Only 90 miles separates Cuba from American soil, but immeasurable ideological differences have kept Cuba a relatively untapped surf destination for American surfers. Last December, in the midst of peak Hawaii season, Ian Walsh traveled to a small village on the northeast tip of Cuba. Not knowing what to expect, Walsh discovered an empty cobblestone pointbreak and that the universal appeal of surfing can transcend politics.
Not many people can say they have surfed Cuba, or even traveled there for that matter. Can you give us a little background on how this trip came about?
The idea for the trip had been floating around for a while. When it started coming together, it began to look like a real possibility that I'd be able to get into the country. I went in December, which is a good month for waves in Cuba, but a time of the year that I am not used to leaving Hawaii. The timing was cutting it close with the Pipe Masters and Triple Crown. Luckily, the Pipe Masters ran within the first few days of the waiting period and I was able to get a flight the day after it ended to Mexico City. From there, I flew to Cuba and drove across the whole country in a couple of days. I ended up at a tiny village where these kids surf and make their own equipment out of refrigerator foam, resin, and fiberglass from the boatyards. They'd also piece together their own surfboards from old boards left there years ago. They have the craziest setup to themselves, with a Lowers style right breaking over cobblestone rocks on the edge of a river mouth. It was pretty small when I was there, but the wave ran forever.
What were your expectations going into the trip?
I didn't really know what to expect. I was just excited to go somewhere new that I never would've had the opportunity to check out otherwise. I was able to see a good chunk of the country in the short time I was there and everything about the whole place was really cool. And I'm a big fan of mojitos, so Cuba being the birthplace, I was stoked to check out Havana.
Any special bureaucratic measures you had to go through in order to travel to Cuba?
I had to go to Mexico first then get a fresh ticket flying into Cuba. When you land there, you can't show them your passport or else they might stamp it, which is a nightmare when you come back to the U.S. It kind of takes some street knowledge.
How did the Cuban culture compare to other places you've traveled?
The Cuban culture was pretty cool. Everyone was nice and helpful and accommodating for everything we did. It was insane how time seems to have stood still since the '50s or '60s. All the buildings and cars are from that era, they refurbish them so they have fresh paint jobs and new engines. It's an awesome Latin American country and really tropical, warm and sunny with nice beaches. It’s pretty rad how close it is to the U.S., but of course you can't really get there easily. It's a trip to see it, because there is so much history with everything Cuba has been through in the last 50 years or so. You see how much a few key incidents can effect an entire country over the course of time.
You mentioned the potential for waves in Cuba. Did you have an opportunity to explore the coastline?
I got to check out the coastline around the northeast tip by the village where the kids surf. There are empty pointbreaks with tons of potential. I started geeking out on Google Earth, checking out all these setups that could be incredible on the right swell. These kids have a wave playground entirely to themselves over there.
With surfers like Arnan Perez [the first Cuban to compete in an international surf contest and Walsh's guide] starting to grow the sport and tons of kids behind him, where do you see Cuban surfing in the future?
These kids are a product of where they grew up and are really adamant about being in the water, which is awesome to see. Growing up in America, you take being able to go to a surf shop and get wax or fins or a new board or a deck pad for granted. They don't have any of that. They were so driven to ride waves and play in the surf, and I think that more than anything can transcend into a lifelong passion of surfing. When they get into it that young, they can really develop their talent, especially once they get on the right equipment. It was pretty epic to see some of the kids playing around on these early '80s boards with the left fin in the center, and only one fin on the rail, but actually surfing pretty well. I let them ride my boards and they jumped right on them like they had been riding them all along. I ended up leaving my entire quiver down there, so it will be cool to go back in a few years and see how much they have progressed when they actually have three fins in the right boxes.
Watch the documentary on Walsh’s trip to Cuba here: Surfing to Baracoa