman’s buckets. They are still there, pulling in lines.
Across from the water, at #107 Calle Malecon you will find Sociedad Asturiana Catropol, a two level resto packed with locals. Take in the dying light of day and the welcome the sea breeze on the front terrace or ask for a table near the brick pizza oven to watch the chefs move about at lightning speed. For $10 you can order a massive thin crust pineapple and ham pizza (big enough for two feedings) and two beers.
Note: You can only order pizza downstairs. The balcony upstairs offers unobstructed views of the sea, but an entirely different menu of international and Cuban cuisine.
Grab a table at El Floridita, one of Hemingway’s hangouts in the ‘30s. Ask for his tribute drink, the Papa Hemingway daiquiri made with grapefruit juice ($6), and enjoy the live music.
Return to your hotel, take two aspirins, and hit the lumpy mattress. [Note: The author is a Matador Traveler-in-Residence participating in a partnership between MatadorU and Adventure Center. During 2011/12, Adventure Center is sponsoring eight epic trips for MatadorU students and alumni.]