I arrived to Cuba unprepared. Not because it was in particular anyone's fault, but because I didn't ask the right questions and I made broad assumptions. Fortunately my mother accompanied me on the first part my journey and my best friend on the other part, and everywhere I faltered, they picked up the slack with their abundance of clothing and other products. I was prepared when it came to snacks and technology, two categories I have made countless errors in throughout my traveling years, so I pat myself on the back for that :) Unlike most tourists who arrive at the international airport and go straight to Havana, I went straight to the rural town of Viñales, a town know for its tobacco production and countryside vistas surrounded by magotes (steep and sudden hills within an otherwise flat area). I was unprepared for the amount of tourists I would encounter in Viñales, a place I had simply come for rock climbing. The first day I arrived in Cuba was spent mostly waiting for my mother's flight to arrive, but once we met up (which is quite difficult without communication) we carried on our way to Viñales, our new home for the next week. The town was pretty much what I expected, aside from the amount of tourism. Brightly colored houses in pastel shades lined the dirty streets, dogs and chickens roamed freely, and old cars and horse drawn carts were plentiful. There were many more restaurants and bars than I had expected and my mom said they had all been built in the last year since she had visited last- tourism had grown by so much in such a short amount of time.
Our first full day in Cuba was spent climbing in two different areas and walking around to look at a few other areas. We met up with Yandry, a strong Cuban climber my mom had met in the past, who became our friend and guide for the next week. The climbing style was different from any I had ever experienced. As a boulderer used to cold dry temperatures and granite and sandstone rock, sharp, slippery limestone and humid, hot conditions gave me a run for my money. I was scared, hot and sweating. I was out of my element and hoped that over the next week I would overcome my supreme fear. The next day Yandry had to work in his home town so my mom and I climbed together all day. We worked hard to avoid the wasps in the sun and the mosquitos in the shade. Our skin hurt, our egos were bruised, and I had spent yet another day petrified. I can liken the fear to a slow panic attack. However, unlike a panic attack, which I have had, you cannot simply breathe through the episode. When a climbing panick attack begins, depending on the situation and safety, you can either fall and be caught by your partner or you must persevere. That night we went to a decent restaurant called El Pomodoro, which was more expensive than many of the restaurants, but we had the best seafood dish of our whole trip.
We decided the following day should be a beach day so we arranged for a group ride in a Collectivo (an old car they pack with people. Ours had 8 including the driver) and we drove on the bumpy, broken road to Caya Jutia. The beach was beautiful, but like most of Cuba, more crowded than I had expected. We had been told stories of a beautiful, exotic beach void of tourists, but could such a place exist in a country covered by tourism buses newly open to the American people? No, is the correct answer. Our car pulled up onto the sand and parked under a tree where many other 1960s Collectivo cars sat. We hoped that this beach was the most crowded and therefore decided to explore around the corner. However, around the corner resembled something more similar to Cancun spring break and after being asked to pay for the beach chairs we had found and sat on, we packed up our bags and headed back to the beach with the cars- at least this part of the beach wasn't populated with bars and loud music. With the noise behind us, we found a cozy spot to read and I soon drifted to sleep. The heat of Cuba had hit me hard in contrast to the harsh winter I was used to in Colorado. I wasn't asleep long, but it was enough time to horribly burn the entire backside of me- a mistake I would pay for for the next few days.
That night we went to a restaurant my mom claimed was the best in Viñales for the quality of the food and exceptional service; it was her third visit here. El Olivo did not disappoint and I was grateful for a bowl of fresh vegetables. The next few days were similar to our first two and were spent climbing, taking photos and escaping the harsh sun. Our nights ended early because climbing in the heat wore us thin. We traveled to a newly developed area in Palanche, which offered some great rock and interesting culture. This was a climbing area that required a cab trip, but we were dropped off at an incredibly large cave which had been converted into a restaurant and bar. Through the cave to the other side was a large umbrella covered area with live music and a dancing show depicting the history of the area. The cave had once been a place for slaves to hide away and the music and dancing was a mixture of Cuban and African culture that told the story. We explored a local farm where we sampled exotic fruit, witnessed the stages of Tabacco processing and coffee growth, and sampled the local coffee flavored honey (which I bought). The man offered us a drink we had not seen anywhere else; it was made from freshly pressed sugar cane. His employee got to work running sugar cane through the loud machine, which emitted a light greenish-yellow juice into a beaker. After a few run throughs of the sugar cane, he brought the juice over to the counter and squeezed in some fresh lime juice. The flavor was incredible!
Throughout our days in Viñales we also sampled the piña coladas, which are made from the fresh coconuts and pineapples growing all over the farms and sprinkled with cinnamon. We tried some other interesting concoctions that aren't worth mentioning. As a foodie, I will flat out tell you not to expect much of the Cuban cuisine. It is mostly pasta and odd versions of other Italian dishes or mildly flavored chicken with French fries. There was a vegetarian restaurant in town that grew all their own vegetables and fruits and made some great juices, but certainly don't expect to be wowed or feel like you are tasting any semblance of culture through the cuisine, as often is the case when traveling. For animal lovers, be prepared for a surplus of baby farm animals, goats, cows, horses, pigs, lamb, chickens and dogs flooding the streets and farms of Viñales. There are a few exotic animals on the island, such as the tree rat, and there is a Cuban crocodile, but it's not a place for exotic wildlife like Africa. I will say that I never saw a snake or spider, which was a huge and lucky surprise, as I have a deadly fear of both. The casa particulares, the places you will stay, are clean and the people are nice. In Viñales you can chose to be city center or more rural. In the past, my mom had stayed at Casa Elisa which is more in the city. The people are lovely and the grandmother is a great cook, so if you are looking for a casa with the idea of assimilating further into the culture and being a part of a family, this is the place for you. This time we chose to stay closer to the climbing area at Casa Mariuska and Alexis, which was by far one of the nicest casas in Viñales. They had an adorable albino puppy named Tune Tune that we took an instant liking too and the beds were extremely comfortable. It was quiet, clean and spacious and I would definitely recommend it, although it was more similar to a bnb and didn't provide that family feel.
My favorite climbing area of the trip turned out to be this cavern called Cuervo largo. The temperature was cool and it was a little dark. Large textured walls surrounded us on both sides with crystals and shades of green gleaming as the suns' rays occasionally peaked in. The climbs were long and thought provoking. With a wall behind me, falling was not an option on some of the climbs, which added a new element of fear in my head and precision in my movement. It is here where I did my hardest climb because I felt comfortable on the small holds and technical movement provided by the style of climbing here. On our final day in the country we traveled with Yandry to his local Crag outside his village. It was newly bolted and the only climbers that visited were him and his friends, whom he had taught to climb. It was fun and a true adventure, with dirt and trees as obstacles to deal with. It is here that there are some of the only boulders in the area as well. The rock was exceptional quality and reminded me of Tennessee! I wish I had known of the quality earlier because I could have made more time for the bouldering. After climbing we traveled to his village to meet with a famous artist and see his work. I enjoyed seeing a part of Cuba with no tourism and there was absolutely no English. The town was built into many hills and the houses were much more run down. The people walked the streets with their umbrellas held high to shade from the sun and danced to music in the square. My mom returned to the USA but I continued on to the final leg of my journey- La Habana. I'd also wanted to visited La Habana because I love Cuban music and salsa dancing. I'd also seen pictures of the beautiful houses and the historic seaside. My best friend Cait planned to fly in from Florida and I was excited for a few days of adventure and culture with her.
- bring a Lifestraw water bottle to fill from public sources
- bring sunscreen, a rain coat, and plenty of bug spray
- bring any extra climbing stuff you can donate to the local climbers (chalk, quickdraw, bolts and hangars, climbing shoes, chalk bags, etc.)
- bring any sort of deserts or snacks you might crave because the grocery store basically has nothing
- bring the guidebook
- adjust your food expectations
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