- Do prior research on the history of Cuba, its people and the do’s and dont’s
- Learn some basic Spanish words
- Travel insurance is required
- Bring bottled water and never drink the tap water
- Bring allergy medication in case you are allergic to dust or other old things
- Have snacks and non-perishable food items because it can get pricey
- Bring handheld stuff to entertain yourself with
- Have non-monetary ways to compensate the staff especially the room attendants
- Don’t expect the typical five-star service or amenities you are used to
Arriving at Cuba/Varadero
Any opportunity to visit a place rich in history and different in its way of life is a treat. Cuba is a must-visit destination not just for traveling geeks but for anyone looking to enrich their perspective of life. I didn’t have many expectations heading to Habana. I was a bit nervous actually. I’ve read mixed reviews about food, service and the general culture. But I was still excited.
Landing at the airport in Varadero I get a strong sense of the Philippines. Traveling from Varadero to Habana you see plenty of the people just hanging around the streets with many crowding to hitch a ride with any kind of vehicle they can get.
Arriving at Habana, the first thing you’ll notice is the strong smell (other than the humidity). It’s a concoction of rotten fruit, sweaty garments and sewage. But our noses quickly acclimated to the smell, which is good because when we arrived at the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba, the smell was the first thing to greet us.
A musty odour was present throughout the whole place especially in the fifth floor where we stayed. Our rooms were well-kept and had most of the modern day amenities like a TV with cable, a safe and a shower but that musty smell just made it feel less comfortable than it was.
HNC was like something straight out of a 1950s movie and the hallway is filled with other historic items like photos of Fidel Castro, paintings and other murals. There is an old post-box beside the elevators. Castro’s old office is somewhere in the hotel and fully accessible. You can take a day tour that lasts about an hour to learn more about the Hotel’s history. This is highly recommended especially if you stay here (it’s free).
My allergies quickly acted up and I could barely taste the food we ate but after allergy medication it was fine. Cuban dishes tend to be on the salty side. If you’re trying to limit your sodium intake, maybe bring some non-perishable goods but beggars can’t be choosers otherwise. Food is a common issue among people traveling to Cuba but HNC had decent food although the wait staff can be rude and lazy at times (mostly at night).
We stayed at the hotel for three nights and by the third night there was a storm and a blackout. The hotel had generators so we had lights and everything but the cable was pretty much dead. Bring books, magazines or anything else to entertain yourself or you can head to bed really early. Maybe ghost hunt?
Last but not least, the cleaners and room service staff gave great customer service. The wait staff is another thing but when I thought I lost my phone the cleaners worked diligently to help even if a few of them were visibly irritated at having to do it. Leave some souvenirs or treats for them as opposed to money but let them know you appreciate them.
HNC’s Other Features
Other notable locales to visit when staying in the HNC is a small museum and underground path that served as the trenches during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Castro and Che Guevara set up headquarters here in defence of Habana. I don’t recommend this for anyone claustrophobic or anyone weighing over 250 pounds as it gets mighty tight down there.
The Salon de Historia is a bar/restaurant in the hotel worth seeing for the many stars who have paid it a visit as well as a model of the hotel itself.
There is also a nightly show featuring Habana’s best dancers. I’ve seen plenty of shows within the Caribbean and Mexico and this was one of the best. The dancers were gorgeous, the costumes were lively and colourful and the performances were breathtaking. The show is just under an hour so do not be late. This is free for those staying in the hotel, another perk to take full advantage of.
Last but definitely not least, leave the hotel and take photos of it from the outside. The best view is from the entrance just before the street or from a gas station to the southeast of the hotel where you can snap the hotel resting on top of the hill it’s situated at. Marvelous.
Hotel National de Cuba is a must-visit if you’re taking a trip to Habana. This is one of the city’s main attraction and it’s renowned more for its history than its amenities. You’ll be paying for almost everything in here so bring whatever you can to minimize your spending. Don’t be creeped out by how old the place is and you’ll get used to the musty odour after a few hours though it can be quite a turnoff at first.
Lastly, be patient with the staff. This is the HNC not an all-inclusive five-star resort. They can be rough around the edges or downright rude but plenty of them are also friendly and more than happy to assist you. Visit all the attractions around here and get lots of photos.