Four and a half years ago, I had the chance of a lifetime to run a half marathon in Havana, and politics aside, it was an amazing experience.
For Americans, Cuba has long been a forbidden island. It sits less than 100 miles off the tip of Florida, yet it’s one of the few places in the world U.S. citizens can’t freely visit. It’s been that way since 1960, the year the U.S. government first set in place a commercial embargo meant to diminish the economy of Fidel Castro’s repressive communist government. The politics between the U.S. and Cuba haven’t changed much in the past 54 years, even if it’s Fidel’s younger brother, Raúl, who’s been running the country. Cuba’s economy has been in dire straits for years, especially after the Soviet Union fell, but, as I found out during my short trip in 2011, it’s still an amazing place with friendly people, a proud history and rich culture.
I know Cuban-Americans have strong feelings about their homeland, the Castro regime and the struggling Cuban people, but for me, the experience was all about the chance to see Cuba before the Castro government fell and, ultimately, via the universal language of running. I visited during the 2011 Havana Marathon—known locally as Marabana, a playful combination of “marathon” and the correct pronunciation of “Habana.” I ran the entire half marathon with a local runner, Diorge Echevarria, and, through my broken Spanish and his broken English, thoroughly enjoyed our 13.1 miles of running and cultural interaction. (We both remarked that the tip of Key West was less than 100 miles away near mile 3 along the Malecón sea wall.)
During the race weekend, I chatted with runners from dozens of other countries (who were able to freely visit Cuba) while relaxing at a modern, jointly owned Cuban-Spanish hotel. As with any international adventure I have taken, I learned a lot and came away with a new understanding for the Cuban way of life via the many locals I interacted with during my five-day trip.
Several U.S.-based organizations organize legal cultural tour packages that include the three races of the Havana Marathon weekend, including One World Running (Oneworldunning.com), Insight Cuba (Insightcuba.com) and Velo Echappe (Veloechappe.com/running). Travel packages range from four to eight days and typically cost $2,500 to $5,000, including race entries. (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.
“It’s been a dream of mine since I was first there in 2003 to bring runners there,” said Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba and a longtime runner. “We finally got the license to a few runners there in 2011, but then it wasn’t allowed after that year. But we kept trying and we finally received approval again. Sport and athletic competition continues to be the great global conduit to bring people, cultures and countries together.”
The race courses wind through magnificent avenues that line Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage city, and past historic places of interest, including the famous Malecón–a broad esplanade, roadway and seawall which stretches along the coast from the mouth of Havana Harbor in Old Havana to the vibrant neighborhood of Vedado. Along the way, runners will see the circa-1930 Hotel Nacional de Cuba, the expansive Revolution Square, and El Capitolio, the former national capitol modeled after the U.S. Capitol when it was built in 1920.
Certainly seeing so many vintage 1950s American cars was somewhat mind-blowing, but experiencing Old Havana was truly special.
“People always ask me what it’s like, and I tell them there is an old charm to Cuba and to Havana,” Popper says. “Every time you go to Cuba, you get the feeling that it hasn’t been spoiled in some way.”