Sasha DiGiulian for National Geographic
One of the world’s top female rock climbers explores Cuba’s complex climbing potential.
When we first start hiking to the cave all we can see is flat terrain with a perimeter of limestone cliffs in the distance. It isn’t until we veer down a discreet dirt path to an unanticipated opening that we realize that this could really be something.
When we walk into the narrow entrance, the hole suddenly gapes, and my face is frozen in awe as I take in the colossal chandeliers of rock looming two hundred feet above me. Vegetation colors the structured limestone in hues of yellow and green, and an illuminating beam shines down from the entrance.
As I walk farther inside, the glow of the beam fades, but brightness bouncing off scattered white rocks provide hints of light to guide me. I scramble through a narrow passageway that sneaks through two boulders pressed up against each other.
I can see light at the other end.
The Road to Viñales
“It is illegal to not pick up hitchhikers in Cuba unless your car is full,” our taxi driver tells us during the three-hour ride from Havana to Viñales.
Whether or not this is entirely true, chivalry certainly isn’t dead here. A vivacious energy toward life is palpable, and while there’s a lack of material wealth there’s a deep love for family, friends, art, and music.
On the windy, rural road to Viñales, everything is full of color. We pass through green landscape with red soil, and it feels like we’ve been transported back in time. Men plow fields with animal-drawn carriages, buildings are crumbling on the surface, and Che Guevara’s face is plastered to billboards. In Viñales, horses are tied up on the sidewalk in front of residences. It’s cheaper to buy a horse and wooden carriage than it is to buy a car.
Bolting a New Path
Inside the cave, the ceiling resembles a bowl of overly ripe, chunky guacamole.
We spend a few hours exploring its depths and pondering ways to climb through the rock jungle, analyzing hyper-featured areas where drooping stalactites are close enough to form paths up the otherwise sheer, gray surface of inverted rock. As the day progresses, a beam of light shines on different parts of the cave.
Together with the main climbing developers—Yairobi, Tito, and Henry—and in the company of a visiting legend, German climber Alex Huber, we bolt a climb that starts at the far back of the cave and follows a pattern of tufas (porous rock formed from water deposits) that look like sprouted broccoli. The whole wall surface is blank and horizontal, and the only way to actually climb it is by using the tufas that, instead of drooping down as most do, have formed outward due to millions of years of spray coming from the wall.
Sometimes bolting can seem unnatural. When there’s rock that seems too magical to touch, you don’t want to see bolts drilled into it. We decide where to climb with this in mind, considering which areas of the cave should be left unscathed while ensuring that we’ve chosen sturdy, solid rock that can withstand climbing.
We eventually bolt more than a hundred feet of inverted roof climbing that feels like navigating through a sea of tufas on Mars. In order to execute certain sequences, you need to flip your entire body upside down and climb with your feet first, above your head, and then twist out of this sequence and hang upside down by your arms.
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way
The potential for climbing in Cuba is vast, with only a small fraction of the surface being scratched. A wide diversity of angled walls includes completely inverted roofs, vertical faces, and slabs. All of the rock is limestone, and a large majority of it is really strong.
I find that the experience here is most similar to climbing in Thailand, though it is, in my opinion, better. There’s a noticeable love for climbing and for the exploratory, social aspect of it, as well as a rare sense of ingenuity that springs from the utilization of raw materials and a “where there’s a will, there’s a way” mentality. In Cuba, what you need is what you have. And there’s no shortage of hard work ethic, love, and optimism.
In fact, of all the places that I’ve traveled to for climbing (more than 40 countries at this point), I can’t think of a culture more welcoming and genuine than that of the Cubans. Among climbers here, there’s a brotherhood and a genuine camaraderie that’s heartwarming. But it is a brotherhood—during ten days in the country, I meet only two female Cuban climbers.
Wanted: Ropes, Harnesses, Legalization
Climbing is technically illegal in Cuba. The government may not necessarily care if people are out “trekking,” which is how climbing is categorized, but it sets limitations on the market that seriously inhibit the sport’s growth and any ability to bolster youth involvement. Cubans who want to compete internationally have no governing platform to do so. There’s no national team and no foundation to raise funding or awareness for emerging talent.
Why? It seems incomprehensible that climbing wouldn’t be considered a sport, but for the Cuban government the requirements for legality—and an associated industry—typically involve a sport being Olympic, according to the local climbing community. The government won’t form official federations for sports that aren’t “globally recognized.”
This limits more than you’d initially think, including access to modern climbing equipment like shoes, harnesses, chalk, and ropes—the wide availability of which we take for granted. Here, there’s no industry to support the commoditization of climbing, so if you go to a sports store, for instance, you won’t find climbing equipment in the outdoor aisle. The only way for Cuban climbers to acquire gear is in the form of gifts from foreigners visiting Cuba.
What’s more, since no one in Cuba is technically able to profit from climbing, all contributions to its development are privately funded. Profits from guiding are specifically prohibited, so all climbing guides are actually “trekking” guides.
Though the lack of resources, prohibition on materials, and sheer expense of establishing new climbs limits the development of climbing here, Cubans are incredibly resourceful. During our trip, we see harnesses that have been used for over ten years, their waning strength reinforced with duct tape, and shoes that have been glued to hold the rubber in place.
As foreigners we don’t experience any constraints on our ability to climb freely and explore, but we’ve also brought materials and resources to climb with. Thanks to the help of my sponsors, I traveled to Cuba with a box of Petzl bolts, a drill, a shipment of harnesses, draws, carabiners, ropes, climbing shoes, chalk, climbing clothes, and GoPros.
While I recognize that I’m privileged to be able to donate on behalf of my sponsors, if anyone reading this is planning to visit Cuba, I strongly recommend bringing any old gear that you were planning to get rid of or lost-and-found items from your local climbing gym. Small donations go a long way.
The Global Language of Climbing
Cuban culture is driven by a diverse and active appreciation for life. Kids play baseball in the community park, adults work out at outdoor public gyms made up of rusted iron equipment, and hikers and bicyclists pass through town on their way into the mountains.
But you won’t find any climbing gyms.
A large part of the growth of a sport is youth involvement. In the U.S. the majority of climbers start in climbing gyms—the sport is becoming more mainstream because of their presence in cities around the globe. But not in Cuba. When the government decided to enforce a climbing prohibition in 2013, the local climbing gym in Viñales was demolished.
In order for Cubans to begin climbing, they need to be introduced to its possibilities. They need the right equipment, and they need to be taught by someone who’s not being paid to instruct. If awareness of climbing can be raised within the country, perhaps the government will understand that it is, indeed, an established sport.
Climbing, after all, serves as a global language. Anywhere I go in the world I feel like I have a community of friends, even if I’ve never met them before. We sprawl across the outback regions of the world in pockets few tourists visit. In Cuba, the tufa cave in Viñales was just one of the locations we climbed. And during our rest day we explored areas that have never been established before, as well as current areas that have potential for new climbs.
I’m already planning my return visit.