Permits/Access

Cuba Closes All Access to its Mountains

In January 2012 the Cuban authorities closed almost all access to the mountains in Western Cuba. The closure does not apply only to climbers, but all visitors, from cavers and mountain bikers to hikers and bird-watchers. In Viñales National Park, home of about 80 percent of the established routes, access is limited to walking with official guides on the few trails long ago “authorized” by officials for tourism. The authorized trails reach about one percent of Viñales Valley, and go nowhere near any of the climbing sites. The rest of this World Heritage site is off-limits to all visitors.

No one has seen a written decree, so the full scope, rationale, and penalties are unknown. Local officials themselves can’t say why the policy on access has changed. The best guess – and that is all it, a guess – is that the closure is an instance of Cuba’s obsessive and domineering state security. Caves are part of Cuba’s civil defense, and the army continues to excavate (and destroy) many of Cuba’s natural caves. We recommend a Cuban blogger’s attempt to make sense of what is going on.

Team Petzl en route to the mogotes.

Team Petzl en route to the mogotes.

Climbers are still going and climbing. Rangers sit at a couple of obvious climbing-hiking venues and tell visitors that they cannot enter, or if caught in the act of climbing, to stop. Climbers and others have figured out the rangers’ routines and enforcement. Rangers quit at 3 pm, don’t work Sundays, and don’t walk to most of the climbing walls in the valley. Climbers report that they were able to climb everyday, but with difficulty and, probably, some anxiety.

The impact on the Viñales Valley and its almost 30,000 people, however, could be devastating. When Cuban and foreign climbers first began to explore the Valley in the late 1990s, it was not a well-known World Heritage Site. Tourists did visit, but they came mostly in tour buses, and stayed only in the two hotels on the rim of the valley. The official version of eco-tourism was limited to a single day in the valley, long enough to enjoy the spectacular views from the hotel, see the garishly painted wall called La Mural de la Prehistoria, tour the paved, lighted Cueva del Indio, and lunch at a thatched-roofed restaurant. If they stopped in town, it was to buy bottled water and post cards.

Paul Laperrière, Más Tarde, 6b+

Paul Laperrière, Más Tarde, 6b+

Viñales is now a completely different place. The town and trails are busy with visitors. Hundreds of Cuban families have turned their homes into small hostels and private restaurants to host the thousands of visitors who come to explore the Valley’s exceptional natural beauty and to walk among the valley’s traditional tobacco and coffee farms, where ox-drawn plows and horse-backed farmers still mark its agriculture. Individuals and groups come for climbing, hiking, birding, biking, and caving. Climbers stay for a week and more. There is a national park visitor center, two museums, botanical gardens, cultural center, and live music venues.

No one has been cited for climbing, nor for simply wandering into the country-side. Repeat offended have been threatened, but no one has been fined or sanctioned. Still, in this authoritarian country, we do not encourage anyone to challenge the rules, however inexplicable or unintelligent. This is only a report of the situation as we understand it.
Lacking government “authorization”, the local climbers have not been permitted to organize. Even this reporter has been barred from visiting Cuba, and was again prohibited from flying to Cuba in February, 2012. The Cuban climbers are working with Access PanAm, a western hemisphere climbers access organization.

The Cuban government’s approach to climbing has been ambivalent. Until the 2012 closure to all access by all users, foreign visitors were free to climb, in Viñales and elsewhere. The government had put the Cuban climbers on notice, however, that they were not to climb in the Viñales Valley, and if they did climb, they faced imprisonment.

It is beyond us to explain why the government would permit foreigners to climb, but threaten Cubans with imprisonment if they climbed. When the Cubans directly confronted the officials for a justification, they were only told, “foreigners eat ham and cheese, and you don’t and I don’t.”

Since 2003, the government has been pondering whether it would “authorize” climbing, and perhaps until it is “authorized”, it is not considered an appropriate activity for Cubans. At least that is the generous explanation.

Tatto on Jusnir (Turbo), watching a climber on Romeo y Regleta, 5.12c/7b+

Tatto on Jusnir (Turbo), watching a climber on Romeo y Regleta, 5.12c/7b+

Climbing and Access

All sports education, facilities, and operations are conducted by the government. The focus is on those sports that are part of the Olympics, and Cuban athletes have won international competitions totally out of proportion to the country’s size. An individualistic sport that does not result in Olympic metals has not fit within its highly successful, but structured East German-Soviet era sport model. The Cuban sport, tourism, and environmental authorities have taken no interest in climbing, nor any other outdoor recreation such as hiking, boating, and surfing.
The visiting climber should be aware, however, that because the government controls so many activities, officials often begin with the assumption that official permission to do anything is required. At times a visiting climber has been told that a permit is required, but then, that a permit was unavailable; it is unavailable because climbing has not been authorized.
The lack of official authorization has not stopped the government from publicizing some of the Cuban climbers, promoting climbing in Viñales in the International Edition of Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, and displaying photos of climbing in the new Visitor Center at National Park. Even school children in Viñales are participating in climbing programs in the Park.
The Cuban climbers had taken this ambiguity in stride. Just another of the paradoxes they face every day.