Una Aventura en el Trópico: Rock Climbing in Cuba

Photos by Sarah Laico

I am incredibly fortunate to have spent the past two blocks in la Habana, Cuba, studying Spanish, living with a Cuban host family, and immersing myself in the lifestyle. Throughout my time there, I was struck by the friendliness of the people, the beauty of the neighborhoods, and the richness of the country’s culture— from music and graphic art to dance and theater. Little did I know, I would be equally struck and, moreover, amazed to find a niche climbing community just a few hours from my homestay—a community of passionate, dedicated, and welcoming climbers from all over the world. It all started with a plan to spend fifth Block Break in a town called Viñales.

Sophomore Grace Ford looking out from “Cueva de la Vaca.”

Located in the province of Pinar del Río, southwest of la Habana, Viñales is known as a very outdoorsy region and Fidel’s favorite vacation spot. It is home to a national park full of rivers and caves to explore, and there are countless excursion options to try, including horseback riding, visits to tobacco and coffee plantations, bike rentals, and eco-tours. After taking three taxis over the course of four hours we—sophomore Grace Ford, first-year Kate Washburn, junior Evyn Papworth, and I—arrived. Initially, I was mildly disappointed by how touristy it was; the town consists of essentially two streets full of bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops. Outside of these two streets lie hundreds of casas particulares (hostels) with rooms for rent. And of course, tourists from all over the world abound. But what lay outside of town was something to behold.

The road approaching “Mogote de Valle.”

As avid rock climbers, Grace and I heavily researched climbing in Cuba before the semester, and Viñales seemed like the obvious spot to do it. The rock climbing in Viñales is world-renowned and has been featured in several rock climbing magazines including Rock and Ice. Professional climbers like Sasha DiGiulian have also trekked out to Cuba to see what the hype is all about. We weren’t exactly sure how to go about climbing there, especially since the sport is technically illegal in the country, but we were determined to try. What we found was a climber’s paradise.

We first stopped at the last casa particular on a street leading outside of town towards the mountains. We inquired about climbing, and the owner of the house explained that we needed to continue down the road until we found a gate. There, we would enter Raúl Reyes’ farm, and he’d take it from there. Somewhat dubious, we continued down the road and found a shack full of obvious climbers—toned arms, covered in dirt, unloading ropes and gear from big backpacks. I approached a man on the front porch and explained that we were interested in climbing for the following two days. He was actually a guide, and in true generous Cuban form, he quickly offered us a copy of the guidebook to use during our stay. Our excitement grew.

Top-roping inside “Cueva Larga.”

At this point, we were on a dirt road full of horses, surrounded by coffee and tobacco plants. We saw the gate up ahead, and when we veered onto the path to Raúl’s, we nearly cried. An expansive view of the mountains opened up and we saw caves poking holes in the rock while the farmland spread wider across the landscape. At the end of the path, we came upon Raúl’s shack: the climbers’ paradise. At the shack, little tables and hammocks were filled with climbers from all over the world enjoying cheap beers and piña coladas sold by Raúl. At the counter—covered in business cards, stickers, and letters from climbers throughout the world—Raúl had laid out Cuban cigars made on his farm as well as water bottles full of his coffee beans, fresh honey, and salsa. We couldn’t believe it.

And then there was Raúl himself: a leathery old Cuban man wearing a cowboy hat and boots. He immediately welcomed us and upon seeing the guidebook, went to show us the various places in the book with pictures of him. I explained to him how incredibly stoked we were to be there, since the worldwide climbing community consists of some of the most genuine people there are; to find a niche climbing community such as this was astounding. He nodded and pointed us to a sign that would lead to the Cave of the Cow, “La Cueva de la Vaca,” for us to check out before climbing the following day. We thanked him and pushed forward.

The cliffs at “El Palenque.”

As we made our way down the dirt path, we started noticing increasing scraggly brush and wild goats scrambling around. We arrived at a tall, steep staircase and, after a short struggle, we landed at the face of the wall and the cave entrance. The cave stretched through the entire cliff. On the other side, we received another beautiful view of distant hills, lush greenery, and rocks. The rocks boggled our minds. Tons of protruding features such as bulbs, tufas, chicken heads, stalactites, and stalagmites jutted out of the face at impossible angles. It was arêtes, columns, and overhangs galore: all sharp, unforgiving limestone. We couldn’t wait. We spent the following two days in two areas:  Enseñada de Raúl (Raúl’s Teachings) and Cueva Larga (Long Cave). Enseñada de Raúl consisted of five different walls, diverse and surrounded by palm trees, wild pigs and goats, and mosquitos. We used trees as holds in many instances and tore up our hands on the jagged rock. We loved it. The following day, after much difficulty, we found Cueva Larga, a huge cave tucked behind one of the main walls. The cave was unreal: relentlessly tall columns stretched toward sunlight, with wind whistling through every so often. We were surrounded by climbers from Cuba, but also Canada, France, and Slovakia. We had an exceptional time conversing and sharing gear with other climbers. To top it all off, both days ended with an ice cold beverage at Raul’s, swinging in a hammock.

After being separated for over a month from our greatest passion, Grace and I were over the moon to have found climbing in Cuba. But it wasn’t just the climbing that got us stoked; it was the atmosphere. No matter where you go, climbers are so supportive of one another and willing to help and teach one another. The climbers in Viñales were no different, despite their different backgrounds, languages, and skill levels. Everyone was united by this old farmer, a man who doesn’t even climb himself, but simply enjoys bringing people together to see his beautiful farm and backyard of exquisite walls. If I am never able to return to Cuba, I can at least rest assured that not only did I get to climb in an unparalleled place, but I also got to meet the one and only Raúl Reyes.

Sarah Laico

Sarah Laico

Sarah is a rising junior from Warwick, New York. After being Head Writer of her high school paper, she has enjoyed continuing her passion for journalism working at the Catalyst. An outdoors enthusiast, Sarah loves to rockclimb, hike, ski, and trail run, and she also is a backpacking, rafting, and climbing leader for the Outdoor Education Center. When she is not editing for the Active Life section at the Catalyst or monitoring at CC's Ritt Kellogg Climbing Gym, Sarah can be found playing drums and eating cereal.

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