Cuba has an unusually high proportion of world-class sportsmen and women but its sporting facilities, for both participatory and spectator sports, lag some way behind the standards set by its athletes. Nevertheless, you can catch a game in the national baseball, basketball and soccer leagues for next to nothing, while Cuba is endowed with countless outstanding scuba-diving and fishing sites. Hiking and cycling are both popular outdoor activities for foreign visitors but access to either requires some advance planning.
For some outsiders, the national Cuban baseball league, the Serie Nacional de Béisbol, isn’t just one of the best leagues outside of the US to see world class players, but represents a nostalgic version of the game, harking back to a time when the sport elsewhere – particularly in the US – wasn’t awash with money and spoiled by celebrity and commercialism. Every province has a team and every provincial capital a stadium, most of which were built in the 1960s or early 1970s, and are relatively intimate affairs, with the exception of Havana’s 55,000 capacity Estadio Latinoamericano. Free of mascots, cheerleaders, obtrusive music blasted through PA systems and any form of commercial distraction, all the attention is instead on the game.
The national league adopted a new season structure in 2012. The first half of the season begins in late summer or autumn depending on the year (in recent years start months have ranged from August to November), as the 16 teams play the first of their 45 regular season games in an all against all contest. In March the top eight teams play a further 42 games to qualify for play-offs, semifinals and finals in May. Traditionally, games start around 8pm during the week, though in recent years there have been plenty of 2pm and 3pm start times, both throughout the week and at weekends. Some stadiums now have special seating areas and higher admission costs for non-Cubans.
Dominant teams over the last decade have included Ciego de Ávila, Industriales of Havana, Villa Clara and Santiago de Cuba. By far the best resource for anything relating to Cuban baseball, including season schedules and tournament information, is the website baseballdecuba.com.
Other spectator sports
The national basketball league, the Liga Superior de Baloncesto, generates some exciting clashes, even though most of the arenas are on the small side. There are only eight teams in the league, with Ciego de Ávila the dominant force over the last decade. The timing of the basketball season, played over a 28-round regular season followed by semi-finals and finals, is inconsistent from year to year but most recently has taken place between January and April.
There is a national football (soccer) league as well, with its season running from October to February, followed by play-offs and finals in March. Pinar del Río, Villa Clara and Cienfuegos have been the most consistently strong teams over the last three decades. There are very few custom-built football stadiums, with many games taking place in baseball stadiums or on scrappy pitches with very little enclosure.
Cuba is a scuba-diving paradise. Most of the major beach resorts, including Varadero, Cayo Coco, Santa Lucía and Guardalavaca, have at least one dive centre, with numerous others all over the island, including several in Havana. The most reliable dive sites are generally off the south coast where the waters tend to be clearer, away from the churning waves of the Atlantic Ocean, which affect visibility off Cuba’s northern shores. For the top dive spots head for María La Gorda in southwestern Pinar del Río, Punta Francés on the southwestern tip of the Isla de la Juventud, and the Jardines de la Reina off the southern coastlines of Ciego de Ávila. All three have been declared National Marine Parks by the Cuban government and as a result are protected from man-made abuses, particularly commercial fishing.
Diving in Cuba is worthwhile in any season, but during the hurricane season (June to November) and particularly in September and October, there is a higher chance that the weather will interfere and affect visibility. Among the marine life you can expect to see in Cuban waters are nurse sharks, parrotfish, turtles, stingrays, barracuda, tarpon, moray eels, bonefish, snapper and tuna. The best time to see whale sharks, arguably the highlight of any diving trip to the island, is in November, while in the spring the fish are in greater abundance. On the other hand, from late April to late May there is an increased chance of swimming into what Cubans call el caribé, invisible jellyfish with a severe sting, found predominantly off the southern coast of the island. To counter this you can either wear a full wetsuit or simply make sure you dive off the northern coastline at this time of year.
The principal dive operator in Cuba is Marlin, which runs most of the dive centres and many of the marinas. The only other significant players are Gaviota, Cubanacán and Cubamar Viajes. Most dive centres are ACUC certified, but a few are SSI or SNSI certified, and all offer courses accredited to one or more of these diving associations. There are countless opportunities for all levels of diving, from absolute beginners to hardened professionals, but the best place to start is in a hotel-based diving resort, where you can take your first lesson in the safety of a swimming pool.
Kitesurfing is new to Cuba but is growing quickly. The last few years have seen the country’s first clutch of kitesurfing schools and centres set up in the sport’s hotspots, Varadero, Cayo Guillermo and Playas del Este in Havana , all on the northern coast where you’ll get the best winds (commonly 14-20 knots). Equipment rental in general is scarce but possible in all three of these places and easiest in Varadero where there are two schools. The best months for wind are between November and April.
Cuba is now firmly established as one of the best fishing destinations in the Caribbean, if not the world. Largely free from the voracious appetite of the huge US fishing market and discovered only relatively recently by the rest of the world, Cuba’s lakes, reservoirs and coastal areas offer all kinds of outstanding fishing opportunities.
Inland, bass are particularly abundant, especially at Embalse Hanabanilla in Villa Clara, Embalse Zaza in Sancti Spíritus and lakes in Ciego de Ávila province, which between them provide the best locations for freshwater fishing. The top Cuban destination for fly-fishing lies south of the Ciego de Ávila and Camagüey coastlines at the Jardines de la Reina archipelago. This group of some 250 uninhabited cays, stretching for 200km at a distance fluctuating between 50km and 80km from the mainland, is regarded by some experts as offering the finest light-tackle fishing in the world. With commercial fishing illegal here since 1996, other than around the outer extremities, there are virtually untapped sources of bonefish and tarpon as well as an abundance of grouper and snapper. To get a look-in at the Jardines de la Reina archipelago, you will most likely have to go through Avalon, a specialist foreign operator granted exclusive rights of the specialist foreign operators which have attained exclusive rights to regulate and organize the fishing here, in conjunction with the Cuban authorities. Fly-fishing is also excellent at the Peninsula de Zapata. There are numerous other opportunities for saltwater fishing around Cuba, with deep-sea fishing popular off the northern coastlines of Havana, Varadero and Ciego de Ávila, where blue marlin, sail fish, white marlin, barracuda and tuna are among the most dramatic potential catches.
There is no bad time for fishing in Cuban waters, but for the biggest blue marlin, July, August and September are the most rewarding months, while April, May and June attract greater numbers of white marlin and sail fish. The best bass catches usually occur during the winter months, when the average water temperature drops to 22°C.
Equipment for fishing, particularly fly-fishing, is low on the ground in Cuba, and what does exist is almost exclusively the property of the tour operators. Buying anything connected to fishing is all but impossible, so it makes sense to bring as much of your own equipment as you can.
Its associations with the pre-1959 ruling classes made golf something of a frowned-upon sport in Cuba once Fidel Castro took power. The advent of mass tourism, however, has brought it back, and though currently there are only two courses on the island there are plans for more. The biggest, best-equipped and most expensive is the eighteen-hole course run by the Varadero Golf Club, established in 1998. Less taxing are the nine holes of the Club de Golf Habana, just outside the capital, the only course in the country that survived the Revolution.
All three of Cuba’s mountain ranges feature resorts geared toward hikers, from where hiking routes offer a wonderful way to enjoy some of the most breathtaking of Cuban landscapes. Designated hikes tend to be quite short – rarely more than 5km – and trails are often unmarked and difficult to follow without a guide, while going off-trail is largely prohibited. Furthermore, orienteering maps are all but nonexistent. This may be all part of the appeal for some, but it is generally recommended, and sometimes obligatory, that you hire a guide, especially in adverse weather conditions. In the Cordillerra de Guaniguanico in Pinar del Río and Artemisa the place to head for is Las Terrazas, where there is a series of gentle hikes organized mostly for groups. The Topes de Collantes resort in the Escambray Mountains offers a similar programme, while serious hikers should head for the Gran Parque Nacional Sierra Maestra, host to the tallest peak in Cuba, Pico Turquino. To get the most out of hiking opportunities at these resorts you should make bookings in advance or, in the case of the Sierra Maestra, turn up early enough to be allocated a guide, as independent hiking is severely restricted.
Though cycling isn’t particularly popular among Cubans, many tourists take to the saddle to explore cities and travel long distances across the country.