Forget Cuba, the best place to capture the Hemingway spirit of Old Havana is in today’s Old San Juan.
By Max Milano (Hemingway searcher)*
If you want to catch a glimpse of what pre-Castro Havana must have been like; full of casinos, American tourists and iconic cocktail bars, or want to live the Havana of Hemingway and Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana”, look no further than the cobblestones streets of today’s Old Jan Juan.
It has to be one of the most ironic twists of history, but Havana today has more in common with Bratislava circa 1984 than with its heyday as the party capital of the Caribbean. Yes, one can visit Havana today (on a cultural tour) and try to imagine how great it was back in the day, but in spite of what Ray Cooder might say, Cuba’s 50 plus years under dictatorship have all but erased all traces of the Havana that Hemingway wrote about; its casinos are long gone and the paint is literally peeling off the walls of its formerly grand buildings.
If you want to stop imagining how cool Old Havana was and actually live it, head over to Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, today.
Puerto Ricans love rum and it shows. The bar at the Ritz Carlton features a “Rummelier” instead of a sommelier, and in Old San Juan you don’t have to walk more than half a block in any direction to find a great watering hole. Where else in the world would you find a plaque honoring Pina Colada? Old San Juan today has all the charm of Old Havana, and then some.
My first Old San Juan pit stop is The Parrot Club, is my personal equivalent of Hemingway’s second favorite bar in Havana; La Floridita (his favorite being La Bodeguita del Medio, where a now famous autograph hangs above the bar proclaiming: “My Daiquiri at La Floridita and my Mojito at La Bodequita”). Following Papa Hemingway’s advice I order a Daiquiri. I love The Parrot Club and all the trendy Nuevo Latino restaurants and traditional Spanish Style Tapas bars around it, just perfect for that all night rum crawl that Puerto Ricans are so fond off on Friday and Saturday nights.
After my Daiquiri at the Parrot Club, I head to the Newyorican Café around the corner. This bar could be the answer to Havana’s La Bodeguita, with the added bonus of it being the temple of live salsa in Old San Juan. After admiring the locals’s fancy dance steps, I begin to suspect that they practice in front of a mirror every afternoon, because everyone seems to be an expert in hip shaking and fancy footwork. Perhaps they don’t need to practice, I saw children as young as 8 dancing with their parents (kids don’t get served drinks, of course, but they do boogie, it’s in their blood).
I finish my Old San Juan rum crawl at a hole in the wall by the Plaza Colon. The décor is basic, just a few local beer posters and the punters are a bunch of local crusty bon vivants. A hand written cardboard sign above the bar promotes “Chichaíto” shots for one buck. The chichaíto is Puerto Rico’s national cocktail, it even has it’s own Facebook page. Known stateside as a “Silver Bullet”; Puerto Rico’s chichaíto is made with equal parts anisette and white rum, making it absolutely lethal in the heat (I guess that’s the whole point). As I swig my chichaíto with the crusty locals, I can’t help but think of Hunter S. Thompson and the other greats who drank and wrote in Old San Juan; it’s a perfect place for both activities. And just as Hemingway found inspiration in his favorite Old Havana bars, I had just found inspiration in my new favorite Old San Juan joint (but it could be just the chichaíto talking, salud!).
Next Week: The Rum Daily part 2: Condado and PR’s wild east and west coasts.
* Max Milano is the Author of “The Mechanicals of Recoleta”. Available at Amazon.