Submitted By: Armando Menocal on May 25, 2010
Climbing in Cuba isn’t like climbing in any other place. The climbing is superlative, cracking jugs and pockets in chiseled karst limestone on improbable lines through stunning overhangs of stalactites and tufa columns.
Its multi-pitch classic climbs define big wall sport climbing with their remote locations and mandatory techniques like tag ropes and back clipping on rappel.
Climbing in Cuba is as much about Cuba as it is about climbing.
Few visitors to Cuba come away equivocal. Most become passionate about Cuba. The first Americans climbers went again and again, obsessed to keep returning, despite U.S. law threatening $250,000 in fines and 10-years imprisonment. The visiting climbers donated gear, clothes, even drills and bolts, and as a result, perhaps unlike any other climbing destination, the vast majority of first ascents have been done by locals.
Its lighting fast development and passionate popularity indicate that Cuba is quickly becoming one of the finest sport climbing destinations of the world.
It has seen an influx of leading climbers, such as Lynn Hill, Neil Gresham, Timmy O’Neil, and Jim Donini, and the development of a strong contingent of Cuban climbers, who are eager to climb with visitors.
Travel, digs, food, and climbing partners are no sweat. The beta on Cuba is at hand in guidebooks, websites, even Facebook.
American climbers need to realize that Cuba is not isolated from the world; it is Americans that are isolated from Cuba.
Perfect climbing days, mild weather, and everything from isolated beaches to caving and cockfights on rest days make for a one-of-a-kind adventure. Add an exciting, sensuous nightlife, the gregarious, vivacious Cuban people and the country may already be the best outdoor experience anywhere.
The Crags: Valle de Viñales
The focus of rock climbing activity in Cuba is the Valle de Viñales in the western, mountainous province of Pinar del Río. The Valle de Viñales is a national park and a World Heritage Site.
The mountains around Viñales have over 250 routes (300 pitches of climbing) with potential for hundreds more. The majority of routes lie within three main areas in the Valley: Mogote del Valle, El Palenque, and La Costanera.
More than 80 percent of the routes in Valle de Viñales are on the walls of Mogote del Valle. The closest routes are about one kilometer from town, and the golden walls and caverns of Mogote del Valle can easily be seen from the town of Viñales.
El Palenque lies four kilometers north of town and is easy to reach on foot, cab or bike. El Palenque was the hub of the first routes put up in Cuba. It may be the cushiest, most indulgent advance base camp in climbing. El Palenque is a bar by day and disco at night, under an immense hemisphere of limestone stalactites, pockets, and knobs, offering gymnastic bouldering on its walls and ceilings, and apre-climbing super-chilled beer or lush, frosty mojitos. You can return for the evening extravaganza and spectacularly clad mulata dancers. El Palenque provided the first American and Cuban climbers with rest and refreshments after a strenuous day of route-building, and new climbs were named for the disco songs that wafted out over the fields. Those days have passed, but El Palenque still offers uncommon diversions and high quality climbing.
La Costanera is a spectacular cathedral chamber of limestone. Its north facing walls are the best place to climb when it is hot. Usually, the north coast and ocean can be seen from the upper belays of La Costanera routes. Its 120m walls have yielded the greatest number of long routes of 4 to 5 pitches.
Getting Settled in Viñales
The town of Viñales has remained a cozy, rural village of just a dozen streets or so. Despite its popularity with tourists, Viñales itself has no large hotels, restaurants, or souvenir shops. The majority of the people live in traditional thatched-roof Cuban "bohios" (huts) on the farms that are enveloped with rich red soil, perfect for growing tobacco. About 10,000 people are scattered throughout the valley. Plows and carts are ox- or horse-drawn and the local farmers—"guajiros"—are seldom without a horse and machete. After a couple of days in town, you will feel at home and at ease finding your way around.
One of Cuba’s charms is its people. The quickest way to meet them is stay in the homes of Cubans who rent rooms. These are called “casas particulares,” and almost any casa particular is better than the hotels. Camping? Don’t ask, unless you want to spend your time as camp-guard.
Staying in a casa particular in Cuba is not the same as a bed and breakfast elsewhere. Cubans are accustomed to large family settings and share whatever they have with family, friends, and neighbors. When you are their guest, they naturally accept you as another family member or neighbor.
Climbers have a few favorite casas. In Havana, it's the home of Esther Cardoso, the mother of Cuba's first climber, Aníbal Fernández. Esther, an actress, has a beautifully reconstructed colonial home with high ceilings, balconies and shuttered windows. Phone: 53-78-62 04 01. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com.
In Vinales the climbers' base camp is at Oscar Jaime's. This casa particular is exceptional, and the house, amenities and food are all excellent. Oscar welcomes visitors with open arms and acts as host, friend and protector while you stay in his village. The compound of several houses includes grandparents, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews and cousins. There are numerous casas particulares in Viñales and if Oscar is booked, he'll ensure that a quality alternative is made available. Phone: 53 486 95516. E-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org, or at email@example.com.
Getting to Viñales is about the easiest transport in Cuba. There are two bus lines, each with one bus a day, seats on demand, and lots of taxis. Renting a car is expensive and is not necessary. Within the town of Viñales everything can be reached on foot. All the climbing areas are within walking distance or a short cab ride.
There are flights to Cuba from the Caribbean, Latin America, Canada, and Europe. Canada has the cheapest charters, although almost always to isolated beach resorts. Usually the cheapest flights are on Cuban Airlines, the state-run carrier that occasionally still flies ancient and scary Soviet-era planes.
Cuba welcomes tourists. Travel to and within Cuba is not restricted. A valid passport, which does not expire within six months of traveling there, is required for entry. Visas are not necessary. Instead your travel agent or airline will sell you a tourist card ("tarjeta de turista"). Cuban immigration stamps the tourist card rather than your passport. The latest info on flights, currency, ATMs and credit cards, and security are spelled out in the Cuba Travel page at http://cubaclimbing.com.
Season and Weather
Cuba can be hot, but it is not the sweltering, muggy sweat-box of Southeast Asia. Nowhere in Cuba is far from the moderating, gentle tradewinds. December through March are perfect. October and November, the tail end of the hurricane season, and April have proved pleasant for climbing. Summer is a rainy season, but with overhanging routes and north facing walls, climbing is available all year.
What to Bring
You can climb in Viñales for a week with just a dozen quickdraws and a 60-meter rope. You'll be finished packing if you throw in a couple of T-shirts, some shorts, insect repellent and sun-screen. Not much else is necessary, as any casa particular will wash your clothes as soon as they hit the floor. Also, it’s warm enough to make rain gear pretty much dispensable. A few nights in January and February might get cool enough to warrant bringing a sweater or expedition-weight fleece.
Sport climbing in the tropics does not require much, which is a real bonus in this era of disappearing baggage weight allowance. Take advantage, and bring gear for the Cuban climbers.
To sustain the local climbers, please pack extra climbing gear and leave it all behind. The Cubans need climbing equipment, as it's impossible to get it locally. The majority of visitors now follow the tradition initiated by the first visiting climbers, who left their rack, ropes, shoes and harnesses in Cuba. Try it—you will feel very gratified. Some suggestions: Most useful are the basics: shoes, harnesses, ropes, chalk, pads and packs. However, the single biggest need to propel Cuban climbing forward is bolts and hangers. Check cubaclimbing.com for the latest recommended contact and donations.
Planning Your Trip
Perhaps the only thing Cuba lacked to make it a “must see” climber’s destination was a world class guidebook. Now, the first guidebook to Cuba has been published. Cuba Climbing (Quickdraw Publications, 2009); however, is much more than merely descriptions of routes and approaches. As one would expect following the initial decade of climbing in Cuba, the guide reflects Cuba’s history of commitment and devotion. Its authors, Aníbal Fernández and Armando Menocal, are the first Cuban climber and one of the first foreigners, albeit a Cuban-American, to “discover” Cuba’s climbing potential. This guidebook is unique, intended to be a keepsake, a souvenir of a visitor's Cuban experience. Every photo, map, and topo is full color.
The guidebook authors also maintain an up-to-date website, http://cubaclimbing.com, with last minute climbing news and featured routes. A highlight is a page with every article ever written about climbing in Cuba
- over 30 articles in all! The young Cuban climbers in Viñales have also created a useful website, escaladaencuba.com. On Facebook, you will also find pages for cubaclimbing.com, Escalada en cuba, and Cuba Bouldering. Cuba is a major tourist destination, and there are many good travel guidebooks available including Bradt, Eyewitness, Fodors, Footprint, Insight, Lonely Planet and Rough. Our recommendation is the Cuba Moon Handbook.
Legality and Access
The first question for Americans, Is it legal? Technically, it’s not illegal. If that is, you do it without spending any money. Don’t start dreaming up scams, like your partner paid or it wasn’t U.S. greenbacks. Those will get you trapped -- and then fined a grand or more. Bottom-line: almost no one is caught, and if you don’t say anything or lie, nothing more will happen. The rules of the game are spelled out at http://cubaclimbing.com.
Interjection: For more than two years, there has not been any action taken against individual travelers. Immigration and customs staff at a few airports harass people, but at worst they can confiscate goods brought from Cuba except art and music. J McA
Cuba says, please come, and we will not even stamp your passport. However, the Cuban government’s approach to climbing has been ambivalent. This is the current situation (2010). Visitors are free to climb, in Viñales and elsewhere. The government has put the Cuban climbers on notice, however, that they are not to climb in the Viñales Valley, and if they do climb, they face imprisonment. It is beyond us to explain why the government would permit foreigners to climb, but threaten Cubans with imprisonment if they climb. The Cuban climbers had taken this in stride. Just another of the paradoxes they face every day. If you hook up with the Cuban climbers you may get to climb in the areas outside the valley that they are pioneering.
Recommended Climbs on Mogote del Valle
4s and 5s
El Asegurador Cuenta, 4+/5.8
En la Sombrita, 4+/5.8
El Repaso, 5/5.9
Ojos Carmelitas, 5+/5.10a
Torre Blanco, 5+/5.10a
Psicologia Infantil, 5+/5.10a
Mi Cusi, 5+/5.10a
Fantasta de la Ópera, 6a/5.10b
Guao, Guano y Espina, 6a/5.10b
La Cuchillita, 6a/5.10b
Calentando Baterías, 6a/5.10b
Filo de Cuchilla, 6a+/5.10c
Más Tarde, 6b+/5.11a
La Mulatisima, 6a+/5.10c
Puro Cubano, 6b+ /5.11a (1st pitch)
Fernando's Hideaway, 6c/5.11b
Ana Banana, 6c/5.11c
Psicosis, 6c, 3 pitches/5.11c
Huevos Verdes con Jamón, 6c+/5.11c
Calzo de Guagua, 7a/5.11d
Cuando los Angeles Lloran, 7a/5.11d
La Vida es Bella, 7a/5.11d
Malanga Hasta la Muerta, 7b+/5.12c
Wasp Factory, 7b+/12c
Romeo y Regleta, 7b+/12c
Pichulina San, 7b+/12c
Medio Bandidos, 7b+/12c
Cuando el Mal es el Cagar, 7b+/12c
Amigos en el Tope, 7c/5.12d
Hay Papito, 8a/5.13b
The Colony, 8a+/5.13c
One-Inch Punch, 8b+/5.14a