It’s been quite a historic year, and week, for the Caribbean island nation that has long been forbidden fruit for Americans.
This year marked the first time a sitting U.S. president visited Cuba since Calvin Coolidge did before The Great Depression.
Then the extended Thanksgiving weekend first brought news of the death of Fidel Castro and the already planned first of many regularly scheduled direct flights from U.S. airports to Havana.
And yet, the future of Cuba and its relationship with the U.S. is anyone's guess.
President-elect Donald Trump has threatened to end President Barack Obama’s efforts to relax restrictions on transactions with Cuba. Trump wants a “better deal” for all involved.
For both Cubans and Americans, it’s wait-and-see time.
Whatever course it takes has implications for what is a big anniversary year ahead for Cuba: 2019 not only marks the 60th anniversary of the revolution but the 500th anniversary of the founding of Havana.
For a few years, I’ve been eyeing running one of the races of the Marabana, a marathon, half marathon and 10K event, that has been held in Havana for 30 years.
After all, the U.S. government continues to require that Americans fulfill one of 12 “reasons” to travel to Cuba, one of them being participating in an athletic competition.
I balked at an official tour group which sought $3,000 for a three-day, touristy experience. In early May, I emailed race founder and director, Carlos Gattorno, asking for an alternative, more authentic experience and was pleasantly surprised when I got a response in two hours.
Gattorno connected me with Julio Travieso, who was born in Cojimar, Cuba but left with his family when he was 11 in 1956 – three years before the revolution.
Travieso, now 71 and living in Ocala, Florida, reconnected with his native country and his beloved Cojimar in recent years and has taken four different groups (he calls us the “Hot Tamales Running Club”) to Marabana since 2011. In a nutshell, his offer was for $1,800 for one week, including airfare (at the time, charter), visa, single occupancy in a room of a local Cuban family, all breakfasts, transportation and some admission fees.
He capped the group size at 15 and I was No. 11 in early May.
And while this was a technically a "running destination" trip, it was clear, for most who went, that running was not the main motivation to go on this adventure.
A quiet village
Cojimar, located eight miles east of Havana, is home to Torreon de Cojímar, a small Spanish fort constructed in 1649.
But Cojimar’s more modern claim to fame: It was where Ernest Hemingway docked his boat, El Pilar. He also used the town and a local fisherman as the basis for “The Old Man and The Sea.”
Members of the running group lived in family homes within a few blocks of our hub, Cafe Ajiaco, where we gathered for breakfast and dinner each day.
While taking two of three meals somewhat limited our dining experience, the camaraderie gained with the staff of the restaurant added to a relationship-rich aspect of the trip. Plus, they were troopers to get up at 5 a.m. for the mornings of our marathon and departure.
Staying in the village also offered members of the group options to explore solo or in smaller groups, such as for pre- or post-dinner drinks, from mojitos and daiquiris to two main beers of Cuba, Kristal and Bucanero.
Among the favorite hangouts were La Terraza de Cojimar (where Hemingway hung out) and El Torreon (with a view of the fort).
Connecting with people
Travieso taps into his connections with family and friends in Cojimar to help his runners have a more intimate experience than the typical tourist to Cuba.
Balancing the usual sightseeing were visits to an array of people and institutions, including the local school and a tennis club that met on a retrofitted “court” on a massive, crumbly concrete pad nearby.
One takeaway from the trip was that a top priority is placed on the health and education of Cuban children.
Most of the group participated in an exhibition game with a local youth baseball team that may have been the highlight of my trip.
We met a local woman who has long taught English classes in her home and her adult students, which included a dentist, a diver, a homemaker, a college student and high school student.
Often dinners also featured Cuban “guests,” including Marabana’s Gattorno and his energetic adult daughter, Karla Gattorno Machado, who manages to work as a professor, business consultant and assistant to her father’s herculean efforts with the race.
At dinner with the Gattornos, Karla translated for Carlos, who explained that the origins of the race go back to his relationship with the founder of the New York City Marathon and running legend, the late Fred Lebow.
The hard work and dedication over the years has paid off. According to the official newspaper, Granma, the 30th annual event set new records for participation.
The marathon had 425 participants, the half 1,069 and the 10K 1,270. While most were from Cuba, most others came from the U.S. (874 participants), Germany, France, Mexico and Spain.
The race was memorable, in part due to having virtually no portable toilets, having markers only for kilometers and the on-course hydration. Water and electrolytes came in small, sealed plastic bags, which actually make more sense than having open cups.
The course is scenic tour of Havana, starting and ending in front of the capitol and featuring the entire waterfront drive, known as the Malecon, before going into a series of hills within the city.
Off the beaten path
Sightseeing touched on many of the conventional sights, including the cathedrals and plazas of Old Havana, Plaza de la Revolucion, and Hemingway’s “Finca Vigia” house in San Francisco de Paula, as well as an evening watching a Tropicana-style show, “Cabaret Parisien,” at Hotel Nacional de Cuba.
But the tour took us a bit off the beaten track as well.
Travieso included several sights relevant to African heritage in Cuba, notably related to the Santeria religion. It was born out of Spanish overlords banning African slaves from practicing their native religion. Slaves retooled it to resemble the structure and formalities of Catholicism, turning gods, or “orishas,” into saints.
One jaunt took us to Guanabacoa, three miles southeast of Havana, that is considered the “cradle of Santeria” in Cuba. At the Museo Historico de Guanabacoa, a troupe performed dances similar to African dances to a variety of percussionists.
Two lunches were taken after visiting agros, or farmers markets, where it was apparent that Americans were a rare, if not unprecedented, sight.
The agros themselves were different. The more rural one had a bounty of fresh food, including sweet potatoes, rice and beans, plaintains, bananas and yucca root, but not as much variety as the one closer to the city.
The only day the group split was after one faction needed a beach day, which was taken at Santa Maria del Mar (12 miles east of Havana), and the other stuck with the regularly scheduled trip to Las Terrazas in Pinar del Rio and the famed home of Cuban artist Jose Fuster.
Cuban “wish list”
Another aspect of the trip was Travieso’s easy sell for our group to bring items that the Cuban people need.
His “Cuba Wish List” was subtitled, “Ask yourself what you would take if you are camping in the woods for three months with kids? Cubans need all that.”
So nearly everyone filled bags with over-the-counter medicines and toiletries, school supplies, specific food stuffs (including basically anything with chocolate), and miscellaneous items, including gently used sporting goods.
Many brought running shoes, donated by running friends at home and which are in high demand. One unanticipated surprise was that Cubans were asking, even before the race, if they could have our running shoes.
If you are thinking about going to Cuba, realize that there are two different currencies: the CUC (the Cuban convertible peso) and the Cuban peso, the latter used by everyday Cubans.
In my experience, the U.S. dollar was not accepted and the go-to currency was the CUC. While the convertible peso is technically a 1-to-1 equivalency, a “penalty” drops the rate.
Most of us got 87 CUCS, give or take a few, for every $100. As most can imagine, however, money goes a long way in Cuba. I found it hard to spend much more than $10, with tip, for a dinner with a drink.
Also, having a decent command of communicating in Spanish, or having someone who does speak the language is needed for adventures beyond Old Havana.
Beyond the money and language, be prepared for a variety of plumbing experiences, from barely to not operable toilets (with or without lids), little to no toilet paper, and showers with little to no pressure or hot water.
It can be a bit like indoor camping, at least for now.