Picking up the pace in Havana – running Marabana, the Caribbean’s number one marathon

March 10, 2020 | by James Corporal

Havana’s annual marathon attracts more and more runners, joggers and walkers with each new edition. Why are more and more people getting excited about Marabana? What has contributed to its rise in popularity? Why are celebrities like Will Smith very publicly joining in and singing its praises? We tell you all about it in this blog post, answering these and many more questions you may have about joining Cuba’s biggest race. Want to be part of Marabana 2020? Keep reading as we enlighten you on the best way to do it.

Runners, joggers and walking enthusiasts who like to stretch their legs in the open air amid cool, historic and eclectic urban sights have one place to add to their marathon bucket list – Havana. Why? The Cuban capital has a long history of success in the sporting world and the Marabana open race was specifically created to promote social inclusion as well as a fitter, more active society. Its purpose was to engage average Cubans in sport through an attractive, scenic marathon itinerary that continues to captivate and fascinate local and foreign participants alike.

Marabana – quick facts & figures

The Caribbean’s biggest marathon

Despite being one of the Caribbean’s oldest marathons, Marabana only started gaining international attention in the new millennium, a decade or so after its foundation in 1987. Ever since, its popularity hasn’t stopped growing and, in more recent years, participation has skyrocketed to record-breaking figures far beyond comparison with any other Caribbean nation. To put it into perspective Jamaica’s Reggae Marathon gathered just over 100 participants in last year’s edition and the second biggest in the region, Dominican Republic’s Punta Cana Marathon, had 601 participants in 2019. Havana’s Marabana marathon more than quadruples those figures. So yes, Marabana is kind of a big deal.

An ever-growing number of runners

Marabana’s most international edition yet was last year, when it recorded a whopping total of 6,000 participants, a good chunk of whom were foreigners. 2019 marked the race’s 33rd edition and indeed it proved a historic one. Not only did the number of participants grow by 20% compared to 2018’s figures, it also managed to attract the largest number of overseas participants ever; among them a good mix of tourists, amateur runners/holidaymakers and professional athletes.

A fit Cuba holiday – an active way to experience Havana

Over 1,400 international runners from more than 63 nationalities descended in Havana for Marabana 2019. Among them was Will Smith who famously talked about the experience in his own series “Will Smith’s Bucket List”. Seconds before the race started, he was filmed saying to the camera:

“We’re here. We’re in Havana, Cuba for my bucket list, on three weeks’ notice. I’m running a half-marathon. I’m excited. You know, the energy is ridiculous in this place…Me encanta Cuba.”

This year the event is poised to attract an even larger number of foreign joggers, runners and walkers. Will you be among one of them? If you keep reading, we’ll tell you how to enrol and the best way to do the Marabana race with a purpose-made holiday package.

An all-welcome, all-included agenda

The idea behind Marabana’s creation back in the late 80s was to allow all Cubans to participate in a mega race of professional standards regardless of their physical condition, age, fitness level or lack thereof. This national race is open to everyone including those with disabilities (deaf, blind and wheelchair users), in fact, those with physical limitations are highly encouraged to participate and join in this celebration of sport and getting active. This is a marathon for the people, organised by Cuba’s official sports committee and its inclusive, laxed nature (no fitness standards required from participants) doesn’t deter from its professionalism and excellent organisation.

The distances to be covered and the sights to be seen

Marabana is both a marathon and a half marathon. Runners have the option of doing the 21-kilometere half-marathon (21,097 metres), the full 42-kilometre marathon (42,195 metres) or 10k with a disability category for all three distances. The sights to be seen along the way include Old Havana’s UNESCO Heritage Site wonders and the Malecon seawalk promenade, passing by landmarks like the Capitolio building and the Plaza de la Revolucion square. Marabana is certainly one of the world’s most picturesque marathons and its Caribbean vibe makes it all the more appealing and exciting.

Marabana, when and how?

The Marabana marathon takes place in November each year and the event’s popularity has made it grow outside the confines of Havana, now taking place simultaneously in all of Cuba’s provinces and municipalities as part of the wider MaraCuba race.

Categories are as follows: Sub-30 years (for everyone aged under 30), Submaster (30-35 year-olds), Master A (41-45 year-olds), Master C (46-50 year-olds), Master D (51-55 year-olds), Master E (56-60 year-olds), Master F (61-65 year-olds), Master G (66-70 year-olds) and Master H (those aged over 70).

Marabana 2020 – running along, what to expect and how to do it

Marabana’s 2020 edition will take place on 22nd November to coincide with Cuba’s National Day of Physical Culture and Sport. This year’s call is open now and if you’re wondering how to enrol, the best way to do it is on your own, coupled with a themed packaged tour, like our Havana Marathon 2020 experience. The enrolling part you actually have to do yourself as registration is only open to individuals, not groups or organisations. You can register online or do so in person at the Iberostar Parque Central Hotel from 18th to 21st November. The earlier you do it, the cheaper registration fees will be and the more likely that places will be available. It’s all the more enjoyable if you go for a ready-made package that includes warm-up sessions, cultural visits and still allows for enough flexibility to let you do your own thing while in Havana.

Cubania’s Havana Marathon 2020 package offers you the best way to fully dive into the Marabana experience. It starts with your arrival in Havana, where you’ll have the freedom to do as much or as little as you wish on your first day and continues with the itinerary we proceed to describe below.

Exploring Havana

On your second day after arriving in Havana (it’s up to you how you spend your first day) we will start with a yoga class in the morning and then proceed (escorted by our local rep in Havana) to collect your marathon registration documents and race bibs. Then it’s time to enjoy a guided walking tour of Old Havana with a focus on its four splendid squares, the first ever built in the city during colonial times. After taking in all the vintage beauty, antique wonders and spectacular architecture you’ll tuck into a delicious lunch right in the heart of the Old Town. The rest of the afternoon is to spend at your own leisure, before being picked up again early in the evening for a tour of greater Havana, which you’ll start riding on a classic car 1950s convertible to better take in the sights.

Prepping for Marabana 2020

Your third day in Havana is a free day for you to get ready for the next morning’s early race start. You can prep for the marathon at your own pace, readying mentally for the day ahead and getting accustomed to the local weather’s racing conditions. Make sure you turn in for an early night and have a sound rest as you’ll have to wake at dawn the next morning.

Running Marabana 2020

Marabana 2020 sets off from Havana’s Parque Central at the onset of 6:30 a.m. An hour earlier you can join an aerobic warm up session and short cultural activity or head straight for the race. Once you cross the finish line, the rest of the day is to spend as you wish, recuperating from the strain of the activity with a massage arranged at your “casa particular” (optional) or taking it easy for a while. In the evening you’ll be taken to a celebratory dinner in one of Havana’s hippest “paladares” to toast to your day’s accomplishment in style.

Keeping up the fitness level – a scenic beachside bike ride

On your last day we won’t slow down the pace too much as in the morning you’ll be taken to a bike warehouse, pack bikes and helmets and then drive east towards “Escaleras de Jaruco” for a scenic, 48-kilometre bike ride, passing undulating roads, rugged mountainous terrains and descending on the plains along Playas del Este, where you’ll pass a chain of beaches found east of Havana. These pretty beaches are really quiet at this time of year so it will be a serene experience, and this is where you’ll stop for lunch after the ride. Then it’s on towards your “casa particular”, to pack your bags and journey back to the airport for your return flight home, or perhaps extend your stay with another of our awesome Cuba tours.

Final tips – Marabana 2020

It’s good to come mentally prepared for Marabana and perhaps warm up lightly (or strenuously, depending on your own marathon goals) a few days before the event, as the balmy temperatures and humidity can make it extra challenging for those not accustomed to the tropical weather. November is a mild month in Cuba temperature-wise, but it never hurts to take a bit of extra time to prepare and make the best of the experience. This, among other reasons, is why the best way to do Marabana is with a tailor-made tour that includes a good stretch with a yoga session the day before (like ours does) and gives you enough time to train before the event whilst also including exciting cultural activities, guided tours and adventures.

And hey, one final word about Marabana – if it’s good enough for celebrities, it’s good enough for you, right?

Written by

James Corporal

James Corporal - Avid cyclist and cubaphile.

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