I have a really cool guest post for you guys today written by my friend Gina, who just recently visited Cuba. She’s here to tell you all about running in Cuba!
(For other “Where to Run” posts, check out this page)
Where to Run, Havana, Cuba
You should go to Cuba. And you should go now. It is a country where an amalgam of three centuries—19th, 20th, and 21st—create a culture unlike any other place else in the world. And perhaps only one thing is for certain in Cuba: big changes are soon to come.
Until 2014, Cuba had essentially been cut off from the United States since the early 1960s. “El Bloqueo” is most famously captured in the well-kept 1950s American cars still wide-spread in Cuba.
While government-owned billboards proclaim, “BLOQUEO: EL GENOCIDIO MAS LARGO DE LA HISTORIA” (“The US Blockade: The Longest Genocide in History”), the Cuban people we met during our trip did not seem to share their government’s anger toward America or Americans. In fact, every single person we met was incredibly enthusiastic about meeting Americans, and many outside the more touristy areas seemed quite surprised when they learned we were from the U.S.
In the past year travel to Cuba for Americans has become increasingly feasible and easy. In March of 2016 the U.S. government under President Obama made it legal for individual Americans to travel to Cuba for “people to people” educational visits. This travel license requires that the traveler keep a full time itinerary of educational activities, which is super easy to do in Havana! And late last year several major U.S. airlines began air service to Havana. We flew Delta from Minneapolis to Atlanta to Havana with no issues. In Atlanta we all purchased travel visas for $50 and signed a license stating we were traveling for educational purposes. We had no trouble re-entering the U.S. In fact, we were not even questioned on the purpose of our travel or what we did. I was admonished, however, for letting my nine-year-old daughter carry the bottle of Cuban rum we purchased at the duty-free shop at the Havana airport!
We spent our entire week in Cuba—except for one day trip to the national park of Vinales—in Havana, and there was more than enough to see and do there to fill our time. Everything we did was educational. From the recently renovated and very touristy Havana Vieja to the up-and-coming neighborhood where we stayed, Vedado, Havana is a living museum of Cuban history. And running Havana is a great way to take in a lot of history.
Where to Run
In Havana, the place to run is the city’s famous Malecón. The Malecón is an eight-kilometer sea-front boulevard that wraps from Havana Vieja on the east side to the edge of the more upscale Miramar neighborhood on the west side. The west end of the Malecón ends at Torreón de Santa Dorotea de la Luna de la Chorrea, a small fortress built in 1762 to defend the mouth of the Rio Almendares. On the east end the Malecón ends at the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, a recently restored castle originally built in 1589 to help protect Havana’s harbor channel. Over the course of the five miles between these two fortresses you pass one of the city’s most modern hotels (the Maliá Cohiba); the “United States Interests Section” (the building still says U.S. Embassy); the famous Hotel Nacional (with a great mobster history); and the outskirts of the recently renovated Havana Vieja. Along the ocean front boulevard, you also pass along the north edge of Centro Habana, where run-down 19th century buildings are on the verge of collapse (according to our Moon guidebook, the buildings in Centro Habana do, indeed, collapse on a regular basis). Along the Malecón itself are various plazas including a monument built in 1925 to honor the victims of the 1898 U.S. Maine explosion in Havana Harbor, which gave rise to the Spanish-American War. Near the U.S. Interests Section you pass the Tribuna Antimperialista. Built in 2000, this venue for anti-U.S. demonstrations is home to a statue of Cuban national hero José Martí pointing directly at the former U.S. Embassy and holding the likeness of Eliàn Gonzàlez (the young Cuban boy embroiled in custody battle between the U.S. and Cuba in 1999-2000 after his mom drowned while trying to get to the U.S.).
In addition to the interesting and diverse architecture and historical monuments, the Malecón is great for people watching. In the mornings, when I ran, there were many fisherman out as well as a handful of other runners, many people out strolling, and, even at 7:30 am, a few amorous couples on the sea wall.
I always felt extremely safe—other than the occasionally treacherous sidewalk conditions (more on that in a minute) and having to sprint across six lanes of traffic to get to the Malecón. Twice in three runs I was cat called, but I did not feel harassed (one was an older man, and he might have been cheering for me, “Go pretty lady!”). On our final day in Havana I even met some other runners from the U.S.—from New York. They were “just in town for a few days!”
The sidewalk along the Malecón is wide, though, like every sidewalk in Havana, it is in varying states of (dis)repair—from a perfect concrete surface in recently renovated portions to non-existent stretches where the sidewalk is gone and you must either step down a few feet to dirt and gravel or take to the (often very busy) road. For the most part it is a fairly rough surface—it felt like trail running on concrete—and you always have to be on the lookout for random things sticking up out of the concrete (think shorn off signs that are now metal spikes waiting to trip or impale the daydreaming runner). Also, in places the sidewalk can be incredibly slippery (I’m talking more slippery than ice) due to the waves splashing over the sea wall.
If the sidewalk is wet, I learned, tread lightly and use your best ice walking techniques or do as the locals do and take to the road. Running on the road is a little sketchy, for sure, but by my third run I finally got used to the idea.
Another running option along the Malecón is the dirt track at the Estadio José Martí. This grand sports structure sitting on the edge of the Caribbean Sea was once a great symbol of hope for the future in Havana. Today it reflects the deterioration that has been the fate of many of the great sports structures in the city. Despite the lack of upkeep, Havanans use the track and field, and it would be a beautiful place to run laps or get in a little speed workout.
Challenges of Running in Havana
While the Malecón provided a safer, easier, and more interesting running option than I had hoped for when planning our trip, there are some basic safety issues to consider. While getting to the Malecón is relatively easy from pretty much anywhere in the main part of Havana (just head down one of the major boulevards to the waterfront), crossing the Malecón to the sidewalk is a bit crazy. So far as I recall, there may be two light controlled intersections on the entire stretch of road. But maybe only one. This means that people wait until a break in the six lanes of traffic (three in each direction), and then make a run for it. I did not get the sense that the Cuban drivers felt any need to slow down and wait for pedestrians. Away from the Malecón the main boulevards generally have decent sidewalks, but the sidewalks are often very busy and almost all of the intersections have lights, often with long waits at times. The sidewalks away from the main boulevards are often in pretty poor shape, and running them would be pretty difficult.
There are no public bathrooms or drinking fountains, so far as I could tell, in Havana. I did not carry water on any of my runs, but I never went longer than six miles. I did see many tourist-looking runners carrying water bottles. For tourists, it is bottled water only in Havana, and I wouldn’t count on buying any easily while out running. While there are no easy access bathrooms right on the Malecón, one could, in a pinch, go into one of the major hotels—the Nacional or the Maliá Cohiba—and use their restroom. Be warned, even in the nice hotels there is not always toilet paper. When in Cuba one should always carry toilet paper and a few coins to tip the bathroom attendant, who, if there is one, will then give you a little bit of TP.
Havana is quite warm and humid, and the Malecón gets a full dose of morning sun. Two of the days I ran it was quite windy, which was great for temperature control but certainly made running a little more challenging. The non-windy day felt quite hot at 70 degrees and, without the wind, the air pollution was really awful (remember all those super cool 1950s American cars?! They often have black soot spewing engines.). The air pollution was so bad on the non-windy day that, had I not been in Cuba for just a week, I probably would have taken the day off of running.
I am not an evening runner, but I actually think evening would be a much better time, for many reasons, to run the Malecón: the sun is much less intense as it sets of the southeastern side of the island, the sunset glow along the Malecón is gorgeous, and the people watching is even better than in the morning as more locals head out for the evening. Check out this L.A. Times photo essay to get a sense of the Malecón at night. Stunning.
Thank you so much Gina for sharing your experience on running in Cuba! I can’t wait to go there someday soon!