As with many old stories, different versions abound and “The Old Man and the Sea” is no exception. When Ernest Hemingway moved to Cuba in the 1930s, he first lived and worked in Room 511 at the Ambos Mundos Hotel in Old Havana. In 1940, he bought a home outside of Havana in the village of San Francisco de Paula named Finca Vigia, or Lookout Farm. The large complex is perched on a high hill roughly 10 miles southeast of the bustling streets of the capital city. The avid fisherman would dock his boat, the “Pilar,” in the small seaside village to the north known as Cojimar. That much is accepted as fact, but the rest, depending on which search engine you use, is up for grabs.
For many, many years, Cuba travelers would flock to a small block house along the dusty streets of Cojimar in search of “El Capitan,” thoroughly believing that he, Gregorio Fuentes, was indeed the inspiration of “The Old Man and the Sea.” A fluctuating admission price to hang out with this 100-year-old-plus Cuban man ranged from free to $15. Ask anyone who either paid it, or slid in for free and they’ll tell you it was worth it. It was. The sad part is that by most accounts, it was actually Hemingway’s original first mate Carlos Gutiérrez, who may have loaned more to the story than Fuentes.
Originally from the Canary Islands, Fuentes worked for Hemingway for many years after Gutiérrez, and whether or not he was the model for the book, he was certainly a direct connection to an incredible past.
One generally accepted fact is that when Hemingway died, the fishing community in Cojimar donated brass fittings, anchors and such to create a life-size bust of the famed writer and fishing fanatic.
A half-century later, the bronze statue stands in a large square near a relatively small, 17th century-era fortress that marks the easternmost part of Havana’s defense system. A round, concrete foundation holds the bust, which faces the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, as stately as the monument may be, somebody made a mistake in Hemingway’s birth year of 1899, a detail pointed out recently by Leonardito, the college student who makes a living by chauffeuring around an obsessed photographer who would have never noticed a thing.