Cuba Closes All Access to its Mountains, Climbing Access Lost

Date: 2/23/2012

Our peers at Access PanAm, the western hemisphere climbers’ access organization, report trouble in the Cuban climbing paradise.

Cuba has been become a booming winter climbing destination, drawing US, Canadian, and European climbers to its vast and overhanging limestone walls. And its home to a developing community of local climbers. Cuba also has become a favorite destination for many other adventure travelers. For now, it is all over. An unexplained edict of the Cuban government has closed its western mountains, not only to climbers, but all visitors, climbers, hikers, and birders a like. This report is provided here because of the many U.S. climbers who ignore the lightly-enforced U.S. travel ban to climb in Cuba.

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 climbing 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,” says Access Pan Am Founder Armando Menocal, who also founded the Access Fund twenty years ago. “Local officials themselves can’t say why the policy on access has changed. The best guess—and it’s all 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. One Cuban blogger attempts to make sense of what is going on.

According to Menocal, some climbers are still going and climbing, but 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 every day, 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.

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.

"As we understand it, no one has been cited for climbing, nor for simply wandering into the country-side," says Menocal. "Repeat offenders have been threatened, but to our knowledge, 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.

Lacking government “authorization”, the local climbers have not been permitted to organize. The Cuban climbers are working with Access PanAm. Check with Access PanAm and www.cubaclimbing.com for updates.