Virgin Canyon, El Potrero Chico

Most folks who have been climbing any length of time have heard rumor of the long, sunny, limestone sport climbs of El Potrero Chico, Mexico. Most people have also heard about the violence on the border and around Monterrey involving the drug cartels. While there are problems, don’t let it deter you from heading down to Potrero for some delicious tamales, pocket crimping, and margaritas under the Mexican sun.

This fall, my climbing partner and I almost cancelled our plans to go to Potrero because of all the rumored violence. Fortunately, we did a little more research beyond what the U.S. media told us and decided that it was reasonable to go. We came, we saw, we sent, and we didn’t get kidnapped or shot at. Here’s a few tips to make your Potrero Chico trip as safe and fun as possible.

Getting there: There are two ways you can get to Potrero Chico. First is by flying into Monterrey. This is probably your safest option. The airport is on the outskirts of the city and therefore less susceptible to roadblocks and violence. Catch a taxi once you get there or have the fantastic folks at La Posada arrange one for you in advance. (Hint: they already paid for it. Pay the Posada, not the taxi driver). The second way to get there is by driving. Most of the trouble these days is naturally at the border, so make sure you get there early and go during the day. I know many people who drove and had no problems; they then had the advantage of having a car to explore all the other cool things to see in the area. The little town of Hidalgo is as quiet and as safe as most small towns in the U.S., although there is occasionally a military presence there and inside the Potrero. These folks are usually super friendly, despite their intimidating appearance.

The pool at La Posada

Staying there: La Posada has quickly become a favorite among travelling climbers. They have a good cooking facility, wifi, Spanish lessons, climbing guides, a brand new pool, plentiful camping in among the fruit trees, and rooms and casitas if tents aren’t your thing. Lulie, Francis, and the others will cook you up an amazing authentic Mexican meal in the nice tent-style café, where they also sell good wine, beer, and liter drinks! Visit www.elpotrerochico.com.mx for more information. Homero’s was the first campground in the Potrero and is slightly cheaper than rest. Lots of friendly people around here! La Pagoda has houses to rent, hotel-style rooms, a soccer field, cooking facilities, wifi, and also food during the busy season. A little quieter than the other campgrounds if that’s what you’re looking for. Bring earplugs not matter where you stay… the roosters crow at 3:00am, followed shortly thereafter by the dogs and the thumping bass of mariachi music at full blast from who-knows-where.

Climbing on the Outrage Wall

Climbing: Climbing at El Potrero is about as simple as it gets. Show up with about 30 quickdraws, a 70m rope, a helmet, rock shoes, and a harness, and you’re pretty much set! Potrero is known for its long routes (the longest is Time Wave Zero at 22 pitches ~2200’). You will want to link pitches, so bring plenty of shoulder length runners (alpine draws) for your rack to avoid rope drag. You can get away with a 60m rope, but many routes require a 70 and it’s easier to link pitches and avoid scary rappels to those just-over-30m anchors. Helmets are a must around here because of the occasional rockfall. The swiss-cheese roof on the tin pavilion where the locals have their parties is testament to how much there can be. The climbing is extremely varied, from pockets to cracks to tufa pinching. There is plenty of fantastic single-pitch cragging for every ability level, making it a popular learning area for climbers from Monterrey and other places in Mexico.

Rattlesnake in a pocket. Muy peligroso!

Critters and Sharp Things: Probably far more dangerous than running across a sketchy cartel-roadblock are the things lurking in the pockets at the Potrero. Centipedes are my least favorite. These flat, orange and black things can grow up to a foot long, are aggressive, and move fast. They will give you a nasty sting that will hurt for days! Rattlesnakes are around as well. These guys lurk in pockets on the walls and mostly want to be left alone, but be careful where you put your hands. There’s a few scorpions around, so make sure you shake out your shoes. There are all sorts of sharp plants and cacti that you’re far more likely to get “bitten” by than the other three critters I just mentioned. Cuidado!

Eating: You can find awesome cheap taco, tamale, empanada, and gordita stands all around Hidalgo. Los Delfines has excellent seafood (must-try: tilapia in avocado sauce). One lady sells hamburgers the size of your head right out of her house every Friday night. If eating out gets too expensive, you can find plenty of food at the local carnecerias and supermercados and at the markets on Tuesdays and Fridays. Hidalgo is about 3 miles from the Potrero, so you’ll have to hoof it or thumb a ride if you don’t have a car. There are several restaurants that are open during the busy season near the campgrounds, including La Posada, Checo’s, and La Pagoda. There are also a couple depositos (convenience stores) near the Potrero.

Candela, the Monterrey street pup who struck it rich.

Guidebooks: There are a couple guidebooks for the area, one by Magic Ed, and the other by Dane Bass. While the latter doesn’t have the best editing skills, they will both serve their purpose.

There you have it. Escape the climbing gym and the cold and treat yourself to an excellent and safe Mexican climbing vacation this winter!