Havana In Seven Mojitos

havana mojitos

“My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in La Floridita,” wrote Ernest Hemingway of his infamous drinking exploits in Havana. “Ernesto,” as the Cubans call him, was a big fan of the rum, lime and mint-based cocktail, as evidenced by the slew of drinking holes throughout Cuba where he was reported to have drunk himself silly.

Indeed, sipping mojitos is a big part of the tourist experience in Cuba. And in a country where a glass of high-quality Havana Club Reserva costs significantly less than a bottle of purified water, there’s no reason not to partake in abundance. Cuba’s capital of Havana is flush with drinking establishments to help facilitate the cultural experience. Here are seven.

La Bodeguita del Medio
For tourists following the “Hemingway” trail, La Bodeguita del Medio is the Holy Grail – an atmospheric wood-paneled watering hole lined with photos and scribbled endorsements from Hemingway, as well as famous patrons like Fidel Castro and Salvador Allende. The place is often crammed with tourists herded in by the busload, who snap photos and clap their hands to a live band. The mojitos, however, are overpriced (CUC$4) and taste watered down.

El Patio
Situated smack in the middle of Havana’s Plaza Cathedral, El Patio certainly beats the competition in terms of location. Mojitos (CUC$3.50) are lightly sweetened and stuffed full with mint leaves, and live music plays long into the night. Stake out a spot on the ground floor for priceless people watching.

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Vinales

We were welcomed to Vinales with big smiles, handshakes and enthusiastic promises of music from Buena Vista Social Club. Our guard immediately went up; it was clear we were being solicited by a jinetero, a ubiquitous breed of Cuban hustler. Despite our protests, he called over the waitress and ordered us a round of mojitos, which were sugary sweet, with too much lime and too little mint. Sure enough, the bill confirmed our suspicions. At CUC$6 each, the mojitos were the most expensive we encountered in Havana, and it was clear our new friend had pocketed a portion of the “tip.”

Café Paris
Located on a busy corner in Old Havana, Café Paris is a popular spot for tourists seeking ceiling fans and a cool drink. Mojitos (CUC$3.50) were unmemorable, but the ambience provided the perfect midday respite from the Cuban heat.

Jazz Cafe
For a taste of Cuba’s most talented musicians, head to Jazz Cafe, a sleek 1950s diner-inspired spot above the Galerias del Paseo shopping mall in the neighborhood of Vedado. The CUC$10 cover includes the equivalent in food and drink, and the mojitos are a steal at CUC$2.50. Let the mind-blowing drum and saxophone solos distract you from the less-than-mind-blowing drinks, which were heavy on the sugar syrup.

Hotel Florida
The ground floor lounge at Hotel Florida is that rare nightlife spot that’s equally popular with locals and gringos. Compared to other music venues, entrance was cheap – CUC$5, including two drinks. The mojitos weren’t stellar, but they were strong – which really, was all we needed to wash away our inhibitions and hit the dance floor.

And the winner is … The Gallery Bar at Hotel Nacional
The mojito (CUC$4) at Havana’s most famous hotel bar strikes the sweet spot without being overpowering. The secret? Angostura bitters and a splash of dark rum. It’s no wonder that the bar’s former patrons include Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando and Nat King Cole. With the bar’s stash of high-grade Cuban cigars and dominos, you can easily while away an entire afternoon here – that is until it’s time to hit up the next bar.

Cuba’s Budget-Friendly Accommodation Option: Casas Particulares

Cuba’s casas particulares are already old hat for backpackers and other budget-minded types hailing from outside the US.

Europeans, Latin Americas, Canadians, and others have been digging the casa particular scene since the 1990s, when the Cuban government began to permit private citizens to rent out rooms in their houses to tourists.

Cuba’s privately-owned rooms generally cost between CUC$15 ($16) and CUC$50 ($52) for a double room per night, with a great number clustering in the CUC$20-25 ($21-$26) range.

The casa particular is a budget traveler’s dream: cheap and simple, with breakfast on offer for a few extra CUCs, or convertible pesos. Many casas also provide dinner at a very reasonable additional cost. Some offer private bathrooms; others provide shared facilities. Across Havana’s gorgeous Vedado and Miramar neighborhoods, many casas particulares take up space in gorgeous old mansions on romantic, tree-lined streets.

The casa particular accommodation form bears more similarity to gîtes, the French owner-occupied guesthouse accommodation model than it does to the North American bed & breakfast. The owners are on site or easily accessible, and the vibe is friendly and familiar. Guests feel as if they are staying in a home, not a hotel.

Very clearly (thankfully, even) there is also no domestic Cuban B&B industry churning out chintz and ruffled window curtains for a particular look. You can be fairly sure that your casa particular will be outfitted simply, but beyond that a unified aesthetic will be difficult to identify.

Most crucially for tourists interested in meeting locals and getting a sense of life in Cuba, casas particulares allow for extensive socializing between owners and tourists.

Casaparticularcuba, casaparticular, and cubaparticular also list rooms for rent. The Lonely Planet guide to Cuba also provides a good listing of casas particulares in Havana.

Cuba Libre: Havana – Part 2

Having spent only two days in Havana and entirely in the old part of the city and only having two more days before hitting the road to Trinidad to meet up with the boys, I still had a lot of ground to cover.

The beach
Havana is full of great seaside and beach. If the outer part of Havana (where we stayed) called Miramar and Playa don’t strike your fancy, you can opt for taking a short bus or cab ride to Playa del Este. When I finally felt well enough to leave my suite, I took a quick dip in the ocean with my swimming goggles to see if there were some fishies to see. A local free diver helped me into the water and we toured the seas together. He pointed out some tiny squids, pufferfish, and some other things I just didn’t understand (is “pupu” a fish?). There was plenty of life just off the coast of the hotel, so I imagine the diving is probably pretty decent all over.

The art
We went into town that afternoon and browsed the Cuba’s most prized art museum, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. The Cuban art circa the Revolution was by far the most interesting, but we only browsed the second floor and got a bit bored, so we left. We did miss out on the third floor, which we just learned houses the Wilfredo Lam collection (oops!), but there is another smaller museum in Havana that is dedicated to Lam’s works called the Centro Wilfredo Lam.

The Vedado district
It is easy to get to Vedado, the most modern as well as the wealthier part of Havana, by foot via the back streets of central Habana and the Malecón. Just turn left when you spot the grand Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which sits on a hill with a grand view of the sea. It was a great place to snap a photo by a huge Cuban flag, and just to rest our feet. The Vedado really lights up at night with salsa clubs, bars, and discotecas starting at 10 p.m.

Live music
Lora and I decided to watch some live music in Miramar at a well-known joint called “La Casa de la Música.” There is one of these in every major city in Cuba. Our hotel concierge said one of the better Cuban bands led by Adalberto Alvares was playing that night, and because of his popularity he insisted that we be at the box office by 10 p.m. to get the tickets. Lora’s guidebook confirmed this advice, as it said concerts started at 10, so we left the hotel at 8:30 and split a quick dinner at a paladar a few blocks away called Paladar Los Cactus, which happened to be owned by a man who knew quite well my new crush, Che Guevara. (I’m not kidding!) The main dining room had a whole collection of letters from Che, as well as Che photos and a few Che artifacts. It almost seems as if Che is more revered than Fidel, but I’m thinking this has a lot to do with the fact that Che died. I can only speculate what will happen when Fidel passes. There will likely be a mixture of mourning for a great hero, yet a celebration and call for change to commence.

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We made it to “La Casa de la Musica” at 10 p.m. only to discover that the box office didn’t open until 11 p.m. We had a Bucanero beer (me – this became my drink of choice) and mojito (Lora – did you know mojitos came from Cuba?) and were the first to buy tickets and get seats inside. We clearly assumed the band would start playing no later than midnight, but found out the band would play for just one hour from 1-2 a.m. When 1 a.m. finally did roll around, some salsa dancing had already been had by Cubano couples near the stage. “Adalberto Alvares” is not just one guy, nor is it really one specific guy; it’s a full Cuban salsa band complete with a dozen players including four percussion players, three brass players, four singers, and a lone female pianist. The music ranged from rap to belting salsa, but it was distinctly Cuban with a Latin and Caribbean style. The band itself was pretty awesome and, yes, worth the wait, but the long three-hour wait was excruciating, and we had hoped at least that the band would play for longer than an hour. The music was promptly over at 2 and we were promptly pooped and went to bed.

Castillo de la Real Fuerza
Lora’s final evening was supposed to have been our big evening out on the town, soaking in the Vedado nightlife. We had every intention to do this, but Lora quickly found herself out of cash and we were both sort of low on energy. We made a grand attempt though: we left the Melia at 8 p.m. and then were shuttled over to the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, a 16th century fortress – the oldest in Havana and the oldest surviving one of its kind in the hemisphere, to watch the ceremonial setting off of the cannon.

Lora’s book said we could see the events take place from the Malecón, but our shuttle brought us directly to the fort (across the canal). As one would expect (we were in Habana, after all, where everything is three times as expensive), the entrance fee to see the ceremony cost 8 convertible! We weren’t too keen on the price. Nevertheless, we obliged.

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Luckily, the proceedings were really quite interesting! Soldiers wore colonial garb (complete with white wigs) and marched to the fortress that faced Habana Vieja. A man with a torch emerged from the barracks with a lighted torch and marched to the cannon as he sang/chanted. There was a lot of build-up to the setting off of the cannon, but finally there was a huge, startling explosion and the ball was set off, landing somewhere in the canal (I hope!). We had about 30 minutes following the ceremony to browse the fortress. I lost Lora in the small chapel, but managed to find a cool collection of Che artifacts in a nearby museum and listened for a while to some street music before boarding the bus back to the city.

The last supper
We were dropped off in the Vedado. Lora and I walked several blocks, intent of having dinner at El Gringo Viejo. The food was quite good (I had no idea chicken could taste good with olives and mushrooms!), but when we were done, Lora realized her sunburn (she had tanned by the pool during my long two-day recover) was quite bad and she was experiencing fatigue and pain. We had saved all that energy to see the Habana nightlife and pretty much came up empty. I didn’t really care that much, but I could tell Lora was bummed. I think she had expected some serious energy to the nightlife, but we quickly learned that some nights are just not meant to be. Our week in Habana really turned out to be a relaxed resort vacation with brief spurts of sightseeing, but for the most part, we probably could have been staying anywhere as long as it had a pool. It’s just as well – Habana was fun while it lasted, but I was glad to hit the road to Trinidad to meet the boys the following morning.

For a complete listing of my Cuba Libre posts, please click HERE or skip straight to the good stuff —