Rewind the clock a few weeks and I have just landed in Havana. Historically, the Caribbean island’s relationship with the US made it an awkward destination for travellers looking to enjoy its unique charms.
However, since the thawing of relations, commercial flights have sharply risen and tourism is expected to balloon accordingly. I wanted to see the island before the 4m tourists expected in 2017 turn up and one my best friends’ wedding gave me the opportunity to do so.
It also gave me the chance to explore by foot the trails and roads of an island that still feels somewhat forbidden and undiscovered (for the time being at least). Also, I was in serious serious need of Vitamin D after a British winter.
Our first trip was to the south of the island and, after an exhausting day of navigating the confusing rural roads of inner Cuba, we arrived in the town of Trinidad, a beautifully restored 16th century town. On the way, we may as well have been on set for Of Mice and Men, such was the near constant scenery of wooden mills amongst hectare after hectare of sugarcane plantations.
I was up before dawn the next day to avoid the heat and my body, quite frankly, was utterly disorientated by what I’m doing up at 6am running. I headed towards the town’s historical church; the streets were silent and I jogged past the famous Plaza Mayor. The well-trodden cobbles would be terrible for anything too energetic but, for my morning slog, were just fine and I paced myself accordingly.
As I would discover over the coming weeks, running in Cuba was, overall, very safe. Aside from the odd toot towards my brightly coloured shoes, I was generally left in peace so long as I gave way to the five decade-old taxis. Considering they are built like tanks and I didn’t particularly fancy being liquidised, jaywalking was the least of my plans anyway… However, the gel-addicted, Lucozade-guzzling, physio-tape-wearing, Strava-using runner should beware: apart from what you bring with you, running is Cuba is very much back to basics. It was hard enough finding a shop to buy water; running gizmos are, unsurprisingly, fairly low down on the ration book lists!
Trinidad, though small, was charming: its marvellous architecture has largely remained unspoiled (or has been renovated) with street after street of narrow, pastel-coloured, colonial mansions adorned with arches and balconies. As I toured the town, huge, rusty lorries from yesteryear lumbered by belching out monstrous clouds of black smoke while vultures circled overhead, possibly planning to make a snack out of the brightly coloured running object below them. Rather keen to deny them of their breakfast, I looked for new routes and soon enough reached the bottom of a valley and discovered a narrow river path.
The gurgling of the river was a welcome break from the roads and, without a soul in sight, I felt a lot closer to nature. The trees, covered in termite nests, flickered in the breeze and provided some welcome shade. Eagles lurked in the distance while a tocororo, Cuba’s national bird, broke cover as I snapped branches underfoot. Unfortunately, my communing with the island’s bird life was loudly interrupted by my Garmin’s BEEEEP telling me another kilometre had gone by. Well, at least I wasn’t listening to music..!
After a few days, we headed westwards towards the Peninsula de Zapata. Vast tracts of open swampland and contrastingly dense forests harbour one of the most famous beaches in US 20th century history: the Bahia de Cochinos, or Bay of Pigs, famous for the failed US-backed invasion of Cuba following the island’s schmoozing with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.
No sooner have we arrived that I switched my flip-flops for trainers and headed out for an early morning run. I made my way to the National Park; its one and only road cuts a straight line through the almost impenetrable woodlands making it impossible to get lost. The track was flat, smooth and wide: ideal for some fast running.
Around me, nature was gradually waking up, with early birds swooping to catch unsuspecting insects. In the undergrowth hid a range of animals, including cat-sized giant rats, crocodiles and boa constrictors. The travel guides all warned you to be careful although none of them mentioned the worst of all evils hiding in the salty swamps: the local guerrilla mosquito. Stop to catch your breath at your own peril as, like the well-coordinated revolutionary army hiding in the swamps 50 years ago, death by execution was most certainly not enough to scare them off. When the ideal moment arose (i.e. anytime you’re not zooming by), they swarmed and struck. The only solution was to run, and bloody fast preferably.
Having recovered my breath, I slowed down just as the sun made its appearance, its heat causing a haze to rise from the road and swamps. Soon, the whole area was covered by thick mist and the cool and sheltered mangrove forests now felt humid and constrained. It has been an hour and I haven’t seen a single other human. A crack echoed from my right. I carried on, assuming I either didn’t need to know or want to know.
Eventually, I exit the park for another 10 kilometres along the beaches. On the way, innumerous memorials to the fallen remind me of the island’s violent past. Tanks, flags, monuments, and propaganda-ridden murals: the message is clear and sobering. Daydreaming, I suddenly remembered I could be at home doing a Cross-Country race right now. I laughed and buried that horrible thought far far away.
The surrounding flat-topped limestone mountains shaped by millennia of erosion give the landscape a unique, prehistoric look and feel and the land is unspoilt with rolling valley after valley of primary forest. For trail runners, it really is a version of heaven.
By now, my body was getting adjusted to this 6am running malarkey. I warmed up under the cacophony of cockerels’ singsong before heading out into the wilderness. Soon, the colourful brick houses and cars became wood huts and carts. Although I had a map on my phone, I decided to head out rather aimlessly along the dusty paths between the pineapple and tobacco fields, enjoying the act of running like I hadn’t in a long time. A childlike joy overcame me at the rawness of nature as piglets came out for a stroke, breaking my stride.
After an hour, the first slither of sunshine crept over the Cuban skyline. Soon, the clouds were orange then scarlet pink while the soft rays brought new warmth to an otherwise cool morning. A local farmer on horseback rode past me and raised his straw hat as a greeting. Time stopped and I paused to witness the scene.
I continued along the sinuous paths, utterly and blissfully unaware of where they would take me. Within minutes, a little mongrel came running towards me and, resisting my attempts to usher it away, began leading me along the paths. I decided to follow it – he leaped rather impressively over a stile and I clambered over behind.
The path suddenly took a sharp incline much to my quads’ distress and, before I knew it, I was faced with a cave taking me deep into the cliff’s darkness. My legs were heavy but I turned my phone’s torch on and gingerly followed him while wondering whether this was a well-trained dog taking part in a tourist-mugging scheme. Overhead, bats squawked and flew within inches of my hair while, underfoot, their droppings slowed me down to a crawl.
To my relief, daylight appeared a few minutes later and we emerged to a glorious vista of green valleys and testing terrain. We made our way down a long set of rooted steps before the mongrel ran off, leaving me to head back to the village, exhilarated. Was this a runner’s high? Whatever it was, this is what running is all about.
(talking of which, we faffed about quite a bit with Pippa so here are a few too many photos of the countryside (and me running))
A few days later, we are back in Havana, which has the potential to be one of the most striking cities in the world, if only it didn’t suffer from chronic under-investment. This was my first proper chance to do a real long run so I headed out in marathon training mode.
Within seconds I was flanked by a stray dog sniffing at my ankles. I shooed it away but it kept coming back with a distinct interest in my shoes – obviously a week of running in the tropics has created quite a potent stench.
With dawn still an hour away, I tackled the silent, uneven streets of Old Havana, lit by 1950s-style glass globes streetlamps. Despite the straightforward grid system, there remained a sense of disorder and much of the city’s past rawness remained. One second, I was running alongside a majestically restored colonial hotel; the next, a row of crumbling apartments more akin to war zones.
After a few kilometres, I reached Havana Harbour from where the Malecon – the city’s famous waterfront – begins. A few early-morning anglers looked back at me; a pelican nose-bombed to my right, possibly stealing the anglers’ catch. Behind me, the stray dog continued to pay close interest to my trainers.
The Malecon is an obvious place for all visiting runners to seek out: broad and flat, it is a continuous five mile boulevard and seawall protecting the city from the Atlantic’s thunderous mood. The uninterrupted pavement was a chance for me to finally do some tempo running and put my new companion through his paces.
While free of cars, the Malecon did have one quite major obstacle: the ocean and its raging waves. Without fail, every unsuspecting tourist will get a soaking and I regularly found myself jumping into the road to avoid getting wet. The dog – by now named Spot for a distinctive mark on his coat – was far braver than me and excitedly sprinted along the seawall and, after quite a few days of slow running, my pace was good and the city flashed by.
Eventually, I approached the end of the Malecon and with it the US Embassy. A brutal building in a prime waterfront spot, it only resumed its function in 2015 and is a welcome reminder of thawing relationships since Obama’s presidency. That said, should the ambassador look along the seafront, he would be faced with a massive monument decked with ¡Patria o Muerte, Venceremos! (Fatherland or Death, we shall win!) as a gentle reminder that once bitten, twice shy.
A few locals ran by and all, without exception, were running in the road. Did they know something that I don’t? In short, yes. Moments later, a wave no less than three meters high came crashing over the wall – itself three or four meters high. I spun sideways just in time to avoid being knocked over and braced for impact. Spot and I emerged, somewhat drenched, and caught our breath while, in the distance, three workmen were bent double laughing.
Chastened, I apprehensively ran back towards town, the side streets now awake and buzzing with the sound of neighbours chatting through iron window grills. As my legs tired, I headed towards the impressive Capitolio Nacional while long-forgotten 1950s classic US cars such as Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Buicks, Corvettes and dozens of other colourful vehicles I’ve never before seen, flew by.
A testament to the quality of US engineering and Cuban ingenuity, these museum-worthy cars are one of the most recognisable images of Cuba and a result of half a century of banning foreign car imports.
Life in Havana slowly began to unfold in plain view: domino players were sat at tables, children in mustard-coloured uniforms played outside school, and people were starting to queue – a compulsory pastime here if ever there were one.
The streets, devoid of any tawdry advertising or international shops, made me feel like I was running in a different world.
By the time I reached the Capitol, I’d been running for over 90 minutes and Spot was still with me, closely mirroring each of my steps. What I did to earn this attention I’ll never know but, like all endurance runners, he was restless, obsessive, dedicated and, dare I say, great fun (slight bias here!).
My stomach rumbling and sightseeing done, I started to head back towards the B&B we were staying at although Spot had other ideas. Instead of tailing me for once, he crept up behind a parked horse and cart whose driver has stopped to buy a drink and, with one very carefully placed bark, all hell broke loose. The horse, clearly panicked, galloped off down the wide boulevard, narrowly swerving past pedestrians and parked cars. His driver sprinted behind him before jumping into a passing taxi and, in a flash, the horse and taxi had vanished from view. I decided to do the same myself and left the crime scene rather rapidly, my mischievous four-legged running partner in tow.
Havana was an enchanting and intriguing city pulsating with energy and full of diverse districts ideal for running around. Life is changing however: on my final morning stroll, a giant cruise ship honked as it entered the bay, bringing both tourists and foreign money to this once isolated nation. Brightly coloured taxis flocked to the harbour to cash in: the flawed economy means a 10-minute ride will earn drivers half a doctor’s monthly salary. Nearer by, a dozen stray cats rummaged through a bin outside a disintegrating theatre while a queue forms outside a bodega shop, ration books tightly clenched. This paradoxical clash of past and future was an ever-present occurrence in Cuba – which one will prevail is anyone’s guess.