For Americans, Cuba is the final frontier for travel in the Western Hemisphere. Since the 1960s, travelling to Cuba has been essentially impossible for citizens of the United States as a result of the frigid relations between the US and Cuba. However, things have been rosier in the past few years, and as a result, it’s now possible to travel to the island nation dubbed the “Pearl of the Antilles”—as long as you meet certain requirements.
Strictly speaking, traveling to Cuba for tourism purposes is still prohibited by the State Department. However, travel is permitted for several specific purposes. These include official government business, family visits, humanitarian projects, and more pertinent to our interests, “athletic and other competitions.“
Now, what kind of athletic event could a runner find in Cuba? Well, how about the Havana Marathon? Dubbed the “Marabana,” the event takes place every year on the third Saturday of November. It features three races: a 10k, a half marathon, and a full marathon.
Like any big-city race, the Marabana winds its way past major landmarks and attractions, including Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square), the Malecón (promenade and seawall), and the Museo de la Revolución (Museum of the Revolution). One course loop of the city is 13 miles, so for the full marathon distance, you’ll get to see the sights of Havana twice.
To make the most of your trip, you’ll want to arrive a few days before the race and stay for a day or two afterwards to see the sights. Is this tourism? Heck no! You’ve got to prepare for your race, acclimate yourself to the tropical conditions, check out the course, and make sure you’re well-recovered after finishing!
Now, how do you get there? Jared at Thrifty Traveler recommends taking a charter flight from Miami on Cheapair or taking a commercial flight via Cancun or Mexico City. You will, of course, need a passport, and you’ll need to fill out a customs declaration form when you arrive.
As for the wheres and hows of staying in Cuba, Thrifty Traveler has you covered. Cuba is a medley of pre- and post-embargo relics: it’s almost impossible to withdraw cash from an ATM or use a credit card, but you can stay in an Airbnb!
The beautiful thing about running a marathon is that the race is the same anywhere in the world. The scenery is different, but if you’ve ever run a race stateside, the structure will be very familiar. There’s a packet pickup, a starting corral, aid stations, and so on. You might be in a foreign country, but running the race should be pretty familiar territory.
On that note, it’s probably wise not to make the Havana Marathon your debut unless you really know what you’re doing. If you’re a novice, opt for the half marathon or 10k option instead!
Upon your return to the United States, prepare for a grilling by customs officers. This is when you’ll need to demonstrate that your trip was for athletic or competition purposes. Make sure you’ve got some evidence that you competed in the race (your bib, perhaps, or your race packet) and be aware that your bag is likely to be searched.
Technically, it’s legal to bring back up to $100 worth of Cuban cigars or rum for personal use, as long as they were purchased in Cuba (as opposed to, say, Cuban goods purchased in Mexico—save your receipt if you can). Even so, expect the third degree from customs.
In truth, the travel embargo will probably be lifted in the next ten years or so, and frank tourism will be allowed. Running the Marabana before then, however, is a unique opportunity to see Cuba at its most authentic—it’s a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience you won’t want to miss.
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