Watered down mojitos, crowds of gawking tourists and cheesy salsa music. I expected nothing less at La Bodeguita del Medio, the famous bar where Hemingway sipped his mojitios back in the day. It’s in every guidebook and firmly on the tourist trail, but it seemed like one of those places we had to see anyway, despite the warnings.
At 4 CUC each – think of a CUC as being equivalent to a US dollar, even though the exchange rate officially screws gringos – the mojitos certainly are expensive for Cuba. But watered down? Not so much.
The tourists do arrive, packed into the tiny bar area. There’s plenty of space for sit-down diners, but if you want to belly up to the bar à la Ernest, you’ll quickly get cozy with your fellow patrons. But rather than feeling cattle car-esque, the mood is convivial and fun, with people from around the globe enjoying a highlight of their trip to Cuba.
And the music? Eco Caribe, the group playing La Bodeguita del Medio, is so good we went back. Two more times. These musicians are hugely talented as well as being really nice guys. It got to the stage where we’d spent so much time talking with the band between sets that they improvised a song about us. It. was. awesome (sadly we’d gone out without the video-capable camera that night, but we recorded this another night).
I even worked up a certain level of affection for the bartender who is a total character and has, I’m sure, seen it all before. This is, after all, a place where my request to borrow a pen got the response “to write on the wall?”
On our last night in Cuba, we decided we couldn’t leave without visiting Hemingway’s other spot, El Floridita. Supposedly this is where the author drank his daiquiris, so we of course ordered one of our own. After a week of nothing but varying combinations of rum and lemon, however, I committed what I’m sure is sacrilege by ordering a strawberry daiquiri.
The bartenders here had plenty of personality, and my heathen drink was delicious. It even came accompanied by plantain chips and air conditioning, neither of which is to be found at La Bodeguita del Medio. But while El Floridita was a nice stop, it couldn’t compete with our bar of choice.
You might wonder why we loved a tourist trap. I’m not too cool to check off the obligatory sights, but I’m also usually not lacing up my white tennies and donning my fanny pack ready to play Suzy Tourist.
Our experience at La Bodeguita del Medio reminded me that travel isn’t just about the places. It’s about the people. The place wasn’t irrelevant: we went because it’s a famous spot with a fun vibe, and even at $4 per drink, it was hardly breaking the budget.
But we went back (twice) because thanks to my husband, the most outgoing man on this planet, we had some awesome conversations with the people there. Each of the guys in the band was friendly and happy to chat with us on an individual level.
On top of that, it was interesting to talk to Cubans who’ve traveled extensively thanks to their profession. Most Cubans we talked to hadn’t left the island and understandably had preconceived notions about what the rest of the world is like whereas these musicians have personal experience in other countries to compare to their lives at home.
I’m sure plenty of people have had the typical tourist experience at La Bodeguita del Medio. They might think I’m crazy or even a sucker for raving about one of the most touristy spots in Havana. But we each only have our own experiences, and despite my hesitation, I fell in love with La Bodeguita del Medio.
More in this series:
We’re going to…
Preparing for Cuba
Snapshots from Cuba
The heart of Havana Vieja
Communist Cuba: seeing it for ourselves
Our Havana tour
Trinidad, a colonial gem
Cuba’s best beaches
Getting adventurous in Cuba
The casa particular: where to stay in Cuba
One day in Viñales