Monday, December 22, 2008
If there's one place in the world that I'm pretty sure AAI won't be offering trips to in the near future, it's Cuba. Not that a lot of Americans don't go to Cuba, because there's a fair amount of US passports that pass through customs and immigration at the Jose Marti airport in Havana. There is no law in Cuba prohibiting Americans to enter and they don't stamp your passport.
As many of you know there's been a US embargo on Cuba since 1963 which prohibits US citizens and residents from spending money in this communist nation under the "Trading with the Enemy Act". According to the US Dept of Treasury "The basic goal of the sanctions is to isolate the Cuban government economically and deprive it of US dollars."
Fortunately I was traveling with a Canadian citizen who paid for the whole trip with Canadian dollars. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Now, for the best part. The climbing.
I can't claim to be an expert in many things, but if there were something that I could write a book about it might have the title of "Limestone Sport Climbing Areas in Communist Countries" or something to that effect. Cuba is my third such area after China and Vietnam, and it is a real gem (if I can manage Laos and North Korea, much to my mother's dismay, I'll have the quintet). There are a couple of hundred established routes in Cuba, mostly bolted with a few traditional climbs throughout the area known as Vinales. The climbing is on large limestone towers and mountains called mogotes that are riddled with caves and overhanging limestone walls.
The climbing history in Cuba is very young, with the first documented routes going up in 1999. On one of the first climbs in '99, the first ascensionists found pitons that are storied to have been placed by a pair of adventurous Spanish women who first climbed there 15 to 20 years previously. Craig Luebben, a renowned American climber responsible for inventing Big Bros (wide crack protection in the form of spring loaded tubes) was one of these first ascensionists, and one of the first people, along with a few Cuban climbers, to discover the area's potential. Since then, climbers from around the world have visited and contributed to the established climbs making Cuba a legitimate climbing destination.
There is a tradition amongst visitiong climbers o bring climbing equipment to Cuban climbing locals. This is because they cannot procure climbing gear in their home country, and probably couldn't afford it even if it was available.
There is a web site created for those interested in climbing in Cuba. This was created by Armando Menocal, one of the Cubans who first explored the limestone with Luebben.
We spent 10 days in Vinales while staying in a Casa Particular, the Cuban version of a bed and breakfast, owned by Oscar Jaime Rodriguez. This is the unofficial basecamp for all climbers visiting the area and for good reason. Oscar is the patriarch of a wonderful casa and has rooms for rent at $20 per night. It's a great place to meet other climbers and you can find all the information that you need to climb in Vinales at his casa. If you go to Cuba, find Oscar.
The downsides of climbing in Cuba are the mosquitoes. So bring your own repellent because it is not available in Cuba, or at least we didn't find any. The only other annoyance is the government, who assert a tremendous amount of control over the daily life for Cubans. They don't really bother tourists, because they are spending money. But they make sure that tourists pay as much as possible for food and services. There is a way around all this, and you can make a relatively cheap trip out of it, but be sure to get lots of good information before going.
Cuba is an amazingly unique place with extremely friendly people and rich culture. It is flush with great music, art, history and beautiful colonial architecture. It makes a great vacation that includes authentic culture and great climbing.
Here is a photo essay of our trip:
Posted by American Alpine Institute at 6:00 AM