Climbing Alive & Well

Sunset over El Palmar, Viñales


Is climbing shut down in Cuba? Officially nothing has changed, and climbing, as well as hiking, birding, caving, and all other outdoor activity, is still prohibited in Viñales National Park and the entire western province of Pinar del Río. All access is limited to travel with an official guides on a few designated trails. Visitors to Viñales continue to say that this is what they are told.

Every report we get, however, is that everyone is able to climb. No visiting climber has been barred from climbing.

After the closure was first announced in January, 2012, rangers and police posted themselves on trails to popular climbing and hiking venues. It was even reported that local farmers retaliated by baring the rangers from their land. The initial surge of enforcement, however, appears to have lapsed.

Nina Caprez of Team Petzl pulling down on a Cuban puro.

Nina Caprez of Team Petzl pulling down on a Cuban puro.

Even the most popular routes can be climbed after 2 p.m., when the rangers quit for the day. The most common report is that if park rangers see you climbing, they will ask you to stop. That’s it. Two different climbers, however, put it in the identical words. “They don’t see you.”

Venezuelan climber Xavier Garriga wrote that his group climbed at popular sites and even at Cueva Cabeza La Vaca, Guajiro Ecologico, La Costanera, and El Palenque, which are visible from much of the valley and town. Xavier concluded, “If you are thinking of traveling (to Viñales) to climb, you can go without problem. We invite you to go and climb everything you want!!!!”

And now, the Cubans have resumed putting up new routes. It is no surprise to learn that they have returned to a distant, unreported wall know to Cuban climbers as Hasta Siempre Armando, a massive wall first climbed in 2000, and newly revisited in 2010, when the locals took Michael Fuselier, and a team of Petzl climbers to explore a 60 degree wall called Techo del Mundo, Roof of the World. However, the Cubans have also just done a new route on Mogote del Valle, the closest, most accessible walls to town – as yet, an unnamed three-star 7b.

In 2003, I wrote that visitors, along with the Cubans, climb under the cloud of ambiguity. For example no rule or law said that foreigners or Cubans need permission to climb or put up routes. Yet, local officials would occasionally ask climbers for their permit to climb, or ask who gave you permission to climb. Once an official said in a meeting with climbers both that all climbing in Viñales had been prohibited and that the government was bringing 800 foreigners to climb to Viñales. Had Viñales been shut down? Two weeks latter, everyone was back climbing in Viñales. The closure, and 800 climbing visitors, did not exist.

Yarobys Garcia Techo Del Mundo, 2010

Yarobys Garcia Techo Del Mundo, 2010

In Cuba every activity is so tightly controlled that officials take for granted that nothing is permitted unless they have authorized it. So even if something is not prohibited or closed, officials will say it is not allowed because it has not been authorized.  “It is not authorized” is a customary response to the question, “Why can’t we?”

I had expected that an autocratic government would make clear the line between the prohibited and the permitted. Absolute domination and oppression comes from having every aspect of life controlled: Step over this line, and you will be jailed, fined, worst. I was wrong. The big stick is more effective if the people are unsure of the rules, and must guess how the powers that be will judge their actions. If you aren’t sure exactly where the line is, you are more likely will stay clear of where the fellow with the big stick might think it is.

One Cuban explained that, “Nobody knows what is allowed and what isn’t, or why and when.  That’s how you drive a child insane, how you infantilize people and drive them crazy.”

Indeed it seems nothing has changed.