My girlfriend has a large family, and every few years her father takes them on a trip somewhere special. For the end of 2016, the destination was nine days in eastern Cuba, and I was graciously invited to come along. The Obama administration began allowing Americans to visit Cuba a few years ago, primarily to help Cuban emigrants visit their families on the island. Tourism isn’t a valid reason to visit, but you can go as part of a guided cultural and educational tour. Americans without specific ties to Cuba tend to visit Havana, the nation’s capital, which is on the western side of the island and less than 100 miles south of Miami, Florida.

Tours of eastern Cuba, like ours, are exceedingly rare. We flew into Holguin, spent nine days exploring Santiago, the nearby mountain plateau, and the eastern coast of the island. (We did not go near Guantanamo Bay, although we could see the bay from some mountain vistas.) Our brilliant tour bus driver hauled us around the region, winding through the narrow city streets and muddy mountain paths with equal skill. On such a trip, there is little time for idle relaxation, or even unpacking your suitcase. It was a whirlwind and an unforgettable experience.


We spent nine days exploring Holguin and Santiago de Cuba provinces.

Our team rolled fourteen deep. I’d only met some of the family before, but I knew they were avid gamers. I packed a few self-contained games into my shoulder bag: Codenames, Hanabi, Fluxx, and a couple decks of playing cards. Could I bring some Magic to play as well? I’d heard that a few others on the trip played the game, so I wanted to prepare for the opportunity to play Magic in Cuba. I doubt the game has much presence on the island, and we wouldn’t have the time to look for it, so I needed to bring something small and self-contained. Bringing cards that I didn’t mind losing also seemed important.

I was happy to see that I could fit eight Kaladesh boosters and a basic land pack into one of the spare plastic deckboxes I had lying around. That’s a perfect size for travel, and everything inside was sealed in packs, like a space pod. With masterpieces and Smuggler’s Copters running around these days, I decided to bring an 80-pack of sleeves too, but you don’t need those. Everything else you use while playing Magic—pen, paper, dice, a table, your brain—fits into your regular travel bag.


The sun sets over Santiago Bay, Christmas Day 2016.

With eight sealed packs, you have enough cards to build two sealed decks of different colors. The land pack has plenty for a normal two-color Limited deck. You don’t have enough swamps to build two mono-black sealed decks, but some sacrifices must be made. If you have plenty of time and table space, you can brew and rebrew decks for days. Players can swap decks, handicap deck strengths to account for skill disparity, and customize the pool to all sorts of head-to-head matchups. If you’re into puzzle solving, you could try to build two decks that are the most equal in power, or that match any other parameter you choose. You have around 120 cards in your pool, but you only play with fifty at a time. And the whole thing can be bought for under $40, or pulled out of a fat pack.

Happy with my travel Magic pod, I ventured forth into the tropical landscape that has been closed to Americans for half a century. Cuba has fascinated me for years, not least because my mother’s family lives in Miami, where I was born and now visit periodically. I’ve visited most of the United States, and much of the surrounding area too, but never had I made the short trip from my birthplace at the tip of the Florida peninsula to the beautiful island a short trip across the water.

Most of Cuba I saw reminded me of Puerto Rico, a similar island both geographically and culturally, that lies a couple hundred miles to Cuba’s east. Santiago, the historic city with a 500-year-old Spanish fort and a lively mix of people from around the Caribbean, felt much like San Juan. Pinares de Mayari, the plateau forest in the mountains northeast of Santiago, reminded me of the jungles around Arecibo, where I went to see the famous radio telescope you might remember from 90s movies like Goldeneye and Contact. And the beaches east of Holguin evoked the northeastern shores of Puerto Rico as well. Our guide explained the deep cultural ties between the two islands, and it made sense.

The trip kept us too busy to play Magic. The one downside to Limited Magic as a travel game is that you can’t build your decks before you leave home. Cracking packs and building decks is at least half the fun, fortunately, but we never had a good time and space to get started. Instead we saw Fidel Castro’s gravestone, weeks old, with fresh flowers and a flowing line of visitors. We stood atop San Juan Hill, the famous site from Cuba’s war of independence from Spain, which Americans recall as the Spanish-American War. Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders went viral here, so to speak. And we hiked down to the base of Salto del Guayabo, the tallest waterfall in Cuba. You want a remote paradise that hasn’t (yet…) been commercially exploited? I nominate this hike through a forest full of coffee trees, banana plants, and hummingbirds:


It’s about a mile of trail downhill to get from here to the pool down below. Totally worth it.

I’m still reviewing photos and collecting my thoughts about this amazing trip. It was so mentally stimulating that cracking those eight packs never made it onto the agenda for the final days of 2016. But then we headed back to the Holguin airport on the morning of January 1, 2017. As you can imagine, waltzing into a foreign airport after having no internet access for a week can lead to some unexpected delays. Soon I found myself sitting on the floor of the main (air conditioned!) room with my girlfriend’s two teenage nephews. Nick plays Magic with his friends, and Will plays Hearthstone, so they were a receptive audience. We had four hours to wait, and nobody else around who wanted to play other games.

As luck would have it, those eight packs offered up two fun and balanced decks. One was red-white vehicles, headlined by Smuggler’s Copter and Veteran Motorist; the other blue-green energy with Aetherworks Marvel, Aethersquall Ancient, and three Attune with Aether. Good thing I brought those sleeves! It was the perfect distraction from a strange airline ordeal at the end of a draining nine days in a place few Americans have ever been.

When we finally boarded our flight back to the United States, I put the cards back into the deck box and gave the cards to Nick and Will. What will they do with those two decks and the rest of the cards we opened? When will we have the first Cuban Grand Prix? I am excited to wait for the answers to both.

Carrie O’Hara is Editor-in-Chief of Hipsters of the Coast.

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