We drive 22 hours from Boulder, USA, to El Potrero Chico, Mexico. The journey takes three days, and we barely stop. We see nothing. The insides of Texas gas stations. Rest stops alongside the highway. A Wells Fargo bank or two. Endless fields of cotton & many drive-thru restaurants. We sleep in the car & we talk to no one until we arrive in Mexico.
My climbing partner Paul has been to EPC before, six years ago or something like that.
“I just remember lounging in this big chair outside the entrance to El Potrero Chico, next to this little margarita stand, drinking this margarita while the guy absolutely BLASTED French Rap,” Paul said while we planned our trip. “I want to be in that vibe, like, all the time.”
That stand was gone, this year. There was some confusion about whether that man had been a rapist, or not. That was the gossip, anyways.
“He made the best margaritas!” said an American woman we met, who had visited before. “That’s a bummer if it’s true. I have been wondering where he is.” We don’t investigate.
Instead we eat our meals at a taco stall, which has great food, cheap prices, and friendly staff; but no French rap.
In fact, EPC offers almost no Europeans this winter — Covid-related, most likely. Traveling here hardly feels like traveling at all – our camping is filled with Americans, speaking American English. The gringos outnumber the locals, and the latinos that are sharing the camping and community kitchen barely speak to the güeros, and vice-versa. It’s a bit of an odd vibe.
After a few days of awkwardly passing in the communal areas, I finally engage a Mexican couple in Spanish conversation. The man’s name is Daniel, same as mine. We fist-bump. Chat a bit about climbs. I finally ask the question that’s been on my mind: “there are a lot of Yankees here, no?”
Both Daniel and Lupe smile. “Si. Muchisimo,” they say. “We Mexicans have many good places to climb. Perhaps this one is just the only one the Americans know?”
EPC is well-known among American climbers — many of the routes were bolted starting in the 1990s by climbers from Austin, Texas (just a few hours drive away). The early climbers & route developers, American and Mexican, slept under gazebos in the canyon. Eventually, a local man named Homero welcomed the climbers to camp on his land at the mouth of the canyon, and Homero’s Climbing Ranch was born. Now, the area outside of Parque Potrero Chico sports several lodging options in addition to Homero’s: walled compounds offering camping, rooms, and hostel-style accommodation. In winter, when we visited, you will find these hotels mostly full of climbers.
Paul and I stay at La Posada, a place Paul had visited six years prior and described to me as “an open field where you can camp for cheap.” The intervening years have clearly been good to the Posada, which now sports wifi, a huge communal kitchen with 14 propane-powered burners, a two-story common area, a restaurant which accepts credit cards, private rooms, glamping tents, and a pretty nice pool. There is still a field for camping though.
Ten minutes walk from the climbs, the Posada offers minimal trouble and maximum climbing.
Every climb in EPC is tightly-bolted, making it safe & easy to rappel. Loose rock, cacti and snakes remain a problem in the canyon, but otherwise, this is about as sanitized as adventure climbing gets.
You climb up the bolt line for 12 pitches, clipping a bolt every two meters or less, hit a ridgeline or an arbitrary end point, and then coil the rope and prepare to rappel those same 12 pitches down. You yell “cuerda!’ to alert the party below that your rope will soon be landing in their face. They yell back: “What?!” and you say again, this time in English: “Rope!!”
On our visit to Potrero we climb plenty. The canyon offers long multi-pitch bolted routes, and my partner and I climb strong and efficiently. He does not tire, and always wants more. We knock off half a dozen classic multipitch routes and never once descend via headlamp. The biggest danger climbing in EPC seems to be cacti, which are plentiful all up and down the walls).
I step on a cactus rappelling Time Wave Zero (23 pitches, to the summit of the mountain), and this is the most memorable moment of climbing this supposedly king line.
The truth is, in climbing and in travel both, you control your level of challenge. It is easy for an American to go to a beach resort in Mexico, where all the staff speak English and the police presence is palpable. This experience is comfortable. It is easy, and it is popular. Most Estadounidenses, if you ask, will say they’ve only ever been to Mexico, if they’ve been abroad at all.
I shot a roll of film in EPC, and while rewinding it, I snapped the film. I was forced to roll it up by hand, blind, inside a sleeping bag. I sealed it from the light using aluminum foil. After driving back to the USA, I took the film to my local photo lab. I explained my problem to the lab tech, a genial old man who assured me they could process loose film. The whole thing took a while, and we got to chatting, making friendly small talk in true American fashion.
“What was on the film?” he asked while ringing me up.
“Oh, some shots from a recent trip to Mexico,” I told him.
“Mexico, great place,” he said with conviction. “I went what do you call it, parasailing, down there? The guys at the hotel were offering it and I thought it looked like so much fun..”
I told him that I was in the north of the country, Nuevo Leon, close to the border and far from the beach. But he doesn’t seem to get it. Mexico, for him, is a land of beach resorts and stereotypical accents. A great vacation spot. Gringolandia.
I left the interaction hopeful for my film (which did turn out, as you see), and reflective about my trip. I had felt a bit superior in the conversation, as if I was a real traveler and he was a tourist. But was that true? Was my experience any more authentic than his?
Really, I don’t think so.
EPC, the way we did it, offers a sanitized climbing experience and a sanitized traveling experience. After two years at home inside the USA, it was nice to take a vacation. The food was good. The climbs were comfortable. But the adventure was missing.
I first learned of EPC a few years ago, when I was a much less-experienced climber. Bolted sport multipitch and 20-pitch climbs seemed mind-blowing. In a foreign country?! Even better. But by the time I finally arrived, the climbs felt pedestrian, and the traveling, limp.
I did not challenge myself. And I left empty.
There was no revelation for me in Mexico. No change of direction; no illumination. I left much the same as I arrived. My reputation as a climber will be slightly inflated, perhaps, with the ticks I gained. But those mean little to me.
The best moment from Mexico, in my mind?
Sitting at the taco spot outside of Potrero, watching this father and son riding on an ATV up and down the street. A stray dog was chasing them, playfully, but at full speed. The kid was having an absolute BLAST, laughing, shrieking, and calling out to both his dad and the dog. The father, driving, was letting the dog catch up, then accelerating away or making turns. The father, the son, and the dog were all thrilled, full of joy and in the moment.
That was a good moment. One to hold on to. Here are a few more:
It was a nice vacation. But I don’t think I’ll be in a rush to return.
El Potrero Chico at a glance:
- Big-wall sport climbing destination
- All routes possible using a single 70-meter rope
- Most classic climbs are in the 5.10-5.10+ (5c-6b) range and tightly bolted
- Rockfall is a serious risk here — wear a helmet
- Spanish not necessary but useful, appreciated (beware the ‘gringo price’)
- Wi-fi is fine for remote work as long as everyone else is out climbing
- There is great potential for new routes if you are willing to garden
- Frank Madden’s guidebook EPC Climbing: A Climber’s Guide to El Potrero Chico (currently on its 2nd edition) is available in English, Spanish, & digital formats. Check your local climbing shop or try to bum one at the campgrounds.
Title inspired by song Disneylandia by Jorge Drexler.