The Dark Side of Daiquiri Beach
I went to Daiquirí Beach, tracing the birthplace of that famous cocktail, to find out what’s shaking there today. What I discovered, however, was something I could not have predicted.
Illustration by Ingrid Rognstad
We were around fifty miles northwest of Guantanamo Bay, driving through brambly hillsides along a winding country road. José, my driver for the day, had no idea how to get us where we were going. He'd asked for directions nine times already. He kept calling it "Bacardi beach."
"Daiquirí beach," I'd correct him, from the passenger side.
No one we'd spoken with knew where Playa Daiquirí was either. José didn't care. He was twenty-three with a wife and kids; as long as he was getting paid, José and his beat-up red Lada would happily take me anywhere in Cuba. José had never even heard of Playa Daiquirí before. But when we met at the taxi stand outside Holguín airport a few hours earlier and I told him where I was headed, he assured me he could get us there—115 convertibles for the day—if it really existed.
Playa Daiquirí is real, I assured him, unsure.
It had to still be there, didn't it? After all, it's the birthplace of that famous cocktail. A classic daiquiri is a deceptively simple thing: a jigger of white rum, some lime juice, half a teaspoon of sugar, and crushed ice, all shaken vigorously together until blended into frothy frostiness. The name Daiquirí, originally a Taino Indian word, is also a place—and I was headed there, to the source, to find out what's shaking at Daiquirí Beach today.
We were a long way from Havana or Cayo Coco. Tourists don't often stray into the country's interior, let alone down to its whale-tail shaped bottom. The road from Holguin to the southern coast brings you into deep Cuba, the heart of what they call the patria, or homeland. "To die for the patria is to live!" trumpet the billboards. "¡Patria o Muerte!" Instead of garden gnomes, people here have guerrilla gnome lawn ornaments: long-bearded, brown-skinned, knee-high terracotta freedom fighters, right fists permanently raised in defiant solidarity.
José drove slowly to avoid all the potholes and manure. Next to the road, skinny-ribbed cows grazed on disconsolate grass beneath mango trees paisleyed with fruit. An old Russian ZIL limousine passed us, carrying skillet-faced men in fatigues. There were Viva Fidel! signs everywhere, as well as placards urging residents not to lose faith in "their" revolution. La revolución, now in its fifty-sixth year, began right here in the lush Sierra Maestra mountains surrounding us. What would happen now that a détente with the United States seemed to be on its way?
We coasted into a field with thousands of butterflies zigzagging through the air. "Mariposas!" exclaimed José, over the CubanFlow reggaeton on his car radio. Cubans pride themselves on their resourcefulness, and José seemed convinced that the volume knob could activate the car's non-functional AC, as though the musical air rippling out of the speakers might have a fanning, cooling effect. The sweatier the day became, the higher the decibels went. Now, just after noon on an early summer day, it felt meltingly hot, and correspondingly loud. This is the hottest part of the island—the countryside around Santiago de Cuba is unrelentingly tropical. People stroll down the street with parasols in hand. A sheen of mildew covers everything. The humidity slowly liquefies the pages of a reporter's notebook, reverting them into damp pulp.
"We're getting closer, I think," yelled José, cranking the music up even louder.
I wished we could stop somewhere for a daiquiri. In his 1948 classic, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, David A. Embury, ranked it as one of the six basic cocktails. The daiquiri, he wrote, "is a cocktail that is difficult to improve upon. It is dry, yet smooth. The reaction time is short."
A fast-reacting, dry yet smooth—and ice cold—daiquiri would have been a paradigmatic improvement over the lukewarm bottles of water I'd brought along for the drive. Done right, a traditional daiquiri is infinitely superior to the high-fructose artificial strawberry or banana-flavored slurpee-slushee bile most people are familiar with today. Still, one thing all daiquiris have in common, whether trashy or classy, is temperature. A daiquiri is literally and by definition cool. "Must be drunk frozen or is not good," summarized Basil Woon, in 1928's When It's Cocktail Time in Cuba.
A daiquiri can be made equally well with a blender or with a shaker, on the condition that you follow Embury's instructions to "shake as if you were suffering a super-acute attack of ague and Saint Vitus' dance combined." Doing it correctly should result in a frappéd upper layer with a liquid body that Ernest Hemingway (a profligate daiquiri connoisseur) compared to shallow ocean water. "This frozen daiquiri, so well beaten as it is, looks like the sea where the wave falls away from the bow of a ship when she is doing thirty knots," as he noted in Islands in the Stream.
When Hemingway lived in Cuba, he drank daiquiris at Havana's El Floridita bar. He liked them unsweetened and supersized: four ounces of white rum pulsed in a blender with shaved ice, lime juice, grapefruit juice, and six drops of maraschino cherry liqueur. He once drank 16 of these Papa Dobles in a single sitting. El Floridita, known as La Catedral del Daiquiri or La Cuna del Daiquiri (The Cathedral / The Cradle of the Daiquiri) still exists, although it is such a tourist trap today that it feels more like a wax museum than an actual bar you would ever want to hang out in. Nevertheless, as woeful as the bronze statue of Hemingway is, they do make mas o menos decent daqs—and a visit remains worth it, at least for the history-appeal, if not for the drinks or the bogus atmosphere.
As El Floridita's bartenders will tell you, there are two main creation myths behind the cocktail—and both of them go back to Daiquirí Beach. One of the stories involves an Italian mining engineer named Pagliuchi (or Pagliucci) who was visiting an American mining engineer named Jennings S. Cox at the iron mines of Daiquirí in the late 1800s. Cox mixed him up a drink that his miners would throw back each morning at the Venus bar in Santiago—a cocktail they christened the daiquiri. Cox's original recipe has survived, and it includes the juice of six lemons, six teaspoons of sugar, six ounces of Bacardi Carta Blanca, two small cups of mineral water, and plenty of crushed ice, all shaken together in a cocktail shaker. (The handwritten formula can be seen here.)
The other origin account concerns an overweight American general named William Rufus Shafter who was too heavy to ride a horse and "had to be transported in a cart pulled by a team of horses," according to El Floridita's website. Adept at the finer sides of life, Shafter arrived during the Spanish-American war of 1898, just as the US was taking control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, as per the Treaty of Paris. Shafter, bonvivant that he was, supposedly discovered the possibility of adding ice to a rum sour—in retrospect a rather obvious idea given the sweltering heat enveloping him.
However it really happened, the daiquiri became a thing, eventually attaining hallowed cocktail status alongside the martini, the Manhattan, and the sidecar. But what about Daiquirí Beach itself?
The autopista took José and I past vast fields of sugarcane, goatherds with their flocks, and farmers whipping yoked oxen to plow the land. Somewhere on the way toward Guantanamo province, a sign for Playa Daiquiri took us off the two-lane highway and we ended up on a smaller road. Horse-drawn carriage seemed to be the preferred means of transport in these parts. The Sierra Maestre mountains loomed above us. At one point, some giant green mastodons appeared on the horizon—they turned out to be statues from a theme park called Prehistoric Valley (Valle de la Pre Historia).
The roadside was lined with tombstones and ornamental testimonies to the fallen revolutionaries who fought alongside Fidel Castro and Che Guevarra in the 1950s. These white stone monuments sit in tall grass that stray sheep and horses munch on in the noonday heat. Every few minutes we came across billboards plastered with jingoist slogans or paintings of Communist leaders then and now.
The revolution wasn't easy (although it was televised: after Fidel took control, he gave a seven hour-long speech on national TV). The 26th of July Movement originally got underway with a failed coup attempt in 1953, when Fidel was just 26 years old. The combatants made another go of it from 1956 to 1958. In the wake of workers' strikes, they seized control of Santiago de Cuba, and then the whole country. By the first week of January, 1959 Fidel had become el jefe, and things have essentially stayed that way ever since. The people in power today are the same commandantes who expropriated, and then nationalized, all non-Cuban owned businesses after the revolution.
In 1959, the Americans who'd turned Cuba into their tropical getaway were forced out (including Hemingway, who killed himself a year and a half later). Fidel's Declaration of Havana condemned "both the exploitation of man by man and the exploitation of underdeveloped countries by imperialistic finance capital." There is something profoundly romantic, inspiring, and idealistic about his vision—despite the reality of his accomplishment having ended up becoming such an immense autocratic nightmare.
As we approached Daiquirí Beach, I wondered if the world would ever see the likes of Fidel again, and whether the exploitation of human beings and underdeveloped countries will ever be replaced by something better, fairer, kinder. Fidel loved talking about what could be—not that his Cuba ever came close to getting there. Still, there was an infectiousness to his way of seeing, of thinking, and of speaking. As Gabriel García Márquez wrote: "It is inspiration: the irresistible and dazzling state of grace, which is denied only by those who have not had the glory of experiencing it." Márquez asked Castro what he would most want to do in this world? "Just hang around on some street corner," he replied. That's what Cuba is today: not a utopia, but rather a place where there are always people on the streets, hanging around, talking, surviving. What effects Obama's efforts at rapprochement will have remain to be seen.
Butterfly thoughts were flitting through my mind as we came to a fork in the road. "Which way?" José asked. I shrugged and suggested we go left first. A few minutes later, the road became a sandy dirt road, and then it ended completely next to a tranquil little building. The sign out front said that it was a therapeutic institute. José opened the door to ask for directions to the beach. An attendant came out and said that we definitely had to go back the other way, although cars are no longer allowed down to the beach. We might be able to walk down there, he said, but we should ask at the other end of the road.
"What sort of therapeutic institute is this?" I checked, before we drove off.
It was, the attendant replied, a rehabilitation center for heroin addicts and alcoholics.
"For Cubans or foreigners?"
"Mainly for tourists," he answered, "who fly here to deal with addiction. Why do you ask? Would you like to check in?"
I shook my head and laughed, somewhat apprehensively, still processing the fact that I'd found a rehab clinic at the end of the road to Daiquirí Beach. We got back in the car, and drove back the way we'd come, taking the other turn when we got back to the fork in the road. That street ended shortly thereafter as well, at a fence that said "Zona Militar." Some large, oddly-shaped monolithic slabs of concrete stood there, serving no apparent purpose. José told me to stay in the car, because the military might not take kindly to journalistic inquiries. He approached the fence, and pretty soon a soldier came out to speak with him.
There was evidence (such as piles of rocks) that this had once been a mining region, and it turned out that the big formations nearby used to be the base of a concrete bridge that allowed a railroad to connect the mine to Santiago. As José and the official chatted, I sat there, listening to the sound of crickets as loud as trucks. It wasn't even hot anymore; it was equatorial. We were on the wrong side of the Tropic of Cancer. I looked out at the mine, and imagined typhoid-weary miners sweating in malarial pits around here, wishing they could have a cold daiquri, or at least jump in the ocean just over the ridge.
José got back in the car and informed me that there was no way for us to go forward here. "Playa Daiquiri is now a vacation spot for military personnel," he explained.
"A resting area for members of the Cuban military," he continued. "A hotel for Cuban soldiers, whether they can go rest and recover."
One of the roads took us to a rehab joint, and the other to a military R&R resort. I asked if we could at least walk down to the beach. José shook his head. "I asked," he replied. "It is off limits to tourists and civilians. No one else is allowed there except military. And definitely no foreigners."
We drove back the way we came, and then reconnected with the main road. At my insistence, we found a way to circle around along another road down to the ocean. A few minutes later, we came to a parking lot attached to another beach, which I assumed was the beach next to Daiquirí Beach. Who knows? It could have also been part of Daiquirí Beach. José pointed out a sign that said the bay here was called "The Bay of Uncircumcised Pigs." "Not just the Bay of Pigs?" I asked, as in the famous bay from the missile crisis. No, that one was way up the coast, José said, closer to Havana. As though on cue, an enormous, hairy black pig sauntered across the road in front of our parked car. "Must be uncircumcised," José said, with a laugh.
The beach looked pretty much deserted, other than a couple of guys sitting around in the shade of tree. It was sweltering. I was pining for a daiquiri, but there was nothing resembling a refrigerator, let alone an ice-box, anywhere nearby. Maybe once the regime changes, there will be Daq Shacks all over the place here. Some people probably think that would be a good thing. For now, given the many all-inclusive dumps littering the Cuban coastline, it's a relief to know there are still wild, undiscovered places left here.
An old man in rags approached and asked if we were hungry. "Do you want to eat some fish?" he asked. José shook his head. I considered it, looking out at the ocean. Was the fish freshly caught? There didn't seem to be any electricity anywhere around here, so it couldn't have been refrigerated. "Can we see the fish first?" I inquired. The man nodded. "But we'll need to go over to my house to see it," he stipulated. "It's a few miles away." We declined; the idea of driving into this heat in search of unrefrigerated fish felt far too adventurous.
I walked out to the waves, breathing in the briny marine air, content knowing that wherever we were, this was, if not the Daiquirí Beach, then at least a neighboring beach that must be pretty much identical to it. I put my hand over my forehead to shield the sun from my eyes and gazed up into the Sierra Maestra mountains, looking for a sign of what had sparked the revolution. Palm fronds rustled in the blue of summer.
"Let's go?" José asked, wondering how much more we needed to endure in this Playa Daiquiri quest. "Yes, let's go," I agreed, patting him on the back. As we turned to head back to the car, our shoes filled with sand. I couldn't wait to get to Santiago, to see if I could find the Venus bar, and finally order a proper daiquiri.
This article previously appeared on MUNCHIES in May, 2015.