The Forbidden Island: Climbing in Cuba, Part 2
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 two.
Six months before arriving in Cuba, I’d shared a beer with Armando Menocal, a Cuban climber living in Wyoming, and asked whom he’d recommend I meet up with in the Cuban climbing community. He pointed me to Yarobys Garcia, the community’s unofficial el jefe. Few people would pick a 5’6” man with chin length frizzy hair to be the leader of revolution, even a vertical one. But at 33, Yaro (his preferred nickname to offset the femininity implied in Yarobys, something he demonstrates by pronouncing his real name in a high falsetto) is Cuba’s strongest and most well known climber, which in Cuba places him in a revolutionary position. The Vinales local runs a state-approved website detailing the climbing in the nearby magotes and keeping track of the possibility on the rest of the island. But that doesn’t mean climbing, or Yaro, is state approved. In Cuba, climbing is restricted for locals, a purposefully vague word that does not make the sport illegal, but does not allow for it either. In between the two understandings lies Yaro, who finds a way to climb six days a week. To do so, he’s become creative and adaptable, two true Cuban traits.
At Armando’s suggestion I’d sent Yaro an email two months before I arrived in Cuba to ask if he wanted to get out and climb together. It would be just me to start, I’d written, but then me and three other women. Might he want to join me/us? He wrote me back within twelve hours to say yes. I thus booked my ticket to arrive a week before the other women and met up with Yaro in Vinales—expect, technically, we didn’t climb in Vinales.
The Vinales Valley area that includes the World Heritage Site is a roughly seven by three mile area that is scrutinized and controlled, and while much of the climbing lies in that area, most of Yaro’s current attention is focused outside of it. There are not direct mandates that forbid him from climbing in the more popular areas, but the day before I met Yaro he had been detained and ticketed by a park official for 130 CUC—the equivalent of five months of state provided salary. He’s thus been pushed to find new rock faces, caves, and cliffs that lie just out of site in order to further his, and the islands, climbing. But for Yaro, his forced exile is far from a travesty. To explain this all to me he decided the best way was to take me to his newest obsession.
We shared a taxi for the three-mile journey outside of town. There, we lit off for Yaro’s new cliff through fields cut with red soil trails just wide enough for a horse cart. We followed their sinuous track around temporary reservoirs with cattle lazily chewing on their man-made grass mounds surrounding the even water. Whitewashed wood and stone houses punctuated the fields just often enough to suggest ownership of the tobacco crops. The canine inhabitants of these homes were all of the life we saw that morning—three times in a dead run in our direction. The first time it happened I asked Yaro if he’d even had any trouble with the dogs. He laughed and said no.
“Really?” I asked, not believing him.
He leaned down and picked up a stick. “Really,” he said.
The sun-blanched fields gave way to shaded forests of toweringtrees and within an hour of leaving our taxi we stood below Yaro’s new mistress, a 200-foot unnamed limestone wall with the occasional glimmer of a stainless steel bolt as only evidence of import.
“She’s beautiful, yes?” Yaro asked me. He told me he’d been searching this 1.5-mile stretch of magote for months before he found this wall. Yaro, like many climbers in Cuba, comes from a caving background and now uses his state supported caving expeditions to seek out new climbing areas. This one was barely visible from the road and to the untrained eye looked identical to any of the other intrusions of orange rock in the mountain. But by the time Yaro was done with it this wall would hold some of Cuba’s hardest new climbs. The standard is up with the top of the world with minuscule holds demanding extreme fitness and gymnastic body positioning. Yaro and I spent the afternoon in its sanctuary with two other Austrian climbers. Other than an errant pig who nearly attacked me when I surprised its siesta, we were the only ones there.
Tucked away from the 95-degree heat we shared guava paste, bread, and cookies in-between climbs that Yaro finessed elegantly. I spent my turns trying and failing to replicate Yaro’s total control and mastery of the Cuban stone. When we left to hike out he gave me an affectionate pat on the shoulder and told me not to worry. “It is like this for everyone their first day in Cuba. Besides, it is good you are here both to climb and to dance.”
I’d told Yaro of the dancing and climbing plan back in my initial email. “Are you going to dance with us—with all of us?” I asked. “Do you think you’re ready for four women?”
Yaro nodded his head back and forth as if thinking about my question. “Four women? Next week, right? No problem. Besides, I already have a name for you.”
“A name?” I asked.
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