If you want to experience true Cuban culture then getting off the resort is a must. Old Havana is sure to be a highlight! But how should you get there?
They say you can’t go to Cuba without visiting Havana. Is it true?
The tourist and resort town of Varadero was beautiful and all, but I knew it wasn’t going to give me that cultural experience I was looking for like visiting Havana. So I hopped on a bus tour arranged through the resort I was staying at and I was off to Havana, Cuba.
First off…Cuba is beautiful.
Once we got out of Varadero, I noticed the landscape changed. Not drastically, just enough that it brought a fresh perspective to the country.
The turquoise water is stunning. In fact, I felt like I was driving into a tropical screen saver ever time I looked out over the expanse of it.
But as we drove, we left the water and meandered over the land and saw the lush hills and a canyon that I’m sure has more stories than my short life contains. Even at the tail end of the dry season, it was stunning.
Having a local guide on our bus tour to Havana helped us understand more about this beautiful, complex country. I naively have always thought Cuba is a cute and small island like many of it’s Caribbean neighbours, but this nearly 110,000 square kilometre island inhabits just over 11 million people.
Throughout the 2 1/2 hour bus ride our guide answered our questions about Cuba’s complicated history, from the conquistadors all the way through the recent change in communist leaders. I’m not sure a taxi ride would have been so educational.
The history buff in me was more than happy to learn so much about Cuba before we reached its capital city and it really just built the anticipation all the more.
Before I knew it, we were driving through a tunnel that opened up into Havana. And it was even better than I imagined.
Havana is every bit as beautiful as all the pictures you’ve seen…and then even more. Brightly painted buildings, old architecture, 1950’s American classic cars everywhere, clothes hang-drying on the line, long and colourful alleys. I felt giddy.
Havana is split into two parts: Old and New Havana. New Havana just means that the building were built sometime in the 1900s. It’s where all the daily life happens and where the people live. So parks, schools and businesses all reside here.
Our tour took us to Revolution Square which eerily whispered of days passed when Fidel Castro rallied Cubans to his cause. This now empty square once held thousands. Now just a shell of the past with massive ironworks of Fidel Castro and his right-hand man, Che Guevara.
I stood like many other tourists and took pictures, imagining how much has changed since the revolution of 1959.
Old Havana is considerably smaller and well…older. A few buildings date back to the 15 and 1600s when Havana was a great port city. Many have fallen into disrepair and several are being painstakingly restored. The process takes decades but is important in order to preserve the city’s history.
This west coast girl isn’t accustomed to such old architecture, so it was quite special for me to walk the old streets and touch the buildings.
We walked on our own around The Plaza de la Cathedral of Havana (Havana Cathedral Plaza) where the oldest Catholic church in Cuba resides. Some on our bus tour grabbed a quick pint and one curious soul found a pharmacy and sadly learned how desperate the people are for simple medicine like Tylenol or even bandaids.
But it was here in this plaza with tourists, restaurants, and a stunning cathedral where I felt as though the flavour of Havana broke through.
It’s where we interacted with the people and ate lunch in an alley of cafes with men walking from table to table playing Cuban music. It was loud. People were ordering and conversing. Waiters moved among tight tables serving customers.
It was wonderful.
My surroundings oozed Cuban culture. I loved every bit of it. In fact, I long to return one day.
Is a bus tour to Havana worth your time and money?
The bus tour was great for me, but I recognize it’s really not for everyone. My husband, for example, would have hated it. He would rather stay one more day on the beach, soaking in the sun and warm Caribbean water. He’s not one for big cities unless he can explore on his own.
I took this trip with my 11 year old daughter and it really wasn’t her cup of tea. We were on the bus a total of 5 hours. That’s a long time for anyone on vacation.
And for my daughter, learning about Cuba and seeing a bunch of old buildings wasn’t on her list of top 10 things to do. We did, however, still enjoy walking together through the market picking out gifts and memorabilia for everyone.
So for the person a bit cautious about going to Havana on their own…yes, I recommend taking a bus tour. For me? I’m so glad I did, but for next time, I think I’ll be ready to venture out on my own in one of those retro 1950s American classic taxis.