The first thing you feel is the humidity smack you in the face, followed swiftly by the heat.
Stepping down from your plane and onto the scorching asphalt tarmac below, you may start to feel a cool bead of sweat trickle down the back of your neck. As you enter customs at José Martí International Airport, you’ll quietly murmur all the pre-rehearsed answers you were told to memorize over and over again. “Soy Americano. Estoy en Cuba por cinco días.”
And if the heat, the sweat, and the slight fear of being detained don’t get to you, the country’s wild and vibrant beauty will most certainly steal your heart.
At least that’s how it went for me on a recent journey to Havana, Cuba.
Sure, I could sit here and extol dozens of things that make Havana any traveler’s dream destination — the vintage cars, the lively nightlife, the incredible people and stunning scenery — but what I found most special of all was the place I called home during my five-day stay: the Hotel Nacional.
Driving up to this 87-year-old hotel is like going back in time, and it doesn’t hurt that you’re most likely arriving in one of Cuba’s famed vintage cabs, which you can hail at the airport and take to the hotel for about $20.
The building looks and feels like a behemoth from the outside. Its tall, white, castle-like exterior is built right beside Havana’s Malecón, the five-mile stretch of boardwalk overlooking the crystal blue sea where locals can be spotted conversing all day and all night.
In front of the hotel is a long stretch of grass and enormously tall palm trees lined up perfectly along the edge, beckoning you to come in and escape the island heat.
As you enter through the hotel’s main double doors, you’re greeted by bellboys dressed in crisp white linen shirts. Don’t even try to carry your own bags up the stairs as they refuse to take no for an answer.
At first glance the interior of the hotel looks dark and almost dimmed, until you realize that’s because the hotel has remained untouched since before the revolution. Like a finely aged Cuban rum, the Hotel Nacional’s Art Deco-meets-Neoclassical design has stood the test of time.
Its rich mahogany finishes paired with its detailed and colorful tilework, along with a few over-sized chandeliers and several life-sized paintings of Fidel Castro strewn about, make it look like the hotel is playing pretend—but it most certainly is not. The hotel is the past, present, and future of Havana all at once.
Directly opposite the entrance is another exit leading visitors outside to the hotel’s back lawn. There, guests can sip cocktails in plush chairs while watching the sun go down over the sea. And while all that is well and good, it’s important to remember that this hotel has history, and with that history come a few secrets worth exploring.
Directly underfoot in the back lawn lies a massive tunnel structure, forming a circle under its gardens. These tunnels once housed giant telescopes used for espionage efforts during the Cuban Missile Crisis, otherwise known as the October Crisis in Havana. But these tunnels are well-known to visitors, who are welcome to walk the underground bunkers on daily guided tours.
Instead of lurking below the hotel’s surface, take a left at the hotel’s entrance, then a right past the ominous painting of Fidel through a banquet hall, and you’ll find another, perhaps more pleasing secret inside the Hotel National: the entrance to Salon de la Familia, a hidden pub perfectly tucked away from the crowds.
Once inside, visitors will find an old juke box on the left still lit up and ready to play music from a bygone era, and somehow filled to the brim with American rock 'n’ roll classics. Next to it sits a roulette wheel in desperate need of a spin and a few good bets.
Adorning nearly every single open space on the walls surrounding the bar are photos of celebrities who apparently stopped by the Hotel Nacional at some point over the years, including the likes of Vladimir Putin and Steven Spielberg.
There's even a small shrine to Algunos de los centenarios cubanos, or golden age Cubans who lived to 100 or more.
Belly up to the solid wood bar—which, by the way, hosted a mob summit known as the Havana Conference, which was a meeting of the Cosa Nostra and several other American mob families in 1946. The meeting was so infamous that it was later immortalized by Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather Part II. As legend has it, Frank Sinatra just happened to be in town as well, so perhaps this bar is the perfect location to order up a dry martini served with a heaping helping of ice, Sinatra’s favorite, or another standby, a Cuban rum on the rocks.
And sure, playing gangster for the night over a few too many Cuban cocktails is fun, but the Salon de la Familia isn’t the only secret still living inside this hotel’s walls.
In the light of day, once the mafia-sized hangover wears off, take an elevator ride back down to the lobby. There, hang a right down a long corridor toward one of the hotel’s exits. But before you walk through the gates, look left and you'll likely be greeted by the smiling face of Milagos Diaz, the one employee at Hotel Nacional you need to meet.
With hands deeply weathered and wrinkled from more than two decades of rolling the world's favorite cigars, 51-year-old Diaz says she thoroughly enjoys her days sitting in the hidden away cigar shop at the Hotel Nacional. There, she waits for guests to meander by and request a freshly rolled creation.
According to Diaz she, like most expert cigar rollers, spent a little time in Viñales, the picturesque farming community about three hours down the coast where most of the country’s tobacco leaves are grown. Diaz says that is where she learned about the leaves, the process of farming, and how to roll a perfectly packed cigar in under a minute.
As I chat with Diaz about her life here in Cuba, she effortlessly takes up the process of flattening, cutting, packing, and sealing each cigar before putting it into a press to set. Her hands look almost separate from her body as they move smoothly across her tiny brown desk. When she finishes she proudly shows off her work and hands me one to enjoy on the spot.
After Diaz is done, I walk down the small flight of stairs next to her to sit for a moment inside the cigar lounge. There, surrounded by the country’s varying types of cigars, I realize I’m alone.
The hoards of tourists upstairs don’t realize that right below their feet sits a quiet place of solitude where they can purchase a Cuban cigar for about $2. There, you are welcome to sit in one of the giant leather chairs and either light up or simply be still and take it all in. You are now in the heart, and holding the soul, of Cuba’s fantastic history, after all.