Without a doubt, Cuba is one of the hottest travel destinations of 2017. But beside the music, the beaches, and colorful downtown Havana, Cuba has stunning climbing spots unlike any other in the world. We went off the beaten path with Alaska native and climbing star Kate Rutherford to get the inside scoop on the rocks, the locals, and the journey. Ready for your 130-mile bike ride?
Top photo: Fishing boats in the Mariel Harbor at sunset
REVO: You’re a passionate climber who’s climbed all over the world, including Yosemite, Patagonia, and Armenia. So why Cuba?
KATE RUTHERFORD: Cuba has always been shrouded in mystery for me. Something forbidden because of the embargo or hidden is much more of an intriguing adventure for me, like a distant snowy mountain or sleeping on the side of El Cap. I have always wanted to go, and now that it is legal and easy (direct flights from LAX) it seemed like the perfect reward after a stormy winter of climbing.
REVO: You rode bicycles from Havana to the Viñales Valley, the climbing site. Can you describe the bike ride? Would you recommend it for visitors?
KR: We wanted to sail to Havana from Miami, and then ride bikes to the climbing area in Viñales Valley, but it became too complex for us that don't sail. But the 4 days on bikes was amazing- maybe more exciting for me than the lovely climbing. We took the steeper, smaller roads less traveled through the 'Switzerland of Cuba.' On the ~130 miles we rode we found lush forests covering incredible steep limestone mountains, waterfalls, and tiny communities with tasty food and welcoming Casa Particulars. We were passed by beautiful old Cadillacs, Fords from the 50's with fins, horse-drawn carts that wanted to race us, oxen-drawn wagons full of sand and gravel as well as huge dump trucks. It made the road time really interesting. I would highly recommend bikes as a way to tour Cuba; we rented our lovely steeds from a bike shop, Ciclo Cuba, right in Havana Vejo.
Checking the route on the 4-Day Bike Ride from Havana to Viñales | Photo courtesy of Mark Postle
REVO: What was unique about climbing in Cuba?
KR: The climbing in Cuba is a perfect example of karst limestone climbing. The rock is incredibly featured, and so has lots of hand and foot holds. Some you can crawl into and rest, and some are like a handlebar you can wrap your fingers all the way around. Viñales Valley has incredible cave formations-- many stalactite, some of which are strong enough to climb on, hang down from the steep walls. It is a pretty special 3-dimensional time of climbing.
REVO: The Vinales Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When exploring a new land and climbing its rocks, what practices do you utilize to respect the site’s integrity?
"The cars in Cuba were so beautiful, but the smog was thick!" | Photo courtesy of Mark Postle
KR: As soon as you arrive in the Viñales Valley it is very obvious why it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s breathtaking. The local climbers have worked hard to establish a respectful way to interact with the natural beauty and protect it as much as possible. Whenever I travel to climb, I try to find local climbers to talk with about route closures, any hazards (like wasps in Cuba), and any special treatment for such a beautiful landscape. There are often land management practices that are really complex, and it is great to do your research ahead of time. And if you can't find a local, or any info, be extra respectful, be on your best behavior, and Leave No Trace!
Commuting after a day of climbing | Photo courtesy of Mark Postle
REVO: How did the architecture, culture, and landscape of Cuba inspire or influence your jewelry-making?
KR: The rich colors, attitudes, and lush tropical landscape of Cuba really resonated with the artist in me. I gifted a few pieces of jewelry to exceptional women we hung out with and received huge hugs and creative input. Havana's architecture and music inspired me to use more elaborate shapes and accent colors. Everything is just so rich and full of laughter in spite of the complex politics and U.S. embargo.
REVO: You grew up watching the Aurora Borealis from your rural home in the Alaskan mountains but didn’t start climbing until you attended college in Colorado. In what ways did you interact with nature while growing up?
KR: My childhood was full of wild adventures and play time out in the vast woods of interior Alaska. Adventure became the norm, and we would pretend to be explorers or ship builders while home in the 'back yard.' I loved picking wild cranberries and blueberries in the autumn, fishing for wild salmon in the summer, and eating snowballs all winter waiting for the spring when we could plant vegetables. Our connection to our clean food source, and the landscape was really normal and essential. I grew up knowing how to be comfortable in all different climates, enjoying every landscape, so it was a natural transition via a biology/art degree in to my life as an adventure climber.
Want to see where Kate goes next (and we suggest you do!)? Follow her on Instagram.