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The Forbidden Island: Climbing in Cuba, Part 3

On Cuba's "restricted" climbing culture and a dance lesson for the ages


Climbing in Cuba may be “restricted,” but for some—foreigners and Cubans alike—the allure of the island’s towering rock faces is too much to resist. Four women took the vertical allure, added a touch of salsa (dancing, that is) and spent two weeks charting the fine line of vertical legality, Cuban-style. Majka Burhardt tells their story in five parts. Today, part three.

Yaro had his first chance to climb with Team Feminista a week later when I returned to Vinales with Erin, Tara, and Holly. The day after our rainy afternoon in Cueva Vaca, we met up with Yaro in the morning to head to Costanera, a cliff eight miles away.

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A 1953 Plymouth holds five climbers and gear with room to spare. Ours for the morning was leaf green with a cherry red leather interior. Our destination was Mucho Pumpito, one of Cuba’s tallest walls that was said to feel exactly they way it sounded. Erin, Tara and I had an afternoon of climbing together under our belts, and today we would up the difficulty both in the climbing and the exposure. Mucho Pumpito was a multi-pitch route and climbing it meant setting up a temporary anchor halfway up the wall and climbing again, higher up, for another 100-foot capsule. The climb shot out on the southern skyline of La Costanera with a consistent 35-degree overhang. We’d climb the exposed belly of the overhang, or that was the plan. Erin and Tara, however, had never climbed a route like this—in Cuba, or anywhere.

“Are you guys game for this?” I asked after they’d seen the rock up close.

“Do you think we can do it?” Tara asked.

“I definitely want to do it,” Erin said.

Holly was already busy getting her camera gear together. “It definitely looks good,” she added.

“Don’t worry, it is not so hard,” Yaro said. He looked up, and we all followed his gaze. “Well, no,” he added, “it is hard, especially if you fall off. Then it is hard to get back on.”

Erin, Tara, Holly and I all laughed. Yaro had already decided he would not be climbing—his shoulder was acting up, so he would belay and give moral support. I rolled my eyes and mentioned that in the US moral support meant not telling people how bad it would be if they fell off and then gave the sisters the best advice I had for what was to come: “Hold on, and move fast.”

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Mucho Pumpito is a race against an internal clock of endurance. Each body length required a different understanding of every angle of the 360-degree options. The limestone on this particular cliff was deeply affected by the nearby sea and wind and both forces had long ago created scalloped arches of rock. Once on top of the entire route, 300 feet above the base of the magote, I could see the ocean glimmering on my right, endless jungle sharing a thick haze of sun on my left, and Erin following my advice below. Her strawberry blond ponytail hung straight down at a 90-degree angle from her head, a giveaway to the angle of the rock she was climbing. I methodically took in rope as she moved even a fraction of an inch upward. Still, if she were to fall, she would end up in space dangling off of the wall—that position where accordingly to Yaro, “it was hard.” Erin climbed up without pause as Tara cheered her from below and I kept her tight from above, spooling the extra rope down off the nose of the rock. The green cord whipped and contorted like a four-story jump rope and snapped into the tops of palm trees below marking our eventual descent.

Erin arrived at the top with chalk-covered hands, blood on her right knee, and a smile stretching the entire width of her freckled face. “What do you think?” I asked.

“I think I like it.”

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By most estimates there are fewer then 100 Cuban climbers living lives that incorporate the vertical on an island with 11 million others. But even that number, according to Yaro, is likely a proud one. He says the more accurate count of active climbers sits under 25, with half in Havana and half in Vinales. More will come out of the woodwork for an annual competition, but few climb regularly. Climbing in Cuba is only fifteen years old. The sport started slowly on the island, largely due to a total lack of equipment. As mentioned, most of country’s climbers—Yaro included—were first cavers and came to climbing from that love of wilderness and exploration. Back in the mid-1990’s a small group of Havana cavers cobbled together a climbing strategy gleaned from contraband climbing magazines and equipment catalogs. They slowly amassed more information and what equipment they could—initially relying on actress Esther Cardoso, the mother of one of the climbers who brought back one piece at a time from her state-run theatre trips in Europe. The pace increased after this, but still the local growth is slow. Yaro explained this to us all back at the base of Mucho Pumpito, two hours after we started the climb. We’d yet to see any other climbers that day at Costanera and Yaro demonstrated how he could name almost every Cuban climber off the top of his head. We listened to the litany of names and quickly noticed a theme.

“How many women climb here?” Tara asked.

Yaro thought for a moment before answering. “One, maybe two before? But now…” He shook his head. “No women except the visitors.”

Yaro has a Canadian girlfriend he met on her vacation in Cuba and is supposed to go and visit her in the next months. I asked him if she would live in Cuba. Then, I rationalized, she could be the only female Cuban climber. Yaro laughed and dismissed the idea. More likely would be for him to defect to Canada, though in his eyes the choice would only hurt his climbing. He currently worked in the evenings as a security guard and spent most nights sleeping at work, allowing him to climb in the day. If he moved to Canada, he explained, he’d probably have to stop climbing because he’d have to work when he was awake. His workplace is also the defacto center of the local climbing community and where he can work on his website without interruption. Tropical communism, as it were, seemed to be working all right for him given these parameters.

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Our day on Mucho Pumpito ended early in favor our need to dance. Yaro had set us up with a friend for a lesson that afternoon, though when we arrived at the Casa Cultura on the main square in Vinales, the only teacher we could find was leading a room of seven year olds in a Latin/hip hop number. Duly stood up by our teacher, we joined the seven year olds, albeit at the back of the room. Each age group has weekly dance lessons in this open aired mirrored studio with worn wood floor facing the church. At age seven it is uno, dos, tres, QUATRO with the emphasis on the quarto that either coincides with a twist or a stop-in-the name-of-love move, Cubanita style. I just tried to follow the girl with eight pigtails all done up in different color bands to complement her knee socks and ballet shoes. Later I learned she was the one we all picked as the ringer to watch. Afterwards we tried to convince the teacher to give us a private, slower lesson, but she was not allowed to teach foreigners. For that, she told us, we would have to the tourist bureau that offered classes two times a week, on weeks that it chose to teach them. 

Our other teacher would have worked for us on the black market—a reality of virtually every Cubans life due to a state supported salary of roughly $20/month in a land where one bag of cement costs $7. With houses being improved everywhere we travel, it’s clear most people find a way to get money from other sources. But we didn’t have this conversation in the State run and built Casa Cultura that afternoon. I just nodded that I understood. The woman smiled apologetically in return, perhaps because she knew that what we all really wanted was the chance—even for a moment—to have the rhythm and grace of these girls who, according to one of their fathers, “are dancing when they are in their mother’s belly.”

We left our lesson and walked through Vinales in the early evening light. A row of eight gray-haired men shared a roofline of shade single file on a skinny stoop.  They hooted appreciatively as we walked by. We hooted back. Families moved onto their porches and settled into pastel rocking chairs. Each home we passed slowly opened slat-wooden shades slightly more than the last to break the seal against the days heat. We debated soft serve ice cream, peso pizzas or another mojito. We chose the mojito. 

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Majka Burhardt is an author, professional climber and filmmaker with an uncanny knack for blending vertical exploration with multi-stage international ventures focused on current issues of cultural and global significance. Learn more at www.majkaburhardt.com

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