Trip Report
Todo es posible en Cuba
Sunday March 2, 2014 7:24pm
So this is more of a guide to help others travel to Cuba and not make some of the rookie mistakes that we made on our trip. Let me know what you think down below!

Amigos en el tope
Amigos en el tope
Credit: Nathan Johnson

1. Getting to Cuba and back
If you aren't American, book a flight. Done. If you are American, you could go legally through an organized tour that sounds boring. Or you can go on your own. The tricky part of this is that you can't book your flight on your credit card. I've seen three ways around this, book in cash in Canada or Mexico (not recommended), book through a travel agent or website based in another country (jetfly.co.uk), or have a foreign friend book your flight and reimburse them. When you come back I recommend asking the immigration official in Mexico or Canada not to stamp your passport, you might get lucky, 67% success rate on our trip. Its tempting to bring cigars and souvenirs back but this is really the only way to get in trouble, up to you.

Edit: See Armando's note below for better beta

Rope swing in Cueva de la Vaca
Rope swing in Cueva de la Vaca
Credit: Nathan Johnson

2. Health insurance
Everyone visiting Cuba is required to have health insurance. US companies won't cover you there, so you are supposed to buy Cuban coverage from the gov't for $3 a day. If you come in legally it's included in your ticket, if not it's easy to slip by without buying it, and even if you need mild (non-catastrophic) healthcare no one is going to check. The only caveat is that if you have to interact with the gov't during your stay they won't help you until you present proof of seguro medico. It may be possible to use fake docs from a company based in another country.

Casa's terrace in Cienfuegos
Casa's terrace in Cienfuegos
Credit: Nathan Johnson

3. Hotels, Casa Particulares, camping
Hotels in Cuba are gov't run, that's all you need to know. Expensive, bad service, worse food. You want to stay in Casa Particulares, these are basically bed and breakfasts run by Cuban families. We fell in love with the family we stayed with in Vinales, their house is named Casa Fuster (or El Zapatero), I highly recommend it. The Casas run from $15-20/room/night, meals are available and are huge, simple, and delicious ($3 breaky, $5 dinner). This is one of the best parts about traveling to Cuba, staying at a Casa immediately immerses you into the life of a Cuba family, and if you are staying for a bit, like on a climbing trip, it's possible to get very close to them. You could camp if you were biking across the country and moving constantly, honestly, doing this in Vinales would be kinda dumb.

Malanga Hasta a la Muerte
Malanga Hasta a la Muerte
Credit: Nathan Johnson

4. Food
Cuban food is simple and rich, but the quality varies widely depending on the type of place it is purchased. There are no grocery stores so you are going to eat out the whole time. A place that says "restaurante" in it's name is gov't run, these are unequivocally terrible. A place with "paladar" in the name, is run by a cuban family and can be very good, I recommend El Olivo in Vinales. Cafeterias are like fast food in Cuba, cheap and tasty. Street food is often available, you get what you pay for. Eating most of your meals, especially all your breakfasts, in your Casa is recommendable.

Credit: Justin Loyka

5. Currency
US credit cards don't work in Cuba so you need to bring all the cash you'll need for the whole trip. The Cuban gov't taxes US dollars so it is expensive to change USD into Cuban tourist pesos (CUC), about 87 CUC to 100 USD currently. You can change USD to Euros or Canadian dollars first, but exchange rates will likely make it not worth the hassle. In addition to CUC it's good to have some CUP (everyday Cuban money) to pay for taxis and street food, these are worth about 4 cents each. Any price that doesn't come from the gov't is negotiable in Cuba. You should be comfortable bargaining, especially for food, taxis, and casas, or barring that, comfortable with the fact that your trip is going to cost you thousands of unnecessary dollars.

Erin on a delicate 11a
Erin on a delicate 11a
Credit: Nathan Johnson

6. Leaving stuff
The US embargo causes shortages of some really weird things in Cuba. It's nice to bring things to leave behind and smart too. Pens, lighters, flashlights, clothes, and non-prescription meds are all in very short supply in Cuba, having extras is appreciated and will make you lots of friends too. More expensive items like cheap laptops or digital cameras can easily be traded for services (like your rent for a couple of weeks). Climbing gear is also nearly impossible to get in Cuba, so parting with any gear (in good condition) is considered good form. It's also in our interest to keep the climbing scene in Vinales equipped and functioning so that we have a place to go on vacation and climb.

Credit: Nathan Johnson

7. Vinales
Vinales is an incredible little tropical town and a UNESCO world heritage site. Here are some things to do after climbing or on rest days. Go to the beach, try Cayo Jutia. Ride bikes or scooters through the countryside. Hike or ride horses through the farmland and meet some farmers. Watch someone roll cigars and smoke with them. Take salsa lessons. Cockfights take place on the weekends, not for the faint of heart. Acoustic music at the Havana Club bar. Sit at the corner bar on the Plaza and spray about your home crag with local and foreign climbers. Go to Vinales' small club and enjoy the singing, dancing, professional dancers and band every night. Cheer on the local baseball team. Cigars and the best mojito we had in Cuba at la finca de Raul after a hard days climbing. Don't miss the bakeries next door to the baseball field for a great snack. Get to know the family you're staying with. (Writing this really makes me miss Vinales)

A farmer and oxen
A farmer and oxen
Credit: Justin Loyka

8. Climbing
The climbing in and around Vinales is fantastic, similar to other karst limestone formations around the world. There is good variation between steep, tufa-laced roof climbs and more vertical technical faces. It is hot. Bring bug spray. There are a lot of wasps, they aren't aggressive like American ones, but it is intimidating. The bolts are in good shape, just ask the locals for up to date beta. If you want a guidebook, buy one online before you leave.

Recommended crags: Cueva Larga (high quality, hard vert climbing), Gaujiro Ecologica (sunny moderates), Cueva de la Vaca (steep, hard, the best), Paredon de Josue (shady, buggy, great moderates), Palenque (rad tufas), and Costanera (Big, adventure, great cragging too).

Routes: Amigos en el tope 7c, Wasp Factory 7b+, Malanga 7b+, Beso de la avispa 7b+, Esplendidos 8a, Mambises y Maulets 6b+, Melodia Celestial 6c, El Lamento de los Toros 7a, Cuba Libre 7b+, Mucho Pumpito 6b, Mas Tarde 6b.

More bolts are sorely needed for upkeep and new routes in Cuba. If you want to develop new routes there is a lot of good rock available, just like most karst destinations. The thing that separates Cuba in my mind is that the scarcity of bolts has left many crags that are just begging for routes undone. Short approaches and inspiring lines, and locals can show you the way or offer their help because the exploration is already done. Happy climbing.

  Trip Report Views: 801
Justin Loyka
About the Author
Justin Loyka is a trad climber from Maryland.

Comments
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RyanD

climber
Squamish
  Mar 2, 2014 - 08:07pm PT
Thanks for all the beta Justin. Looks like a really great spot & you provide some excellent info. What's the logistics of getting to the climbing from the nearest airport? Would it be easy to go there for a quick trip(1 week)& get a few good days of climbing in?
Justin Loyka

Trad climber
Author's Reply  Mar 2, 2014 - 08:36pm PT
Yeah Ryan, it's amazing. From the Havana airport, it's a 2.5 hour taxi ride to Vinales. The taxis can be rented for 60 dollars for the whole car, but you'll have to bargain. The Viazul bus also leaves everyday from a station downtown, it costs 12 dollars but is much slower. Definitely a possible week long trip, but it will be easier if you speak spanish and know what moves to make.
this just in

climber
north fork
  Mar 2, 2014 - 09:49pm PT
Really cool TR, great info, and the climbing looks fun. Traveling is one of the best things in life and it's cool you got emerged in the culture. Thanks.
ArmandoWyo

climber
Wyoming
  Mar 3, 2014 - 01:09pm PT
You donít need my endorsement to know that you nailed almost everything about traveling and climbing in Cuba. As the author of the Cuba Climbing guidebook and cubaclimbing.com website, however, I appreciate it when visitors get it right, and I donít have to write picky corrections.
Awesome job, Justin. To have done the work to get the authentic beta probably means that you have become one of us, a Cubaphile. Welcome to the club.
I will expand on a couple of small points.
It really isnít necessary to go through evasions to circumvention the U.S. travel ban to Cuba. The U.S. is not enforcing the ban - no enforcement at all. You could get in more trouble by asking Canadian or Mexican immigration officials not to stamp your passport than by admitting to U.S. immigration that you went to Cuba. Donít sweat bringing back cigars or rum. If youíre one of the few to get searched upon re-entry, customs will take your Cuban ďcontrabandĒ and thatís it.
Iíve never had a problem sending payment by Western Union to reputable travel agents in Cancun for flights to Cuba.
There are shortages of everything in Cuba, but it isnít because of the porous, futile U.S. embargo - that alone is good enough to dump the stupid 50 year old cold war relic. Plenty of companies in Latin America, Canada, and Europe will sell to Cuba, even U.S. products. You will have no difficulty buying Coca Cola or Marlboros in Cuba.
There isnít much available in Cuba because the government choses not to import much and people canít afford to buy a lot of the little that comes in. The only legal importer is the government. Although the Cuban climbers donít have the money to buy climbing equipment, there are plenty of visiting climbers willing to buy gear if it was available in ViŮales. Government decisions in Cuba are usually based on politics, not money. Itís why the economy is so screwed up. Politics in Cuba is not limited to elections and political parties, since thereís only the Communist Party. Politics means all policies and rules to enforce the governmentís stance on appropriate conduct. Right now that doesnít include climbing. Hence, no climbing equipment. Climbers have even been told that the guidebook isnít just unavailable, itís prohibited.
Saludos,
Armando Menocal
Justin Loyka

Trad climber
Author's Reply  Mar 3, 2014 - 01:36pm PT
Thanks for the clarification Armando, that's all information/perspective I've never heard. Also thanks for all the work on the guidebook, it was the single best source of info on Cuba that we had. I think we just missed you last month, Henri and Raulito said you were around, but at different crags I guess. I'm actually moving back to Lander, Wyoming this summer, where in the state are you located?
ArmandoWyo

climber
Wyoming
  Mar 3, 2014 - 08:58pm PT
I'm in Jackson. Drop a note if come over Togwotee pass, using the cubaclimbing site.
BTW, you and Nathan Johnson have some excellent pixs. Be good to have for next edition of guidebook.
Gene

climber
  Mar 3, 2014 - 09:06pm PT
If you come in legally it's included in your ticket, if not it's easy to slip by without buying it, and even if you need mild (non-catastrophic) healthcare no one is going to check. The only caveat is that if you have to interact with the gov't during your stay they won't help you until you present proof of seguro medico. It may be possible to use fake docs from a company based in another country.

Iíd love to visit Cuba. Friends who have been there have had wonderful experiences. I suggest that when visiting Cuba or anywhere, travelers should think twice before they ďuse fake docsĒ as guests in another country.

Other than that minor point, thanks for the information.

g

Darwin

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
  Mar 3, 2014 - 10:23pm PT
THANK YOU!
labrat

Trad climber
Auburn, CA
  Mar 3, 2014 - 10:32pm PT
Cool! TFPU :-)
cuvvy

Sport climber
arkansas
  Mar 4, 2014 - 02:08pm PT
I keep hearing the government doesn't want you climbing in Cuba. Is it just a matter of getting insurance and they are not going to chase you away from the climbing areas?
That blows that the government taxes your already taxed money just to come to their country and assist with the economy.
And then the good form is to leave your climbing gear and spend more money on gear when you get back home?
Sounds overall not the cheapest place to vacation to.
Justin Loyka

Trad climber
Author's Reply  Mar 4, 2014 - 04:40pm PT
Armando,
I'll definitely look you up if I make it over that way. Feel free to use any photos here, we've got a bunch more of similar quality if you'd like. Lemme know.

Cuvvy,
There is some sort of gov't ban, as a foreigner you have nothing to worry about. At most you'll be asked not to climb and can go to a different crag. Happened to us once in a month of climbing days.
You're right, Cuba is definitely not the cheapest place to travel, but it's a special experience, and having pulled it off on a pretty tight budget myself, I still wouldn't trade it back. As far as the gear goes, there's no pressure. The Cuban climbers never came off as entitled or asked for anything. They just did endless favors and became really good friends of ours. It was cool to help out some friends, but no one will blink if you don't wanna leave your rack. Hope you make it down there!
survival

Big Wall climber
Terrapin Station
  Mar 4, 2014 - 04:53pm PT
Beautiful! I have always wanted to go.

I made up for it by smoking a months worth of Cuban cigars in a week in the Bahamas, heh....
Ezra Ellis

Trad climber
North wet, and Da souf
  Mar 4, 2014 - 08:33pm PT
Nice Tr!!!
Thanks
ArmandoWyo

climber
Wyoming
  Mar 4, 2014 - 09:52pm PT
Justin, please drop note through website, so we'll have each others e-address.
Ditto to Cuuvy. No one is forced or pressured to leave gear. They do it voluntarily. U.S. companies donate gear to the Cubans with no PR, sponsorships, or expectation of ever reaping a profit or advantage. Everyone does it b/c it's the right thing to do and they feel good doing it. I don't think that Cuba is for you.
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