June 2008

Sophie at the Capitol in Havana

THE Bodeguita del Medio in Old Havana is a memorable spot for a rite of passage – sitting up at the bar with a 16-year-old daughter for the first time, drinking mojitos. 

La Bodegita del Medio
La Bodeguita del Medio

These days you may drink mojitos in perhaps 60 bars called La Bodeguita del Medio, from Palo Alto in California to an alleyway off Kensington High Street in London. All of these lack at least two things: the hot stink of dusty, falling-to-pieces Havana, and the authentic link to Ernest Hemingway, author, womaniser, fist-fighter and Cuba’s most famous resident after Fidel Castro.

There’s a thrill in watching the barman churn out mojitos from the spot where Hemingway sat, even if thousands of tourist backsides have rubbed the barstools clear of any trace.

I can tell you how to make a mojito, but unless you’re drinking it in a rare British heatwave it won’t taste anything like it does in the searing heat of a Cuban July. If you’re giving one to your 16-year-old daughter, tell the barman to make it “un poquito ron” – even if she does seem as grown-up as Marlene Dietrich did when she drank here with Hemingway.

Soak up the mojitos (four pesos, equivalent to about £2.80) with a meal of frijoles negros dormidos (“sleeping black beans”) and roast pork. We couldn’t get a table because they were all taken by tourists who arrived waving little vouchers for a mojito and a meal, from one or other of the refreshingly air-conditioned hotels that are just about the only well-maintained buildings in the old city.

We didn’t stay at one of those.

Heading for our B&B ... or Casa particular

 Heading for our B&B … or Casa particular

Instead I booked rooms (30 pesos a night) at the Casa Humberto, in Compostela Street, a pungent, potholed dirt road lined with crumbling colonial-era town houses now crammed with poor families. The Humberto is a “casa particular” – or a B&B, as we would call it, though a B&B with a difference, as many things are different in Havana. On our first morning Miladis, the lady of the house, served up a refreshing breakfast of fresh bread, mangoes, guavas, melon and fried egg. On the second morning she told us that she had forgotten to go shopping so there would be no breakfast.

You can make your visit to Havana a Hemingway pilgrimage (from the fishing village of Cojímar  to Room 511 of the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where he stayed in the 1930s, and of course La Bodeguita del Medio and the nearby Floridita restaurant, famed for daiquiris).

You can also go to the Museum of the Revolution and learn more than you thought possible about how Castro, Che Guevara and their band of bearded revolutionaries swept the dictator Batista from power in the late 1950s. The museum is in Batista’s palace, which is fitting and a building worth seeing for its own sake.

If you tire of the ever-present Revolution and Hemingway, a real treat is to be had in the portrait galleries of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, which tell the story of Havana in the faces of its people, going all the way back to the 17th century.

Outside, in the searing heat, the best way to see Havana is from “Habana Tour” buses. For a five-peso ticket you can hop on and hop off as often as you like between 9am and 9pm.

We got off near the Habana Libra hotel in the more modern and therefore cleaner Vedado district of the city. Only in a dictatorship could you expect to see armed guards controlling the queues of people going into a park, in this case the Heladeria Coppelia, a park built around an ice-cream parlour.

Don Varga making lunch  a memorable experience

Don Varga and a musical lunch

 A block up from the park is the excellent fish restaurant, Mares, where in addition to a fine lunch we were entertained to Son music by “Don Varga y los del Karibe”. As this restaurant is off the main tourist trail, you will not be able to use your credit card. You will, however, be expected to dip your hand in your pocket to tip the band a peso or two.

Music while you eat is a feature of Cuba. Some of the best bands were to be heard back in Old Havana, in the Cathedral Square. There is only one restaurant here, El Patio. The food was disappointing and over-priced, but the liveliness of the square made up for it. The waiter claimed that Castro used to eat here, at a table on the balcony overlooking the square. But that was before the first of the 25 assassination attempts he survived.

It’s a wonder that such a downtrodden people remain so cheerful and friendly towards affluent tourism, but they do.

Back in the tourist enclave of Varadero, smiles are measured by the yard. This is not surprising: the Cubans are desperate to get their hands on tourist pesos (24 Cuban to one “convertible” peso).

The tourist kind buy anything you can see in the shops; the local money is good only with a ration card and an ID card.

Be sure to take just about everything you’ll need, though, because the shops are thinly stocked, even if you do have tourist pesos. I spent the hottest morning of our stay tramping the baked streets of the town of Varadero in search of suncream to avoid paying £14 a bottle at the Plaza América shopping mall near our hotel.

Most of the 50-plus Varadero hotels are all-inclusive, so there’s not much reason to spend money on anything but tips – though you’ll be invited to do that on a regular basis.

At the Sol Palmeras hotel our waitresses behaved more like old flames, greeting me with a hug and a kiss before every meal. The hotel has a large buffet restaurant plus smaller Italian, steak and Chinese restaurants. We stuck to the excellent buffet and our friendly waitresses.

Smiles? See what I mean.



The hotel has a massive 600 rooms, of which more than 200 are bungalows tucked away among the tropical trees in the grounds. By luck our bungalow was a short walk from the hotel proper, along with the pools and bars. It’s as well to specify that you don’t want to be in one of the far-flung corners of the grounds.

Perhaps because Cuba is only just taking off as a mass tourism destination, the hotel attracts guests from just about every corner of the globe: from Argentina to Japan, Canada to Libya.

The highlight of Sophie’s holiday was undoubtedly swimming with dolphins during an excursion booked at the hotel. Dolphin


Mojito recipe

Mash, or muddle, a substantial sprig of mint
with caster sugar and lime – juice or wedges, take your
pick. Add white rum, crushed ice and top up with soda
water. Some people add a splash of Angostura bitters,
to cut the sweetness.


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