In “Threatening Rock Climbing in a Cuban Paradise,” The New York Times focuses on Cuba’s Viñales National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and top destination for rock climbers from Europe, Canada and the United States, and very popular among Cuban rock climbers. Strangely enough, the article does not mention anything about how rock climbing damages cliff ecosystems, which may very well be one of the reasons for the crackdown in climbing the Viñales mogotes.
Here, the mountains weren’t pushed up from underneath, as mountains usually are. In this national park and Unesco World Heritage Site, everything but the mountains fell down. The mogotes, as the islands of karstic limestone are called, are gently domed, like a loaf of crusty bread, but the sides seem to have been cleaved off, leaving terrain that drops precipitously to the valley floor.
In the late 1990s, rock climbers found a paradise where the walls of the mogotes are too steep for the otherwise ubiquitous crawling vines and striving trees. Huge overhangs, some 500 feet tall, are covered with chandeliers of stalactites and intermittent blobs and pockets, all perfectly formed for human hands and feet to climb from the bottom of a cliff to its top. Soon, local residents caught on, and a flourishing climbing scene took hold. Viñales became a top destination for climbers from Europe, Canada and the United States. Hundreds of routes went up the major mountain faces in the valley, and for years visiting climbers had essentially free rein.
No longer. [. . .] In an era when the Cuban government has been easing restrictions — allowing private boardinghouses, private restaurants and now the sale of real estate and automobiles — it seems to have moved in a sharply different direction here, threatening the prosperity of Viñales and the future of the sport in Cuba by enforcing a ban on climbing and regulating independent tourism in general.
In March, out in the welcome cool of nighttime, under the fluorescent lights of a plaza-side bar and over rum-laced national cola, the conversation among climbers centered on the guards who have been enforcing the prohibition since early in the year. Where had they been that day? Did anybody get busted climbing? What happened? And then, “Why are they there at all?”
[. . .] This is the main worry for residents and climbers. Viñales is the hub of the valley and the heart of Viñales National Park. The bustling town of about 17,000 has more than 300 private boardinghouses that rent rooms to tourists here to hike, explore the cliffs, ride horses, watch birds and climb in the national park. All that has allowed the valley to overcome the poverty typical across the country. Armando Menocal, one of the “Cuba Climbing” guidebook authors and an expert on the region, said, “Tourism has created a strong, vibrant economy, and it’s all based on outdoor recreation.” The crackdown, if it continues, “could be devastating to tourism and climbing in Viñales.” he said.
[. . .] Climbing was pronounced unauthorized and thus prohibited in 2003, four years after major climbing development started. The state deemed climbing a factor in peligrosidad, a vague designation of being dangerous to the state in some way. It is an offense punishable by imprisonment. [. . .] Official explanations say Cubans do not support a so-called extreme sport. They are worried about serious injury, and officials have said an ambulance would always have to be parked near the base of the most popular cliff in case somebody is hurt. But there is no money for that. [. . .] Despite the possibility of real consequences, Cubans keep climbing. They duck the guards. They hitchhike and walk hours to arrive at sectors where guards aren’t. One night, over more rum at the bar next to the plaza, Cuban climbers regaled visitors with stories of a steep, clean wall of difficult routes where “there won’t be anybody but us and the birds.”