One of the best things about being part of the rock climbing community is the opportunities that come out of nowhere for adventure whether its through seeking new areas to climb with friends or making your way up a new route. The sport of rock climbing can take you to places you never thought you would go when in search of perfect weather and great rock.
How did the four of us end up on an exploratory climbing trip to a country that has always intrigued me and has been off limits to the US for the last 50 years? Here’s how, one of my friends I climb with sent a text of a list of routes for us to do the next time we go back to El Potrero Mexico in the Spring my response was “Lets plan for Red Rock Neveda for a few days the weather is perfect”. After coordinating dates we saw that Red Rock was going to be sub 50 degrees in early December so a day or so later Paul suggested we go to Cuba, I turn around and text another friend Brant “Paul and I are talking about going to Cuba in Dec?” two weeks later a get a reply from Brant “You bought your ticket to Cuba yet, whats been planned so far?” Paul invites Brendon and next thing you know we are all in Cuba.
President Obama started easing restrictions on Cuba in late 2014 and the first flights from the U.S. started on August 31st 2016. So how do you get to Cuba?
Before you do anything you need to know that there are 12 US Government categories for traveling to Cuba that are legal and do not require a license or paper work. They are:
- Educational activities in Cuba for schools, including people-to-people exchanges open to everyone
- Professional research and professional meetings in Cuba
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions in Cuba
- Religious activities in Cuba
- Humanitarian projects in Cuba
- Journalistic activities in Cuba
- Family visits to close relatives in Cuba
- Activities in Cuba by private foundations, or research or educational institutes
- Any type of support for the Cuban people
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information technologies or materials
- Certain authorized export transactions including agricultural and medical products, and tools, equipment and construction supplies for private use
- Official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
If your travel falls within one of these categories you are automatically authorized to visit Cuba legally without having to apply for a license. There is no paperwork involved. You simply arrange travel and go to the island. Note, as of this trip banking services between Cuba and the US has not been established so do not plan on having access to any type of banking services, ATM’s or using your debit or credit card, plan to take whatever money you plan on spending in US cash, however this may change in the near future.
For myself I chose support for the Cuban people, arranging travel means you purchase a round trip ticket, apply for a visa which for Cuba is also called a travel card, and ensure you have travel medical insurance which ensures you are covered in case of an accident while there and need medical attention and or repatriation of your body back to the states, note, this is not the same as travel insurance it is specific for medical situations and most airlines include this in the cost of your ticket automatically when you select Habana as it is called in Cuba as your destination. Next purchase a round trip ticket with one of the airlines with service to Cuba, there were four of us going on three different airlines and they were all around $300.00 round trip, check to make sure the medical travel insurance was included, if not you can purchase from a third party and it is based on the cost of the ticket typically around $25-$30 also check that it included the $25 charge to exit Cuba. Once you have purchased your tickets you will need to arrange for your visa (travel card) I purchased mine through Cuba Visa Service and it was sent next day Fed Ex and I got it in two days and cost $50 plus shipping $85 total, but there are several visa services out there, note, some of the airlines like Delta include the tourist card in the cost of the ticket and will have it ready for you to pick up at the airport that you leave the country from. . Now you are ready to start planning your adventure.
Cuba has two types of official currencies one is the Cuban Peso (CUP) the other is the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The CUP is the Cuban peoples money and is used to pay State workers and those that work for State run enterprises and most staple goods and services not intended for foreigner consumption is paid in CUP and the CUC is money intended for ‘Luxury’ goods and services, including most imported goods and anything intended for consumption by foreigners are generally paid for in CUC. The CUC is based on the dollar with an exchange rate around 1 to 1 but there will be an exchange fee so it comes out to about .86 CUC to the dollar. You can exchange money at the airport or in Habana at the Hotel National which is very easy to find just ask anyone, there is a bank in Vinales as well. Note, Brant pointed out to me that one way to tell the difference is that the CUP features faces the CUC features buildings or statues. This is for informational purposes only, you will exchange dollars for CUC and wont have to worry about encountering the CUP.
We started doing a little research and found a multitude of answers, some from travelers blog posts that were pre-restriction and some post, some answers contradicted other answers and some seemed to change while looking for answers, it seemed as though we were part of a system in flux from the beginning to the end and it all added up to a great experience.
My ticket was for Friday morning 6am from DFW and land in Habana 1130 am, my climbing partner Brant gets in at 230pm and Paul and his partner Brendon get in on Sat at 130pm. Note, be ready for what will look and sound like organized chaos and have a solid plan to meet up in the airport baggage claim if not arriving together and count on not having a phone. Note, as far as we know phone and internet is non existent even if your carrier says your phone will work. It was told to us that if you want to use your phone or the internet then you will need to purchase a $2 phone card in Cuba that you can use for phone, internet and video calling, internet is available throughout Cuba in the bigger hotels and in any of the city parks but we did not try to buy a card but we did notice everyone gathered at the parks using the wifi. Brant and I plan to meet in baggage claim and neither would leave the airport until we were together. I land in Habana and go through immigration which seemed pretty busy but later found out the cruise ships come through the same entry as well.
Attached to the immigration area were two baggage claim areas and an area with staff for lost bags and I believed my bag was coming out on carousel two so I get through immigration after about an hour and head there. There were bags on the carousel, bags on the ground and people all over the place looking for their bags, some looked happy and others with looks of dispair but after an hour in immigration my initial thought was those bags on the carousel were off another flight and maybe my bag was one of the many bags just laying on the ground somewhere, my thought right now is where is my bag, no fret, it took about 90 min for the bag to come out. I figure that’s normal after Brants bag took about the same time when he got there. At this time we are looking to exit the airport. Our plan is to stay in Habana till at least Sunday or Monday and meet up with Paul and Brendon before heading to Vinales.
Accommodations in Cuba are limited to a couple choices, state run hotels or what’s known as casa particularies which means private house or private accomadations which are very simalar to a bed and breakfast in someone’s home, almost all provide authentic Cuban meals in a family setting, our plan was the latter and provides the most authentic experience of everyday life in Cuba. Your literally staying with local Cubans in their home and your host may also be able to arrange for and negotiate door to door taxi service when heading to climb in Vinales along with a phone number and address of a recommended casa. We were able to get the address for our casa in Habana from the information person at the airport along with a taxi. If you chose to go to Habana first then look for this sign on any house, its the symbol indicating this house is a casa particularies. Accommodations can be arranged in advance via the internet from the States but realize you don’t know the area, you will be committed before actually seeing the area and part of the adventure is to just go and figure it out there which is how we chose to travel There was an abundance of available casas to choose from once we got to Habana.
Getting from the airport to Habana you have several choices rental car, not a good idea, very expensive about $90-$100 per day, you have no idea where your going since you wont have google maps, and the driving can be somewhat sketchy if you dont like using the horn, the bus, state taxis or taxi particularies (private car) all of which you will see outside the airport. The state run taxis are yellow and newer and more expensive, the taxi particularies are pre revolution (1950’s) american automobiles and are driven by everyday Cubans and for us it was the way to go. The taxis charge based on distance and how many are in the car, if there are open seats the driver is going to want to fill them either where you get in at or along the way, always get the price before getting in, from the airport to Habana we paid about $20 CUC each and it took maybe 40 minutes and we picked up three local people along the way, sometimes you will deal with a third party not the driver, this person will get around a dollar from the driver for bring him business.
Once in Habana and if you are going to spend a couple days there which I highly recommend if it is your first visit to Cuba you will walk everywhere unless you want to go to the beach or somewhere outside the city limits. We did spend one day at the beach and the sand was white and the water was blue.
I have always wanted to visit Cuba long before I started climbing and we spent allot of time talking one on one to everyday people about life in Cuba Everyone we encountered wanted to share their thoughts.
Its Monday, we’ve met up with Paul and Brendon the day before and it is now time to go to Vinales, our host arranged a taxi for us and Paul made arrangements to stay at Casa Oscar Jamie Oscar is one of the early Cuban climbing pioneers and is the place to stay for climbers, but most of the casas in Vinales looked good as well.
Brant and I start the journey to Vinales not knowing what to expect and we stop and pick up two more people, a pair from Spain that are heading to Vinales as well, we also stopped and picked up one of his friends that lived in the states for 22 years and spoke english, It is a 2.5 hour ride from Habana to Vinales. Along the way we stop at what looks like the Cuban version of a Loves gas station and stop to use the bathroom and everyone had an opportunity to have lunch and talk about Cuba.
After driving for awhile our driver says he wants to take us on a tour of a Cuban tobacco farm and of course we all say yes and he makes a turn of the main road and once there we were greeted by the tour guide and he says very directly “I am going to take you on a little tour of how we make Cuban cigars from beginning to end you will sample a cigar have cafe and ask questions when we are done you will give me two CUC each Ok? If you do not want to go on the tour your more than welcomed to hang out here.”
We arrive at Casa Oscars, Paul and Brendon are already there and we meet Oscar and he shows us to our room complete with two beds, refrigerator stocked with water, sodas and beer, bathroom with shower, air conditioning and a safe and Oscar explains that breakfast and dinner is available and what the choices are chicken, beef, fish, lobster along with traditional Cuban side dishes of black beans and rice, bread, fresh greens and veggies breakfast is eggs, bread, butter, coffee, milk, fresh fruits and juices and each is $10 per day. Truly world class five star accommodations and service for $30 a day.
Vinales is a small tourist town with one main street and several side streets complete with bars, cafes, restaurants, gift shops, stray dogs and cats, ox drawn carriages, street vendors and is a favorite among Cubans living in Habana. There are a variety of restaurants serving a variety of food from Cuban to Italian and a sit down meal will set you back about $8-$10 CUC but you can also find street food like Cuban sandwiches for $2 CUC, a cafe con leche is about $1 CUC, a pack of Luck Strikes $2 CUC, a beer or wine about $2 CUC. I suggest walking through Vinales and all the side streets upon arrival or soon after to get a lay of the land and to see whats available.
Its time to go climb, it is very helpful to have the guidebook for Cuba and it cannot be bought in Cuba you will need to order it before coming and is available here at Cuba Climbing on this trip Paul took charge and would lead us to all the sweet climbing.
Our first day of climbing was spent in an area called Ensenada de Rauls or Rauls farm, the trail leads right through the above picture and Raul was there to greet us and he said “This is my farm, land and cliffs welcome and have a good time, when you come back through buy a drink for $1 CUC or have dinner.” We said you bet and continued on. Note, take the time to talk to Raul he is an interesting guy and he is Cuba, he has a farm, he has herds of animals running around, grows his own food, tobacco, cigars, mojitos, bar, restaurant, rents climbing gear and I swear if you look at one of the Cuban coins he is on the front and his farm is on the back.
We are smiling in this picture because our research led us to believe that we would be staying in a straw bale structure like the one in the background.
The climbing in Vinales is all sport and mostly single pitch and some multipitch and the majority of grades are 5.10a and up with a few easier climbs scattered in different areas. As of right now there are about 250 routes up with another 250 in development, the hold up on development is the need for titanium bolts and in my opinion when you combine the climbing, the area, the accommodations and the culture, food and people it is truly world class . Note in my opinion any route that is not vertical to over hanging will expose the climber to unnecessary risk if a fall were to occur while on lead, the limestone is bomber and it is sharp and a fall directly on to the rock will surely result in some type of serious laceration and you will not be close to any medical help or have a phone to call. Remember were you are and be self sufficient and carry a complete first aid kit at all times. Always check your ropes before climbing.
The next day we head out to climb in the caves and again we are amazed at what we find, solid rock, hard routes and another chance at pushing our limits.
On our way back to the casa we took Rauls offer of dinner on his farm and it did not disappoint. We enjoyed a truly organic meal of goat, fresh veggies, Cuban biscuits, yucca and fried plantain. You cannot get any closer to your food than this, the goats were running around right next to our table. Paul mentioned that “this is not farm to table, its table on the farm”.
At Oscar Jaimes casa in Vinales it is the basecamp for climbers in Vinales and while there we met a very nice couple from Germany and decided to all climb together the next day so we decided to head to an area known as El Palenque. El Palenque is located about four kilometers outside Vinales so it is very easy to get to by bike, taxi or walking. El Palenque is where Cuba climbing started so it is full of history.
Climbing in the cave is mostly overhanging 5.11, 12, 13’s and I did not climb any of these routes but Paul gave a go on one of the 5.11d’s and did very well.
Leaving Cuba was another adventure all by itself, we wanted to leave a day early to avoid another night in Habana and another taxi ride so we headed to the Habana airport the next day to see about getting a standby flight for Friday versus Saturday and our plan was to spend the night in the airport if our plan didn’t work out.
We get to the airport and try to get on standby, no luck because flying from the states is very new and alot of the details has not been worked out yet like changing flights, we were told it would have to be done over the internet which was the same as saying good luck, now each of the airlines do have offices on the third floor that you can go to for assistance and they are willing to help but there is only so much they can help with at the moment since these flights from the states just started and they have not worked out all of the logistics yet like communication over the internet between their system and the syatems in the states but they did give it a shot. Long story short we spend about 36 hours in the airport. Note, if you need to make any changes to your flight arrangements then do it before getting to the airport, either by phone or by internet.
One thing you will want to be aware of is that as of right now you can only check into your flight two hours before departure and this line is just the half of it, if you look at the above airport shot in the lower right corner that is an extention of the line in the upper right corner of this picture. Note, if you get in the back of this line you will not make your flight because there are no lines, there was 16 immigration stations all manned and everyone in this picture is not in 16 lines, we are all just standing there nut to butt shoulder to shoulder when they call for the next person you better be the first to move cause the person next to you will move first. If you skirt the back which is to the left of this picture then you can just jump in as I did, I saw others that looked like they knew what they were doing doing the same thing and I just followed. Once through this then you still will have the security check to deal with. I made it through all this with enough time to run to my gate and I was the last to board my flight.
Overall it was an experience that I am still reflecting back on and sometimes smile to myself thinking about the memories and experiences. I would highly recommend anyone to take a trip to Cuba and when you do remember it is not all about the climbing. Cuba is steeped in history and culture and its the people of Cuba that makes this a world class destination for climbing and they are very proud of their country and want to share it with us.
One note of importance, to further develop the climbing in Cuba there is a need for titanium bolts and cyclical resin which can only be purchased from Titan Climbing and ropes and shoes. These items are not available in Cuba, they depend on us visiting climbers to bring them to the island. We brought 10 bolts, two new ropes and a pair of climbing shoes. When you come don’t come empty handed.
If you can’t make it to Cuba and still want to contribute here is a link to a crowd funding site set up by Armando Menocal the author of the guide book. Bolts for Cuba Climbing