HAVANA, Cuba. – Due to its architecture and location, the Habana Libre Hotel is, undoubtedly, one of the most iconic buildings in Cuba. Although it operates under the management of the Spanish Meliá Hotels & Resort group, to numerous people who have stayed at the hotel in the last ten years, the Havana Libre is a veritable “house of horrors”.
Thousands of negative opinions together with poor ratings given by users on TripAdvisor’s website, published between 2012 and 2021, ranked the hotel among the worst hotels in the world, even though both Meliá and the Cuban government market it as one of the most representative, comfortable and luxurious hotels on the island.
Words like “a disappointment”, “a horror”, “depressing”, “neglected”, “filthy”, “over-rated” and “run-down” are the most prevalent in the almost 5,000 testimonies of personal experiences from Habana Libre Hotel guests. We have selected a few for this report, but every one of them can be accessed on the Internet. Some of them are even corroborated by photographs that show the disastrous conditions of the famous hotel in Cuba’s capital.
TripAdvisor user named Mir M, from Argentina, wrote the following opinion in September 2020: “WE WILL NEVER RETURN. A horrible and stinking hotel, with the WORST service. Smelly bed sheets and towels, stained carpets (…), really DISGUSTING all around. We will never return to Cuba, it was the worst choice we could have made. Breakfast was garbage. People: DO NOT TRAVEL THERE, you will regret it, it’s a waste of money.” Date of stay: February 2020.
Another user from Argentina named Arm, wrote: “What deep sorrow. The hotel is almost in ruins, as is the entire city of Havana (…), but what’s worse is how demoralized and depressed its employees feel, it’s obvious that tourists are no longer welcomed, the sole concern is how many CUCs they will get in tips, they make faces at guests, the guest attention is the worst, there’s no hot water in showers, at a five-star hotel! I will never return, neither would I recommend it to anyone. Cubans should re-think if they want to live off tourists, their only topic of conversation is how much they wish to emigrate ‘north’, to the US.” Date of stay: April 2020.
User Silvia V wrote her opinion on TripAdvisor: “If you want to have a terrible time, stay at this hotel. I paid for a five-star hotel, and I was given two-star accommodations. Traces of humidity in rooms and hallways, cracks on the walls. A dark bathroom, ugly ceilings, it takes a long time for water to get hot. Dirty windows. If you go, ask for a room above the 20th floor (…). From the 19th floor down, the bleak zone begins.” Date of stay: January 2020.
Sallyann F, a guest from the United Kingdom, wrote: “I give them a one-star rating, and I’m being generous. Where do I being? We stayed at this hotel during our three-day trip to Havana. On the first night, we went down for dinner at the restaurant: the staff seemed miserable, the food was cold (…). We were given a room on the ninth floor, beautiful view, but unfortunately, the room needed renovation, the shower did not work (…). The dresser door was missing (…). I would not stay there again.” Date of stay: March 2013.
JasMoon1001, also from the United Kingdom, wrote: “The WORST five-star hotel I have ever stayed in. In general, Havana hotels are not very good, but this one was the worst since the moment we walked in (…). We are disappointed, frustrated and upset. It’s worse at night, when I lay my head to rest on the pillow, I could hear a storm-like noise coming from the elevators. Generally, one can hear people talking in the hallway on their way to their rooms.” Date of stay: March 2013.
The above opinions agree in not recommending the Habana Libre Hotel, not even for short stays, and some of them even demand that the facility be closed immediately. What is most interesting is that these opinions were written within a decade’s time frame during which no maintenance or renovations were done, even though between 2011 and 2019, the Cuban press announced them, by way of the hotel management or by way of its owner, the Gran Caribe Management Group, which is owned by the Ministry of Tourism (MINTUR, by its Spanish acronym).
Where Has the Money for Maintenance and Renovations Gone?
That is the question we have asked managers, officials and workers connected to the Habana Libre Hotel operations, and that is the very question we get as an “answer” most of the time when we pose the question. Nobody can explain how it is possible that with more than US$ 70 million that Meliá has granted the MINTUR for renovations between 2011 and 2019 –as corroborated by Cuba’s official press reports- the building’s deterioration has increased to such an extent that, of the 572 guest rooms in the hotel, only some 100 are available for booking, and of those, only 20 or so qualify as “in optimum condition”, according to details we obtained at the hotel.
In spite of the hotel management and the Gran Caribe directors’ refusal to be interviewed by independent journalists, we have been able to gather information from various sources that attest to what has been going on.
Evalaine García, a former staff of Gran Caribe’s Investments Department between 2002 and 2008, indicates that in spite of the capital renovations in the late nineties and early 2000, when the Spanish hotel group Guitart assumed the management of the Habana Libre, many essential construction components were not among the priorities, which means that the work done was mostly cosmetic, the more so for the low quality of the materials used.
“It was all done in a hurry with whatever materials they had at hand, and against the clock, for this was the Special Period. Guitart put in the money, and what a con job that was. About two years late, (Guitart) packed up and left because the numbers did not add up. That’s when Meliá assumed the management of what in reality was a white elephant, all because of a commitment with Fidel (Castro). The hotel has brought more loses than gains (…). More than US$80 million were spent on enlarging the rooms, reducing the size of terraces, and installing floor-to-ceiling glass windows, fire escapes on the sides of the building, replacing the air conditioning equipment, the carpets, the doors, everything except the plumbing, the electricity and the ventilation system. The latter remained exactly the same as it was when the hotel was inaugurated in the 1950s, and now they realize it costs much more to renovate it than to build a new hotel,” according to García.
A Meliá official, who was interviewed by CubaNet upon strict condition of anonymity, states that there have been several renovations projected between 2011 and 2019, but all have become like a “mission impossible” due to the Cuban side’s refusal to allow Meliá to retain the adequate company to implement the renovations at the required level of excellence –of Meliá’s choice- but also does not allow them to shut down the hotel to carry on the work in a comprehensive manner as required, due to the dangerous state of the building.
“It’s not up to Meliá to carry out the renovations because it doesn’t own the hotel, and it is not included in the agreement with MINTUR. Our responsibilities include management, administration, attracting clients, and request financial assistance using the brand as guarantee. Attracting clients has been fine. We’re talking about Meliá. Keeping the client is what has been difficult, and it is so because of the bad conditions the hotel is in, the furniture deterioration, the humidity, electrical problems, supplies and water pressure, as well as roach infestations. We have had to shut down a number of floors completely. Today there are more than ten floors totally out of service. Only three out of six elevators work, sometimes only two and often none. Sometimes it’s because they are broken, but other times it’s due to absurd measures regarding cutting down on electricity usage imposed by the Cuban side that make us shut down the elevators. All this, because the hotel generates insufficient income. Same thing happens with the air conditioning system, and with the availability of hot water. Hotel-guest complaints are many and there isn’t much we can do, other than apologize. Not much more. It is not our duty to do the maintenance work, and yet, we have invested in ten years over US$70 million on maintenance and repairs. Between 2011 and 2015, we spent 40 million, and from 2018 until today, we handed over another 30 million to MINTUR,” according to the official.
Damages have reached such level that even hotel workers are afraid that, sooner or later, there will be a disaster similar to the one that occurred a few months ago at the Meliá Habana Hotel, when an elevator fell to the ground and killed one person.
“Elevator mechanics come, they certify that the elevators are in “good technical condition”, but everyone knows that it isn’t true. Nothing here works well. What they do is take a piece from one place as a “spare”, in order to repair another piece, because everything here is old, very old, and still they refuse to replace them [the elevators]. A little surface paint, and just move on,” comments a hotel waitress.
“I would not be surprised if one day someone gets electrocuted or is crushed to death by a falling ceiling. You’d have to see what it looks like from the fourth to the 15th floor, they look like a waterfall is coming down the walls, you cannot touch them because you get a shock, there are veritable water puddles everywhere you look, the doors are swollen from the moisture, it looks like what the Titanic must have looked like when it was sinking,” warns another hotel worker.
Mold, Bad Odors, Noise, Cockroaches and Thefts Perpetrated against Guests
A TripAdvisor user identified as Andrea Jara, wrote: “A disastrous experience. I wish to comment on my lamentable experience at the Tryp Habana Libre. On January 27, at 11:00 pm give and take, we returned to the hotel after dining at a nearby restaurant. A staff member named Camilo stopped my boyfriend from entering the hotel, thinking that he was Cuban. My boyfriend was a registered guest of the hotel, and we indicated that he was a Spanish citizen. This Camilo started to laugh in a pejorative and racist tone. He indicated that my boyfriend’s name was not on the registration list; I showed him where his name was, right next to our names, and he started telling me that the name was not his. After making us wait for 20 minutes, he allowed us in when he noticed that my boyfriend was about to register a complaint. There were no apologies for the insult and bother that he caused us, not from Camilo and not from the hotel’s general manager.” Date of stay: January 2020.
Cynthia, another hotel guest, left her opinion in February 2020: “THE HOTEL WAS THE WORST, SIMPLY THE WORST. (…) The reception staff was horrible, they explained nothing to us, they didn’t express themselves well, they couldn’t speak clearly (…). Registering upon my arrival was problematic, the room was not ready when it was supposed to be, and when it finally was (…) we walked to the elevator area and it turned out they were reaching only up to the 25th floor. The delay in getting to our floor lasted an eternity. When we decided to use the shower, it turned out there was no hot water. Surprise! And there was none throughout our stay.”
This same guest goes on: “Every hotel guest that we ran into was complaining, you didn’t have to speak the same language to understand that everyone was upset, there was no ability to resolve any problem at the hotel; there were people there from France, Uruguay, Argentina, Spain, all of them saying that it was the worst hotel they had ever been in. Also, we learnt that the water problem was not new, that it had been a long time this drama was happening. I do not recommend the Tryp Habana Libre at all.” Date of stay: January 2020.
Guest Maria Fernanda L stated: “DO NOT GO THERE. Everything dates from 1990. BROKEN. FILTHY. NEGLECTED. The swimming pool is depressing, the dining hall is horrible. It looks like a hospital. Standard rooms have terrible bathrooms. The paint is chipped. Chairs are broken, its padding is 30 years old. Transparent curtains are old and frayed, and the cleaning is done in the late afternoon around 6:00 pm.” Date of stay: January 2020.
Gustavo Aguirre complaints on TripAdvisor: “I WAS THE VICTIM OF THEFT AT THIS HOTEL. I stayed there on the 19th and 20th of November 2019. I went out to visit the city with my wife and son, and when I returned, one of our tablets was missing from my room. I filed a claim with Customer Service, but I got no answer. I left the hotel disappointed with the whole experience. Terrible service from the entire staff… moisture-damaged walls, cockroaches in the rooms, and to top ROBBERS. REIMBURSE ME THE VALUE OF THE STOLEN TABLET! If you have a minimum of dignity and respect, you must reimburse me for the value of what was stolen in ROOM 1103.” Date of stay: November 2019. (To date, he has not received an answer from hotel management).
User dariosincler wrote: “EVERY YEAR IT GETS WORSE. We stayed here on two occasions, the first time when we arrived in Cuba, the room had no air conditioning or hot water.” Date of stay: June 2019.
Ignacio D, a Spanish hotel guest, left his testimony: “Horrible. They refill the water bottles fom breakfast with regular water from the faucet. We stayed at the Tryp Habana Libre for five days, and the experience couldn’t have been worst. As soon as we arrived we were thrown into a room in dismal conditions, with broken furniture that was 50 years old, it was filthy, had no hot water. We complained the next morning and they assigned us to a new room. Cleaning was still deficient. The worst is what we witnessed during breakfast, after days of not feeling well and being extremely careful, till we realized that the sealed water bottles from breakfast sere being refilled; we did notice a strange taste from the water, but we thought that’s how bottled water tasted there. We realized that the waiters carefully would take the empty bottles back to the kitchen, and when we returned we corroborated that the bottles were not sealed. When we asked, they explained that it was the cooks that open the bottles to verify their content… WHAT?? (…). We talked about it with other hotel guests and they also were sick. They are toying with the health of their hotel guests, this is very serious and we are going to file a claim in Spain. They are crooks [and you best] run from this hotel.” Date of stay: October 2019.
User Rodrigo Araya commented also on TripAdvisor: “Cockroaches in the bathroom and the stench of moisture are things that must be improved in the hotel rooms. The worst part was losing our AirPods earphones in the room, we are sure they were “lost” there. We are awaiting news from the hotel, and hope that they will show up. We left our contact information at the reception area. We stayed there between October 1 and 3, my name is Rodrigo Araya, from Chile.” Date of stay: October 2019.
Pepe C, another hotel guest, had this to say: “Meliá a five-star hotel? They are a bunch of CROOKS. From the time we arrived, it took four hours for them to register us, that’s how slow and disorganized they are, and then they booked us into a rotten room, with broken furniture, dark, a rusted bathtub and infested with cockroaches. Breakfast worse than the worst rooming house… shameful, highway robbery, dirty hallways, dismal elevators…”. Date of stay: September 2019.
For Isabel L, a user from Spain, the Habana Libre Hotel was a “nightmare”: “My goodness, where do I begin? This hotel is beyond words. Check in: Slow and nasty personnel. Guest room: Bedsheets with stain spots, and cockroaches. Bathroom” clogged and dirty. The hotel is filthy. The carpet is disgusting. It stinks; I stayed with another seven guests on the 21st floor for ONE HOUR AND A HALF. My husband had to go down the stairs with our suitcase while my son and I waited upstairs. Only one of the six elevators, was working. In fact, one of the female guests missed her flight. We kept calling the reception desk and nobody did anything. In the restaurant, the cockroaches were all over the place. Truly, all we wanted was to get out of there. The buffet was a joke, the worst food I’ve ever tasted, even the bread. I do not recommend it at all. Let them finish “fixing” it and then they can take our money. Very, very bad.” Date of stay: August 2019.
Marce P, from Chile, wrote her opinion in January 2020: “Horror vacation. I am really disappointed, the entire hotel smelled of moisture, mold everywhere, on the walls, the floors, the carpets and the ceilings; only one of the elevators was working. In order to access the hotel rooms, one had to walk across a service hallway straight out of a horror movie, the rooms were ancient, the bed mattresses were of very low quality, dirty curtains, practically no hot water in the shower, there were cockroaches in the bathroom, the towels were a disaster, the bar fridge had no water. It was the worst. At breakfast, the bread had a hair strand on it. Undoubtedly, cannot be recommended.” Date of stay: November 2019.
The Worst Service, High Prices and Low Wages
According to the various pages that promote this hotel, the cost of a stay per night at the Habana Libre Hotel ranges from 85 to 255 Euros. This cost corresponds to the category of a four-star hotel which is the rating today of this hotel, after more than four decades of being rated a five-star facility.
In fact, even the brand logotype on the Meliá and Gran Caribe webpages still shows the five-star image. We have corroborated directly by visiting the various sites and even their sales desks, at least in Cuba, that the hotel is marketed to foreign visitors as a hotel of high standards.
“It has been proposed that we adjust prices to reflect the situation we now have, but have not been authorized,” according to a hotel employee linked to the finance department who spoke to us under condition of anonymity.
“Authorization from the Ministry of Finance and Prices is required, but it has not been approved, so we keep charging as if it were a five-star hotel (…). The category was lowered to four-stars, but the prices remain the same. Meliá is and is not responsible for that: it could press for a price change, but it does not. Their policy has always been to not upset the Government, to do what it is told to do. That also applies to workers’ salaries. Workers’ wages here are lower than anywhere else. Those who receive tips fend better, but, for instance, the cleaning help, waitresses, cooks, security and general service staff earn miserable salaries, which explains why there is so much theft, so much filth in the rooms, the lack of courtesy toward hotel guests. Workers steal what they can in order to re-sale the items on the outside, or they get tired and leave,” affirms our interviewee.
Another employee of the hotel comments: “There have been incidents of theft in the rooms, but not as many as they say. True, things do get lost, but it doesn’t happen that often. The truth is that management pays workers very poorly for what it (Meliá) makes from room rentals, rates that I would never pay, not only because I don’t have the money, but also because the rooms are not worth it, only rooms from the 20th floor up are in rentable condition, the rest are depressing, cockroaches crawl all over you. A few months ago, a foreign woman slashed open her hand with the edge of a broken bathroom tile. The only good rooms are the ones that were repaired on the upper floors, and to be booked into one, you have to pay US$20 above the actual rental cost and perhaps tip the reception desk manager another US$50, or you’ll get booked into a deteriorated room.”
Pavel Cisnero, an employee who worked as a receptionist at the hotel until last June, also told us about this reality. Cisnero is now unemployed due to the wave of firings that occurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic:
“During the most rent renovation, only the rooms on the top floors were upgraded, and of course Castellana Suite which is where Fidel (Castro) stayed when the revolution came to power; the rest of the rooms remained the same. They renovated the lobby and some areas of the restaurants, the discotheque, but the other disaster, the largest one, remains the same. Arriving tourists are booked in the standard rooms. If they complaint, they are transferred to another room, if not, they stay put. To make a reservation for a Premium room, one has to pay US$20 above the normal price, and since there are few of those rooms, the guy at the reception desk assigns them as he sees fit. He who pays gets the best. People think that we are paid a good salary, but in reality, wages are miserable, you have to struggle for the tips, try to find an extra buck. I never engaged in this, but I knew of receptionists that rented the closed rooms on the side, to people who needed a place to engage in sex, and things like that.”
In spite of the alleged renovations under way during the last decade, the official version of the chaos at the Habana Libre Hotel simply justifies it with two arguments that the management repeats over and over again since 2012. No one changes their tune, no one feels ashamed to keep giving the same answers to guest complaints, especially on the TripAdvisor forum.
The Habana Libre Hotel was inaugurated on March 19, 1958, and was considered one of the most luxurious hotels in the island before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. With 27 floors, it’s one of Cuba’s tallest buildings. It was built as the Habana Hilton Hotel under agreement between Hilton International Hotels and the Gastronomical Retirement Fund of Cuba, at a cost of US$40 million.
On June 11, 1960, the hotel was expropriated by the Cuban government, and renamed the Habana Libre. In the 1990s, the hotel was transferred to Gran Caribe Hotel Group, and an agreement was made with Spain’s Guitart Hotel Group for sharing its management. In December 2000, Tryp Hotel Group began sharing its management responsibilities with Guitart, which, in that same year, was acquired by the Meliá hotel chain. Although Meliá sold its Tryp brand to the U.S. New Jersey-based holding company Wyndhan Worldwide for US$32 million, the Spanish company continues to manage the hotel.
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