Best known for communism, Havana’s classic cars, and all-inclusive beach resorts, Cuba has recently begun opening its doors to eco and adventure tourism, while simultaneously experimenting with free economy models. In the past two years, President Raoul Castro and the people of Cuba have been allowing small business to flourish.
By Peter Chrzanowski
The loosely knit paraglide tandem operators in Jibacoa have a near-perfect spot: 30 kilometres of perfect beaches set halfway (75 kilometres) between Havana and Varadero, with a 500-foot, forested mountain ridge turned 90 degrees to the north winds. Tourists can soar for miles in either direction before landing at the beach bar of their hotel.
Local pilots flying tandem tours rely on equipment (wings, instruments, even clothing and boots) donated to them by pilots from Canada and Europe (Canadians account for 80 per cent of all Cuban Tourism). In Canada we might fly our wings for five years before retiring them; in Cuba, I met a mother of two flying a relic from 1992.
But, at least they’re not rock climbers. A few hundred kilometres west of Viñales Valley, rock climbing was, until recently, totally illegal. And no one knows why.
Rumours claim it was because too many of Cuba’s best young men were married off to women climbers arriving from Europe. Others say it may be that the locals were fraternizing and learning too much about the outside world from visiting climbers. Most agree that the ruling came from somewhere high up in the military, but no one knows (or will say) exactly where.
“Leave a mountain bike in a village with a kid, and you may have started a bike guiding outfit.” —Benjamin “Benca” Morales (Founder of the Festival del Andinismo multisports festival in Huaraz, Peru) speaking on the early effects of adventure tourism.
Regardless, climbing continued clandestinely in and around Viñales, and now that it’s supposedly legal again, businessmen like Yaroscal (Yaro) are waiting for the floodgates to open.
Working with local casas, alternative accommodation for tourists where a room with two beds could rent for $25, Yaro also established a club with an organized pool of donated climbing gear available for Cuban climbers to use, or for tourists to rent. Clubs seem to be the way for private entrepreneurs to enter adventure commerce. They facilitate the aggregation of gear needed, much through donations, and provide a platform to start guiding and teaching clients on local routes.
Yaro introduced us to an up-and-coming mountain bike guiding outfit from Havana that also operates on donated equipment from Canada. On Playa Coral, we also discovered a scuba diving company. Although all the businesses paid taxes and had a legal agreement with the State, they also had their own network of casas particulares, restaurants, and local know-how to help them operate, but remain somewhat incognito — change is well on its way in Cuba, but there remains a sense that anything could still happen.
Nevertheless, adventure sports and eco-tourism exist and Cuba has diversity of landscape. Mountains in the south rise to 2,000 metres above the Caribbean beaches, many of which are endlessly perfect for kite surfing. An abundance of horse and walking trails crisscross the island, created decades ago out of necessity, but now ready to be converted into well-treaded tourist paths.
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LAST COL WITH TIM EMMETT
He recently conquered the first ascent of Helmcken Falls in British Columbia—perhaps the most famous ice climbs in the world—and has carved out some of the hardest rock climbs in Cuba, Mongolia and Wales. On his first trip to the Himalayas in 2006, Tim free climbed a new route on the East Face on Kedar Dome (6,840 m) in Super Alpine style. He’s been nominated for the Piolets D’Or, earned podium position four times at the World Ice Climbing Championships… Read more