By Robert McAndrews
|Yes, Cuba. Yes, running Cuba. A group of eight U.S. trail runners and
three Cuban guides traversed four provinces of Cuba in vans, on bikes and on foot during
the first running and biking tour of Cuba from April 7th to April 20th, 2002.
Peter Haney, my brother-in law, a trail runner from Ft. Collins, Colorado, began dreaming in Cuban after his bicycle trip in Cuba in 2001 under the auspices of Global Exchange, an educational and cultural exchange organization with authority from the U.S. government to sponsor such tours. He and I designed a combined trail running and biking tour and co-sponsored it with Global Exchange.
Mike Sandrocks article, Cuba Libre in the Dec/Jan 2001 issue of Trail Runner magazine provided essential stimulus for the intrepid participants with an adventuresome bent. The participant runners, Stan Nowakowski, Maura Schwartz, Sally Brassill, Maggie Soloman, Matthew Clarke, Bill Halm, and Peter and I were energetically led on bikes, on our first day in Cuba, through the streets of Havana by Ignacio (YeYo) Valladares, president of the Havana Bike Club, and his assistant, Yacmara, a woman who later taught us how to Salsa dance. Ye Yo always wore his bike helmet, even when not riding, and had a huge plastic whistle around his neck, which he blew constantly to stop traffic and direct our group. He and Yacmara had large Cuban flags attached to their bikes and provided small flags for each of our bikes. I was surprised at how obedient drivers were in response to YeYos whistle. The Havana marathon course provided a good portion of the route followed and it included stops at the citys main cemetery, Necropolis Cristobal Colon, Plaza de la Revolucion, where Fidel Castro occasionally gives his famously long speeches to crowds of Cubans, the University of Havana, and , would you believe - a bronze statue of John Lennon seated on a park bench. Yes, that John Lennon - revolutionary song writer with the Beatles. He is the only non-Cuban memorialized since the revolution (1959). Not even Fidel Castro has a statue in Havana because it is against Cuban law to have statues of living persons, even if they are heroes.
After visiting the Cuban national radio station where we were interviewed for a program to
be broadcast throughout Cuba about our bike and running plans, we rode along the famous
Malecon, the sea front area including the famous sea wall, the buildings, and the wide
highway running between the two. Next, we stopped to explore the small Afro-Cuban
(Santeria) community created by the famous Cuban muralist, Salvador Gonzalez. This
community includes murals on all buildings for two or three blocks and sculptures devoted
to the Santeria religion. It is estimated that over half of Cubas population follow
Santeria, a synchretic religion with influences from Nigerian and Christian religions.
Leaving Havana the next morning our group set out to run through the land and soul of
Cuba. We drove in two vans, one for our bikes and one for us and our Cuban guides, which
included YeYo, Yacmara, and Jesus Noguera, our interpreter. Jesus speaks several languages
and is completing a graduate program at the University of Havana in International
Relations. He plans on becoming a diplomat and is extremely knowledgeable about Cuban
history, politics, and economics as well as world literature, art and music.
Our group participants included two people in their thirties, two in their forties, one in his fifties, two in their sixties and one in his seventies. We included mountain runners, ultra trail runners, marathoners. Our personalities varied as much as our ages, yet our group dynamics were fun and supportive throughout the journey. Among us, we had run marathons in every state and some in other countries, run races from 5ks to 100 milers on roads and trails, and mountains, and won many age group awards at all distances on all terrains. Most of us had biking experience at various distances. We brought our own bike helmets, but the Havana Bike club provided the bikes. They were mostly old mountain bikes with up to five or six operable gears and in fair condition. Nothing like what any of us were used to, but certainly rideable.
| Heading west from Havana to Pinar del Río we were
fortunate to run past El Mural de la Prehistória, near Viñales, the colorful 15 story
mural pictured in the Trail Runner article by Mike Sandrock. After running and biking
throughout Pinar del Rio province in lush agricultural, tropical forest, beach and river
settings, we headed back east past Havana City toward the province of Matanzas and the
Yumurí Valley. On the way we spent a few days running in the wooded forests of Las
Terrazas, near a planned agricultural community of that name, and along the beach at Santa
María del Mar, just northeast of Havana.
To arrive in the Yumuri valley we rode bikes over a rutted dirt and asphalt hilly road for
about 25k , gradually descending into a lush valley and arrived at our hotel for the
evening. The Hotel Valle has a wonderful Spanish style, two story reception building with
tile roof and rocking chairs on verandas, but the rest of the complex consists of Soviet
era concrete three story run down buildings. This disjointed appearance might be an
outward and superficial representation of pre and post revolutionary Cuba. Pre
revolutionary Cuba was corrupt, oppressive and wild. But there was wealth and high
culture for the few and foreigners and Spanish architecture was likely better
preserved. Post revolutionary Cuba brought Soviet and Cuban socialist inspired
architecture and construction, which meant unimaginative and cheap housing, though wealth
was somewhat leveled and currently an estimated 85% of all Cubans own their own homes.
We ran a morning exploratory route through the valley. Along the way some of us stopped to
snap photos of farmers standing on home-made plows pulled by two bullocks, or rural
children on their way to school, or the vast valley itself , with mountain ranges in the
distance. Everywhere we drove, rode or ran throughout Cuba, with the possible exception of
Havana, we found that Cubans are essentially farmers. Even those born and raised in Havana
or other large cites usually spent a few months to a few years working agricultural land.
Sugar cane and tobacco are principal crops seen everywhere we went, but Cuban farmers seem
to grow a huge variety of vegetables and fruit. Tomatoes, plantain, potatoes, beans, rice
and tropical fruits, such as guavas, mangoes, pineapples, coconuts, and bananas are
Prior to our one night stay near El Mural de la Prehistoria, YeYo, in his wonderful
energetic and colorful English, sprinkled with noises and Spanish, warned us about the
possibility of animales in our cabin rooms. He was right - our room had
several giant cockroaches going for my cookies. Later, we adopted his reference to
animales for all animals. There are plenty of animals: cows, horses, pigs,
goats, bullocks, chickens, dogs, cats, and a huge variety of birds. These mostly
domesticated animals are everywhere in cities, towns, villages, on farms, on trails, on
We rode our bikes from El Valle Hotel, through the city of Matanzas, with stops at a publishing house which publishes original, artistic hand made books by various Cuban and other writers in Latin America, the Ballamar underground caves, and an open air farmers market, where we purchased a late afternoon lunch of tamales, fried plantain, bananas, and pineapple. From there we were transported by van to the city of Cienfuegos, which sits on the Bahía de Cienfuegos and opens into the Caribbean sea. Cienfuegos, one of Cubas largest industrial centers, has a population of close to 150,000 people. After a bike tour of the city, we spent the evening across the bay and ran early the next morning on some trails through mango groves.
After breakfast we all jumped on our bikes for our longest ride of the tour. We rode 40+K
on rolling hills to the town of Cumanayagua, stopped for a visit to a rural polyclinic, a
health clinic with several doctors and nurses in various specialty areas where preventive
health care is emphasized, had a Cuban meal of beans and rice and some pork, then
continued for another 20+K over hilly terrain with a final 5K climb through the Sierra del
Escambray mountains to our hotel in the community of Hanabanilla. After over 60K of riding
in extreme heat (over 90F and high humidity), the resort Hotel Hanabanilla, sitting on a
vast lake, with rolling farm land and mountains surrounding us, was like a
Early the next morning we rode back to Cumanayagua, mostly downhill now. We jumped into
the back of a huge transport truck for a journey up a rough, rutted dirt road to the
famous Waterfalls of El Nicho. Along the way we stopped at a rural maternity clinic, which
YeYo kept referring to as the pregnant woman. We talked with the pregnant
women and a nurse and donated a generous amount of childrens clothing. Many of us
had brought donations of medical and school supplies and clothing and YeYo was advising us
about the best places to distribute them - mostly in remote communities. We had already
distributed most of what we brought, but had saved childrens clothing for this
clinic. This is one more example of Cubas impressive health care system, which is
free for all citizens. Rural pregnant women in the region who had any health problems
which might compromise the pregnancy could come to this clinic and stay as long as
necessary. Their other children could also stay with them. Their room, board and health
care is completely free.
Once we reached El Nicho, we went for a single track mountain trail run for about an hour. We were on rugged terrain in lush vegetation. We welcomed a nice long soaking in the magnificent series of nearby waterfalls, which YeYo claimed was true Paradise. Since we had heard him proclaim each days itinerary as a paradise, we ceased to have paradisical expectations. But the El Nicho waterfalls definitely reaffirmed our belief in YeYos superlatives. We ate a full Cuban style lunch at the only restaurant in El Nicho while being serenaded by a four man band playing traditional Cuban songs. These were farmers and other workers from this remote area who were also musicians for tourists at this restaurant. We were amazed at how good they were. This was true at each hotel and restaurant on our entire journey. We were serenaded by excellent musicians, sometimes two men, with a guitar and maracas, sometimes as many as seven or eight men and women, with a variety of instruments. There are apparently enough good musicians in Cuba to provide a Buena Vista Social Club in each city and town throughout the country. After lunch we headed further up the dirt road to a small, one building health clinic in the town of El Nicho, in which a single doctor is responsible for about 200 people on dispersed farms in his district. We toured his fine clinic and shared espresso coffee with him and his family at his home across the road from the clinic. He impressed me with his pride and joy about the work he was doing and his life in this very remote town. We distributed the last of our gifts of clothing to his clinic.
Our last night on the road was once again at the lovely Hotel Hanabanilla. This was as far east of Havana as our tour went. After another early morning run exploring the rugged terrain surrounding the hotel and breakfast, we headed north by van for Santa Clara and a visit at the Che Guevara museum and memorial. This museum testifies to the notion that Che is the most famous and omnipresent hero from the revolution of 1959. The museum is vast, possibly like the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials combined. The most impressive feature is a building containing the Che memorial, which is like a Catholic chapel, with candlelight, plaques of former revolutionary heroes and , of course a special one for Che. It has an unmistakable religious or spiritual atmosphere about it.
On our fourteenth day we drove all the way back to Havana - 290K and celebrated our final
evening together on the rooftop of Dulce Marías residence in Habana Vieja
(Old Havana), drinking her special rum drink, listening to her six piece band and
learning how to dance the Cha, cha, cha, Salsa and other Latin dances. While listening to
wonderful Cuban music, overlooking the city, with a nice cooling breeze drying my wet
shirt, and looking at my traveling companions having such a good time, I realized I would
carry this feeling and memory for a long time.
Though this trip was definitely about running and riding the land, a genuine highlight for me was meeting so many Cuban people in their own settings - farmers. teachers, doctors and nurses, mechanics, artists. YeYos network of friends gave us an opportunity unavailable to other tourists. This was an educational and cross-cultural exchange tour. We went deep into the Cuban way of life for a very brief time.
Co-leader of this tour, Peter Haney, is currently planning another running, biking, educational tour of Cuba. Dates tentative. For information, call him at 970-482-1366 or e-mail email@example.com