I snuck into Cuba some years ago… I went because I am intolerably curious and it was forbidden, because I disagree it should have been forbidden and because there’s a valley in the northwest of the island that looks like no other place on earth. I love places that look like nowhere else – the towering cinnamon dunes of Namibia; the waterworld of the Okavango Delta, the neon geology of the Gobi Desert, the vaulting haystack rocks of Viñales in Cuba.

I’ve climbed around a fair share of the world – Africa, Europe, Asia, Central America, the States – and each trip is unique. You need different things to boulder in Font or trad in Zimbabwe, and that means you pack differently, the gear is different. For Cuba, climbing was illegal. Which means not only are you sneaking into a country but you are going to sneak into climbing in that country. That presents considerable issues. You can’t contact an outfitter to gear you up. There’s no way to determine exactly what you should bring since you don’t know what kind of climbing you’ll be able to pull off.

Now, people have been climbing in Viñales for years. There are casas there that offer guided climbing trips throughout the valley (quietly). Coming from the US however, you can’t contact them or do as much research, and you certainly can’t take a flight to Cancun, Mexico, and then, go to the Cuba Air terminal and buy a ticket to Cuba with a giant gear bag.

But, I couldn’t avoid Viñales, and if I was going to this magical middle earth valley, I had to climb. We decided to hide our shoes, chalk bags and harnesses in our luggage and hope no one searched too deeply. We would be touring as much of the island as we could over two weeks, and only had a weekend to devote to the valley.

Of course, things went awry. When we landed in Cancun, we couldn’t get a flight out for two days and only first class (which was like no first class I’ve ever shuffled by on my way to coach). We were stuck in Spring Break 1992 (my take on Cancun) for more than a day and when we did finally get to Havana, we landed extremely late, couldn’t find a room, and ended up sleeping at our cab driver’s friend’s friend’s friend’s house for way too much money – but we were there.

We spent one day in the capital and headed north to Viñales. When we got there, we went to the casas we’d read about that guide, but they were all booked and warned us about going out alone since you have to cross through farms and people’s yards. The lovely staff at Casa Oscar were as helpful as they could be for our trip, and more fun to just chat with about climbing experiences.

Dejected, carrying gear we’d never use, we decided to try to take a hike we’d read about. I honestly believe a higher power looked down upon us, observed our sincere hearts and callused palms and smelly shoes, and decided serendipity was a real thing. We hiked for a few hours, and as we rounded a bend, there was a small house with an old lady watering her garden outside. A young man stood a few steps off, putting things in a bag at his feet. One of those things appeared to be a climbing shoe… I pretty much jumped up and down and waved and screamed, and then, fortunately, the guy who can actually speak Spanish caught up with me.

Not only was it a climbing shoe, but he had a bag full of gear. He* was about to go out. He had his secret local crags he climbed on every day. He had his clique of rad little rockstars waiting for him (they were teenagers), and sure, he would love to take us out…

We followed him as he drudged down gullies, crawled across fields, soldiered under fences, dodged an angry pig mom when we disturbed her spot and emerged into a beautiful grotto of pure rock – a valley of spires with bolted lines and dangling climbers. He introduced us to his friends and we spent the remainder of the day experiencing that strange, unknown connection you feel when you try routes, learn moves, share beta, and fall frequently together.

In the end, he walked us out to make sure we found our way and weren’t arrested or cursed out by a local, and we all shook hands on a dusty road as the sun was setting and congratulated each other for our day, and then, he wandered into a yard and disappeared back into the fields. It was one of the most incredible, most fulfilling climbing days I’ve ever experienced, and it only happened because we were lucky and climbing is universal, international, incredible.

*I’ve chosen not to include his name because I don’t have his permission.