Cuba Climbing

A few years ago, my friends and I traveled to Cuba to climb in Vinales. It was the most amazing trip of my life. This October, we’ll be repeating our trip but in a new place: we’re headed to the island of Kalymnos in Greece for some deep water climbing and then Turkey.

Yesterday, Blaine sent over a link to a climbing blog that’s been posting video installments on Cuba and Vinales climbing. They portray an extremely accurate essence of Cuba, especially the first video on Havana. Takes me back! Follow the link to watch all three installments. The first one is below.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/20517716]

>Cuba Wrap-up: My favorite moments

>So, when I think about my trip there are so many moments that stand out to me as memorable or amazing in some way. There’s so much to talk about and even though I tried to cover it all, I’m sure there are things that I missed. These are the photos that defined the trip for me:

From Cuba Architecture and Art
From Havana and Misc
From Cuba Vinales
From Cuba Vinales
From Cuba Climbing
From Cuba Travel
From Cuba Vinales
From Vinales Nightlife
From Cuba Vinales
From Cuba Travel

>Isla de Mujeres

>Our plane back to Cancun was just as frightening as the first one. While everyone didn’t clap when we landed as they had done on the way in, what happened in the air was enough to scare the crap out of the naive and unprepared:

From Cuba Travel

I would like to point out not the obvious (the awesome face Erik is making), but the couple at the front of the plane holding hands.

In reality, that’s just condensed air or fog from the quick change in temperatures in a really poorly insulated and terribly old plane. But it looks like we’re all going to die, right?!?

In Cancun, Blaine, Miche and I took a bus and a cab to the ferry for Isla de Mujeres, a small island off the coast of the mainland. It’s about a 20 minute ferry ride (those things fly!) through crystal blue water.

From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres

We wandered around the island for a bit looking for a hotel to stay in. The one I had picked out turned out to be closed for renovations so we ended up, somewhat ironically, at another one I had read about – “Bucaneros.” Instead of an ocean view, as the first one had, it was in a prime location on the main tourist drag where the majority of the restaurants and bars were. It was adorable, clean, surprisingly quiet and extremely cheap. We loved it.

From Isla De Mujeres

Isla is full of brightly colored beach houses and pedestrians. There are very few cars on the island and most people get around by scooter. The island itself, while long, is extremely narrow – probably only a quarter mile of a walk from one side to the other.

From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres

We arrived late in the afternoon so we found a restaurant that served tacos by the number. I actually had a bit of Montezuma’s Revenge since the night before and wasn’t feeling so hot. All the fried food in Cuba had finally done me in and I think I had already eaten about 15 Immodiums by that point. You have no idea how happy I was to see salsa because I think I also had scurvy from days of no fruits or vegetables. Seriously.

We walked down to the beach which was only a few blocks away and spent the evening watching the sun go down, relaxing and playing in the sand. After the hustle, bustle and general overwhelming sensation that was Havana, Isla de Mujeres was a dream straight out of a Jimmy Buffett song.

From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres

The next morning after breakfast (at which I ordered not one but TWO eggs! TWO eggs!! Oh joy!) we decided to go snorkeling and walked down to the pier where you could hire a boat, driver, guide and gear for about $20.

From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres

Snorkeling was awesome. They took us to a shallow reef in a state park. We were totally surrounded a few times by huge schools of bright colorful fish. Our snorkeling guide would drop down and pick up huge conch shells that had crabs living in them. He pointed out a barracuda to me and then told me not to look because it was bad luck.

It turns out that Michelle gets seasick very easily. She didn’t get sick from the boat but instead from floating in the waves staring at the fish. She had to get out early but took the boat around to the end point so it worked out alright for me. I’m such a water fanatic I could have floated around in there for hours staring at fish.

From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres

We spent the rest of the afternoon on the beach under the sun. I went and picked up tacos to go for us from our taco shack that we found the night before. We ate three out of our 5 meals there – it was cheap, delicious and had amazing salsa.

From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres

That night after another meal of tacos and salsa, we wandered around town for a bit. We were all exhausted from our week in Cuba. It had worn us out – physically, mentally, emotionally. I think I went to bed at 8:00 the first night and 9:00 the 2nd night. Besides that, on a tiny beach island there isn’t much going on at night. I regretted not having a frisbee and a deck of cards.

From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres
From Isla De Mujeres

The next morning we had to take the ferry very early to go catch our plane. We had breakfast (eggs! again! two of them! whoohoo!) and trucked over to head home.

From Isla De Mujeres

Even though I had a few days on the back end in Austin, our awesome journey was over.

>Last nights in Havana

>Since we were returning to Havana one night earlier than originally anticipated, I found us a room in an amazing casa particular. Starving, we all headed down to Taberna de la Muralla, a brewery I had read about – the only one in all of Havana.

It really didn’t matter what the food tasted like as drinking beer that wasn’t Bucaneros or Cristal was such a delicious and welcome moment. The beer comes out in a dispensa: a tall, clear glass tube filled with beer, featuring a spout at the bottom and a thinner tube filled with ice running up its center.

From Cuba Food

The food was actually quite good and the best food out of a so-called “restaurant” that we had while there. The small menu featured variations of grilled-to-order meats and seafood. I had read in many guides that the kabobs were the way to go so that’s what I ordered:

From Cuba Food

The brewery itself is located on a beautiful corner overlooking Plaza Vieja, in Habana Vieja. The moon was high and full and the wrought-iron tables were filled with guests enjoying the band.

From Cuba Food
From Cuba Food
From Cuba Food

I can still remember how damn refreshing that nice amber ale tasted. Heaven.

The next day, we all decided to go to the beach, a short bus ride from Habana. First we had lunch in a paladar overlooking el Prado, Paladar Dona Blanquita. It was as if you had just walked into someone’s home randomly and asked them to feed you. Fried chicken and black beans, of course.

From Cuba Food
From Cuba Food

We took a bus to the public beach which after spending the day before in a cramped van on the way back for three hours was really fabulous. This is how we felt after the car ride the day before:

From Havana and Misc
From Havana and Misc

Some men on the beach had set up a make shift bar where they rented the chair, sold beer, mojitos and pina coladas out of a cooler, and basically waited on you. It was relaxed, cheap and welcome.

From Havana and Misc

We had arranged to meet our travel buddies, George and his lady friends at the beach. That night we all planned to take a bus to Miramar, the supposed culinary destination of Havana. I wanted us to eat at what was said to be the best paladar in all of Havana – El Aljibe – which Lonely Planet referred to as a, “rip-roaring culinary extravaganza, delighting both Cuban and foreign taste buds for years.” Specifically, the hype surrounds the gastronomic mysteries of just one dish, the pollo asado (roast chicken) with a naccompanying bitter-orange secret sauce. Sadly, we were interrupted and convinced by a local to try another place which she would lead us to. Disappointed that we couldn’t take a bus to the place we had originally intended, we relented as many cabs would be required to shuttle the 11 of us. It was the worst decision of the trip and I regret not being able to eat or explore Miramar. The food that night really did me in and I was completely over black beans, white rice, and fried chicken. I had eaten enough. And I did not care for any more.

The restaurant was in the upstairs floor of a large compound. We would have never found it on our own. Strange and as Michelle would say, “very dubious.” We should have known. Or really, we did and didn’t care.

At least there was a large chair outside the joint for us to amuse ourselves on.

From Havana and Misc

That night we wandered the streets of Havana Vieja with our travel buddies to enjoy our last sultry Cuban evening.

From Havana and Misc

We found a bar, the Cafe Paris, with a loud jazz and salsa band and everyone ordered drinks except me. I was done with beer for a little while. I was no longer craving the iced frothiness of Bucaneros.

From Havana and Misc
From Havana and Misc
From Havana and Misc
From Havana and Misc
From Havana and Misc
From Havana and Misc
From Havana and Misc
From Havana and Misc
From Havana and Misc
From Havana and Misc
From Havana and Misc
From Havana and Misc
From Havana and Misc

It was a wonderful way to end the trip – among boisterous and happy friends, loud music, dancing and drinks. It was an idyllic evening to a insane trip. It was nice.

From Havana and Misc

>Mucho Pumpito

>When Blaine realized with great horror that night that we hadn’t climbed “the best 5.10 in the world” after all, it was agreed that we must return the next day before leaving Vinales to secure our place on the famed “Mucho Pumpito.” Greg, Blaine, Erik and I once again rented our amigo’s black ’57 Chevy out to Costanera. This time, we traveled farther up through the cave onto an even higher and extremely exposed ledge to the climb that we should have been on the day before.

From Cuba Climbing

Greg and I sat on the ledge waiting for Erik and Blaine to put up the first pitch. You climb through a tunnel into the cave at the start, eventually winding out onto the face of the wall where you proceed to climb up, just slight overhanging, all the way up.

Blaine scopes out the tufa where he would exit the cave:

From Cuba Climbing

Greg spent the majority of the time on the ledge talking about he gets nervous before things like this for no reason and then, how once he climbs he’s completely okay. He was totally psyching me out.

From Cuba Climbing

Erik scampered up the first pitch relatively quickly and set up to belay Blaine from above.

From Cuba Climbing
From Cuba Climbing
From Cuba Climbing

Blaine set out, all the while calling out exclamations of how awesome the climb was and how bizarre and exposed he felt and how exposed it was and then how exposed it was some more. The feeling of all ready being so high over the valley floor and then another 50 feet higher than we were yesterday was causing the overhanging routes atmosphere to feel particularly daunting.

From Cuba Climbing

Once Blaine was up climbing the 2nd pitch, Greg and I started to race against time. Our ride was coming at 12:30 as we had a shuttle picking us all up to take us back to Havana at 2:00 pm. By the time Greg started it was already after 11:15. He was up the route quickly and I was soon following. As you climb up into the cave, there are walls completely enveloping you and you have so many places to hold onto. It was really an experience that I’d never had on a route before. You have to stand up and crawl upwards out a hole in the very top (like a jungle gym almost) to exit out the front face onto the large tufa. I have no idea how Erik maneuvered through there being as tall as his is. It would have been cramped.

By the time I arrived at the belay ledge with Greg and Erik it was almost noon. Blaine was still only 75% of the way up the second pitch, the distance and length of Mucho Pumpito taking a tole on his arm strength. While it was by no means thin at the top, it was, he assured us, “mucho pumpito.” Erik, Greg and I collectively came to the conclusion that we didn’t have enough time to all climb the 2nd pitch and lower everyone to the ground in time for our ride to arrive. It was a good decision as lowering proved to take some work. Because the climb was just slightly overhanging the entire way, if you were to repel down off the top you would end up extremely far away from the wall, hanging in space. It was a smart move to have Erik lower Blaine to the ledge and then they could both lower to the starting point.

This is the view that Blaine had from the top:

From Cuba Climbing

And these are the corroded anchors left up there by previous climbers:

From Cuba Climbing

Blaine took a couple of videos on vacation, one of the view from the top of the climb.

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=2143798&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=1&show_portrait=0&color=&fullscreen=1
View from Mucho Pumpito from B B on Vimeo

Sadly, our days in Vinales had come to an end. Although I regret not being able to climb the 2nd pitch, I am sure I will go back one day.

After packing our stuff, paying our bill ($71 each for three nights lodging, three amazing dinners and three modest breakfasts!), and running down to Don Tomas’ restaurant one last time to stuff our face with black beans and rice and french fries, we had to load into a very cramped and uncomfortable van for a long ride back to Havana.

From Cuba Travel
From Cuba Travel

Goodbye Porkchop!

From Cuba Vinales

>Afternoon rain

>After our first day climbing in Vinales, we walked up the road to one of the only 2 hotels in town to relax at the pool. On most afternoons in Cuba an thunderstorm would roll through with dramatic effects! They would usually only last 30-45 minutes and would cool everything off.

We ran into our traveling friends, George and Bianca at the pool and spent a few hours there. We made it back to Oscar’s just in time to beat the rain. Erik managed to snap some amazing pictures of it. You can clearly tell which ones were taken with my camera and which ones came from his.

The hotel pool overlooked the valley and the town itself. The view was fantastic.

From Cuba Vinales
From Cuba Vinales
From Cuba Vinales
From Cuba Vinales

From Cuba Vinales
From Cuba Vinales
From Cuba Vinales
From Cuba Vinales
From Cuba Vinales

>La comida de Oscar

>The three nights we stayed at Oscar Jaime’s casa, we ate amazing food. We were served our meals at a long outdoor table under an awning on the patio. Every morning they would bring us thermoses filled with strong Cuban coffee, bread, butter, jam and a mix of fruit, usually papaya, pineapple, oranges and bananas. We each received one scrambled egg, which I had a hard time sustaining on all day.

From Cuba Food

Our dinners were always accompanied by fruit also, in addition to white rice, black beans, and fried potatoes of some sort. The first night, we had pork and it blew us away. We had heard that the best meals we would eat would be in the casas where we stayed and this information is 100% true. After days of eating poor meals, for something to taste so good when we were so ravenously hungry was heaven.

From Cuba Food

The second night, we had barbequed chicken, grilled in their outdoor brick fire pit all afternoon.

From Cuba Food

Along with it came fried corn fritters, very similar to hush puppies and green beans from a can, which Susie was super excited about. Haha.

From Cuba Food

The last night, we had “el pollo de mar” or “chicken of the sea.” Aka lobster! Not only have I never eaten lobster before, but I had no idea the meat would be in such large delectable chunks! It was AMAZING.

From Cuba Food
From Cuba Food
From Cuba Food

We were on our own for lunches, unfortunately, and ended up eating at one of the restaurants in town quite a few times. Don Tomas’ was a large beautiful house on the main street with porches on both the back and front to dine on.

From Cuba Food

They served standard Cuban fare – pan fried chicken, pan fried pork or pan fried fish. We ate a lot of black beans and rice and french fries.

Michelle attempting to catch a fry. Just for the record, she missed.

From Cuba Food

On our 2nd day of climbing, we had hired drivers to take us far outside of town. When they picked us back up they dropped us off a bit closer in the National Park at a cave called “Palenque.” Palenque is a large cave with a disco inside. You can pay to walk through the cave system with a guide who gives you a mini tour on the history of the cave systems and how the African Slaves used to hide in them. On the other side is one of the better restaurants we went to.

From Cuba Climbing
From Cuba Climbing

This is the cave bar, where the disco is held at night:

From Cuba Climbing

Creeping through the cave:

From Cuba Climbing

Art, representing the life of the slaves and their religions:

From Cuba Climbing
From Cuba Climbing

Our lunch:

From Cuba Climbing
From Cuba Food
From Cuba Food
From Cuba Food

And last but not least, another picture of Porkchop because I like to end with him.

From Cuba Vinales

>El Jardin de las Hermanas

>

From Cuba Vinales

Since we arrived mid afternoon in Vinales, we decided to drop our stuff and go exploring. The town has one main thoroughfare with smaller side streets and neighborhoods that branch off it. Oscar’s house is only a few blocks from the Main Street.

From Cuba Vinales

On the main road is a restaurant, the banks, a few schools, two bars, various homes tucked in between the storefronts, a pandaria (bakery), the church and the square. At night, everyone in the town congregates in the square. On Friday and Saturday nights, a DJ sets up large speakers and the party goes until late in the evening.

From Cuba Vinales
From Cuba Vinales
From Cuba Vinales

If you continue northeast down the main street, you would eventually leave town passing farmlands and caves until you reach the National Park. We walked until we ran into a house that had an amazing garden. It was so lush: full and chaotic, but in an organized way. We commented on how well it would fit into the Austin scene. Imagine our surprise to find out that we had stumbled on the Jardin de las Hermanas Caridad y Carmen Miranda, Vinales’ botanical garden.

From Cuba Vinales

A woman came out and introduced herself. She spoke excellent English and explained that 80 years ago her father had planted this garden and now, she and her two sisters take care of it. She gave us a full guided tour of the entire property, pointing out and explaining different facts about all the plants inside.

From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden
From Cuba Vinales

Her property was very large and they were still trying to recover from the damage caused by Hurricane Gustav.

From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden
From Cuba Vinales
From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden
From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden
From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden
From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden

The extensive and overgrown garden featured lush overgrown tropical plants, brighter and more happy than any of my crotons or bromeliads will ever be.

From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden
From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden
From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden
From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden

Underfoot were ferns, roosters and chickens. Dotting the fence posts and tree branches were decapitated dolls heads.

From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden

We had been walking the streets with bottles of Bucanero and our hostess saved them. She said she wanted to start a Bucanero tree to accompany her Crystal Tree.

From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden

This tree is referred to by locals as the “tourista” tree. She teased that this is what all the tourists look like after they are sunburned at the beach. After living in a tourist town and joking about “Gaper point” all these years, I could strongly identify with the community.

From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden
From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden
From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden

The Royal Palm Tree is the National Plant of Cuba.

From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden
From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden

When we discovered this lizard on a tree, Michelle tried to pick it up and it bit her while our hostess panicked. “Tengo miedo,” she told me as she hid her eyes. “I am scared!”

From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden
From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden
From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden
From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden

At the end of the tour, we were given a mini lesson on how to choose a good cigar. Everyone in the town rolls and sells them. They should be a bit springy and flexible. The sisters’ cigars came in a cedar box they built themselves. The let us tour their house, filled with tchotchkes perfectly arranged and walls covered in ads and pictures cut from fashion magazines. Her daughter was laying on the couch in the crowded living room watching the Garfield movie dubbed in Spanish.

We each gave them a few dollars donation for the tour and started our walk back to the casa where our dinner would be waiting, pleased that we had stumbled upon one of Vinales’ best attractions in such a short amount of time.

From Vinales Plants and Botanical Garden
From Cuba Vinales