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Climbing in Cuba

 Climbing in Cuba

by Armando Menocal

December 29, 2001

Its lighting fast development and intense popularity for a core of American and Cuban first-ascentionists suggest that Cuba could become one of the finest climbing areas of the world. Cuba’s Valle de Viñales has that combination of high quality rock, accessibility, and ambience that has quickly put it on the climbers circuit of the world’s "must see" climbing venues.

The climbing is superlative. Cranking jugs and pockets in chiseled karst limestone on improbable lines through stunning overhangs of stalactites and tufa columns. Picture the rock features and formations of Thailand’s Railae. Move them off the beach, about 20 miles inland, and place in a valley touted as a miniature Yosemite, with the most spectacular scenery in all Cuba. Overhanging limestone faces on 1,000-foot freestanding crags called “moots” rise above traditional thatch-roofed Cuban houses and red-soiled tobacco farms.

The Valle de Viñales now has over 60 routes and 100 pitches of climbing. Perfect climbing days, mild weather, and everything from isolated beaches to caving and cockfights on rest days. Add an exciting, sensuous nightlife, and the gregarious, vivacious Cuban people, and Cuba may already be the best outdoor adventure experience anywhere.American climbing activist Armando Menocal has created a website to climbing and travel to Cuba.

El Palenque and Cuba Libre

Craig Luebben on the crux 5.12a roof of Cuba Libre, Valle de Vinales Cuba Libre the archetypal Cuba climb: long, ascending a tufa column, through stalactites, finishing on a spectacular roof. It is also one of Craig Luebben's acrobatic routes. The final roof is split by an off-width section, which Luebben climbed by jamming his feet above him, cutting loose his hands, and reaching through to the next hand jam. On his first attempt, with a crowd of campesinos watching, Luebben let out long, gruesome screams as he hung from his feet hundreds of feet above them. Then, he fell. It appeared to all that he had been stuck in the crack. His slippers were stuck, just as he wanted them to be, but he was slowly, inexorably slipping out of the shoes. Luebben returned to the ground, switched to lace-up shoes, and completed the first ascent. Cuba Libre, 5.11d/12a, 3 pitches, 50M. First ascent: Craig Luebben, George Bracksieck

Cuba Libre is at El Palenque, four kilometers north of town, easy to reach on foot, and by cab or bike. At the center is El Palenque Disco, which may be the cushiest, indulgent "advance base camp" in climbing. El Palenque is a bar and disco in a cave opening. The bar provides rest and refreshments after climbs and bouldering in heat

Mogote del Valle and Green Eggs and Ham

More than half of the routes in Valle de Viñales are on the walls of the Mogote del Valle. The closest routes are about one kilometer from town. The Mogote del Valle can be seen to the northwest from Viñales, with the gold wall of Milenio easily identifiable.

Huevos Verde con Jamon is a five star route that starts just outside the cave at the base of Milenio Wall. The route climbs up to and then out the side of the first roof. Overhanging jugs continue up the face for two pitches and join a sloping ramp. The 11c crux is moving onto the ramp. As a display of the degree of overhang, on the initial attempt of the first pitch on top rope, Armando Menocal came off at the roof and he flew out more than 50ft over the valley. "Huevos Verde Con Jamon" was named by Cubans for John Middendorf from the name of the Dr. Susse classic, Green Eggs and Ham, which John brought, in Spanish, and read from aloud. (5.11c, 2 pitches, 60M. First ascent: Vitalio Echazabal, An’bal Fernandez, Carlos Pinelo, Armando Menocal)

La Costanera and the Flyin’ Hyena

Cameron Cross on Flyin' Hyena, 5.12a/b, La Costanera, Vinales 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.

It is likely that La Costanera and the route Flyin' Hyena were the scene of the first climbing in Cuba. In 1999, when Cameron Cross, Craig Luebben, and Armando Menocal reached the top of the first pitch on the first ascent, they were surprised to discover three rusty pitons, a loop of tied perlon, and a carabineer: an obvious rappel. Eventually a nearby campesino told them this story: about 15 to 20 years ago two Spanish women spent two days reaching that point on the wall. He said they went no farther, although Luebben thought he saw pin scars on the next pitch. It does mean that these Españolas came to Cuba equipped with pitons and hammers, and started out by tackling one of the longest, most intimidating, and elegant lines. Bravo! The pitons, perlon, and 'biner have been in place and should not be removed.

Flyin' Hyena has everything: a stunning setting, history, big wall rope management techniques, and acrobatic climbing. (But what about the name?) According to Luebben, "Flyin' Hyena was an expression among Silvia's (his wife) group of Italian friends for someone who was really going for it, the "flying" (falling), but still having great fun (laughing like a hyena)." Flyin' Hyena, 5.12a/b, 5 pitches, 120M.

Accommodations, Transportation and Costs

Malecon, Havana’s 5-mile seawall boulevard One of Cuba’s charms is its people. The quickest way to meet them is stay in the homes of Cubans who rent rooms in their homes. These are called "casas particulares", and almost any casa particular is better than the hotels, which are either state enterprises or run by state employees.

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 seem naturally to accept you as another family member or neighbor.

Getting to Viñales is about the easiest transport in Cuba. There are two bus lines, each with one bus a day, seats on demand (for dollars, $8 and $12), 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.

Hotel rooms start at about $50. Casas are $20-$25 in Havana, and less in Viñales. Meals are $6-$8 in casas; breakfast is $2 or $3. Beer or a glass of rum is $1. In Havana, figure on a total $40/per/day, and in Viñales about $30/per/day. For $500, it is possible to spend a day or two in Havana, and the rest of a two-week trip in Viñales. Save $15 for the taxi ride to the airport and another $20 for the airport tax.

Casas Particulares

Casa Particular, Vinales Climbers have travel and accommodations in La Habana and Viñales totally wired. In Havana, climbers usually stay at a couple of casas particulares. A favorite is Ana Maria Fariñas and Victor Reinoso. (Salvador Allende (Carlos Tercero) No. 1005, e/Requena y Almendares, Plaza, tel. 79-62-60; or Reasonable prices. The rooms are air-conditioned. Several have kitchens. Each has a private entrance and private bath. And there is a shaded, enclosed patio for those hot afternoons or to meet friends. Most importantly, Ana Maria is the quintessential Cubana, savvy, sassy, and openhearted.

Another classic Cubana who rents is Esther Cardoso, the mother of Anibal Fernandez Cardoso, one of the Cuban climbers. Esther has beautifully reconstructed a colonial home with high ceilings, balconies, and shuttered windows. Esther is an actress, teacher, and director. Her living room can include cross section of modern Cuban culture. Aguila #367, e/Neptuno y San Miguel, Centro Habana. 62 04 01.

Viñales, Getting There

Viñales has remained a cozy, rural town, hyped in the guidebooks as the "most spectacular scenery in all Cuba." Despite its popularity with tourists, Viñales itself has no large hotels, restaurants, or souvenir shops. After a couple of days in town, you will feel at home, at ease finding your way around.

In Viñales, the superior accommodations and food are with Cuban families in casas particulares. One casa is exceptional, and it has become the climbers' base camp in Viñales. The house, amenities, and the food are excellent, but, once again, it is the family of Oscar Jaime Rodriguez and Leida Robaina Altega that become your hosts, friends, and protectors. The Jaime and Robaina families envelope you with love and joy. Oscar is also the "official" keeper of the topo book for Viñales. Adela Azcuy #43, Viñales, Pinar del Rio, 08-93381.

Camping in Cuba usually means staying at a "campismo". There are no campgrounds in Cuba. Campismos are bungalows or cottages, with beds, baths, restaurants, even pools. Viñales has a very nice one, Campismo Dos Hermanos. It's reasonably priced, but out of town, remote, and definitely requires a rental car to get to the crags, even those near town. For the hardiest skids there is a bivy site. "Casa Gringo" is a 4 km ride/hike, then up a trail (10 minute in daylight), and finally 1200-foot hanging jumar on Mr. Mogote Wall.

Gear and Hazards

Anibal Fernandez on second pitch of Huevos Verde con Jamon, 5.11c, Valle de Vinales The only currency travelers will need in Cuba is U.S. greenbacks. Other than newspapers, magazines, books, vitamins, and medicine, Cubans and visitors can buy almost anything with dollars. Bottled water is available, although tap water is potable and safe.

Climbing in Cuba is based on minimizing impacts. No chipping or drilling holds. No "comfortizing" holds. Avoid colorful slings and anchors at the tops of climbs. Place only camouflaged hangers. Bright, unpainted hangers will be removed.

Ground-up routes are a necessity, rather than a local ethic. The Yosemite Decimal System is used for ratings. Europeans are urged to live with it, or we will suffer endless arguments about whether 12a is 7a or 7a+.

Most routes can be done with only quick draws. 60-Meter ropes are recommended: 30M routes are common and some rappels require two 60M ropes to get off. 18-20 quick draws are sufficient.

So far, foreign climbers have left their gear, ropes, shoes, and harnesses for the Cuban climbers. They need the gear, and it is a waste to bring heavy equipment into Cuba, and then take it away. Bolts and hangers should definitely stay.

One hazard deserves special respect. The longer routes almost always require technical descents; trail ropes anchored to the wall, and particular attention to lengths of rappels. There is the real possibility of being stranded in space if you blow it.

Addition to U.S. Visitors!

Although travel to Cuba is not difficult, it is extremely restricted by the 39-year old United States embargo against Cuba. Legally, Americans must have a license from the U.S. Treasury Department to spend money in Cuba, even to buy food or get a room. However, thousands of Americans, perhaps 200,000 a year, are traveling illegally to Cuba through Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Many other Americans are going legally on educational and cultural tours. There are government-licensed trips for cigar aficionados, photo enthusiasts, music and dance addicts, even all-gay and lesbian trips to Cuba’s nightlife and beaches.

To help the "unlicensed" traveler, the has guidelines on "What If You Are Caught?" This could prove useful. As a payoff for his Florida-conferred election, President Bush is pursuing Americans traveling to Cuba for the first time in the embargo’s long history. A few travelers have "voluntarily" agreed to fines to avoid possible prosecutions. Ry Cooder, who won a Grammy for his resurrection of Cuban music with the Buena Vista Social Club, recently paid a large fine. A retired 64-year-old social worker who joined a Canadian bicycle tour to Cuba paid $7,600 to the Treasury Department.

Although the Treasury Department says it may someday do more, thus far, when put to the test, it has either backed off or accepted "voluntary" payments. Despite the increasing flow of travelers to Cuba, no one has known to be prosecuted by U.S. authorities for violating the travel restrictions

On the Cuban side, the situation is much clearer. Cuba welcomes tourists, including those from the United States. In general, travel to and within Cuba is not restricted.

Where To Go For More Info

The images used to sell Cuba, Che and sex is the first stop for anyone thinking about travel to Cuba. The new information-packed, noncommercial website may be the first ever attempt at a comprehensive electronic climbing and travel guide to a country. spans general travel information to specific "how-to" for climbers, with links to almost everything available in print or on the web about Cuba, including maps, topos, and photos of routes and even information about the Cuban people, economy, and environment and self-guided travel, travel packages, and legal, adventure tours to Cuba.

Armando Menocal is an Exum Mountain Guide and Founder of the Access Fund. He has spent much of the last three years exploring and traveling the length of Cuba, getting to know Cuba as few visitors have. Armando Menocal returned to the land of his youth to explore the real impact of 42 years of communism and the American embargo.

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