El Chonta, Mexico's Dreamy Stalactite Wrestling
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.
After two days of travel, we met Jaime at the Toluca airport. He embraced us and kissed each of Aimee’s cheeks, his hair well-coiffed and his top few shirt buttons rakishly undone. A gracious, gregarious host, Jaime drove our rental car out of the city traffic while recapping the local scene. The climbing in Mexico, he said, consists of much more than El Potrero Chico. In Mexico City’s environs alone, you’ll find about 20 little-known yet incredible areas, including El Chonta.
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 strongman Carlos Garcia Ayala, of Mexico City, established most of the routes, aiding ground-up with slings, nuts, hooks, and TCUs. One Ayala climb is the infamous, seven-pitch Mala Fama, which travels from the depths to the lip a month-long equipping and cleaning journey later freed by Andrew Muller at 5.12a, 5.12c, 5.12d, 5.12c, 5.12c, 5.12d, and 5.10d. If you climb the entire route, you hike off the cave’s top; however, because the rock’s so steep, you could rap from nearly any point to the steep slope below with a 60-meter rope.
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.
The next morning, we ate a large, cheap breakfast of homemade corn tortillas, fresh eggs, beans, salsa, and ripe avocados. A quick drive northeast took us to Procopio’s ranch, where you park. Procopio is a quiet, round man with rough working hands and a gentle handshake who owns the 4,000-acre ranch two miles from El Chonta. While you can hike the trail directly, most local climbers rent his burros. Procopio uses the income to support his large family (15 kids!) and to improve the crag’s infrastructure it’s good karma to support his efforts. He also allows climbers to camp at the cave for a nominal fee. (Procopio does not own the cave; it’s part of the community Acuitlapan municipality of Taxco de Alarcón, in Guerrero state.)
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.
And so it was that Jaime enlisted a few of Procopio’s kids to load up the burros. At one point on the hike, Jaime pointed to an inch-long black insect. “They call that the ‘Kissing Bug,’ because it only bites around the mouth,” he said. “Of course, if it bites you, it will kill you but why would you let it bite you on the mouth?”
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.
We also tried Jaguar (5.12+), with its notorious “jump” move: you must pounce jaguar-like four feet from one stalactite to the next or do a huge, dynamic stemming move like a “Fear Factor” stunt. That day, we also wittnessed the ranch kids’ first climb wearing leather sandals, they easily flashed a 5.10c on toprope.
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!
Motley crew complete, we headed to the ranch, wrangled four burros, and hiked to the cave. This time, Aimee attempted an amazing 5.12c called Amate Amarillo. It climbed steeply for almost 100 feet and featured a sitting tufa rest at mid-height. The climb’s final half consisted of big moves between jugs, with a technical section to the anchors. I turned my sights on Bio (5.13b), a short powerfest with shallow pockets. Initially, the 20 or so bees swarming the crux hold worried me, but they weren’t Africanized. Manny sent pitch one of Mala Fama, and Pedro onsighted Mala Fama (P1), Jaguar, and Amate. After torching ourselves for two days, we moved on to Jilotepec (Jilo), a conglomerate area in a beautiful forest north of Toluca.
Jilo lies at 8,000 feet in the Dexcaní Mountains amongst farms and ranches. The road there is lined with chicken and rabbit BBQ shacks, while other vendors sell pineapples, coconuts, freshly squeezed OJ, and head-sized chicharrones (pig skins). There’s practically no approach, and the crown jewel is a formation called El Huevo (the Egg), hosting climbs from 5.9 to 5.14 some of the hardest in the Mexico City region. Unlike the smooth, rounded cobbles of Maple Canyon, Jilo offers square-ish cobbles stuck in a bullet-hard volcanic-tuff matrix, and the climbs tend to be slightly overhanging and technical.
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.
El Chonta 411
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.