Last weekend, I finally made it to Cuba!
It was a significant trip for me, since Cuba was my final country in all of the Americas. I now have only 19 total countries remaining, and this was an especially fun one.
During my time on the island, I ran a half-marathon with a friend, spent another couple days walking around Havana, and made sure to sample mojitos from as many restaurants as possible.
Keep reading for the full report, or click any image for a larger version…
How to Visit Cuba as an American
When I came back and mentioned I was in Cuba, lots of messages popped up for me on Twitter and Google+ asking the same question: “How did you do that? I thought Americans can’t visit Cuba?”
Ah yes, here’s the thing. Americans aren’t “supposed” to visit Cuba without a license, which is kind of like a visa. But it’s weird, because the visa isn’t issued by Cuba—on their side, Cuba is happy to welcome Americans with no hassle and very little paperwork. Immigration officials will even go out of their way to avoid stamping your passport to ensure there is no evidence of your visit. Instead, it’s the U.S. government that doesn’t want its citizens visiting the small island 90 miles south of Florida.
When I first began my travel quest five years ago, I always assumed I would wait until I could get a license to visit Cuba. After hearing reports from many other travelers, however, I finally decided to just go for it. Almost every report said the same thing: the travel restriction is no big deal, no one has ever been prosecuted for visiting Cuba, and besides—it’s an amazing place. Don’t wait!
With that advice in mind, I reconciled myself to visiting Havana without the license, and I almost made it there earlier this year during the Axis of Evil trip when I visited Libya, Afghanistan, and Iran. On the way home from Kabul, I stopped off in Chicago and flew down to Cancun for the connection. Alas, my AA flight was two hours late due to a maintenance issue. While we were taxiing in on the tarmac, I saw the Cubana jet take off for Havana. Foiled!
I had been traveling for two weeks by then and had already made it to several police states, so instead of waiting a few more days for the next available flight, I spent the night in Cancun and returned home to the U.S. the next morning.
Visit with Wandering Zito
It was probably for the better that I didn’t visit earlier this year, because when I started planning the return attempt, my longtime friend Stephanie Zito decided to come along. Stephanie has been to more than 100 countries of her own, and was one of my original inspirations when deciding to visit every country in the world.
Traveling with Stephanie is fun because we are each experienced travelers in our own way, but we both tend to forget things. For example, even though we had planned to run the half-marathon, neither of us had done anything about registering for it before we got there. No problem, right? We had cash with us and figured that they wouldn’t turn away two healthy runners who showed up at the runners’ area the night before.
Unfortunately, the first guy we talked with didn’t seem especially eager to help. Our cumulative Spanish was fairly limited to phrases like “Dos más mojitos,” which didn’t help us with this guy who ignored our entreaties and kept motioning us to leave.
Steph and I looked at each other and silently decided on a common travel strategy: when things aren’t going your way, wait it out and see what happens. Just keep standing around looking friendly, and more often than not, all will be well.
The strategy worked. The marathon organizer, who also didn’t speak much English, came out to see us and kept repeating “Welcome to Cuba!” over and over.
“Dos más mojitos!” I replied.
We were now on friendly terms, but still had no way to register for the race. Eventually a third person was fetched, who grew up in Miami and was happy to help us sort out our registration. Success! We were officially ready to go.
The Half-Marathon: Tour De Havana
The next morning we woke up early and headed for the race entrance. At least two thousand runners were there, mostly from Cuba and other Latin American countries. A troupe of dancers was positioned on the steps of the capitol building, and everyone was full of energy.
We set off at 7am, and the crowd thinned out after the first kilometer or two. After the first 5k or so, I was slightly worried as the temperature rose. I usually run at least 10 miles every Sunday, so a half-marathon (13.1 miles) shouldn’t be a huge challenge, but running in the rainy Pacific Northwest is a lot different than running on an island in the sun. Fortunately, all was well—after warming up around 7:30, it was still hot for the rest of the morning, but never become unmanageable.
We ran past the seafront, into New Havana, and through a bunch of different neighborhoods. We had heard that the water stations were sparse and poorly run, but this wasn’t the case at all: Almost every kilometer or two, eager volunteers were handing out small bags of water that you open with your teeth and then drink.
We ran a slow pace, which was a good decision since neither of us felt super exhausted toward the end. In fact, we rounded the corner to the finish sooner than we were expecting. All of a sudden, it was over. A volunteer marked our number as completed, and another volunteer gave us a medal. Victory!
At the end of the race, several runners approached us and asked for our shoes. We had read online that this request was common, and when we saw the shoes that most Cuban runners wore for their races, it wasn’t a hard choice. We picked out two guys based on the poor quality of their shoes, made sure ours were a good fit for them, then handed them over.
Havana Photo Walk
After the marathon, I felt slightly dehydrated and took a short nap after drinking lots of water. Stephanie has endless energy, so she left to explore the city and take photos. After a while she came back to fetch me and I joined her for the second half of the excursion.
My grandpa was in Cuba in 1941 right before Pearl Harbor. The funny thing is, I’m not sure how much has changed. Due to the U.S. embargo, almost every car in Cuba dates back to the 1950s or even before. Walking around Havana is like visiting a car show, although some cars need a little work.
- The Cancun airport has no transit section, despite seeing a lot of travelers transit through to third countries, usually Cuba. Ironically, the Havana airport does have a transit section… for everyone traveling on to Russia or China, I guess.
- There are essentially two economies in Cuba. Our trip wasn’t super-cheap because we paid tourist prices: taxis are mostly fixed-price, and restaurants are clearly divided into tourist spots and non-tourist spots.
- With employment opportunities being fairly limited, almost every restaurant in Cuba has a band. There is no Burger King in Havana, but if there were, I’m sure it would have a full salsa band at the entrance as customers ordered their Whoppers.
- The unofficial “mojito index” ranged in price from $2 to $6, depending on how far one walks from the main tourist areas. Perfectly reasonable.
- If you’re an American hoping to visit Cuba, check out Cuba Travel Network. They arranged my flights and hotel, and ensured that my credit card was charged in a country other than Cuba. (This wasn’t a sponsored trip of any kind, and I paid full price.)
The only problem with our trip came when we almost missed our flight back to Cancun and on to Dallas. Yikes! It was totally my fault, as it almost always is. For some reason I thought we were leaving at 3:15pm, but our flight (the only one to Cancun) actually left at 1:15. Oops.
Thankfully, after a mad dash to the airport, a successful attempt at jumping the queue at the Cubana Airlines check-in counter while avoiding eye contact with fellow passengers, and impatiently waiting through a long immigration process, we made it to the gate just in time. In fact, we even had a moment while boarding to exchange our final ten Cuban dollars for Mexican pesos, which could be put to good use with another friend of mine in Cancun.
If you’re looking for a place where time stopped in 1941 and hasn’t looked back, check out Cuba. As many independent travelers said to me, don’t wait.
Oh, and… only 19 countries to go! Wow.
Question: where are you going on your next trip?