In February, 2013, a group from Solid Rock-Climbers for Christ visited Cuba to climb and help support the climbing comp that the Cuban climbers put on every year. These climbers from the USA and Mexico also carried a HUGE amount of donated gear, shoes, power drill, and bolts. They included Paige Claassen and filmmaker Adam Ermatinger. Their film has just gone public and is available on vimeo. Go to our Facebook page for links.
Climbers in Viñales have complained of being awaked by ancient biplanes circling early every Sunday mornings. The sharp-eyed would have noticed that the biplane would make a very low pass over the baseball field. Inquiring ones might have discovered that the biplane dropped a bundle as it passed low over the field. No, not a drug drop. It was the Sunday newspaper. And not the New York Times, but the 16 or so pages of the daily edition of Granma, the Communist Party polemic broadside. It sells for 4 cents, but the government delivers it by air to Viñales every Sunday. This quaint, bizarre exercise says a lot about how Cuba works – or doesn’t work. So, while the leaders talk of change and efficiencies, and the media spreads their message, the government bureaucrats simply carry on. The fleet of single-engine biplanes bought from the USSR between 40 and 50 years ago, and based on a 1947 design, will get a make-over, even new engines and props. When in Viñales, don’t plan on sleeping in Sunday mornings.
The winter climbing season has commenced with less talk about the closure announced by the government last year. The year-old ban on all access to the backcountry for all activities has probably scared off some foreign climbers. The result is that this year the Viñales Valley is quiet, but as active as ever.
About the only place that climbers can’t go to climb is Cueva Cabeza la Vaca. A guard seems to be there most weekday mornings, and even local farmers who use the tunnel through la Cueva to reach their farmlands on the other side of Mogote del Valle are denied entry. But the Cueva is avoided only in the morning. Folks climb there every day after 3pm. Guards have chased off climbers at Cuba Libre Wall a few times as well. That’s about it for enforcement of the closure.
Climbers are able to climb whenever they want at the many popular walls in between the two sites, such as Campismo, Cueva Larga, Guajiro Ecologico, Costanera, and Los Hoyos.
In sum, the closure remains in place. Everyone is still climbing, having a great time, and putting up new routes. No one has been cited or detained. Merely asked to stop climbing, usually with an apology. Even this minimal enforcement is easily avoided. The two chosen “sentry posts” may not be accidental. La Cueva is the most accessible spot for climbers, hikers, and guards. Cuba Libre is at El Palenque, a bar-cabarnet set in natural grotto of limestone. Perhaps the guards know that the closure is only for show, so there is no need to make make themselves uncomfortable.
This seems a very Cuban resolution. Declare something illegal, then let it continue, until or if ever officials want to do something. That’s probably why no climber nor journalist has been able to get a Cuba official to explain, let alone justify the ban. At first officials at Viñales National Park announced orally that the closure applied to all Western Cuba and to all activities, from climbing to hiking to caving to birding. No one, however, has been allowed to see any documentation of the closure. We really don’t know what’s closed or what’s prohibited nor with what sanction.
The pattern is a familiar one to Cubans. Officials can crack down if ever they wish, and arrest which ever Cuban climber they wish. The Hammer is always available to them. Foreigner climbers would only be made to stop climbing. Or the half-hearted enforcement may simply melt away. Officials will never announce that the closure has been lifted. In time, they could say, “What closure?”
We have bolts, harnesses and shoes to send to the Cuban climbers. If you can help, please contact us at cubaclimbing.com, and the donor-companies will ship to you. Despite the so-called closure of all access to climbs in Viñales, the Cubans and visitors continue to climb, and even put up new routes. Traveling to Cuba with climbing equipment is not restricted. After all, the curb on access has been limited to Viñales, and there are emerging groups of Cubans in other provinces who are climbing, despite a lack of gear.
Tenemos parabolts, arnesses y zapatos para enviar a los escaladores cubanos. Si puede ayudar, por favor escríbanos a cubaclimbing.com, y las empresas que están donando el equipo le enviará. A pesar del presunto cierre del acceso para escalar en Viñales, los cubanos y visitanes siguen escalando, y hasta haciendo vias nuevas. Transporte de equip de escalada no está restringido. La acera de acceso se ha limitado a Viñales, y existen grupos emergentes en otras provincias que están escalando, aunque con poco equipo.
It’s about time. A little reality has appeared in the press groupthink about change in Cuba. “Cuban Paradise for Climbers Is Inviting, but Off-Limits” was the headline of the New York Times’ article published on July 6, 2012. The story describes “the flourishing climbing scene” that had made Viñales a top destination for climbers from Europe, Canada, and the United States, but has been put on hold by the vacillating dictate of the regime. As the general media was covering Pope Benedict XVI in March, 2012, and posting articles about Cuba’s supposed liberalization, journalist-climber Alex Lowther visited western Cuba, where he found that the government was moving “in a sharply different direction,” threatening the future of climbing and all independent tourism as well as the prosperity of the community of Viñales. Like other visitors since the climbing ban, however, Lowther was able to climb. In fact, Cuban climbers delivered on the promise of taking him to a steep, clean wall where “there won’t be anybody but us and the birds.” And as others, Lowther found the climbing ban elusive. A guard told him, “We don’t like to say climbing is prohibited. Climbing isn’t prohibited, because prohibited is an ugly word.” But may one climb? “No,” said the guard.
Reports from visiting and Cuban climbers say that everyone is still able to climb in Cuba, despite the official, four-month ban on all access in the province of Pinar del Río. The Cubans have even put up new routes. Climbing in Cuba seems to have come full circle, back to the original, albeit ambiguous status of the last decade. Since 2003, officials have said that climbing is “unauthorized”, then turned a blind eye, tolerated, even advertised and exploited it. Now, visiting climbers must also take this ambiguity in stride and accept it as just another of the paradoxes the Cubans face every day. Read full update.
Cuba has become a booming winter climbing destination. Hundreds of overhanging sport routes draw Canadian and European climbers as well as U.S. climbers ignoring the lightly-enforced U.S. travel ban. Cuba’s vast limestone walls are home to a developing community of local climbers. Cuba also has become a favorite destination for many other adventure travelers. For now, it is all over. An unexplained edict of the Cuban government has closed its western mountains, not only to climbers, but all visitors, climbers, hikers, and birders alike. Read full story on our Permits/Access page.
Leo, a 19-year old campesino-climber in Viñales, sits a stride a stalactite high under the ferocious roof of Wasp Factory (7b+/12c), shows his blistered hands from his day-job, plowing behind a team of oxen, and then throws and sticks the crux hold. That’s the scene I loved from “The Life of Leo”, a candid five-minute video by Renan Ozturk, in the voice and images of Leovany Hernandez. After clipping the anchors, Leo says, “I would like for climbing to be legalized and that more people from around the world would come here to climb in peace.”
Life of Leo
On March 14, 2011, the Central Bank of Cuba devalued the Cuban Convertible Peso, in effect hiking the amount of food, travel, and lodging visitors can get for their dollars and euros. And the change ends the complication of calculating currency conversions when making purchases, reverting to the decade from 1994 to 2005 when the Cuban currency was pegged 1:1 to the dollar. The Cuban government, however, did not end its hostility to the U.S. dollar itself, and continues the 10-percent “penalty” on converting dollars. So, visitors are still better off arriving with Canadian dollars or euros to get full boost to the bottom line.