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Posted April 15, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Travel

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Nicholas Rufford | The Sunday Times

At night from the roof terrace of the Ambos Mundos hotel in Old Havana you can sip a cafe cubano and gaze out over the city, while the coffee machine hisses and waitresses swoop and sway with trays of daiquiri and mojito cocktails.

It was one of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite spots, and you can see why. Six floors below, on the streets of Cuba’s capital, nightly dramas are played out. Street musicians play son music while cigar hustlers and pimps work the crowds. “Cohiba? Montecristo? Spanish girl?” For 11 years from 1928, Hemingway lived, on and off, in room 511 of the Ambos Mundos (the name means “both worlds”), surrounded by brothels and honky-tonk bars, dosshouses and sweatshops, clubs and casinos. The district was cleared out and left to rot after a post-revolutionary purge on crime. Today, 44 years on, the grime and weeds are being scraped away and the buildings given fresh coats of pastel paint. A restoration programme sponsored by the United Nations is uncovering Old Havana’s treasures.

On the surface at least, it is Cuba more or less as Hemingway would have known it, complete with vintage American cars (imports from the United States are blocked, so half- century-old Chevys and Plymouths still cruise the streets).

Since Hemingway’s heyday, Cuba has undergone two revolutions. The first was in 1959, when Fidel Castro and Che Guevara toppled the corrupt Batista government. The second was in 1993, when the Cuban government relegalised the US dollar in a bid to prop up its collapsing economy. Capitalism returned by stealth, along with smugglers and racketeers.

Now, high-rise hotels stretch along the white-sand beaches of Varadero, 90 miles up the coast from Havana. Wide-bodied jets bring winter sun-seekers from Europe. Property speculators have moved into Havana, in the hope that when Castro dies he is 76 the sale of property will be legalised for the first time since he seized power.

The island’s peso bank- notes, proudly emblazoned with pictures of Fidel and Che, are almost valueless. The American currency is once more mighty.

OBISPO, A street that runs north to south from Parque Central to the Bahia de La Habana (Havana Bay), was one of Hemingway’s favourite promenades. Some of his old drinking haunts have been turned into swish boutiques (a branch of Benetton has just opened), but others are still preserved. You can lounge around and drink dark coffee or rum in the only country in the western hemisphere where Starbucks is banned. The local coffee houses are thriving meeting places where black-market deals are done, and where the old Cuba of jazz music and contraband collides with the new world of package tourists and backpackers. You can order sandwiches with names such as “The Fidel”, charter a boat for a day’s fishing, or buy a Jack Daniel’s smuggled by fast boat from Key West.

At the Parque Central-end of O’Reilly is the El Floridita bar, where Hemingway’s favourite seat is roped off in a corner, under a wooden bust of the author. A sign on the bar boasts “the cradle of the daiquiri” and old black-and-white photos show a beaming and bearded Hemingway.

It is a mecca for Hemingway lovers, but avoid the organised tours. Posthumously, the author has become one of the communist regime’s main dollar earners. You will be served a 3 daiquiri (more than an average Cuban’s weekly wage), while the guide from the state-run tourist agency explains how a photo of Hemingway and Castro together proves the author’s support for the revolution.

What the guide won’t tell you is that the picture was taken not at a communist rally, but at a fishing contest, where the two men met by chance. Hemingway had little time for dictators, fascist or communist. And Hemingway’s favourite drink was not the daiquiri, but the cocktail he christened the “papa”, sugar-free because he was diabetic. Nor will you be told that while Hemingway was perfecting the papa cocktail, Che was busy refining the molotov as part of his arsenal to overthrow Cuba’s elite, and chase out gangsters and American expats like Hemingway.

Further down Obispo, less famous joints are cheaper and more authentic. La Lluvia de Oro has a long mahogany bar where customers can drink mojitos made with fresh mint, and eat from the traditional Cuban kitchen (creole fish, rice and fried potatoes is just 1.60). Ceiling fans swish overhead and the breeze from the street blows in between wooden slats and potted palms.

Closer to the harbour, the Cafe de Paris boasts one of the best live bands, Corazon de Fuego (Heart of Fire). The cafe’s menu lists an array of Cuban rums, from the most expensive, the seven-year-old Havana Club (1.30 a shot), to the Silver Dry (80p). Traditional Cuban congri rice (black beans mixed with rice) is just a dollar a plate.

La Bodeguita del Medio on Empedrado is another bar stuck in a 1950s time warp. Inside, it is a tight squeeze, but they still manage to fit in a salsa band. Once your eyes get used to the gloom, you can pick out the old revolving optics above the bar, dispensing three types of tequila (Sauza Blanco, Cuervo Especial and Sorel). There is even an old-fashioned rotary Bakelite telephone.

If you have drunk enough coffee and rum, the place to soak up the atmosphere and observe daily life is an ice-cream parlour. Cuba insists its helados is superior even to Italian. At Cremeria El Naranjal, on Obispo, you can watch the world go by and strike up conversations with locals. Yolanda, the waitress, is hoping to save enough to travel to Florida to train as a ballet dancer. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, she says, she would have been sent to one of the foremost schools in Russia. Now, the only way to leave Cuba is with dollars. Does she miss the old days? Yes, she says, because now Cuba is neither one thing nor the other. “Cuba is ambos mundos both worlds,” she says. With a smile, she serves you a soldado de chocolate, a tres gracias or a turquino for 1 plus tip.

WITH STRAINS of music on the night air, replenished gardens and cleaned-up cobbled streets and courtyards, Old Havana is gradually reclaiming its place among the word’s most romantic cities. You can fish from Havana’s old harbour wall, but to stand a chance of catching anything big, you need to charter a boat into the darker blue waters of the Gulf Stream. Marine life around Cuba’s reefs has been plundered to supply the tourist trade and feed Cuba’s rising population. Conch shells are sold as curios, and black coral for necklace beads. Almost too late, the government has clamped down. Endangered species are theoretically protected and fishing has been curbed. But lobster is still on the menu in backstreet restaurants though there is a ban and you can find souvenirs made from the shells of rare hawksbill turtles.

It’s a far cry from Hemingway’s day, when the turquoise bays along the coast teemed with fish of every kind. But then, as the old boy knew only too well, good times don’t last for ever.

A daily record kept in the bathroom of his house at San Francisco de Paula records his daily weight loss as degenerative illnesses, including cirrhosis of the liver, eventually took hold. The house is now preserved as a museum. You can peer through the window (visitors are not allowed inside) and see his old typewriter and reading glasses. His fishing boat, El Pilar, was once moored in nearby Cojimar, the setting for his novel The Old Man and the Sea, which won him the Nobel prize for literature. Now, it is on blocks in the garden of his house, next to the empty swimming pool. His collection of shotguns is no longer there, but in his library are faded copies of The Field the British hunting magazine. His second great love, after drinking, was field sports. He had a reputation for shooting everything that moved including himself eventually. He committed suicide in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1961. If he hadn’t, his decadent lifestyle would have killed him.

He would not have had it any other way, of course. So mix me another papa, barman, and toast the revolution.

Nick Rufford travelled as a guest of Thomas Cook Signature.

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