Potrero Chico: A climber’s paradise just across the border

By Ian Carroll
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Patrick Lewis - Author: Patrick Lewis - CC BY-NC 2.0
 
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I had to stop the car and pull over. There wasn’t anything in the road, it was the towering limestone cliffs above the road that stopped me. I’ve been climbing for a number of years, but have never seen anything like Potrero Chico. As I arrived in the small town of Hidalgo for the first time, it became immediately apparent to me why this place has become such a destination for climbers worldwide, and American climbers in particular.

After all, It had only been two hours of comfortable highway driving since I crossed the border from Texas. I’d seen a lot of Texas plates on the way in, as well as several from further Stateside.

Aside from it being easy to access, Potrero Chico is an incredibly comfortable and safe place. With numerous great options for accommodation right at the base of the cliffs and a tightly knit, small community looking out for everyone, it’s easy to feel right at home.

The best climbing in Mexico

If you’re a rock climber and you haven’t heard of Potrero Chico yet, you’re way behind the times. The area has been under development by climbers since the 1990’s. However, Alex Honnold’s free-solo ascent of the 15 pitch classic, El Sendero Luminoso, shot the area into international climbing fame. And while that route is certainly worthy of anyone who can climb at 5.12+, Potrero Chico has far more to offer than just mega-hard test pieces.

The view from the top of Timewave Zero, one of the tallest routes in the world.

The climbs range from one to over twenty pitches in length, and you can find everything from beginner lines to the type of try-hard that will make even the most experienced climbers shake in their boots. In fact, Potrero Chico is home to the second longest sport route in North America, Timewave Zero. The climb is 23 pitches tall and climbs at 5.12,. However, almost the entire climb goes at 5.10 with only one pitch at 5.12 right near the very top.

Much of the climbing in Mexico is obscure, or even unknown to most of the climbing world. Although the country has numerous areas where you can find climbing of every sort, Potrero Chico is certainly the highlight of the Mexican climbing scene. That’s despite it being quite far from central Mexico.

What to expect when climbing in Potrero Chico

If you’re like me, you’ve probably been spending most of your season jamming cracks and placing gear. And although I do love the cerebral high you get from leading long trad routes deep in the mountains, you won’t find any of that here. Climbing in Potrero Chico is all on limestone, and although the vertical nature of the formations does produce a number of cracks, they aren’t as good as they look from the ground. None of the climbs in Potrero Chico are traditionally protected, unless you’ve got some serious cojones.

A lot of pulling pockets and standing on tiny edges in the climbing here.

The nice thing is, that makes packing your gear easy. A set of draws is all the rack you’ll require, and a single 60m rope will almost always get you safely to the ground. A helmet is also a must when climbing in Potrero. We’ll go into that more in a sec.

The climbing in Potrero Chico is almost all straightforward and well bolted. However, that’s not to say that the climbing is boring by any means. You’ll find yourself adventuring across featured slabs, pulling on bulletproof crimps, and wrestling with the unique blockiness of Potrero Chico limestone. You’re likely to meet more than a few cacti and kiss at least one alpine palm tree too.

What gear to bring to Potrero Chico

Although the trad climber in me rages against bolts, it’s really convenient to plan a trip to Potrero Chico because there’s so little gear that you need to bring.

The big one, that is really a non-negotiable at Potrero is your helmet. You have to have a helmet. Rockfall at Potrero Chico is a serious hazard, more than any other area I’ve ever been. There are entire businesses in the canyon that have been abandoned because constant rockfall kept putting TV sized holes in the roofs. Bring your helmet or don’t expect many people to want to climb with you.

Notice the holes in the roof below. Those are from rockfall.

A set of quickdraws is the only hardware you’re going to need aside from the standard rack of the belay device, personal anchor, etc. If you bring fifteen quickdraws, you should be able to climb just about anything in the park. And yes, I do mean ‘park’.

As for ropes, most of the climbing in Potrero Chico is bolted to be easily climbed and descended using only a single 60m rope. If you want to be a multi-pitch master though, a 70m is a good idea. That way, you can link pitches more easily and rappel more comfortably.

cheap gear climbing rope
60 meters should do just fine.

If you’re the type to climb on twin ropes, more power to you. However, I’d be willing to bet that you grew up climbing on stone very different than the walls you’ll find at Potrero. The routes are generally straight up, and you won’t find a lot of big arretes or sharp roofs that would normally pose a threat to a party climbing on a single rope. Plus cacti love to grab twin ropes when pulling your rappel. You’ll hate it.

Best of all, if you forgot any gear at home, you can pick up everything you need at La Posada, the best hostel in town just a fifteen-minute walk from the walls.

The best place to stay in Potrero Chico

If you’ve done any of your own research, the chances are that you already know about La Posada. It’s by far and away the most secure, comfortable, and popular place to live while at Potrero. It’s not an accident, either.

La Posada is definitely where you want to check in.

La Posada is a fifteen-minute walk from the routes and has round the clock security. The staff is kind, and the accommodation is more modern than a lot of places in Latin America. The wifi is reliable, there is a restaurant which doubles as a bar. Best of all, La Posada has what is hands-down the best pool in all of Potrero Chico.

At La Posada, you can sleep in your car if you drove it. For the same price, you can pitch a tent or sling a hammock. If you’d like a more luxurious experience, they also have cabanas you can rent with AC and private bathrooms.

If you want more comfort than camping, you can rent a private room like this one.

La Posada offers a shared kitchen with fridges, gas stoves, and food storage boxes. During busy seasons it becomes a really fun place for group meals and swapping stories. During low season, you have it all to yourself. There are cold showers, lots of toilets that are well kept, and space to hang your clothes to dry. It’s really the full package.

Where to eat in Potrero Chico

Although there are a ton of places to grab grub after a big day on the walls, not all comedors were created equal. There is a great restaurant at La Posada which is worth a visit every now and then. Especially for a reasonably good cup of coffee in the mornings (depending who makes it). However, there are some other spots you’ve got to check out. Here are the basics:

Tacos y Mas

Tacos y Mas is the white trailer parked just inside the gates to Potrero Chico park. It looks a little sketchy, but they turn out great tacos for ten pesos each. It’s the closest taco to the rock and is a real life saver after a long day on a multi-pitch. Throw back a couple of cheap beers here too before heading downhill for the night.

Edgardo’s party trailer

I’m not really sure what to call Edgardo’s trailer. Edgardo himself is a legend, and an absolutely essential part of Potrero Chico culture. He parks right in the middle of the canyon during high season and starts blasting music first thing in his morning (around 2-4 pm). He makes pizzas and cooks them in his trailer. No one really knows how he pulls it off so well, but they’re pretty good, as long as he’s not too drunk by then. He also pours a mean margarita, especially for ladies. That’s only about a third of the things you can buy from him. You’ll have to ask him what else he’s selling. If you don’t feel like walking back to base just yet, you can stay up around the fire outside Edgardo’s til the wee hours of the morning most nights.

Leo’s

Right next door to La Posada, Leo’s is one of the best authentic eateries in town. He’s famous for butchering massive cuts of meat and having roasting parties. During my previous stay in Potrero, he roasted half a goat and sold out by 10 pm. However, his jukebox didn’t stop kicking tunes until near midnight. Great place for a simple and affordable meal, or just a bear around the fire pit as well.

Nothing like grill night in Mexico.

El Buho

El Buho is the climber’s cafe in Hidalgo. It’s located down in a town near to the small grocery store and market street at the top of town and is open seasonally. Run by climbers for climbers, this is a great place to meet people. Lots of chilling, and chatting happens at all times of day and night here. They frequently hold gatherings on the back patio with barbecue and impromptu musical jams. Great place to spend a rainy rest day on your laptop or playing board games.

The community

The best reason to stay at La Posada, though, is not all of the awesome amenities and comforts you’ll enjoy, but the people you’ll meet there. Because La Posada has developed such a reputation among the climbers that come to Potrero, you’re bound to meet the right folk there. From dedicated crushers that know every spire to other new recruits, you’ll make all the right friends at La Posada.

Don’t worry though. Even though it’s a happening spot for climbers to gather and get to know one another, you won’t be kept up late by raucous partying like in some hostels. At least, not usually…

You’re likely to see climbers all over the cliffs in the high season.

If you go to Potrero Chico during their high season, North American winter, the place is packed. Climbers from all over the world come in droves. It feels like summer camp in the winter with cheap tacos and margaritas. However, come during the off season, and you’ll have the place to yourself. A lot of restaurants, cafes, and hotels actually shut down off season because there’s just not enough business to go around.

The climbing routes, however, never close. And there’s nothing like having the canyon to yourself for days on end.

The closest international climbing destination

So if you’ve been looking to take your climbing to the next level and explore different rock around the world, Potrero Chico is the perfect first trip. Or, if you’ve climbed all over the world, but still haven’t done Mexico, now’s time.

climbing potrero chico.
The iconic gateway to ‘the park’

Give it five years and what was a perfect party would be getting a little out of hand. For now, though, you’ll never wait in line, you’ll meet some incredible people, you’ll learn a bit of Spanish, and you’ll climb some of the tallest walls you’ll ever see.

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