For my first and second nights in Havana I stayed at the fancy Hotel Nacional de Cuba located in the Vedado neighborhood. The hotel was built by New York architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White in 1930 and at the time cost $7 million USD.
There are a few reasons why I chose to stay here initially. The first being that I wanted something familiar and comfortable until I figured out the lay of the land, I knew it would be filled with tourists and I was okay with that. Secondly I knew Tom, Carmen, and Isabel were staying there for a few days until they returned to Ann Arbor. Lastly, I was able to book it online using a credit card, something I wouldn’t be able to do for any of my other lodging. The lobby and grounds are beautifully kept and while my room a little less so, it was clean and comfortable, just showing its age a bit. And the elevator to get to my room? Beautiful but made me a teeeny bit nervous every time I set foot in it. I trait I'm not sure when or how I came to adopt is my hypochondria of Random Tragedy. Ugh. There was AC, internet (for purchase - more on that in a minute), and a HUGE breakfast buffet. For being one of the fanciest hotels in the city the drinks were good and cheap and the service prompt. I overheard a few folks complaining that the food was bad I didn't agree with them entirely. While it wasn't gourmet I've definitely had worse and a sandwhich was less expensive here than some of the places in Habana Vieja. My favorite part was the patio, which was perfect for reading and people watching in the evenings when I didn’t particularly want to go out out but didn’t want to feel lonely in my room. There was a resident peacock that snuck a bite of sandwich off my plate (!!) but mostly strolled the grounds acting as fodder for tourist photos. Also the hotel staff spoke English so I felt reassured that if I had any major issues we’d be able to communicate.
( I just learned from Wikipedia that the tunnels located on the hotel grounds were not built for the Cuban Missile Crisis / October Crisis but date as far back as 1797!)
Now the “bad” stuff, which mostly just felt…hmmm....unwelcoming? I'm having a hard time describing it, maybe if I come at it sideways: usually hotels go out of their way to make you, despite actually being a patron, feel like a guest. My experience at the Hotel Nacional felt explicitly transactional.
If you weren’t a patron / guest certain things were off limits. (And if you aren't a tourist forget about any of it.) There are two money exchanges (CADECA / Casas de Cambio), one near the reception and one in the basement by the pool. Only guests can use the one near the reception, they ask your room number and confirm it on their computers. The exchange rate for USD is MUCH better here than in the basement. The sign outside the basement CADECA says “For Guests Only” but no one asked and the line appeared to have both Cubans (hotel employees?) and tourists. The basement CADECA is going to be my little secret because I’ve seen the lines for the ones in the city!
When leaving the hotel with my towering backpack on the doormen asked me for the ticket stub I was given when I checked out. Not realizing this was going to be required I started digging in my mess of a purse to find it. Although it’s probably some requirement by the government it felt a little like a proverbial kick to the curb. (Am I reading too much into it? Anyone know the real reason for collecting the check-out stub?)
My biggest gripe though is about the hotel's internet policy. I know, I know, this is EVERYONE'S biggest complaint, so weefee-dependent we've all become!!! Anyone can go the the internet cafe they have upstairs but guests and non-guests are charged different rates. (I went back a few days ago and was charged 2.50 CUCs for 15 minutes...1CUC = 1USD) As a guest you can pay 10 CUCs for 12 hours and 20 CUCs for 24. The day that I arrived I paid my 10 CUCs and when I checked out I still had 9 hours left unused. I thought, “Great! I’ll just come back here to use the rest of my internet time, I'll buy a drink…enjoy the patio...post some 'Grams.” But once you check out the internet you paid for is gone. Which I think is bullshit. Obviously I realize it’s just “one of those things” but it’s annoying. Not sure it would fly in the US, where you’d either pay for unlimited usage while a guest, or you pay and can access your 12 hours whenever you like. Hello Fidel, you can’t have it both ways. (Except you can because it’s Cuba.)
**And just as an overall reminder, when I complain about something in Cuba not being the way that I liked/anticipated/desired this DOES NOT mean that I think that just because I am American/a tourist/spending money that it SHOULD be any other way (basic human rights and freedoms aside, those things should definitely change!) I also want to reiterate that all of my inconveniences as a traveler and visitor to Cuba pale in comparison to what the Cuban people are forced to endure daily.**
Ultimately I feel torn about the Hotel Nacional; I would recommend it to people if it's their first time in Cuba but not as a place to stay for their entire trip. I think I mostly liked it because it felt familiar to me, an environment where I knew what to expect, and could venture out from. But it makes me angry to give my money to the government when I’d rather put it in the hands of normal citizens, which is why on my next trip to Havana I'll bypass staying here entirely.
* In the next installment of Places I've Stayed, photos of my room will be included. At this time I wasn't aware that it was something I wanted to include on the blog (: