For those who live for winter, this is the time to dig out the crampons and axes, pray for fat ice (or powder days), and toast with dark, well-aged beers. But for many rock climbers, the fourth season’s frigid weather, short days, and snowdrifts at the local crag can make one turn inward. Literally. But you can only pull on so much plastic. Shatter the cold-weather routine at one of these climbing paradises where warm sun and tropical scenery are guaranteed. Bonus: No flights higher than $700, nor any major jet lag potential. Just world class rock. Bust out the flip-flops, pack your rack, and get moving.
Puerto Rico has mucho climbing packed into its 3,500 square miles, and it’s called the “Island of Enchantment” for good reason, with idyllic Caribbean beaches, more than 300 mountain peaks, and subterranean rivers. Temps hover around 70°F to 80°F all year, and the rainy season ends by late December.
The island has four distinct limestone climbing areas. The Nuevo Bayamón area alone has more than 100 sport climbs with grades from 5.7 to 5.12d, ranging from short and pumpy to low-angled and relaxed. The other areas—Caliche, Rosario Peñón, and Relincho—offer gymnastic-style pulling. Approach trails are typically well-marked and involve short jungle hikes.
- Recommended routes: No Refund (5.8), Bianca Nieves (5.9), Independence Day (5.9), Horizontal Limit (5.10d), Pangea (5.11a), Grafitti (5.11c), Chocolate Sky (5.11d), Shanghai Bombay (5.12a), ¡Mira, Claro Que Sí! (5.12a).
- Gear: 60m rope, quickdraws, and a light rack of cams, as a handful of routes are mixed. A number of routes have old fixed webbing; bring replacements just in case. Free climbing guides for Bayamón, Caliche, and Rosario Peñón are available online through Adventuras Tierra Adentro, a climbing outfitter located 15 minutes from the San Juan airport (aventuraspr.com). The shop also sells standard gear.
- Stay: Puerto Rico’s crags are all within a 1.5-hour drive of San Juan. The Palace Hostel in San Juan has free Wi-Fi, complimentary breakfast, and laundry facilities (thepalacehostel .com). Public campgrounds within state forests are closest to the crags. Cambalache State Forest is 45 minutes from Caliche, and Susua State Forest is 35 minutes from Rosario Peñón. Permits for state forest camping are issued through the Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales (drna.gobierno.pr); no amenities. El Yunque National Forest is about an hour from San Juan and Nuevo Bayamón; camping is undeveloped and dispersed throughout the park. The Palo Colorado Information Center issues free camping permits and has running water (fs.usda.gov/main/elyunque/home).
- Rest Days: Check out Isla de Vieques, six miles off Puerto Rico’s southeast shore, via a short ferry ride (vieques-island.com/ viequesferry.shtml). Its 17,800-acre national wildlife refuge is home to diverse ecosystems and endangered species, including Antillean manatees and leatherback sea turtles (fws.gov/caribbean/Refuges/Vieques). After hiking through the refuge, play on the island’s beach boulders and spend the night to check out its glowing bioluminescent bay. Vieques Adventure Company has tours with transparent polycarbonate canoes (viequesadventures.com).
- Money: No passport required; Puerto Rico uses U.S. currency.
- Logistics: Direct flights are available from major U.S. airports. A rental car is the only way to access climbing areas.
With average daily highs hovering around 72°F year round, Hawaii’s climbing conditions are nearly always dreamy. Most of Hawaii’s climbing is on Oahu’s north shore, with most of the rock right along the island’s 50 miles of beaches. “Everyone’s super friendly,” says Mike “Bugman” Richardson, who has developed several routes on the island. “We’re all glad to help visitors out and show them around.”
Although the state recently closed two of the most popular sport climbing areas (details below), climbing abounds at numerous other bouldering areas and sport crags. Waimea Bay, 45 minutes from Honolulu, has unique bouldering on black, lava-flow rocks right on the beach, with highballs up to 35 feet. The style varies from slabby to overhanging, with cracks, pockets, and incut edges. And Waimea’s famous waves keep the problems changing. “Big waves on the north shore will, from day to day, deposit or remove as much as 10 feet of sand from the base of the bouldering area,” Richardson says. “So a route that was 15 feet tall this morning might be 30 feet tall the next week.” Buried Treasure (V1) is so named because it disappears under the sand some years.
Within Honolulu’s city limits, jump on urban boulders at Wa’ahila Ridge. Located just above the University of Hawaii campus, the Wa’ahila boulders feature long traverses and challenging cave problems developed by the Climb Aloha team in 2009. For those looking to rope up, Jungle Canyon has more than two dozen sport and trad routes on steep basalt columns, sitting at the base of the Waianae Mountains.
- Recommended routes: Monkey Arête (5.9), Wasp Central (5.10b), Jungle Fever (5.12a), Groove Tube (V0), Buried Treasure (V1), Parlay (V2), The Root Route (V2), Bird Cage (V3), T-Rex (V4/5), Da Cave (V5)
- Gear: A 60m rope and quickdraws, plus a light rack for Oahu’s few trad routes. Rent crashpads, helmets, and harnesses from Climb Aloha (climbaloha.com). They can provide directions and maps; more beta at rockclimbinghawaii.com. Or check in at the Volcanic Rock Gym (volcanicrockgym.com).
- Stay: Hawaii is pricey, but affordable county and state park campgrounds dot the island (camping.honolulu.gov). Because of high use, campsites close on Wednesdays and Thursdays, giving nature time to recover. Plan accordingly. Or check out Ke Iki Bungalows, less than a mile from Waimea Bay (keikibeach.com).
- Rest Days: Don’t miss the Pearl Harbor Memorial Museum and Visitor Center (pacifichistoricparks.org). Oahu’s North Shore has some of the country’s best surfing—beginners should head south for lessons on Waikiki’s gentler waves.
- Logistics: Rent a car or use Oahu’s public transportation system, which provides access throughout the island. The North Shore climbing areas are a 45-minute to two-hour bus ride from the airport.
Oahu Access Issues: After a rockfall accident in 2012 that almost killed a young girl at the Mokuleia crag, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources shut down the area, which had been Hawaii’s most popular crag. Following suit, the Department of Hawaiian Homelands closed climbing access to Makapu’u Point. Local climbers and the Access Fund are currently working to reopen these areas. “Right now, we’re kind of in that waiting game,” says Access Fund policy director R.D. Pascoe, who recommends that concerned climbers write letters to the state departments (contact info at accessfund.org).
El Potrero Chico, Mexico
El Potrero Chico in northeast Mexico holds some of the world’s best multi-pitch sport climbing. In the winter months, temperatures drop from blazing hot to mild and pleasant, and the grey, high-quality limestone makes for incredible climbing, day and night. “Lots of full-moon climbing goes on,” says Dane Bass, Potrero’s guidebook author. “The moon comes up right behind your back and completely lights up the wall.”
Surrounded by looming cliffs up to 2,000 feet tall and stunning desert scenery, Potrero draws climbers from all over the world. The approaches in the six-milelong canyon are usually short, and the locals are friendly and accommodating to climbers. The nearby town of Hidalgo has coffee shops, eateries with excellent local dishes, and comfy accommodations.
- Recommended routes: Mr. Fluffer’s Wild Ride (5.9), Will the Wolf Survive? (5.10a), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (5.10c), Estrellita (5.11a), The Devil’s Tongue (5.12a), Guppie (5.12b)
- Gear: A 70m rope and quickdraws will get you safely up and down most of the multi-pitches, though a light trad rack will open up a few more options. Find Bass’s guidebook, The Whole Enchilada ($36, potrerokrew.com), at many shops in the States.
- Stay: Lodging options abound at Hidalgo, which is five minutes from the climbing. La Posada rents campsites, private rooms, and casitas that sleep four people. It also offers a communal kitchen, restaurant, swimming pool, yoga classes, massages, airport shuttle, and bike rentals (elpotrerochico.mx).
- Rest Days: An excursion to the nearby hot springs is a good way to relax achy muscles; visit termasdesanjoaquin.com.mx for directions. Be sure to check out La Hacienda del Muerto, on the way to the springs. The ranch is more than 400 years old, and will intrigue both architecture and history buffs. Much of the estate was laid to ruin during the Mexican revolution, and it’s believed by some to be haunted (potrerochico.org/listing/hacienda-delmuerto).
- Money: U.S. dollars are easily exchanged for Mexican pesos. Once you’re in the country, travel, food, and accommodations are relatively inexpensive.
- Logistics: Passport required. Several airlines fly from major U.S. cities to Monterrey, a 35-minute drive from El Potrero Chico. Travelers can take a shuttle to Hidalgo (oma.aero/en /airports/monterrey/passengers/services/taxi). Travelers crossing the border by car should be prepared with a passport, car title, and a credit or debit card, all under the same name. Those still making car payments will need to obtain a note of permission from their bank. Find an online guide at potrerochico.org.
Because of increased drug cartel activity, Monterrey can be dangerous, though those traveling directly from the airport to Hidalgo shouldn’t encounter any problems. Safest bet: register and check regularly with the local consulate (monterrey.usconsulate. gov/information_for_travelers.html).
Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
The easternmost isle in the British Virgin Islands, Virgin Gorda has enough boulders to make any climber giddy, and all areas come replete with a chill Caribbean vibe. “That laidback island culture really mixes well with climbing culture,” says Rich Crowder, author of the area’s guidebook. Virgin Gorda’s beaches are packed with boulders, all within walking distance. Average temperatures range from 67°F to 80°F in the winter months, and never dip below 60°F.
The island offers granite boulders with three distinct styles. Rocks near the ocean are smooth with big pockets. Farther inland is friction climbing, with a “baked outer crust with a ridiculous amount of texture,” says Crowder. The third type combines the first two: The baked crust has peeled, eroded, and chipped, forming interesting crimps and lumpy surfaces. And while the climbing is fun and varied, don’t expect difficult routes. “The majority of the climbing there is moderate,” Crowder said. “With it being hot, it’s hard to establish difficult problems.” Come primed with an R&R mindset.
- Recommended routes: Banyan Arête (V0), Spring Bay Crack (V1), The Scuttle (V3), Fire in the Sky (V4,), Peebles (V6), Ribbed For Pleasure (V9)
- Gear: Bring chalk, but not crashpads. They’re a hassle to check on flights, Guavaberry Spring Bay Resort rents them, and many boulders have flat, sandy landings. Pick up Crowder’s guidebook, A Guide to Bouldering and Traveling the Virgin Islands, in January ($20, fixedpin.com).
- Stay: Guavaberry Spring Bay Resort is the climbers’ favorite: The one- to two-bedroom bungalows are literally feet from many boulders and within walking distance of most of the island’s climbing. Guavaberry also has a grocery, and is about as affordable as accommodation gets. Bring cash, as credit cards aren’t accepted (guavaberryspringbay.com). Camping is not allowed on the island.
- Rest Days: Don’t miss the Baths: small bathing pools surrounded by boulders. Climbers will enjoy the bouldering potential, but it’s also fun to wander around the natural labyrinth. Kiteboarding is popular on the north sound of the island. Rentals and classes are available at the Bitter End Hotel (caribkiteboarding.com).
- Money: The U.S. dollar is the island’s legal currency. Virgin Gorda can be pricey— keep costs down by sharing a bungalow or villa and food expenses with friends.
- Logistics: Passport required. Fly into Saint Thomas, and then catch a ferry to Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda. Ferries only operate on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Nearly all the bouldering is within walking distance from Guavaberry Spring Bay Resort. Rent a car to access more remote areas.
With more than 400 routes, a temperate climate, easy access, and quality sandstone, it’s no wonder Suesca is considered the birthplace of Colombian rock climbing. January and February are the driest months, and temps hover at 70°F all year. Suesca’s crags are easy to find, via a 10-minute walk along railroad tracks. Although well-developed, the area has preserved a sense of rugged mountain beauty that will appeal to intrepid travelers.
The Rocas de Suesca cliffband, with around 20 crags in 2.5 miles, has hard, granite-like sandstone, with something for everyone—cracks, fins, roofs, arêtes, and more. The majority of routes are protected by trad gear; only a few are fully bolted. Most climbs are single-pitch, but some routes go up to four pitches.
- Recommended routes: Suerte (5.8), El Acróbata (5.9), Inti Rami (5.10a), Azul Turbio (5.10a), Mandahuevix (5.10c), Curly & Moe en el Planeta de los Simios (5.11a), Green Master (5.11c), Nueva Era (5.11+).
- Gear: A few savvy outfitters have set up shop near the crags, but they are open only on weekends when climbers surge into town. Stop in at MonoDedo (monodedo.com) for gear and the Spanish-language guidebook, Escaladas en Suesca y Valle de los Halcones. Or take a look at Suesca’s online guide (suesca.com/en/rockclimbing).
- Stay: Suesca has abundant camping, dorm-style hostels, and guesthouses with shared baths and kitchens. El Vivac Hostel is run by local climber Katty Guzman, provides guiding, and even rents bikes for rest days (elvivachostal.com).
- Rest Days: Take the twohour bus to Bogotá for cultural attractions and exciting nightlife, or stay local and rent mountain bikes and trail maps from the nearby shops. For a geological diversion, check out the salt mines in Zipaquirá, a 1.5-hour drive from Suesca. The biggest draw is undoubtedly the Salt Cathedral, a temple built 200 meters underground (www.bogotaturismo.gov.co/en/zipaquira-s-saltcathedral).
- Money: The Colombian peso has a favorable exchange rate, and low living costs by first-world standards make for budget-friendly travel.
- Logistics: A passport is required, with a maximum 90-day stay, and Colombia charges a $33 exit tax. Buses leave regularly from the downtown Bogotá Portal de Norte terminal to Suesca (transportesalianza. jimdo.com). The crags are only a 15-minute walk from downtown Suesca.
Cayman Brac’s limestone crags have impressed pirates, sailors, and British colonists since soon after the days of Columbus. And the “Brac”—a Gaelic word for bluff—continues to inspire the adventurous. Climbers have developed the island’s steep limestone cliffs for two decades now, but its potential is hardly scratched. “The climbing is world-class,” said developer John Byrnes. “There’s still an unlimited number of climbs to be done.” With a permanent resident population of less than 2,000, the island has no television, cell service is spotty, and Internet access is limited.
The Brac currently has more than 60 routes up to 150 feet, ranging from 5.7 to 5.12+. Pockets are the cliffs’ primary features, but you’ll also find unique tufas and stalactites. Several routes are located at the Point, where the wall drops directly into the ocean and requires a rappel to access the exhilarating climbing. Ascenders are a good idea—and the only way to bail. Most other crags are accessible by an easy hike, but some approaches require traversing on choss; Byrnes recommends gloves and hiking boots or approach shoes.
- Recommended routes: L’ Orangerie (5.8+), Shiver Me Timbers (5.10b), Throwing the Tortuga (5.11b), Out of Africa (5.11d), Leapin’ Lizards (5.11d), Chicken of the Sea (5.12a).
- Gear: 60m rope and quickdraws. Printable guide at climbcaymanbrac.com. Stay: Byrnes rents out the Bluff View Climber’s House (climbcaymanbrac.com/lodging), with two one-bedroom units equipped with kitchens. Byrnes’ digital guide also recommends a few other climber-friendly vacation rentals if the Bluff View is booked up. Camping on the Cayman Islands is illegal.
- Rest Days: The Brac’s minimal development amounts to paltry nightlife, but the diving and snorkeling are spectacular. Or hike or bike the island’s 35 marked trails. The Brac Reef Beach Resort rents dive equipment and bicycles (bracreef.com). For other downtime activities, Byrnes recommends hanging out on the beach, stargazing, exploring the island’s caves, making friends with local fisherman, and buying their fresh catch for an evening barbeque.
- Money: The Cayman Island Dollar (CI$) has a permanent exchange rate fixed at one CI$ to every U.S. $1.25. U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere, but expect to receive change in CI$.
- Logistics: Flights are available directly to Cayman Brac from Miami. Other U.S.-based flights will likely have a short stopover on Grand Cayman. As a British Crown Colony, a passport and return ticket are required. Renting a car is mandatory to access the climbing areas, and U.S. visitors need to obtain a temporary Cayman license for $7.50.
Bolt Corrosion: One of the greatest dangers facing climbers in tropical locales is corroded hardware. Salt in the water, air, and rock eats away at stainless steel, causing bolts to break easily. Even a “take” can result in failure. Often the corrosion occurs from within, making it impossible to see. Consult guidebooks and locals to ensure all the hardware you’re climbing on is safe and updated, like titanium instead of stainless steel.