Cuba is a country with a singular history, a vibrant culture and unique nature...
...Travelling here is at times like taking a trip to the past: classic 1956 Chevrolets roll down the streets of Havana past crumbling baroque buildings plastered with socialist slogans. In the countryside, cigar-smoking farmers wave to you from horse-drawn carts...
Cuba's climbing, like the culture, is also one of a kind. The island is dominated by limestone, which in many places is bullet-hard and moulded into a variety of shapes and angles. Even though the Valles de Viñales already boasts 800+ routes, the potential for development here and elsewhere on the island remains impressive and given time and resources Cuba could become one of the finest sport climbing areas in the world. Already, there is talk of a new potential climbing hotspot: another Viñales, only bigger.
Nate throwing a rope to Rose on a famous 6b (ish) steep multi-pitch © Nate Murphy
Is rock climbing illegal in Cuba?
In a nutshell: climbing is not a problem in most areas of Cuba. The exception to this is Viñales where it is technically banned. However, you shouldn't let this put you off as the authorities overwhelmingly turn a blind eye to climbers, especially if they are foreigners. Trekking is a popular activity in the area so you can usually easily blend in.
To get a better understanding of the situation before you travel, we recommend checking out this in-depth article by Cuba Climbing.
Funding and gear donation
The Cuban government has unfortunately restricted the growth of climbing in a number of different ways. Local climbers are not permitted to form an organisation (or even have a website) and a lack of public funding means that all development is dependent on private donations. Imports of climbing gear are also restricted so the Cuban climbing community is dependent on a pipeline of donated equipment from visiting foreign climbers.
Because of this, if you’re planning on climbing in Cuba then it's best practice to pack some additional gear (in good condition, please!) to leave behind. Alternatively, you can donate to the anchor and bolt fund at Cubaclimbing.com.
For some guidelines of what kit to donate and how, click here.
Working one of the gorgeous limestone routes in Viñales © Weronika Biernacka
The best sport climbing areas in Cuba
The Valles de Viñales is a national park and UNESCO world heritage site lying in the mountainous region of Pinar del Rio, about a 2.5 to 3 hour drive from Havana. Amidst the greenery and century-old tobacco farms you’ll find huge limestone ‘mogotes’ which today are home to 800+ high-quality limestone routes (and counting) up to 6 pitches long. The climbing has a similar feel to Thailand - think steep and pumpy flowstone - but is even more varied, boasting anything from jugs to pockets, tufas and stalactites.
The development of sport climbing in Viñales has played a crucial role in the history of Cuban climbing. It all began in 1998, when Cuban-American climber Armando Menocal returned for a trip to his homeland and was blown away by the sheer climbing potential of this limestone paradise. The following year, he coaxed a team of Colorado climbers including Skip Harper, Craig Luebben and George Bracksieck to travel to Cuba with the aim of beginning development here.
The American team were able to make contact with the nascent Cuban climbing community (at the time spelunkers who through sheer ingenuity had managed to set up a few top-rope crags near Havana without having any access to specialised gear) and involve them in the exploration of the island. While the first routes in Viñales were bolted by the Americans themselves, this collaboration initiated what was to become a fully-fledged gear donation programme enabling Cuban climbers to take the lead in local development efforts.
Weronika on Cara Dura (6a), Cueva Cabeza de la Vaca, Viñales © Weronika Biernacka
Where to climb in Viñales ?
The majority of the routes are concentrated in three main areas within the valley, all walking or cycling distance from the town where we recommend you stay.
Mogote del Valle, a massive jungle-topped streaked limestone formation, is the closest area to the town and has been the focus of local development efforts. The area contains 70 percent of all the routes in the region, offering something for all tastes and styles: single to multi-pitch, technical face climbing to tufa hauling, with routes between 4 and 8b+.
‘La Cueva Cabeza de la Vaca’—or ‘La Cueva’—is a cave in the Mogote del Valle area which effectively serves as the local gym, offering seriously overhanging hard routes surrounded by stunning waterfalls and eerie stalactites. You’ll need to be confidently climbing 6c to get the most out of this place, but if you are then it’s well worth a visit.
On hotter days, you should head to La Costanera, a spectacular north-facing limestone cathedral offering quality single and multi-pitch routes from the 5th to the 8th grade. The ‘Jagueyana’ crag here is a great option if you're climbing in the 6s and 7s, with a huge variety of climbs of these grades and arguably the best 6c in Cuba (Ana Banana).
Lluvia de Meteoritos (6c) at the Jagueyana crag, Viñales © Weronika Biernacka
If you’re looking for a bit of fun, head to El Palenque, possibly the most indulgent climbing area in the world! Impressive rock formations, short approaches, tonnes of classic routes and a bar-turned-disco after dark in a cave by the parking lot make this a must-visit sector. If you get too pumped, just ice your forearms on some mojitos!
Thanks to the high-concentration of quality climbs, it’s possible to stay a few weeks (or even months!) in Viñales without running out of new routes to try. On rest days, you can go for a hike in the National Park, visit one of the tobacco plantations in the area, head to the beach at Cayo Jutias or Cayo Levisa, or just get a coffee in town and enjoy the slower pace of life.
Dei climbing in Viñales © Nate Murphy
If you’re visiting Cuba for the first time then it's well worth spending a few days exploring the rest of the island and some of its lesser-known climbing spots.
Playa Jibacoa, a small fishing village in the Mayabeque Province of Cuba (about 40 minutes from Havana), should be your next stop. Here unspoiled and tranquil beaches and the surrounding scenic countryside provide a plethora of opportunities for swimming, snorkelling, diving, hiking or just relaxing in the sun.
On the beach at Jibacoa you’ll find a medium sized crag with 50 single pitch limestone sport routes between 5 and 7c. The routes are typically 35m long and a lot less steep than those at Viñales, making this the ideal location for a few days of more laid-back climbing. If you fancy a quick break, all you have to do is walk a few meters to the sea :)
Weronika on the slabby section of La Cuchillita (6a), Cueva Cabeza de la Vaca, Viñales © Weronika Biernacka
Holguín and Gibara
The Holguín province in Eastern Cuba is a must-visit destination for anyone feeling like an adventure. Here, the rugged, mountainous landscape hides a multitude of limestone cliffs, making this region second to Viñales as far as bolting potential goes.
You’ll find some good crags near the towns of Holguín and Gibara themselves, where a few hundred lines up to 8a have been bolted in gorgeous limestone outcrops by a growing community of local climbers. Most of the crags require a slightly longer walk-in than Viñales (up to an hour), but you’re guaranteed some quality routes and a real feeling of seclusion. If you’ve got time to spare, the towns of Holguín and Gibara and nearby beaches are worth visiting - especially if you want to experience a bit more of an ‘authentic’ side to Cuba.
Before heading to Holguín, we recommend getting in touch with the local community through cubaclimbing.com for up-to-date access information.
Bouldering in Cuba
Although most people come to Cuba to sport climb, the island is also home to some quality bouldering spots. For example, you’ll find an incredible limestone bouldering crag at the entrance of a cave system near the town of San Carlos in Western Cuba. This is the place to head if you’re looking for steep, physical climbing with safe sandy landings - like an outdoor gym, but better!
If you’re visiting eastern Cuba, it’s the Oasis crag in Santiago that you should go for. This coastal climbing area has the advantage not only of offering granite boulders - a rarity! - but also being just a few minutes’ walk from the beach. Contact the local community for more information.
Fighting through an overhang on RM (6a+), Viñales © Weronika Biernacka
Where to find out more about climbing in Cuba?
The Cuba Climbing website is a goldmine of information for climbing in this tropical paradise. You’ll find up-to-date information on most of the crags, recommendations for things to see and do in Cuba, access information, instructions for where to send your gear donations, and a cheap downloadable e-book version of the Cuba climbing guide. There’s also an interesting page outlining the history of the local climbing community and free pdf copies of a wide variety of magazine articles published on climbing in Cuba.
When to visit?
The best season is December through to March, when you get the coolest temperatures and driest conditions. October, November, and April also provide decent climbing conditions.
Where to stay?
To experience the most authentic side of Cuba, it’s best to stay in ‘casas particulares’. These are licensed rooms to rent in a local’s house, often with breakfast included in the price. There are literally hundreds of casas particulares to choose from in both Havana and Viñales, so it’s up to you whether you prefer to book online or rock up on the day and scope a few out before committing. Ask the locals for recommendations!
If you’re in need of a bite to eat, you should visit one of the many Paladares - family-run restaurants set up in local houses where you’ll be served traditional Cuban food in a warm and friendly atmosphere. In Havana, many of these have been extended to resemble a restaurant, but you’ll still find a good range of traditional dishes to try.
Carlos Logroño climbing Moscow Rule (7b) in El Palenque, Viñales. © David Munilla
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We hope you enjoyed this article and that it has inspired you to visit some of Cuba’s incredible crags. You can find more articles like this on different off-the-beaten-track destinations around the world in the Climbing Travel Guide.
A huge thanks to Anibal Fernandez for the information. Thanks also to Nate Murphy, Weronika Biernacka and David Munilla for the photos.
You can find David Munilla's website here.
Cover picture © Weronika Biernacka