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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT EXPLORING AND ADVENTURING IN ONE OF MONTERREY, MEXICOS BEST NATIONAL PARKS: POTRERO CHICO.
When stuck in a small town in southern Texas you start to get some pretty grand adventure ideas. Or at least we did.
We had been cooped up in Harlingen, a small community near the USA-Mexico border for a couple of weeks. Our days had become routine: wake up at 6am, go for a walk or run, do a bodyweight workout, eat avocado toast, work on the computer for a couple of hours, go for another walk, this time maybe to the dollar store down the road, make dinner and consider watching a movie if we were really feeling crazy.
As you can imagine, especially for two people who had just come off a two-month motorcycle trip, we got cabin fever real quick.
That is when we began thinking (dreaming) about heading down to Monterrey, Mexico for a week or so. We had wanted to go climbing in the national parks right outside of the city for months, and we started to consider this would probably be our best shot at doing that.
So after convincing Luke’s grandparents to come with us - they had been to Mexico dozens of times and were just as happy for a change in scenery as we were - we booked an Airbnb in downtown Monterrey, packed up our climbing gear, and set out for an adventure.
The drive from Harlingen to Monterrey was surprisingly long. It took us about 4 hours, though that did include some confusion at the border (but that isn’t important). The drive was also rather boring if we are being honest. The scenery doesn’t change much. Just miles and miles of flat scrubland, similar to what we had driven through for three days in Texas on our way to Harlingen (now that was really boring).
But once you start to get closer to the city, the landscape does begin to change - and not just in the way many metropolises do: first a few small buildings, shacks, and roadside restaurants, then the industrial parks, and finally the onslaught of suburbia and high rises (and traffic). No, the landscape began to become more uplifted, mountains began to appear in the distance, and the flora started to become denser - with even a few Joshua Tree-like trees making an appearance.
Monterrey is a massive city. In fact, it is the third-largest city in the whole country of Mexico, with a whopping 4.7 million people calling it home. It is also a hugely industrial city. Major corporations, not just from Mexico but from around the world, often have factories or plants of some kind in the city.
While we aren’t city people, it was cool to be inside such a dense urban center again. With massive parks, artwork, walking streets, and a wide array of restaurants, we were actually excited to do some urban exploring.
Once we made it to our Airbnb we set about planning our climbing adventures for the next couple of days. The idea was to leave at the crack of dawn every morning (so around 5am) and head out of town towards Potrero Chico, the climbing mecca of Mexico. Once there we would climb during the morning while the rock was still in the shade and then probably come back home in the afternoon once it started to get too hot (we were there in February and the temperatures were still set to hit over 100 degrees).
Our first morning started out nice and early. We woke up at 4:30am, quietly made some coffee, grabbed our breakfast burritos, and hit the road. The city was still asleep as we drove through its maze of highways, backroads, and 6-way intersections. There is something rather wonderful about getting up before everyone else. There is this quiet, calm aura that hangs over everything, as well as this feeling of excitement and energy building up underneath. You know you just have to wait a couple of hours and everything will turn to madness once again.
Potrero Chico is not actually a town. But rather a park that sits outside the small town of Hidalgo. While Hidalgo is by no means large, it does have all the necessary items: restaurants, hostels, laundry and bars.
We had heard amazing things about Potrero Chico, so on our first morning we were surprised to show up to the park and find it completely empty - but not only that but also completely run-down. There is a rather large pool complex that was totally dry, all gates were locked, the buildings were often missing windows or doors, there were no public bathrooms to speak of. Altogether, we thought we had been led astray by Google Maps and had wandered into an abandoned theme park.
But no, we were correct. This was Potrero Chico. A climbing area so famous, even Alex Honnold had free-soloed there (and made a sweet North Face video about it). But maybe this dilapidation was part of the appeal. This was the anti-Yosemite, a place where the main event is solely climbing. A place that doesn’t cater to the faux-adventurers (not that we are saying Yosemite does that). Potrero Chico just felt more real, raw.
While we are not exceptional climbers, we do enjoy the act of it in its simplest form: carrying the gear up steep hills, tying in, belaying each other, pushing your limits, both physically and mentally. Our first climb was super easy - a warm-up to test the rock, to get an idea of what we were dealing with.
After that first foray, we decided to try something a bit harder, this time a 5.9b. Something we could both do in the gym. But, for anyone who has climbed in the gym and outside knows, that doesn’t mean much. Luke headed up the rock first. He was doing well, taking it nice and slow (we hadn’t climbed in months). And then BAM, he slipped and somehow ended upside down.
While this quick change in view definitely shook him, it didn’t take him long before he was back up and climbing. Then just like the first fall, BAM, he slipped again. This time though, it was a lot worse.
Somehow he had come down squarely on his left foot, his ankle smacking a small ledge on the rock, causing his foot to buckle - and likely get a small hairline fracture.
That fall was the one that put Luke out of the game for the rest of the day (and honestly, the next couple of months). After that, he came down the rock and started hobbling down the steep hill. Luckily, there was a group of people learning to rappel right below who let us use their rope to make the descent much faster and easier.
Once back at the car we decided to call it a day. Not the day we had expected, but not a bad day either. Potrero Chico was absolutely stunning, and even if we never got on the rock again, just coming out and looking at the landscape was pretty amazing.
Day two started just like day one: early morning wake up, coffee, breakfast burritos, and a drive through the still quiet and empty city. Today’s plan was to explore Potrero Chico and hopefully do a multi-pitch climb.
The park was once again empty when we showed up. But now that we knew we were in the right place we kind of enjoyed the silence, and the feeling of having this beautiful piece of land almost entirely to ourselves.
We found the route we had been planning on conquering and suited up. Both of us were nervous - but for two different things. Luke was nervous about his foot, and I (Madalyne) was nervous about the height we were hoping to reach at the top. But that is part of adventuring right? Facing your fears, pushing your limits.
The climb wasn’t too technical. Especially the first pitch. We both got up rather easily to the ledge that would be the beginning of the second pitch. Both of us were feeling pretty confident, though we both knew Pitch 2 was supposed to be a lot harder. And it was. The crux (hardest move) meant stretching your whole body to the side, across a large crack in the rock, and grabbing a small hold that you couldn’t actually see. Luke had done it already (rather easily), and though he had confidence in my (Madalyne's) abilities, he also knew that I didn’t.
It wasn’t the fact that I couldn’t see the hold that psyched me out. It was the fact that I was hanging off a rock far, far off the ground. Finally, I just took a deep breath and went for it, making sure to not look at the distance below be. In the end, it was rather easy. It was just pushing past that mental barrier that was hard (but that’s climbing for you).
Once to the top we sat and stared out at the landscape. The rocks, bright green plants, Hidalgo in the background. It was a beautiful winter day - sunny and warm - and we were just chilling on a random spire in the middle of Mexico. The feeling of freedom that came with all of that - the excitement, motivation, and thankfulness, is something we want to bottle up and save for a rainy day.
That is why we explore. Adventure. Get off the beaten path.
After our successful climb, we decided to call it a day. It was starting to get really hot (like 104 degrees Fahrenheit hot). So we went for a little drive into the park a bit more, checked out the landscape outside the main climbing area, and then decided to take the scenic route back to Monterrey (which somehow took us through abandoned towns, by closed gondola rides and even a zoo).
The next day we decided to not head out to Potrero Chico, but instead explore another national park nearby (but more on that later).
After a couple of days exploring the city, getting back into the swing of climbing, and going on some amazing outdoor adventures (and checking out some sweet caves especially), we left Monterrey excited and motivated again.
There is nothing like a grand adventure to get you out of a funk. Exploring nature, for us anyway, is often the cure for most of our ailments. It wakes you up, gives you a new perspective, and makes you realize how small your problems (usually) are.
While Potrero Chico was amazing, Mexico as a whole was pretty fantastic. It reminded us why we love traveling, love exploring new places, and love having unique, authentic experiences.
\\ A couple things to know about Potrero Chico
- The park does have an entrance fee, but if you get there early enough you should be okay (we never actually saw a guard or anything, just a sign).
- The park gets busy during the day, especially on weekends - and not just with climbers but with locals. There is often a big party on Sunday nights: loud music, drinking, horses, etc. They even sometimes light up the rocks in the canyon.
- The Potrero Chico climbing area is not very big - just one ~200 meter long stretch of canyon with awesome rocks on either side. But even so, there are tons of great routes to check out - of all different difficulties.
- Most of the climbs, though, are multi-pitch. Which is great if you are looking to do more of that, or conquer your first one like we did.
- The town of Hidalgo has some nice restaurants (and cheap). There are also some fun looking hostels, especially close to the climbing area. We stayed in town because of the grandparents, but maybe next time we would stay in Hidalgo.
- Even if you are there to climb, don't miss checking out Monterrey. It is a super neat city with a lot to offer. There are also a lot of cool things around Monterrey that are worth seeing as well.