Reaching for Viñales, the Best Rock Climbing in Cuba

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Editor's Note: Contributing Editor Daniel Duane visited the Cuban rock climbing capital of Viñales in 2007 to report on the pristine routes, as well as the sport's frustrating struggle with the Cuban government. Despite announcements of relaxed travel bans by American and Cuban authorities in 2014, reform has yet to come to the remote western area surrounding Viñales and climbers today will likely face the same opposition and regulation Duane witnessed eight years ago.

The moment he jumped out of the bushes and blocked the trail, I knew that plump little Cuban communist was going to give us a hard time. "Grimpadores?!" he demanded, twitching his fat black moustache. "Sí, grimpadores," I replied, because we were indeed rock climbers, and because we had come all this way on the strength of a rumor about a world-class climbing area deep in the Cuban highlands around the sleepy market town of Viñales, west of Havana. A few hundred yards farther down the trail we'd reach the base of a stunning route called Filo de Cuchilla — the Razor's Edge — a spine of limestone I'd been dreaming about for weeks. "It's pure rock climbing at its best," a Cuban-American climber named Armando Menocal had told me.

"Cual pared?" the man asked next, meaning, roughly, "And exactly what cliff did you imagine you were going to be allowed to ascend?"

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Our new friend's baseball cap said Comite de Defensa de la Revolucion, meaning he was a proud member of Castro's nationwide network of snitches and spies.

"Cual pared!" he demanded again.

I told him.

"No!" he bellowed agitatedly. "Filo de Cuchilla es prohibido!"

He gestured around at the magnificent thousand-foot limestone cliffs soaring over quaint little farms, their jungled summits brushing the blue Cuban sky. "Es un parque nacional!" he said with great pride and indignation. "Necesitan un permiso!"

"Is he saying we need a permit?" asked my friend Jimmy Chin, the photographer.

"I think so."

I had the sneaking suspicion this guy was making up the rules as he went along, so I was relieved when a pair of Scandinavians walked up, with climbing ropes on their backs. "Have you guys figured out how to get a permit yet?" I asked them.

"You can't," replied a sour-faced Swede. "It's impossible. We already tried."

The Cuban interrupted to indicate an imaginary line running right where we were standing — the park boundary, he informed me. If I read him correctly, he was hinting that other cliffs might not be in the park. Filo de Cuchilla was a small climb anyway, he added. "Is there somewhere better?" I wondered. "Where it's okay for us to climb?"

He shrugged.

Puzzled, we turned and walked back down the trail. The Defender of the Revolution watched us go, his face more anxious than angry, as if he were hoping that he had done the right thing.

According to Armando Menocal, who pioneered Cuban climbing back in 1999, the area around Viñales "has the potential to have as many routes as Joshua Tree or the New River Gorge," two American climbing meccas. "There are still miles and miles of walls we haven't even explored."

But the best part about Cuban climbing, Menocal told me, is the sheer quality of the rock: soaring towers of solid limestone, littered with chunky handholds so that even an ordinary sport climber like me could feel like a climbing-magazine superstar. Viñales even has a climbers' community center, at the home of Oscar Jaime, an old friend of Menocal's. A huge-bellied man with a powerful handshake and a grand, generous smile, Oscar runs a sort of homestay hostel, with chickens and pigs in the backyard and stacks of climbing magazines on the dinner table. Most important, Oscar maintains a three-ring binder with tattered, xeroxed maps of the cliffs and all the known climbs — some of them put up by hotshot American climbers imported by Menocal, others established by the gung-ho locals.

The only damper on the Cuban climbing scene is the government, which can't seem to make up its mind about the sport. In 2002 the state newspaper Granma crowed with socialist pride about "a vigorous, extremely happy agricultural worker" who enjoyed scrambling on the rocks. Ads for the government-owned Hollywood cigarette brand have depicted Cuban climber Aníbal Fernández on a famed Viñales route called Mucho Pumpito.

Fidel Castro knows better than most just how seditious climbers can actually be. He plotted and launched his own revolution from a secret hideout in Cuba's Sierra Maestre mountains, and later said that "the revolution was the work of climbers and cavers." So when El Jefe cracked down on dissidents in 2003, he also clamped down, for reasons nobody really understands, on the minuscule Cuban rock-climbing scene. Climbing was suddenly declared illegal without a permit (impossible to obtain, of course), and government agents began warning Cuban rock climbers — there are only about 100 of them — against consorting with foreigners.

A former lawyer turned Exum climbing guide, Menocal says he's done his best to find the part of the Cuban legal code that prohibits climbing, and he's not at all certain it exists. But this is the way with almost everything in Cuba, he notes: "Everything worth doing is forbidden, unless expressly permitted. Cubans just get used to it."

We had observed that almost immediately after our flight landed in Havana, when we went out looking for cigars. Castro's government owns the entire tobacco industry, and the only legal place to buy cigars is in government shops created for the sole purpose of fleecing foreigners. But as soon as we lit up our expensive new Cohibas at a sidewalk table, we learned that cheap, black-market cigars are about as hard to find as weed in Jamaica. Cuba is a place where a dentist makes $16 a month, so nearly everyone has some sort of gray-market hustle going.

Out dancing that night, we'd gotten a feel for a different sort of private enterprise. Cuban street life has got to be the most openly erotic in the world. Men and women alike radiate a confident availability, and flirtation and seduction are the national pastimes. Sex, Cubans like to say, is the one thing Castro can't regulate, so they do it as much as possible. When we arrived outside a big salsa club, we found ourselves accosted by very pretty young women offering to dance all night with us if we'd pay their entry fees. And these weren't lowlifes; they were educated, often professional, women with straight white teeth and excellent conversational skills, whose hustle-on-the-side involved entertaining foreign men. We were all happily married (or girlfriended), but it was clear that supply was very willing to meet demand, preferably on a high-thread-count hotel bed.

The next morning the drive to Viñales took about six hours, three hours longer than normal because, under the influence of too many cigars and our new Afro-Cuban jazz CD, we missed a turn and got badly lost. Once we rolled into town and set up shop at Oscar's place, it became clear that life here moved at a very different pace from up north. With little hope of getting rich or developing a career, Cuban men devoted themselves to life's simpler pleasures, like smoking cigars and attending the countless local baseball games, boxing matches, and cockfights — or, for a few, climbing the spectacular local cliffs, using ropes and gear handed down from foreigners.

"Climbing is like, how do you say, a fever?" said the first Viñales climber we met, a well-muscled guy named Edgar. "Cubans, they love it!"

We'd spotted him walking back from the cliffs along a dirt side road (80 percent of the established routes are within walking distance of town). He was wearing a pair of American-made climbing shorts as well as a leather necklace with a miniature carabiner. We struck up a conversation and learned that he'd been climbing for years and was actually engaged to a well-known American climber.

The other locals were all hanging low, Edgar told us, but there was supposed to be a meeting that very night between climbers and government officials. Represented by the national caving society, the climbers were going to ask how climbing might be made legal. In the meantime, the locals had asked that foreigners also cool it for a while.

Of course, foreigners had been deeply involved in the Cuban climbing scene from the beginning. Menocal had been back 14 times since his first trip in 1999, bringing ropes, harnesses, and other gear (since Cuba, needless to say, doesn't produce much in the way of climbing equipment, and few Cubans could afford it anyway). In 2001 he'd even run a guided climbing trip that was fully legal in the eyes of both the U.S. and Cuba. But much had changed, as Edgar explained. Between the Bush administration's hard line on Cuba and Castro's own last throes, things had gotten a lot more complicated.

"The real law right now is that Cubans can go climbing, but they cannot walk to the cliffs with tourists," Edgar told us. "We ask the inspectors, 'But what if we see the tourists at the cliffs?' And the inspectors say, 'That's okay.' So, we only cannot walk to the cliffs with you."

Hoping to avoid another run-in with the Defender of the Revolution, we drove out beyond Viñales that afternoon. Passing through a series of lush green tobacco farms, we parked below one of the best cliffs I'd ever seen, a steep overhang with big stalactites and drip-castle tufa towers. Looking up and down the road to be sure nobody was watching us, I felt like the early Yosemite climbers must have in the 1930s, when they realized what a jewel they'd found.

The feeling only intensified when we reached the base of the climb, Mucho Pumpito, the one in the cigarette ads. The wall reared back up above our heads, overhanging 50 horizontal feet as it rose 200 vertical — no doubt why its name translates to "major muscle-pump."

Normally such a climb would seem to be way out of my range, but Mucho Pumpito had only an intermediate difficulty rating — 5.10A — assigned to it by a knowledgeable American climber. As I tried to wrap my mind around the idea that I could actually scale this monster, the other guys roped up and had at it.

Jimmy Chin went first, followed by our friend Dave Barnett, a 34-year-old recreational climber from Jackson Hole. When my turn came I felt like Spider-Man, crawling on the underside of this overhanging roof and hauling myself upward by the big, frictive handholds shaped like pistol grips. Halfway up I encountered a stalactite so big I could hook a knee behind it, lean back, and rest my arms. Still, slowly but surely, my arm muscles were growing tired, and I could see how Mucho Pumpito got its name. I was nowhere near the top, and the prospect of falling was becoming all too real. If you fall on a normal, vertical wall, you'll sink maybe a few feet before the rope catches you. If you peel off a world-class overhanging cliff like this one, you're going to take a world-class swing.

As my pulse raced and my breathing grew tight, I froze and simply hung in one place for too long. Both hands began to weaken at once, and they slowly began to pry open. I screamed a warning to my buddies and then dropped off the rock and shot down and out and away from the wall, swinging in gigantic, nauseating circles, the whole Cuban landscape swirling around me, a gut-wrenching kaleidoscopic cycle of sky, trees, farms, and cliff.

When I finally came to rest, I was dangling 30 feet away from the wall. I tried to get back, kicking and jerking to generate swing, but it was hopeless. I was stuck in outer space on a route that might someday become known as a great classic of the climbing world, like Reed's Direct in Yosemite. Humbled, I called for Jimmy to lower me down. Climb after climb, day after day, we found routes every bit as extreme and dramatic as Mucho Pumpito. But Cubans were nowhere to be seen. The only climbers we saw on the crags during our entire visit were the Scandinavians and two French-Canadians, who were also staying at Oscar's place.

Walking back through the fields at the end of each climbing day, we'd stop and sit in the crumbling stands of the local baseball stadium, smoking hand-rolled country-style cigars we'd bought from farmers while we watched the Viñales boys play Jose Contreras's old team, from just down the road. Oscar's family cooked us fine, clean meals of chicken and vegetables, which tasted all the better because the restaurants in Viñales, like everywhere in Cuba, suck.

Afterward we'd wander over to the home of a lovely Afro-Cuban woman named Manuela who gave private salsa dancing lessons. Like the climbers, she exercised extreme caution. We'd meet her in the street at the appointed hour, then follow her like bad private eyes, keeping 100 yards back on the opposite side of the street. Eventually she would duck into a darkened home, and we would pace outside until the door opened and a man named Carlos beckoned. He and Manuela would dance with us for an hour, teaching us the great Cuban salsa step — and ignoring the terrifying knocking at the front door, somebody pounding and pounding to be let in.

On our final night in Viñales we stood outside the midtown salsa club and wondered what to climb in the morning, before we drove back to Havana. A warm downpour kept the locals huddling and laughing under the colonnaded roof. Chatting with our salsa teacher, we were introduced to another local climber, a heavily built man with a calm, friendly face. He laughed when I described the inspector and said that he and all the other locals had been climbing at a secret spot, a cave of sorts, where a huge slab of rock leans against a cliff. By sticking to the climbs in between the rock and the cliff face, they knew they would never be seen.

I asked how the meeting with the government officials came out, and he said we should go ask Edgar, pointing across the square to a lone figure leaning against a concrete column, barely sheltered from the rain. We approached, and Edgar greeted us warmly but said that he had just heard that the meetings had ended with the declaration that it was now illegal for Cubans to climb at all.

"What about tourists?"

"Doesn't matter. They don't touch tourists. But after March 15 they say we'll have this new system where the Cuban climbers have to have a license or else they pay a fine, and tourists have to pay a fee or go climbing with a paid Cuban guide. But they don't want anyone to climb until they have the paperwork in place." He paused now, looking away and seeming genuinely depressed.

I thought back to something he had told us that first day we met. He wasn't concerned about the meeting then; in his mind the future of the sport was not in doubt. "The next generation coming up," he said, "they are going to be so good."

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