Some winters ago we attended a slide presentation given by Kurt "the General" Smith about climbing in Mexico. My husband Bob and his friends, Peter and Sabri, were intrigued by the pictures of the huge, majestic looking limestone walls, the exotic environment and most of all the possibility of escaping the Canadian winter and  climbing warm limestone during the winter months. Following the presentation, the three of them spend a number of weeks vacillating over a possible trip.  But finally a decision was made and they left for two weeks of adventure in Mexico.

The trip was a resounding success, as evidenced by their enthusiastic phone calls and Peter’s entertaining video presentation upon their return. The next year saw a repeat visit. Again, for reasons long forgotten, I did not make the trip. It was not until the third year that we ventured south together for three weeks of climbing and sun in February, to be joined by various friends for different segments of the visit.

El Potrero Chico is by now well known to the Monterrey aeroport taxi drivers. Taking the taxi, or bus, for the those wishing the added thrills of the unknown, is probably the better option for getting around. Renting a car is quite expensive. Monterrey is a confusing jumble of streets that change names several times and do not seem to hook up in any reasonable manner. That is my story about getting lost every time we visited, and I am sticking to it.

Once in Hidalgo you have an option to stay at several places. Homero’s La Quinta Ranch, Gilberto's La Pagoda and Kurt’s Rancho Cerro Gordo are the best known and the largest. We opted for Homero's where Bob had stayed on his previous two visits and had enjoyed the interaction with climbers from all over South America, North America and Europe. Nothing like the communal kitchen and the regular and informal parties, very much a part of Mexican life, to get to know new friends!

My first impression of Mexico both confirmed and dispelled many pre-conceived notions. Although Monterrey and its province, Neuva Leone, are considered prosperous when compared to other regions, they are a big change from the affluence we are accustomed to here in Toronto. I found the people to be hard working, extremely friendly, honest, generous and proud.

The town of Hidalgo is dominated by a huge cement factory that was once owned by the town’s population and unfortunately sold to a National concern. As a result, many workers were laid off and others were trucked in for lower wages. After the new owners saw the result of poorer workmanship, compared to the town’s experienced and interested workforce, they  re-hired many of the towns skilled workers. Others found employment in American owned corporations and prosperity is once again evident in Hidalgo. Visits by climber has added to the  local ecomomy. In spite of the prosperity compared to other places in Mexico, exploitation of the people and environment was evident.  I watched construction workers toss huge cement blocks from a person on the second floor to a person  on the third floor. North American and other, foreign-owned multi-national businesses appear to take advantage of this country and its resources to manufacture their products at low cost and put little back.

Once we pulled into La Quinta, late afternoon, I was over-awed by the huge limestone walls dominating the campground. We quickly put up our tent on a patch of soil and went for a walk while there was still some light. The large box canyon that is Potrero Chico has many side canyons each with more walls for climbing. The climbing is largely vertical face climbing with pockets and edges. There are also steep areas with climbing in the harder range and some tufa climbing. There are single pitch and multi-pitch routes everywhere. Walls can be found that are in the sun or shade depending on the location and time of day. The routes wind through a plethora of cactus plants that cover the walls. Most climbs are bolted. Many of the bolts were placed on lead and there is distance between the bolts. What a place for climbing in winter! I could hardly wait to get started!

Climbing is Potrero is a unique experience. As you climb in the various canyons you are often accompanied by cheerful party music and whoops of laughter from the fun-loving Mexicans celebrating life under the tin-roof picnic shelter at the edge of the canyon. The fact that rocks, flying from the walls high above, have punched ventilation holes in the roof of the shelter, does not dampen their spirits. For the Mexicans one excuse is as good as any for having a party. For example, rumor of Rodman leaving was reason for many evening going away parties.

In the three weeks that I was there we climbed in many of the canyons. What amazed me was the different flavor of the climbing experience in the different canyons. Some had gray walls with razor like edges and few pockets, others were dominated by pockets and still others were more like tufa and very steep. There was a choice of cragging or multi-pitch. The sun could be avoided on hot days by carefully selecting the time of day you climb and the area. On some days it can be surprisingly chilly and windy while others are more like climbing in an oven even in the shade! I do not recall a bad route of the many we climbed and curse myself for passing up two previous trips!

After climbing, it is wise to relax, and the locally brewed Mescal seems to act as a powerful muscle relaxant. Be careful with this medicine, a friend of ours over-medicated and was unrecognizable for the next day. Still another professed to acknowledge the shallowness of his life and swore to make amends by taking up yoga and reading a book. Fortunately when he regained consciousness he remembered nothing of his good intentions and denies to this day that he ever had any.

Homero makes this ranch with fully equipped kitchen, a bathroom and showers, available to all on a first come first serve basis. Food can be stored in cupboards or the refrigerator and there are pots and pans available. The hot water supply for the showers is not endless, but who needs hot water anyway when it is boiling outside.

Life in Potrero is inexpensive. You can eat out if you want, and like anything in Hidalgo, you must exercise patience and flexibility in executing your plans. The Ranch has a restaurant, that opens on occasion. When it is open, best be first in line; supplies for the single item menu dwindle as customers appear. There rarely seems to be enough food  and you may be left with a bare hamburger and a single french fry. The experience with the Ranch restaurant will help you acclimatize and form reasonable expectations for the success of other planned ventures as things happen informally in Mexico. Buses are not always on schedule. If you rent a car, there may not be anyone at the office because they are taking their kids somewhere, or if you would like to buy a guidebook it may take a couple of days for someone to feel like selling you one, as one of our friends experienced.

There are many options for passing rest days. A trip to Huascara canyon close to Monterrey, where there is also some climbing, is a beautiful place but unfortunately not that easy to find. The Museums in Monterrey are said to be interesting. We visited Saltillo, a prosperous town about an hour outside of Monterrey. Allow extra time for getting lost. If you have access to a truck or 4 wheel drive vehicle, there are some hot-springs about a couple of hours away in the middle of no-where. My husband made this amazing trip, but doubted at the time that he would get back in one piece!

Along the road to the hot springs is an abandoned, ancient mission that stands as a solitary sentinel in the vast plains. It is an intriguing place, nothing else close to it. The lack of any nearby towns or dwellings makes one wonder why it is there and what purpose it ever served.

An interesting site trip is a visit to pictographs in the desert not that far from Hildalgo. We quite enjoyed this visit. There are supposedly peyote buttons around there, but we did not find any. Of course you can mountain bike or jog in many places, or just hang out by the pool with some mexican beer.

Climbers are exploring other areas to climb. There is so much rock everywhere. It is probably only a matter of time till other areas develop. All in all, there is no place like Mexico for a winter climbing experience. Many thanks are owed to Homero and family, Kurt, to our own Canadian climbers Terri and Valerie who established the amazing "Land of the Free" and the boys from Texas and other visitors that put up all the wonderful routes. Having helped to establish new routes in Ontario I have some idea of the work involved in doing this. Believe me when I say that establishing routes in Ontario is nothing compared to the work of establishing long, long routes on the cactus studded walls of the Potrero.


Cinta Bennell
March 2001

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