Local knowledge: Havana

Author Mark Kurlansky takes us through his Havana, including the most famous place for a Mojito and where to go when you're tired of authentic country pork.

Parque Central, Havana.


Author Mark Kurlansky has been visiting Havana for 30 years.  InHavana: A Subtropical Delirium, his musings, sketches, photographs are presented side-by-side with a detailed local history of this 500-year-old city. Here, he takes us through his Havana, including the most famous place for a Mojito and where to go when you’re tired of authentic country pork.

The first thing I do in Havana is drink a Mojito. It’s a tradition I’ve been following now for almost 35 years. Back then, Cuba was the only place to get a Mojito. Now you can find them anywhere, but Cuba, especially Havana, is still the only place to get a good one. The rest of the world uses the wrong rum, the wrong mint – it needs to be the local tropical spearmint – and too much ice. My first sip of the real Mojito and welcome back – I know I’m in Havana.

The most famous place for a Mojito is La Bodeguita del Medio in Habana Vieja. This is not the best Mojito in town – lots of candidates for that – but it’s where Hemingway supposedly had his Mojitos. Years ago, when the original owner, Angel Martínez, was still alive, he told me that Hemingway hardly ever went there. The restaurant, which, as the name implies, started as a grocery store with a bar, has downmarket chic. The walls are covered with graffiti, since long before the revolution. The food, mostly pork, is authentic country food. When I first went there in Soviet days it was about the best meal you could find. The music groups playing old-time son and boleros are the perfect accompaniment to a Mojito or just a rum. Sometimes there’s a tres player who built the instrument himself. It’s a six-string guitar with three sets of double strings tuned in octaves. More authentic than Hemingway’s endorsement, Errol Flynn said it was “the best place to get drunk”.

When you’re tired of authentic country pork go to El Templete; not the monument to the founding of the city but a restaurant with the same name. The first manager was a Basque, followed by a Catalan, followed by a chef from Málaga. It’s not authentically Cuban, and that may be a good thing. There are great seafood dishes here, from the Basque Country, Catalonia and Spain.

One of my favourite things to do in Havana is watch the Industriales play in the Estadio Latinoamericano, the largest baseball stadium in Cuba, but only the size of a Triple-A baseball stadium in America. Nevertheless half or more of the players are of Major League quality and the fans, never quiet, know everything about baseball.

To learn more about baseball go to Parque Central any morning, to a spot called La Esquina Caliente, by the José Martí statue, where fans argue about yesterday’s games. You wouldn’t want to enter these furious debates but you can enjoy the finer points of the game that they dispute.

Related stories