Los Sueños Grandes
An English teacher once taught me to start stories with something attention-grabbing, so here it goes: deep in the mountains of central Mexico, you’ll find a limestone cave so immense, it requires seven severely overhanging pitches to ascend.
Got your attention? Then let’s begin. Mexico exists in extremes. Kidnappings, drug lords, corruption, and violence are all too common in Mexico City and the border towns, while along the coasts you’ll find huge, white-washed buildings with thumping night clubs and dolphin shows. Then there’s the interior. It’s here in sleepy, idyllic villages that you’ll experience the warmth that truly defines the country. It’s also here that you’ll find Hoyanco Cave (aka El Chonta), two hours southwest of Mexico City. Perhaps the world’s wildest climbing grotto, El Chonta is a 600-foot-deep, stalactite-filled cavern with approximately 50 routes from 5.10 to 5.14. The locals started climbing here only five years ago, which might be why you’ve heard nothing. The place is intimidating, mostly solid, and offers huge holds that require creative 3-d techniques — in spots, you can no-hands rest on terrain that’s 45 degrees overhanging.
I don’t remember when I first saw photos of El Chonta. I just remember that, grainy though they were, they revealed its unreal nature. (I told my wife, Aimee, “That’s just a place we need to find.”) After months gathering clues, I’d unearthed contact info for Jaime Velasco, a Toluca local who’d taken one of the photos. We’d visit in autumn 2008, with Jaime keen to show us around. Arrangements made, Aimee and I left home in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Around 2001, a group of enterprising climbers — Jonathan Canche, Daniel Castillo Chacahua, Diego Lopez, and Javier Solano — discovered a beautiful, 100-foot, blue-streaked wall at El Chonta, well below the cave, naming it Agua Brava for its proximity to the river. With about 10 good routes, it would be a standout . . . if not for the main cave, later discovered by the same crew during a “psychedelic” hike. That day in 2002, they stood awestruck by the bizarre columns, positive holds, and giant, tentacle-like stalactites. El Chonta, I would learn, is like Thailand on steroids but without the grease.
The nearest modern town is Taxco, Guerrero (pop. 50,000), about 12 miles from the crag, on the western arm of the Sierra Madre del Sur — we made basecamp here. However, unbeknownst to us, we’d arrived during the Silver Festival (all of November). That afternoon, Volkswagen bugs and vans (the taxis) pushed through the reveler-packed cobblestone avenues, screaming around corners at full speed. Lucky to find our hotel, we dumped our gear and hit up the festival, an endless celebration of all things shiny. The local shops hawked food, plastic, and, of course, silver. Evening brought a town-square concert to rival anything on Telemundo, complete with dancing girls in short, shiny dresses and greasy-haired cantadores. Sated after 15 minutes, we turned in while the fiesta blared outside our window.
Sitting at 5,000 feet, El Chonta is not protected despite its huge variety of birds, reptiles, arachnids, insects, and mammals — including jaguars. Adjacent the cave, you’ll find the incredible tourist attaction Cacahuamilpa Grotes, the entrance to a mile-long subterranean river. Local climbers also talk of an even larger cave a bit past El Chonta that they’ll investigate soon.
After surmounting the final hill, we popped into El Chonta’s lush entrance, with its large, broad-leafed trees, moist soil, and chirping birds. “Oh . . . (insert expletive)!” we all exclaimed simultaneously — it’s impossible not to. In the depths, there was just enough light to see. It was surreal, like standing in a Dali painting. Tree-sized, gargoyle- like stalactites dripped from the walls, which rose at a 150-degree cant to a lip 100 feet off terra firma. Would the sculptures be too fragile to climb? we wondered.
Anxious to find out, we hopped on a lovely 5.11, El Aliado. This became our first lesson in El Chonta’s 3-d climbing: it felt hard for 5.11 until we realized we’d have to creatively use the person-sized tufas if we didn’t want to get vomit-launch pumped. The key was to stem, hip-scum, kneebar, logshimmy, and bear-hug, contriving shakeouts and even hands-off rests. Nicely pumped, we headed deeper to try Mala Fama’s first pitch, wonderfully steep climbing with a sitting rest on a tufa and two six-foot stalactites you have to rassle.
The next day, we checked the 15 “gentler” (only 30-degrees overhanging) climbs on the cave’s right side. They climb like European limestone, with embedded tufas instead of stalactites. Here, we met the leading local Carlos Garcia Ayala. Ayala has long, curly hair often secured by a bandana headband. A laidback guy always willing to belay (albeit with a cigarette in one hand), Ayala is a key player in Mexico City’s climbing scene and epitomizes its friendliness, where even coming from the megalopolis, all the climbers seem to know each other.
We returned in February 2009 to meet the photographer Andrew Burr and his friend “Pedro Griego,” who flew into Mexico City. Aimee and I — along with Jaime and Manny Rangel, a Phoenix-area climber — planned to meet them outside Taxco. Knowing Mexico City’s chaos, we bet on whether we’d actually see Andy and Pedro (two for and two against). We pulled up that morning to the Mirador, an overlook outside Taxco, finding our friends with cervezas in hand — ¡Que milagro!
We climbed until sunset, and then headed back to the pollo stand. This was our last day climbing, so with no small amount of regret, we bade goodbye to the crew. Still, we’ll be back next year. How could we not, with dreams of El Chonta hanging over our heads?
Kyle and Aimee Roseborrough have been climbing 12 years. They travel the world with their 2-year-old daughter, Ella, who has more passport stamps than most adults.
Getting There: Continental Airlines offers a daily direct flight to Toluca from Houston. El Chonta and Taxco are approximately two hours by car from Toluca or Mexico City. You can fly into Mexico City and drive to Taxco, but it isn’t recommended. (If you fly into Mexico City, take a bus directly from the airport to the Toluca airport and rent a car; or take a bus from Mexico City to Taxco, and then hire a cab to the ranch.)
From Taxco, drive 12.4 miles (20 km) north on Mexican Highway 55, parking between kilometer markers 121 and 122 on the road’s left side. This is the parking for Procopio’s ranch. You’re best off befriending a local and/or hiring Procopio’s kids and burros to take you to the cave. Typically, climbers pay 250 pesos for one burro, or 300 pesos for three.
Accomodations: Camping costs 50 pesos per night at Procopio’s or the cave, and clothes for his children are appreciated, too. Procopio has done a huge amount of trail work and built a primitive toilet near the crag. He plans to build casitas.
Amenities: Taxco has it all. If you come in November, book hotels in advance due to the Silver Festival.
Season: November through April.
Safety in Mexico: Mexico has a well-deserved reputation for danger. Violence fueled by the drug trade has brought turmoil to some regions, though these are generally along the border and in Mexico City — Taxco and El Chonta are usually considered OK. The food is fresh, mostly safe, and delicious. Be brave and try everything (but don’t drink the water).
Gear: A light jacket and pants are nice for the cave. Bring bug spray for the biting flies outside the cave. You’ll want 17 long quickdraws and a 60m or 70m rope.
Guidebook/Guides: Carlos Garcia Ayala just released his Guia de Escalada: El Hoyanco (Chonta), available in Mexican shops or through him. His guiding company, Simuchi (simuchi.com.mx or firstname.lastname@example.org), can take you to Mexico’s main areas. Jaime Velasco (email@example.com) also guides.