The Beta to Central Mexico’s Hidden Gems of Rock Climbing
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If you are a climber, chances are that when you hear “Mexico” and “rock climbing” in the same sentence, you picture the impeccable limestone walls of El Potrero Chico. After 15 years living, climbing and developing routes there, I journeyed southwards to check out what else Mexico had to offer. What I found was an overlooked treasure trove of world-class climbing: one of the tallest granite monoliths on earth, word-class splitter rhyolite cracks, and overhangs of cobbled conglomerate. It didn’t take me long to make Central Mexico my new home.
The Magic of Central MexicoI started climbing back in 1996 and developed routes all over the U.S., including some of the best states for rock climbing, from New York to Pennsylvania, down to the New River Gorge, over to Nevada, and with a few other stopovers. Since then, I became a professional climbing guide, opened SouthernXposure to help showcase rock climbing in Mexico, and run a non-profit that introduces young people with autism to the joy of the sport. Beginning in 2003, I’ve been developing across Mexico, and for a good portion of my life that meant living near the sport climbing paradise of El Potrero Chico. A question I often get is, why move? Well, what rock climbers want is great routes, stable weather, and a nice place to sleep. Central Mexico ticks all those boxes and many more. For one, the constant 75°F weather makes it possible to get out year-round. It’s much like climbing in San Diego but with better food! Ultimately, seeing the huge, but not yet realized, climbing potential of the areas made my fingers itch. Then, as is often the case in Mexico, you find magic in the small towns; visiting Aculco de Espinoza and meeting its welcoming inhabitants, the pueblito won my heart!
A history of rock climbing in MexicoThe popularity of climbing in Central Mexico is a long time coming. As early as 1934, male and female Mexican climbers made the first ascents in the country in ‘El Chico’ national park in Hidalgo. They used little more than henequén rope—once the premiere cord in the industry—and homemade pitons to scale 100 m peaks such as El Fraile de Actopan. This kicked off a wave of development across the country, from the big walls up north in Nuevo León to the near urban-crags of Mexico City and Guadalajara to the scaling of some of Central Mexico’s most prominent features, including some of the best places to rock climb in the world, in my humble opinion. Let’s see what hidden gems are in store for you!
1. La Peña de Bernal, Querétaro
The sight of La Peña de Bernal looming proudly above the town tells you straight away—you are lined up for some proper multi-pitching! Heck, this 1,700 foot hunk of granite that you are headed to conquer is the 3rd—or 1st, depending on who you ask—tallest single upright block of stone in the world. Combined with the pueblo mágico, Bernal, right at its base, this place guarantees a magical climbing experience.
Rock climbing the monolithThe simplicity of logistics for big walling here can compete even with the infamous multi pitch climbing of Riglos in Spain. After completing a dozen pitches, just a few rappels and a short hike stand between you and a delicious dinner down at the bar. Climbing here is mostly vertical, technical and sustained on skin-friendly porphyritic granite. All sides are climbable and offer over a hundred sport and trad multi-pitch lines. That being said, if you’re not accustomed to alpine terrain, I recommend sticking to the sport routes—the trad lines tend to be dirty and runout. To switch things up, you can also find 5.12 and 5.13 overhangs, single pitch routes on the smaller blocks near the base, and some of the best bouldering in the country. Even though climbing began here in 1963, there is plenty of room for first ascents. As a passionate route developer, having access to such tall, quality stone that hasn’t really been touched yet by climbers was a huge draw to me, but not the only thing.
Spend magic days in the magic townBernal, Querétaro, founded in 1647, is a pueblo mágico—a magic town of Mexico. This coveted status is awarded to areas that have maintained their original architecture, traditions, and culture. In this town of eternal springtime weather, the energy, vibrant colors, rich gastronomy, and beautiful streets make rest days as equally exhilarating as those on the wall. While passing through the cobbled pathways, make sure not to miss esquites, a special corn dish sold on near every corner. Prior to the governmental designation, the monolith itself was believed to have magical powers by the Indigenous Otomí-Chichimeca people. Even today, you will see many pilgrims hiking to the highest accessible point on the rock to pray for divine protection. Many locals believe that La Peña is a source of energy, and they might be right: apparently the average life span among the Bernal inhabitants is over 90 years old!
Let’s talk about safetyPeople unavoidably ask me about this. True, some parts of Mexico are dodgy, however, the state of Querétaro, and the areas around there, makes up for that. The city by the same name is considered one of the safest on the continent, and is nearly twice as safe as Chicago according to the crime index at Numbeo.com, for example. From my personal experience, I have never seen nor heard of any crimes in the small towns of Bernal and Aculco where the climbing is concentrated. Frankly, outside of farmers’, tourists’, or climbers’ business, there are few other interests there.
The climbing in Bernal is absolutely amazing. Smooth rock, countless routes, and incredible culture create a unique adventure for any rock climber looking for something special.
1. La Peña de Bernal, Querétaro - Good to Know
Beginner to advanced
Technical slabby and vertical granite on edges and chickenheads
Fly to Querétaro Intercontinental Airport, rent a car and drive 30min to Bernal
A short car drive will take you from the town to the parking, from where an obvious hiking trail leads to the base of the wall
You need to register before climbing at the small office at the base of the rock. Access to some routes and bouldering requires a small fee at Chichi’Dho. Check the Rakkup app for topos
Campsite Rancho Chichi’Dho offers spectacular accommodations right at the base of the monolith, and there is a wealth of other accommodation options, from airbnbs to hotels, in the town
All year round
Piave for excellent Italian style meals. Arrayan for Mexican food. Mesón de la Roca for specialty beers
If you get tired of multi-pitching, there is excellent bouldering around (including a classic V4, Sueños Guajiros, put up by Tommy Caldwell in 2001) and a plenty of hiking. The UNESCO protected town of San Miguel de Allende is nearby
2. Cascada de la Concepción (Aculco), Mexico
Cascada de la Concepción is an exquisite rhyolite crack climbing spot just outside Aculco de Espinoza, the town where I live. Here, nestled amongst 60-foot protected oak trees is a winding scenic gorge with a gorgeous cascading waterfall. When you venture into Aculco, where the water knots, columns from old lava flows line the river valley creating a collection of the greatest splitters in Mexico, and maybe North America. Say what you will about the stellar cracking climbing in Indian Creek, but I’ll argue this is even better. This bending hollow features 30 m walls of splitter fun, everything from hand and finger jams to gnarly off widths, and opportunities for sun or shade whatever the time of day. What makes it so special is the vesicular texture of this particular stone; pitted with many cavities it is soft on the skin. Believe me, that is something you will especially appreciate when jamming day in, day out, making this a paradise for dialing your crack climbing skills.
Welcome to the land of 5.10sYou can find anything from 5.7 to 5.12, but 5.10 is the staple grade here. It is an excellent place to build out your library of moves because the cracks are technically demanding and no two are alike. You’ll also work your endurance. As soon as you touch the wall, it is game on until you reach the top of these epic crackathons since very few routes have a good rest. The very second you stop trying, you start falling, but that’s what makes these dead vertical cracks fun!
…And bonafide caballerosOther than perfect splitters, this is a land of cowboys. These hard working farmers work the fields using horses and mules, and pick their harvest with a careful hand. This carries over to the end products; if homemade cheese, pastries, and ice cream make your mouth water, you’ve come to the right place.
Aculco is truly a nirvana for the crack climbing connoisseur. The rock dictates hands-in splitter cracks and takes perfect gear placements yet is smooth and soft on the skin.
2. Cascada de la Concepción (Aculco), Mexico - Good to Know
Intermediate to advanced
Cracks climbing of all sizes and shapes
Fly to Querétaro Intercontinental Airport or Mexico City, rent a car, and drive to Aculco de Espinoza (1h from Querétaro or 2h from Mexico City)
Cascada de la Concepción is 15min drive north-west from Aculco de Espinoza
Check the Rakkup app for topos
You can camp right above the cliff or stay in the town of Aculco in a selection of apartments or hotels.
All year round, however, beware of the rainy season from April to September when it rains every afternoon around 4pm
Brazilian steakhouse El Rincon Del Viejo; local cheese and pastries
Aculco is another pueblo mágico with rich history and culture, well worth a visit. Hike to the 11,000 ft summit of Peña de Ñado. Enjoy dirt bike riding, mountain biking, horseback riding, and more
3. Las Peñas de Dexcaní (Jilotepec), Mexico
Las Peñas de Dexcaní (a.k.a. Jilotepec) is a collection of beautiful cliffs with some of the best sport climbing you’ll find in Mexico. In fact, starting in the 90s, climbing really took off here and around Guadalajara when bolting became popular. As a result, you’ll find many classics, and a few of the hardest lines around, among this volcanic stone. To speak of the stone, it is “weird”; that’s the first word that comes to mind. If you think of solidified mud, you’re close, except that it’s solidified ash from the last eruption around 200,000 years ago. Welded into the conglomerate are pebbles and cobbles almost like it’s an indoor gym—outside—typically with one hell of an overhang. Like in the gym, the holds (cobbles) vary in size from peanuts to fridge-sized monsters except you’re clinging high on the mountainside at 10,500 ft of elevation, surrounded by the largest reserve of oak trees in Mexico. No gym can come close to that!
Afraid of falling?Even though the athletic overhangs are the trademark of the crag, this place also holds some excellent balancy, slabby, and vertical 5.8s, 5.9s, and low 5.10s, which we tend to frequent with our climbing schools. Routes are anywhere from 12 m to 30 m, and for those just learning to sport climb, the overhanging aspect makes this a great place to practice safely because when you fall off, there is nothing really there you can hit.
Follow the footsteps of Petzl Rock TripIf you are still not convinced, let me just mention that Jilotepec was a stop of the 2010 Petzl Rock Trip. Every few years, Petzl (aka the Rolls Royce of climbing gear) sends their elite athletes to develop the finest rock climbing spots around the world and being on Petzl’s map is a testament to the Jilotepec’s quality. Since 2010, Jilotepec has grown to be the place with the hardest sport climbs in Mexico, culminating with the country’s first 9a, Lujuria, sent by Mau Huerta, in 2016.
Jilopotec holds some of the best routes for experienced climbers looking for a challenge. The combo of volcanic rock and pristine forest makes for an undoubtedly special ambiance.
3. Las Peñas de Dexcaní (Jilotepec), Mexico - Good to Know
Intermediate to advanced
Gym-like climbing on volcanic conglomerate
Fly to Querétaro Intercontinental Airport or Mexico City, rent a car, and drive to Jilotepec de Molina Enríquez (2h from Querétaro or 1.5h from Mexico City)
The climbing place is about 10km southeast of the town of Jilotepec de Molina, you can either drive there or reach it by taxi
The crag is located on a private preserve with 25 pesos entrance fee.
Guía De Escalada En México (Centro Y Sur) is the guidebook for the area
You can camp at the parking area at the end of the road, or chose from accommodation options in the nearby town of Jilotepec de Molina
It is possible to climb all year round, though the high season is from October to May
There are several delicious sit-down restaurants and taco stands in the town of Jilotepec de Molina Enríquez
The area is pretty stellar by itself; hiking around and enjoying nature makes for an amazing rest day. ‘El Chico’ National Park is 2h to the east. It is the country’s first national park, has some of the best bouldering in Mexico, and is where climbing all began here
Help Protect the Burgeoning Central Mexico Climbing Scene
Of course if you come visit, you should help support climbing in Mexico too! Check out two non-profit associations: Fundación México Vertical and Escalada Libre A.C. They aim to preserve, restore, develop, and ensure access to the climbing areas and mountains across the country.