White sugar-sand beaches, blissfully warm waters, long hours of tropical sunshine, mojitos on tap, velvety fresh tobacco, gleaming 50s Cadillacs, decadent architecture, the constant thrum of music; Cuba is the kind of destination made for a hedonistic break rather than a healthy one. A unique USA-defying history that’s inspired any number of books and films – not to mention Che t-shirts – makes it a major draw for the geeks among us as well.
But away from the bars, cigars and classic cars is an island that offers just as much in the way of activity and adventure. From off-the-beaten-track mountain hikes to cycle tours around lush tobacco fields, and with an obligatory blood-pumping, foot-stomping samba class thrown in, here’s five essential ways to get the heart rate up in the land of la revolucion.
1. Running on the Malecon
One of the best known streets in Havana, the Malecon is a promenade that stretches for eight kilometres along the seafront, separating the city from the water. For Habaneros, it is the place to stroll, fish, pick up a partner, play music, chill – and run. Yes, you need to keep a watchful eye for the pavement pot-holes, and getting from one side of the road to the other can be a hair-raising dash across lanes of traffic. But with the early morning sun on your back, the buildings and bays of Cuba’s capital coming to life in the golden light, the waves crashing against the seawall, and the pavement as flat and wide as you could wish for, it is guaranteed to be one of the most fulfilling and memorable runs you’ll ever do.
2. Hiking in the Sierra Maestra
The Sierra Maestra mountains, out of bounds to tourists for decades, are where Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries set up camp in 1954 in their quest to overthrow the US-backed president, Fulgencio Batista. Today the Comandancia de la Plata – Fidel’s original camp – is a well-preserved tourist site, reached by a guided trek through steep, jungly terrain, about 150kms west of the city of Santiago de Cuba. There’s no better way to experience what the revolutionaries went through than to literally walk in their footsteps. If this four-hour round-trip is too pedestrian, there are a number of more taxing hikes through the virgin national parklands, available to book through locally based Bayamo Travel Agent. The trails can be tough going at times, but the shady boughs keep the temperature bearable and the views over the undulating cloud forests make it all the more worthwhile.
3. Diving in the Jardines de la Reina
Shimmering corals, biodiversity in every shape and colour, a marine ecosystem barely altered since the times of Christopher Columbus, and all in waters that promise startling 40-metre clarity; the Jardines de la Reina is widely recognised as one of the finest dive sites in the world. It is not easy to get to – the archipelago is located some way off Cuba’s southern coast and measures are in place to keep the number of divers who visit the site each year to a minimum, but all of that helps to preserve this underwater wonderland and makes each dive all the more special. Avalon organise week-long diving excursions with on-board accommodation on one of their boats.
4. Cycling in Valle de Vinales
Famed for its tobacco fields, the Valle de Vinales is a photographer’s paradise made up of lush green plains, multi-coloured houses and jutting rocky hills known as mogotes. It is also the perfect place for cyclists, with quiet roads snaking all the way through the Unesco-listed landscape, offering long flat stretches and semi-challenging climbs. A tour with super-knowledgeable Fidel from At Cuban Style tours will get the heart pumping and the brain ticking, while you cruise past farmers manually tilling fields and kids riding about on horses, all as casual as can be. Fidel will suit the tour to your fitness levels, with some routes around the valley – which take in breathtaking views and essential stops at natural caves and tobacco plantations – harder on the legs than others.
5. Dancing in Trinidad
Is there a more thorough workout in Cuba than dancing? Certainly it’d be hard to find one that is more fun. Music is everywhere throughout the country, on every street corner, blasting out of the open windows of every bar, and with it you’ll see the uninhibited locals shaking their stuff for hours on end. Salsa is ubiquitous and you’ll find the more upbeat reggaeton in younger venues, such as Trinidad’s nightclub-in-a-cave, Disco Ayala, which has to be seen to be believed. If you’ve got what it takes to keep to the rhythm, jump straight in. Otherwise ask at your hotel for the best local classes. But be prepared to sweat! All the Zumba in the world won’t prepare you for the quick and tireless feet of a Cubano dancer.