“Nobody had been able to take aerial pictures of the country because of the secretive political regime and technical difficulties,” explained Lithuanian aerial photographer Marius Jovaiša. He received government permission to fly over the country and photograph it from above and create spectacular images, including Valle de Viñales.
If you are bringing bolts to Cuba, either to place yourself or to donate for route exploration by the Cuban climbers, please don’t bring or place bolts and hangers that will corrode and break. Don’t let the bullet-proof rock fool you, Cuba is the potential perfect storm for bad bolts. Bring only the most corrosion resistant bolts and hangers possible. Right now, that metal is titanium. Titanium anchors are expensive, but are becoming the standard at tropical climbing areas, and a UIAA-certified titanium anchor is now on the market. In the long run, for bolts in Cuba to be safe for more than a few years will require complete titanium anchors – one-piece glue-ins or complete bolt/hanger combinations. This will be the requirement for Class 1 anchors being developed by the UIAA safety commission for places such as Cuba and Thailand. For more information on bolts for Cuba, go to our Gear Donation page.
A photo of farmer Raúl Reyes and Cuban climber Maikel Rosabal in front of Raúl’s fruit kiosk. 15 years ago, Raúl was the first Cuban farmer to befriend visiting climbers. He freely gave us permission to cross his land to the immense cliffs that today are the most popular climbs in Viñales Valley, such as Cueva Cabeza la Vaca, Milenio, Ensenada de Raúl, and even my namesake Torre Menoco. Raúl welcomed us and gave us fruit every day. More important, Raúl gave the Cuban climbers vital vegetables. The first Cubans, such as Vity, Anibal, Mederos, were from Havana and thus on-the-road like us, but without the cash to buy food. As more climbers and hikers came, Raúl built a kiosk to sell fruit. Later Raúl added a charming hostel. In 2012 the government closed all access to the backcountry and tried to put a checkpoint on Raúl’s farm, since it was the crossroads to the entire Mogote del Valle for visitors, locals and even other farmers. Raúl ran the guards off his land. He has even denied access to the park’s official guides. Raúl was never permitted to rent the rooms in his hostel to visitors. He still works his farm daily and sells fruit to the many who cross the token blockade. That is real-life cojones.
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.