The Forbidden Island: Climbing In Cuba, Part 1

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 one.

In the two-plus hours since we'd entered the smoky air-conditioning of Havana's Casa Musica to see a performance by Pupy y los Que Son Son, one of Cuba's hottest fusion-salsa acts, photographer Holly Wilmeth and I smoked cigarettes, drank mojitos, and waited. Our seatmate, Clara, assured us that this was on par for a matinee—Cubans don't mind waiting for music, she said. After all, "In Cuba we have music in our blood. Courage is what gives us character; music is what gives us passion."[slideshow:579]

On cue, the velvet curtains parted, and within a moment the entire room was dancing. Or at least, everyone else was dancing—I was trying to keep up. Pupy's band was playing fast, and the 40 other women lining the stage sang along and reached for the young singers with loose hips and disco arms. Dizzy just attempting to imitate their moves, I left wishing I'd packed more bedazzled denim and stilettos—and that I knew what I was doing.

But then again, it didn't really matter—dancing was just a bonus. We were here to climb.

Twenty-five percent of Cuba is covered in mountains, most of which contain the limestone caves and escarpments that not only spawned the Cuban Revolution, but also created a modern-day vertical playground—and sisters Erin and Tara Guertin, Holly and I were all there to play. We were to start in Havana, but focused on the hundreds of caves in western Cuba's mountain heartland. Each of us had different climbing (and dancing) abilities, something we thought would be easily equalized by our simple plan: We'd climb during the day, dance during the night, then repeat.

Less than 20 hours after the Havana club, the four of us had replaced our high heels with climbing shoes, coated in sticky rubber. We were at Cueva Cabazea de la Vaca, a yawning crevice in constant view of the town of Vinales below that's just three hours west of Havana in Cuba's western province of Pinar Del Rio. Cueva Vaca is a central point for local and foreign climbers in Cuba because of its guaranteed afternoon shade and plethora of climbing routes.

But more often than not, the local campesinos (farmers) use its 300-foot tunnels as a shortcut to the tobacco fields lying in the fertile volcanic soil on the other side. The cave itself is a scooped-out gash in the southeast face of the Mogote Del Valle, one of the largest and most striking of the dozens of mogotes—or large limestone rock outcroppings—that serve to give Vinales its treasured UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Suspended 30 feet off the deck, I was tucked between two stalactites suspended in the air in the ashen gray cave. Wrapping my legs, and then arms, around the stalactite on my left, I hung off of the protrusion of rock on the wall. My view now included the entire Vinales Valley—the blood orange rock faces, jade-green jungle foliage and sprawling, lush farmland. I wanted to hang there to take it in, but the muscles in my arms wouldn't let me.

With a quick, "Watch me!" to Erin, who was holding the other end of the rope, I reached up, found a weakness to hold onto, and kept going.

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