On the far outskirts of Havana, we take a look inside Finca Vigia, Hemingway's Cuban home away from home.
May 19, 2016 - Words by Michael van Vliet - Photos By Megan McDuffie
Ten miles outside of Havana, on a hilltop overlooking the ocean, sits a bright, airy villa. Inside, the walls are covered with African game trophies, posters of Spanish bullfights, and shelves filled with thousands of books. In the living room, a fully stocked dry bar sits at the ready. This is Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s home-away-from-home. And from the immaculate condition in which the house appears, it looks as if the famed author had just stepped out.
After spending many years living in Key West during the 1930’s, Hemingway moved to Cuba in 1939. At first he lived out of an apartment in Old Havana, but he soon moved to the working class town of San Francisco de Paula and began renting Finca Vigia. A year later he bought the farmhouse and accompanying 15 acres property for $12,500.
For the next twenty years, Hemingway used Finca Vigia as homebase to write, entertain, and relax. He spent much of his time out on the water, sport fishing, and carousing about the Caribbean aboard his boat Pilar, which he kept at a nearby marina.
He wrote many of his notable later works here, including: For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and The Sea, and A Moveable Feast. It is also the home where he gathered his most prized possessions, such as animal trophies, fishing rods, paintings, thousands of photographs, original manuscripts, correspondence, journals, and his personal library of almost nine thousand books.
His fourth and final wife, Mary, oversaw the construction of a tower writer’s workshop next to the main house, but Hemingway prefered to work in the house at one of his many standing desks. So despite having remarkable views of both the ocean and Havana, the tower room was eventually turned over to the many cats Hemingway kept on the property.
After the Cuban revolution in 1959, Hemingway remained on good terms with the new government – and even presented Fidel Castro with a trophy for winning a fishing contest. However, just as relations between the US and Cuba began to deteriorate, so did Hemingway's health and mental state. After his apparent suicide in 1961 in Idaho, Finca Vigia was abandoned. While the Cuban government officially maintains that Hemingway left the house to the Cuban people in his will, there is heavy suspicion the property actually seized – as were all other forms of private property at that time – by the newly formed communist government.
From the 1960’s onward, the house was kept as a museum, but poor funding lead to its slow decline into disrepair. The heat, humidity, and salty air exacted a heavy toll on the structure of the house, and the US National Trust for Historic Preservation at one point warned it was in danger of collapse.
But in 2005, in a rare moment of cooperation, the Cuban government allowed a US nonprofit to oversee the restoration and preservation of the house. Thousands of documents and photographs were conserved and digitized, and the interior was painstakingly restored back to its 1950’s splendor. Even Hemingway’s boat was brought to the property and completely restored. Now, visitors can see the Finca Vigia in the way it looked when Hemingway lived there.
The property is located a short taxi ride away from the center of Havana. Guided tours are available around the property, but to avoid theft, visitors are not allowed to enter the house. Thankfully, there are plenty of open windows and doors that you can pop your head into and catch a glimpse of what life was like for Hemingway in Cuba.
Michael van Vliet is one half of the team at Fresh Off the Grid, a camp cooking blog. They feature recipes specifically designed for cooking in the outdoors, written on the road as he and his girlfriend travel the United States.
Want to take your own trip to Cuba? Learn more about Coast to Costa here.