El Potrero Chico Climbing Trip Planning Guide – Everything you need to know about planning your next climbing trip to El Potrero Chico.
I recently returned from spending 10 glorious days climbing in El Potrero Chico (EPC for short) and it was an amazing and CHEAP trip. The area boasts climbs, mainly sport climbing, anywhere from 1 to 23 pitches on superb limestone for climbers of variable ability.
The recent travel advisories from the U.S. Department of State have kept many climbers away from the EPC as it lies just shy of an hour from Monterrey, Mexico (see travel advisory). In fact, I have been told that the EPC used to see 500+ climbers at any given time during the climbing season (winter) and now sees roughly 100. Sure, this means a very non-crowded climbing mecca and access to very popular routes for yours truly; however, this also means that the local economy has taken a painful blow. Many accommodations and restaurants once overflowing with climbers have now closed which leaves you feeling like you are in a ghost town as you endure the painstaking 10 minute approach to EPC from your accommodations. The economy of the surrounding area is highly dependent on the influx of climbers during the winter and the locals in the summer (EPC has a swimming complex that attracts many during the hot months).
A special thanks to Janette of Cliffmama.com for route recommendations and a surplus of information on El Potrero Chico. It is true, mommies do give good beta!
Guide to Climbing in El Potrero Chico
SAFETY – Yes, the US has advised Americans to defer recreational travel to the State of Nuevo Leon, where EPC resides. Did I feel unsafe? Absolutely not. I did; however, exercise extreme caution getting to EPC. I chose to fly to Monterrey, as opposed to driving, and hired a private ride, rather than a local taxi. I spent no time in the Monterrey area besides the airport proper and my private ride was waiting in the airport at our arrival gate and drove us to EPC via the toll road (toll roads in Mexico are much safer than alternative byways). I opted to camp at La Posada, residing directly outside of EPC gates (EPC is like a gated park). At La Posada, the management actually maintains closed gates at the facility during the evening hours and is actively aware of guests’ presence. I highly recommend traveling by means of air and hiring a private driver just as we did. See Quick Reference Guide for more information on how to do so.
ROCK TYPE AND QUALITY – The massive cliffs and fins of EPC are composed of limestone. There are hundreds of established sport routes, with new routes going up all the time, varying in length from single pitch to multi-pitch (up to 23 pitches I believe – see Timewave Zero). While there are a handful of trad lines available, I would not climb on trad gear at EPC due to the nature of the limestone. It is not uncommon for the rock to break off and there has been at least one recorded death of someone climbing on trad gear. Most of the awesome cracks have been bolted, so you are better off inciting the avid sport climber within you and leave that trad rack at home.
WHEN TO CLIMB – EPC is your winter climbing destination. The best time to climb here is December through March, where average temps vary from 60F-80F respectively. A few things to note here is that the temperature and weather conditions vary wildly. There was one day that it was raining at our campsite; however, it was clear in the park. There was another day where the winds were fairly strong and cold at our campsite and then it was unbearably warm with relatively calm winds in the park. I could keep listing examples that we encountered, but you probably get the point – prepare for anything and make no assumptions on weather based on the conditions at your accommodations.
PACKING LIST – bring everything you need to climb at EPC. There is really no gear shop nearby, so you would be in a rough spot if you didn’t have what you needed. Chalk (Tiza in spanish) is about the only climbing related item available for purchase nearby. It can be purchased at El Buho Cafe in Hidalgo, your rest day headquarters, if necessary and you can pick up one of their scrumptious pastries and fair trade coffees while you are there. I would recommend packing your climbing gear as carry on if possible (I flew American Airlines and you are allowed to carry on rope, draws, etc.) so that you have everything you need to climb with right when you land and don’t suffer any mishaps due to baggage loss issues.
- helmet – not a motherly, pushy suggestion but a MUST for EPC. Rockfall is a constant issue so protect your noggin’
- 20 quickdraws
- 4 shoulder length slings (~60cm) to extend, especially useful when linking pitches.
- 70m rope – A 70m gets you down all lines at EPC, a 60 does not. You can bring a 60m with a tag line but I highly discourage this as there is a lot of vegetation and blocks for your rope to get stuck while pulling a rope on rappel. A 70m keeps it simple with no extra volume available to stick (i.e., knot connecting two ropes).
- belay/rappel device (i.e., atc)
- bail biners – Just a few, prepare for everything. You are climbing bolted lines which enables you to bail due to any given factors (think: climbing beyond your limit, weather, rappel gone awry, etc.)
- climbing shoes – limestone is rough on the sticky rubber so if it looks like you are about to burn through your current pair or are staying for an extended period, bring a backup pair because you can’t get a resole or purchase a new pair in the area.
- nuts – yes I know I said bring no trad gear; however, I recommend this option to some climbers that are a little timid from large bolt spacing and high first bolts. I brought these but never remembered to bring them to the wall and was just fine although there were a couple times that I cursed myself for not having them on me mid climb. This is more of an optional item.
- Clothes – pack for variable weather, some days were sunny and some were cold and windy. softshell pants, heavy base or light mid-layer (such as a fleece or merino/capilene) and a hooded softshell jacket should be worn or brought in a daypack. These items kept us comfortable throughout the wild temperature fluctuations. Other than that, bring whatever other personal items you like. May I recommend a swimsuit to enjoy laying poolside on a rest day?
LOCATION – Hidalgo, Mexico
GETTING TO EPC – Fly into Monterrey and prearrange taxi service via toll roads as opposed to driving over the border. A lot of the safety issues lie at or near the border as well as in Monterrey, so stay away from those areas and you should be good. I talked to a few people who drove over the border through Laredo, TX and some had exciting adventures that I was happy we avoided by opting to fly. Flight arrangements should run sub $500 on either Continental or American Airlines and a private taxi arrangement another $50 (for 2 people). I highly recommend contacting Magic Ed for taxi service, because the money paid for a ride to EPC goes toward bolting when you ride with Ed plus you get one of his shnazzy route books that he updates annually all for the $51 fare.
GUIDEBOOK – EPC is consistently getting new route development, meaning that as soon as a guidebook is published it is obsolete. With that being said, you have a few options. The printed guidebook most commonly used is “The Whole Enchilada”, by Dane Bass (buy online here) in conjunction with Magic Ed’s annually updated “Climb El Potrero Chico” (available from Magic Ed in El Potrero Chico).
ACCOMMODATIONS – There are a few options here, all very affordable. I opted to camp and it cost me a mere $5/day. Regardless of where you choose to camp, the following seem to be par for the course with your paid rate: wifi, hot showers, toilets, a communal kitchen with fridge and food storage space and a lot of land to plop my tent on with a view of none other than EPC. Understandably, this may be considered as roughing it to some people so I have gathered alternatives for you and they are listed in order of popularity.
La Posada – This was the most populated and party friendly accommodation at EPC. If an occasional loud noise from nearby partiers does not bother you (this only occurred twice during our 10 day stay and the majority of noise was a distance from our campsite) then I highly recommend La Posada. They have a pool along with a full service restaurant and bar. La Posada is just a few doors down from the alternative campgrounds listed. If you are looking to pick up a climbing partner, La Posada is the place to do so.
- Camping – $5/day
- Private Rooms – $29/night. The rooms actually seemed to be near the noisiest areas of La Posada. While they are quite small, they provide the extra fluff for your stay – bed, private bathroom and a roof over your head.
- Casitas – $58/night and up
La Pagoda – another developed camping and lodging option. This is more quiet and less popular than La Posada.
Homero’s– one of the first established camping options at EPC. Unfortunately, I have tried to contact them for more information with no such luck but have listed this for completeness.
Casita Rentals – MagicEdsPotreroChico.com – Magic Ed offers quite a few options here. If you are traveling with a group of people down to EPC, this is the most cost effective and dare I say luxurious option available.
Ariel’s Cabin aka the “Chalet” – a somewhat new option for those wishing for a more unique EPC experience. At the Chalet, you stay in the EPC proper at the back of the canyon. Pro – you are as close as you can possibly get to climbing. Con – you are as far as possible from other climbers come nightfall. Rates start at $25 USD/night for a private room with bathroom and kitchenette with larger room options available.
Now stop reading and start planning your next climbing trip to El Potrero Chico, Mexico. If you need a little more arm twisting or want to experience the climbing asap, read all about our adventures in EPC here.