Published on June 13th, 2010 | by Mark Chesnut
Abandoned: The 6 Best Hotels You’ll NEVER Stay In
BY MARK CHESNUT
Sure, there are plenty of luxurious, stylish and memorable hotels gracing the best-loved destinations in Latin America. But over the years, I’ve come across a group of spectacular, mid-20th-century properties that are especially enticing – not just because they are unique, historic or extra cool (which they are), but also because you can’t stay in them. In fact, don’t even think about calling or e-mailing for a reservation. You won’t get in.
I’m not implying that you aren’t good enough to make the guest list. It’s just that these alluringly out-of-reach landmarks, while still standing, no longer exist as hotels. Where celebrities, dignitaries and jet-setters once clinked cocktail glasses at swanky rooftop bars and feasted on cutting-edge cuisine from the four corners of the globe, today nothing but daring modernist design elements remain, silent witnesses of glamorous days gone by.
Do these properties deserve the protection of landmark status? Quite likely. Should they be reopened as hotels? Perhaps. But for now, let’s just dream about the days gone by.
(If you have any memories, photos or updates about any of these wonderful hotels, please share them! And don’t get too frustrated by their lack of availability. I’ll soon be posting a roundup of equally cool, mid-20th-century hotels that you can actually visit.)
El Ponce InterContinental, as it was.
Life in the Salon Ponciana.
El Ponce today.
El Ponce InterContinental
Ponce, Puerto Rico
An otherworldly, tropical modern confection of curvilinear concrete and rounded windows, the El Ponce InterContinental was so cool it even looked down on El Vigía, the city’s giant landmark cross, and Seralles Castle, the elegant mansion built by one of Puerto Rico’s most powerful rum-producing families. The hotel swung open its chic doors in 1960, welcoming elite from the United States and Latin America including Celia Cruz, Harry Belafonte, and Mexican movie producers who used the hotel’s mod concrete architecture, glamorous circular swimming pool, and commanding views of the city as the perfect backdrop for their films. Guests dined and danced in the elegant Salón Ponciana (where prices varied between $2.85 and $6.50 for dinner) and sipped piña coladas at the Bar Coquí. But the hotel couldn’t sustain its own hipness. A perennial money-loser, it closed in 1975. Numerous proposals to bring it back to life as well as Facebook groups dedicated to reviving it — or at least bestow it with protected landmark status —have so far failed. Today it sits empty, like an abandoned mid-century spaceship plopped down on a mountaintop.
The soothing curves of the Casablanca.
The Casablanca’s famed Diego Rivera mural.
In October 1946, Orson Welles, Charles Lawton and Rita Hayworth flew to Acapulco and checked into the Casablanca Hotel, passing by a whimsical Diego Rivera mural as they made ready to shoot scenes for The Lady from Shanghai. Celebrities and wealthy globetrotters were already beginning to flock to this Mexican Pacific port city, which was fast becoming the nation’s first glamorous beach resort. The Casablanca had one of the best views of any hotel, complete with an open-air rooftop nightclub, Ciro’s, which provided bubbly refreshment and stunning vistas of the bay. Today, a few random visitors still talk taxi drivers into making the drive up to the vacant, unkempt landmark, just to take photographs of the bay.
Living the high life at the Hotel Crillón’s Sky Room.
Something old, something new: The 1960 addition towers over the original building.
Located in the heart of Peru’s capital city, the Hotel Crillón was destined for greatness from the time its doors opened in 1947. A modern addition completed in 1960 provided locals and visitors alike with a spectacular view from the posh Sky Room restaurant and lounge. Before the decade was done, its staff had welcomed celebrities including Hollywood’s John Wayne, Debbie Reynolds and Greta Garbo. The Rolling Stones, according to some stories, wrote the song “Let It Bleed” while staying here (and, according to the book Lima Bizarra, the band was summarily tossed out of the hotel because of drug use and other scandalous activities).
As upscale hotels began sprouting up in neighborhoods outside of downtown — notably in the Miraflores and San Isidro districts — well-to-do travelers increasingly eschewed central Lima. By the 1970s, the Crillón was bankrupt. It closed in 1999 for good, and in 2005, according to Lima Bizarra, its mod furnishings — which included iron mesh chairs and African-inspired table lamps — was auctioned off, with much of it winding up in the homes of style-conscious gay limeños.
If you’re still looking to take a step back into a grand past in downtown Lima, not to worry. Just a few blocks away sits the splendid, Republican-style Gran Hotel Bolivar, where countless dignitaries and celebrities have stayed over the course of its 80-plus years. The actress Ava Gardner was the first female to ever have a drink at the hotel’s famed Bar Inglés — although today, that space is occupied by a decidedly less-impressive Kentucky Fried Chicken. Today, this massive hotel is a relatively inexpensive choice with wonderful antique touches (although it’s far from luxurious; I spent one claustrophobic night here with no air conditioning, no ventilation, and giant windows flung open to the noisy street).
Feeling presidential: The Hotel Carrera sat adjacent to Santiago’s Presidential Palace.
The famed lobby mural.
Santiago de Chile
Strategically erected adjacent to La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace, the Hotel Carrera opened in 1940. Guests entered through an art deco-inspired lobby, strolling past giant murals inlaid with colorful marble, granite and lapis lazuli, and dined at the Copper Room restaurant and bar, as well as the 17th-floor Roof Garden restaurant, which sat next to the swimming pool. “European women used to go topless at the rooftop pool,” recalls one former employee who served as my tour guide in Santiago recently. “We’d never seen topless women like that before. So believe me, my co-workers and I found lots of excuses to go up to the pool.”
Mexican singers Luis Miguel and Juan Gabriel, as well as soccer players Pele and Diego Maradona, were among the more famous guests. One rumor has it that Argentine movie star Libertad Lamarque attempted suicide at the Carrera, by jumping out of a second-floor window. The government later acquired the property and in 2004, the very last hotel guests checked out so that the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores could move in — leaving downtown Santiago without a historic grand hotel (save the much-less-luxurious City Hotel).
The only way is up: The Hotel Nacional
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
There’s no debate that Oscar Niemeyer is Brazil’s most famous architect. He was, after all, responsible for most of the architecture in the capital city of Brasilia, not to mention parts of the United Nations in New York City and other landmarks in the Americas and Europe. His sweeping modernist touch is unmistakable. Unfortunately, Niemeyer’s crowning hotel design for his hometown of Rio de Janeiro seems jinxed. Opened in 1972, the circular, 34-floor tower of glass, aluminum and concrete is sleek and impressively situated in São Conrado, one of the city’s priciest beachfront neighborhoods. Michael Jackson and Miles Davis were among the guests at this shining landmark, but the property’s last operator, Interunion Capitalizacao SA, went bankrupt in 1995, and repeated attempts to resuscitate the hotel have failed. Perhaps the upcoming 2016 Olympics, which will certainly require a boost in hotel room inventory, will convince investors to take a second look.
Soft corners: the Hotel Humboldt
The Humboldt made headlines when it opened in 1957 atop a 6,700-foot mountain overlooking the city of Caracas. Argentina’s Juan Perón, the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo and Cuba’s Fidel Castro were among the guests who rode a cable car from the city below to reach this impressive summit. Guests enjoyed live shows by famous performers including Celia Cruz and Tito Puente, danced on a marble ballroom floor that rose and rotated, and even ice skated on a rink that looked out toward the Caribbean Sea. Once the Humboldt began its affiliation with the Sheraton brand, its new partner began marketing it on the world stage. “The Sheraton-Humboldt is about as close as you’ll ever get to cloud 9,” promised a 1964 ad in the Palm Beach Post. “From the window of your suite, you are surprised to find yourself looking down at the clouds. Through them, you see colorful Caracas on one side and the sparkle of the Caribbean on the other. You are 7,000 feet in the air at the Sheraton-Humboldt in Venezuela.”
The property closed in 1970 and, following several false starts, there are now plans to completely restore and reopen it by 2012.
And a couple more, for good measure:
The former Hilton São Paulo, just across the street from a famous apartment building designed by Oscar Niemeyer, is a cylindrical wonder, a modern landmark in a neighborhood where most upscale travelers no longer stay. It’s now reportedly being used as office space.
The former Gran Hotel is an elegant structure built in the 1870s adjacent to the Palacio Municipal, in what is today the historic Casco Antiguo district of Panama City. Constructed by an Alsatian businessman, the hotel was bought by the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique in 1881, as the French started working on the canal. Today, the building houses the Museo del Canal Interoceánico, an interesting museum dedicated to the history of the Panama Canal — well worth a visit in its own right, even if you can’t sleep there. (I know, this one isn’t a 20th-century landmark like the others. But it’s still worth mentioning.)