Key West Ties To Cuba: Art, History & The Sea

Key West to Cuba, so close, yet so far away. In today’s blog we are going to explore Key West ties to Cuba by visiting some popular Key West museums and attractions along the way.

Shipwrecks & Voyages ~ Mel Fisher Maritime Museum

Photo Credit: Nuestra Senora de Atocha sinking: Model by Dan O’Neill at Mel Fisher Maritime Musuem

Mel Fisher Museum is the place to explore shipwrecks, artifacts, and maritime history and learn about treasure hunter Mel Fisher. Beyond the gold and silver there are so many stories to be told and today it’s about the ships that sailed and their connection between Key West and Cuba.

The Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha was built in Havana in 1620. It had left from there in September 4, 1622, loaded with treasure and 260 souls on its 2nd voyage to Spain, when it was struck by a hurricane one day later. It and six other ships were sunk along the Florida Keys. Famed treasure hunter Mel Fisher found the Atocha and much of it can be seen at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum.

The African Cemetery on Higgs Beach in Key West contains the graves of 295 African people who were part of a larger group rescued by the US Navy in 1860, from slave ships bound for Cuba. Much of modern Cuban culture – its music, Santeria religion, and dance – is linked to West African traditions that came with the people on slave ships.

Rafters Cross the Waters between Cuba and the Florida Keys

As many Cubans grew disillusioned with Fidel Castro’s communist government, they fled the island to seek freedom in the US. An exodus of rafters began to make the crossing of the waters between Cuba and the Florida Keys in the 1960’s. In 1980, a huge exodus of Cuban people left in what was called the Mariel Boat Lift. Nearly 125,000 people left Cuba and most of them arrived at the piers of Truman Annex, fronting the Key West Harbor. The US Coast Guard Cutter Ingham was instrumental in rescuing many of these fleeing refugees. Only in 2017, with the end of US policies that encouraged Cuban migration, has the flow of refugees subsided. The small, ramshackle Cuban refugee boat Mariana that arrived in Key West in 2015 with 24 refugees can be seen in front of the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum.

You can learn more about the stories above by visiting the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum on your next trip to Key West.

Mel Fisher Maritime Museum

200 Green Street, Key West, FL 33040

Hours 8:30AM – 5:00PM

Jose Marti & San Carlos “La Casa Cuba” ~ San Carlos Institute

Photo Credit:

Jose Marti, the leading figure in Cuba’s independence from Spain, spent much time in Key West raising money and support from the large Cuban expatriate community here. It was at the San Carlos that José Marti united the exile community in 1892 to launch the final phase of his campaign for Cuba’s independence.  Jose Marti called San Carlos  “La Casa Cuba.”


San Carlos Institute is one of Florida’s most beautiful and historic landmarks founded in 1871 by Cuban exiles of Key West as an educational, civic, and patriotic center.

Today the San Carlos Institute, a Cuban heritage center, is a multi-purpose facility that serves as a museum, library, art gallery, and theater. Admission is free. Groups are welcome.

While taking a stroll on Duval Street make sure to visit this historic site.   You can also find a monument to Jose Marti in Bayview Park.


San Carlos Institute

516 Duval Street

Key West, Florida

Cigar Industry

The cigar industry took root in Key West in the mid 1800’s. Experienced Cuban cigar workers came to the island to roll imported Cuban tobacco in the many factories that were built. For over 50 years, Key West was the center of the US cigar industry. Many of the factory buildings still stand, converted to new uses – the best example is the E.H. Gato factory on Simonton Street, which today houses Monroe County government offices. It’s a couple of blocks from Southernmost Beach Resort.



Hemingway Home and Museum One of the most popular tourists attractions in the island is the Hemingway Home and Museum on Whitehead Street in Key West.  It is here you will learn all about Ernest Hemingway, the author ~ where he lived, wrote, ate, drank and married.  The same can be said for Hemingway in Cuba and his home and museum there.   Here are some fascinating similarities with Hemingway’s Key West and Hemingway’s Cuba:


Where He Lived:

Hemingway maintained permanent residences in Key West and Cuba.

He lived in Key West at 907 Whitehead Street, (now the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum) from 1931 to 1939. Finca Vigía, or Lookout Farm, is where Ernest Hemingway had made his home from 1939 to 1960. Today both are popular tourist attractions and museums.

Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum

Open 9am – 5pm

907 Whitehead Street

Key West, FL 33040


What He Wrote:

While in Key West, Hemingway had written some of his best works including short story classics “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” his novel To Have And Have Not, and the non-fiction work Green Hills of Africa.


While Hemingway was in Cuba he had written seven books including, Island in the Stream, A Moveable Feast and The Old Man and the Sea.


Hemingway Drank Here | Sloppy Joe’s in Cuba and Key West

Key West ~ Sloppy Joe’s and Captain Tony’s! Both are on the map as two of the most popular Key West Bars in Key West and yes Hemingway drank at both places. Bar stools and bragging rights come into play as who really has a piece of Hemingway’s legend and where the original Sloppy Joe’s was actually located.  Hemingway was a friend of Joe Russell, owner of Sloppy Joe’s, and was the bar’s most famous patron. We can agree on one thing that Hemingway did frequent both places because before Sloppy Joe’s move to the Duval Street location, Hemingway did drink at the 428 Greene Street now known as Captain Tony’s Saloon.  We aren’t going to get into a bar brawl over “Original Sloppy Joes” but just leaving it as Hemingway drank here.


Photo Credit: Sloppy Joe’s Bar Key West Facebook Page

Cuba ~ Sloppy Joe’s Bar

Yes there is a Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Havana. It was closed for almost 50 years but during the 30’s it was a popular bar and restaurant.  Any guesses on who might have been a frequent patron there ~ Hemingway!   Ernest Hemingway would frequent Sloppy Joe’s in Havana often and many times would bring Joe Russell (owner of Sloppy Joe’s in Key West.)

The newly reopened Sloppy Joe’s bar is pictured in Havana April 12, 2013. Rueters/Desmond Boylan

In 1959, after the triumph the Cuban revolution, Sloppy Joe’ s Bar was closed and abandoned together with its history. After being closed for almost 50 years, Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Havana reopened in 2013.

Key West Custom House | Hemingway Exhibits and More

Photo credit: Key West Art  Historical Society

Hemingway Exhibits at the Key West Custom House

In addition to visiting the Hemingway Home and Museum make sure to head over to the Key West Custom House on Front Street.  Current online and offline exhibits include “Depicting Hemingway,” an exhibition featuring 59 original Guy Harvey sketches which follow the narrative of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.”  If you want to learn more about the author and his time in Key West make sure to visit the museum’s online exhibit  “Hemingway in Key West.”


Historic Swim from Havana to Key West on Exhibit

In January 2017, Dyana Nyad donated items she wore during her historic 2013 swim from Havana to Key West to the Key West Custom House. Some of the items donated includes the bathing suit, goggles and custom-designed jellyfish protection face mask Nyad used during the nearly 111-mile swim that took almost 53 hours. Nyad was 64 years old when she succeeded on her fifth attempt to complete the Florida Straits crossing. Landing on Key West’s Smathers Beach on Labor Day, she became the first person ever to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage.


Key West Custom House

Open 9:30 – 4:30pm

281 Front Street, Key West, Florida 33040


This is the first of many Key West Ties to Cuba features we will be sharing with you. During your visit to Key West make sure to tour some of the museums and exhibits mentioned above along with a cocktail or two at Sloppy Joe’s.


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