Cuba is a wonderful place to visit as long as your expectations are in line with the realities of the country’s current state of transition. The people are friendly and welcoming, and the country is rich with culture, whether your interest is music, food, history, athletics, or sampling the rum and cigars. Draw your own conclusions about the reign of Fidel and Raul Castro and the nature of their government, but if you follow local rules and customs, you won’t experience any of the latent Cold War tension that is finally starting to erode at a diplomatic level. Although the government controls everything, it is not a police state at the street level.
Going to Cuba with an open mind and a patient demeanor is important, as not everything happens with the immediacy or in the same fashion as it does in the U.S. Bus, train and airplane timeliness can vary, wireless service is inconsistent and there are plenty of things in disrepair. The classic American cars are cool to see (and ride in), but the exhaust can be nauseating, as vehicles don’t have catalytic converters to reduce toxic emissions. Other than that, the sights, sounds and spirit of Cuba (and the Cuban people) are something to behold—especially now, before vast changes forever modernize the country. But keep in mind, that there are two economies (one for Cubans, one for tourists) and, as in many places, everything is negotiable and everyone is trying to make a profit off of tourists.
VIDEO: A Running Adventure in Cuba
Going out for a casual run in Havana is no different than any other international city you might visit. There are plenty of things to see within about a 5-mile loop from a hotel in the city. My advice for running in Havana (or London, Tokyo or Rio de Janeiro or Chicago) would be go out in daylight hours—with someone else if possible—and run with extreme care, paying special attention to pedestrians, vehicles, bicyclists and unique urban features.
As of March 2016, American citizens are no longer required to join educational group tours to travel to Cuba. Instead, individuals can travel on their own to experience people-to-people educational trips (including participation in running races and triathlons), provided that they engage in a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities and keep records of their itineraries. Although charter flights are already available, dozens of commercial flights from several U.S. cities to Havana, Santa Clara, Camagüey and Cienfuegos, among others, are expected to resume by late spring or early summer.
Perhaps the best way to experience running in Cuba is to sign up for one of the races during the 2016 Havana Marathon weekend on Nov. 20. Known locally as “Marabana” (the combination of “marathon” and the local pronunciation of “Habana”), this year’s event celebrates its 30th anniversary and includes a 5K, 10K, 15K, half marathon and marathon. The races start and end in Old Havana in front of El Capitolio and send runners past numerous historic buildings and sites and along the famous Malecón esplanade and seawall just 90 miles from Key West. (For more information, go to the race’s official website at Havanamarathon.net.)
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Often called the Rome of the Caribbean, Havana offers numerous sights to see, ranging from the Morro Castle that dates back to the 1760s, the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba and El Capitolio, the former national capitol building that is now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences. A visit to the circa-1920 Museum of the Revolution, housed in the former Presidential Palace, is definitely recommended, as are the numerous old hotels, shops and restaurants in Old Havana—including Ernest Hemingway’s old haunts, La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio.
Several U.S.-based organizations organize legal cultural tour packages that include entry to one of the five races of the Havana Marathon weekend, including One World Running ($2995, Nov. 14-22, Oneworldrunning.com), Insight Cuba ($1995-$4995, Nov. 18-22/26, Insightcuba.com), Cuba Sports Trips (Nov. 16-22, $2,795; Cubssportstrips.com) and Velo Echappe (Nov. 17-21/23, $3,600-$4,700, Veloechappe.com/running). (Prices listed are what have been reported on tour company sites. Make sure you understand exactly what is included in each package.)
Otherwise, you can arrange for your own flight to Havana (when they become available) and stay at one of the popular tourist hotels—such as Meliá Cohiba, National Hotel of Cuba, Hotel Inglaterra, Melia Habana or Hotel Presidente—that range from $150 to $400 per night.
Another good way to experience running in Cuba is to join One World Running for its cultural service trip in conjunction with the sixth annual 28K La Farola Run in the seaside village of Baracoa on July 10. The July 8-15 group trip, which also includes a stopover in Santiago de Cuba, involves volunteering and running in the 28K race up and over the paved La Farola road through the Cuchillas de Baracoa mountains. One World Running will distribute donated shoes, T-shirts and race bib numbers to about 200 of Cuba’s best runners. The trip price of $2,950 includes round-trip airfare from Miami to Cuba, internal island flights, lodging, transfers and most meals. (For more information, visit Oneworldrunning.com.)