Trip ReportTodo es posible en Cuba
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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