The Forbidden Island: Climbing In Cuba, Part 4

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 four.

In 1991, the USSR disbanded, Russia abandoned Cuba, and Cuba went into economic free fall known as the Periodo Especial. The country, the people, and the government were in crisis, as were Cuba's potential tourists. While previously visitors had been restricted to state-run hotels, in the 90's the state turned to the people to provide lodging in private homes. Today, twenty years later, Vinales has over 250 Casa Particulars and seemingly every other home in the central six-block radius has a hand painted sign announcing its availability via the title of its owners. We were staying at Casa Oscar, the center of climbing and one of the only Casas in Vinales with a central courtyard.[slideshow:583]

Owners Oscar and Lieda Rodriquez, along with Lieda's sister and husband, have conjoined houses allowing for rich garden space, palm trees, and a freestanding brick oven and grill for endless feasts of pargo fish, chicken, pork, and even covert lobster that Oscar calls Pollo del Mar for code since lobster is forbidden in Casa Particulars. Together, the two families have four rooms to let out, and over the seven nights I spent there I saw them accommodate between six and eleven guests—including one night when Holly and I slept in Oscar and Lieda's own room so he wouldn't have to turn people away.

Oscar is robust and constantly shirtless, and while he speaks little English, he can carry on full conversations with his expressive hands and eyes—a skill he's developed from years as a teacher and now years as a conduit between Cuba's visitors and Cuba's people and rules. Depending on the time of day and how many Cerveza Crystals he's had, Oscar's favorite topic of conversation centers around what is possible in Cuba. While we were there, he shared his opinion with Canadians, Austrians, Czechs and us, from the US, adapting his advice to the nationality of his guests when appropriate. One guest wanted to know if he can marry a Cuban woman, and live in Cuba. "Live? Possible," Oscar said. "Work. No. Impossible." Oscar paused and looked at me. "You? An American? No. No. No. No. Definitely no." He went on to tell me that if I want to live in Cuba I should come with my pension from another country, something I reminded him, that as a writer and climber, I was not likely to have. He laughed. "I know—I know all of you climbers. That is why we like you. You are like Cubans."

Oscar used to climb and Leida speaks the language of climbing from years of talking about it at her home. But even as the destination of international climbers traveling through Vinales, the talk at Casa Oscar was often political as it is vertical. That night was no different and the four of us shared a Crystal with Oscar after dinner and asked him what he really thought about Cuba today, compared to the Cuba of the past.

"Me?" Oscar said. "Cuba?... Well, I should not talk too much about the revolution. That is why I stick to the smooth beer." He held up his Crystal, Cuba's equivalent of Corona for emphasis. "If I drink the strong beer, all I talk about is the revolution." He rolled his eyes back in his head as if he was crazy, but it was the revolution he said was the real loco. At 51, Oscar had lived his whole life in the revolution. Just that day, on the garden divider that split the road outside of his street, six new miniature flags with Che Guevara's face were erected in the dirt, each one exactly spaced three feet from the last. The week prior, former US president Jimmy Carter met with Raul Castro in Havana. Oscar recounted all of this to us as if evidence for the one thing he said he knew absolutely: "Cuba cambiar." Cuba is changing. He shook his head and smiled. "But what to do? We shall only see. For now, it is probably best to make friends, go to the beach, eat well and climb." 

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