Climbing in Cuba

As we were fortunate enough to have four and a half days off of school between classes, a few classmates and I took a long weekend in Viñales, located in the province of Pinar del Río. While Viñales was not always what we expected, we discovered places there like no other. It’s not unlikely that we’ll return some weekend before we leave to do it all again.

Viñales is known as an outdoorsy town. 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, eco-tours – you name it. When we arrived, 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, or hostels, offering rooms to rent. And of course, tourists from all over the world abound. But what lay outside of town was something to behold.

The main objective, at least for me and my friend Grace, was to rockclimb in Viñales. The rockclimbing in Viñales is actually world-renowned and has been featured in several rockclimbing magazines. Professional climbers, including 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 while in Viñales (it’s actually technically illegal), 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’d enter Raul Reyes’ farm and he’d take it from there. Somewhat dubious, we continued down the road and found a shack full of clear climbers – toned arms, covered in dirt, unloading ropes and gear from big backpacks. I approached a man on the front porch and explained how we were interested in climbing for the following two days. He was actually a guide, and was willing to offer us gear or help the following day if we needed it. We told him we could manage on our own, but didn’t have a guidebook to locate routes. A true Cuban, he immediately ran inside and grabbed an extra copy, telling us to just drop it off the following day and wishing us well. Our excitement grew.

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 Raul’s, we nearly cried. An expansive view of the mountains opened up; we saw caves poking holes in the rock; the farmland spread even wider. At the end of the path, we came upon Raul’s shack: the climbers’ paradise as mentioned. At the shack, little tables and hammocks were filled with climbers from all over, enjoying cheap beers and piña coladas sold by Raul. At the counter (covered in business cards, stickers, and letters from climbers throughout the world), Raul had laid out Cuban cigars made on his very farm, as well as waterbottles full of his coffee beans, fresh honey, and salsa. We couldn’t believe it.

And then there was Raul 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, in my opinion, the best people there are. And to find a niche climbing community such as this was even more incredible. He nodded knowingly, and pointed us to a sign that would lead us 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.

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 distance hills and lush greenery. And the rocks. The rocks boggled our minds. Tons of bulbs, tufas, chicken heads, stalactites, and stalagmites jutting out of the face at impossible angles. Aretes, columns, and overhangs galore. All sharp, unforgiving limestone. We couldn’t wait.

We spent the following two days in two areas: Enseñada de Raul (Raul’s Teachings) and Cueva Larga (Long Cave). Enseñada de Raul 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. And 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 stretching toward sunlight, with wind whistling through every so often. We were surrounded by climbers from Canada, Cuba, France, and Slovakia. It was an exceptional time, conversing and sharing gear with other climbers. And 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; 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 levels. And 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 never am 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 got to meet the one and only Raul Reyes.

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