Be Welcome Here: Exploring Puerto Rico's Climbing

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The author clips at the lip of a roof while sampling Puerto Rico's limestone.

The author clips at the lip of a roof while sampling Puerto Rico's limestone.

“Be welcome here.”

These were the first words a local climber said as I approached the cliff on our first day in  Puerto Rico. My wife, Cyn, and I had travelled to the beautiful island getaway to teach a climbing clinic for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Our goal was to take a group of veterans, with varying disabilities, out climbing as part of their healing process. We do this all around the country through the non-profit, Adaptive Adventures, based in Lakewood, Colorado.

After the island-changing storm that was Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico took a major hit. It wasn't just the storm, but also the aftermath: loss of tourism, no electricity, and even the roads were gone in many places. We spoke with locals who went 3-9 months without power. This was the norm and thinking about it is mind bending. Can you imagine a major city in the lower 48 going three months without power? The people were forced to work together to bring the island back to it’s natural beauty and to reignite the tourism that helps to run the economy.

While in San Juan, the remnants of Maria are hard to see (in some places the traffic lights still don’t work), but when you head into the countryside you'll find lingering problems. Damaged roads, downed trees down, and some power issues remain, but will not effect your travel in the slightest. If anything, hearing stories of how the people of Puerto Rico banded together during the recovery renewed my faith in how humans treat each other.

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Prior to coming to the island, I had heard a smattering of beta about the climbing on PR. We had the digital guide and a Colorado friend, who is a PR native, shared island beta with us.

On our first two days we climbed in Enrique Julio Monagas Park, a state-run land preserve in the Nuevo Bayamón region. We were looking to get the lay of the land for the clinic, hoping to give the veterans a great experience. The area has nine sectors with varying styles of routes on limestone that is fluted and littered with attached tufas and pockets, making for great flow of movement and position. The routes are varied, some athletic and powerful like Cianuro (5.11c), where unlocking the sequence through the pockets proves to be the crux. Or Bacalaito, a unique 10b, that starts down in a pit, climbs up through a hole, and extends up a pumpy prow to the chains. Shanghai Bombay, a standout technical 12a, keeps you on your toes and fighting the pump, with the crux coming right below the anchors on terrain which gradually steepens as you go. These high-quality limestone routes stand up to five stars anywhere and the areas aren’t crowded or overused. Oh, and did I mention, it holds shade all day?

Escaping the buzz of San Juan, on our way to Ciales on day three, we saw the impressive potential for climbing paired with the stunning beauty of the island. Cobalt blue ocean to our right and rainforest covered mountains to our left, we eased into the small town of Ciales feeling right at home. The valley, carved by the Rio Grande de Manati, gives off a rural vibe flanked by limestone walls—some obvious, others hidden. The approach to Caliche is short and steep, and once at the base, you’re rewarded with a stellar view. The humidity makes it feel like you’re working hard, so be prepared with plenty of chalk and water. Orlando, our new friend, met us at the base and pointed us toward the crag’s gems. A standout day of tufa pinching, and pocket pulling ensued. Don’t miss Pompi Pompi, an 11b rope-stretcher pumpfest that rises up through two roof sections to finish on long stretches of solution pockets. Across the valley, Orlando points out the Food Truck Wall, a brilliant wall of 11’s and 12’s hidden by the forest. On our way out, we run into Eli Helmuth, a local developer with Colorado roots, who runs Climbing Life Guides, based in Ciales. Eli settled in PR with his wife and two kids for the climate and potential for new routes and ecotourism. He hosts an AirBnB and is expanding his reach with a new 16-acre area, complete with cliff base lodging and new routes aplenty. It's a visionary place for all of us who are drawn to warm temps paired with steep limestone cliffs soaring up from the rainforest.

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I have to speak to the culture that is Puerto Rico. Hospitality is king and the local climbing community reflects that in its outgoing and welcoming nature. Happy to share beta and point you in the direction of areas with little information in print, it was easy to feel at home. Beyond that, we were amazed by the help offered for our veteran group. Bryant Huffman, a local developer and guide, runs Climbing PR and is opening a bouldering gym in San Juan. Just after meeting at the crag on the first day of our veteran outing, we exchanged information so he could help the vets stay active at the gym once we left. Nicole Vidal, another a local guide, who started Moca Climbing + Coaching generously offered harnesses and helmets for our climbers so we wouldn't have to truck gear to the island. And our new friend Orlando, who we just met by chance on our second day, volunteered for the entire two day clinic. Who does that?! Our veterans, who had never climbed, were greeted by the climbing locals with such warmth and encouragement, they were excited by what climbing has to offer. You should buy a ticket and head there to experience it for yourself. For Cyn and I, climbing is a fantastic way to experience the world we live in, but the physical act takes a backseat to the people we meet and experiences we have when we travel. This place and these people really impressed both of us, and we can’t wait to go back and explore all the island has to offer.

Getting there

Flights to San Juan route through major hubs in the States, we went thru Dallas and Chicago. You don’t need a passport since its a US Territory, just a drivers license. You can rent a car at the airport, and driving is, well, interesting.

Season

You can climb year round since the island temps don’t vary much, but February and March are the driest months. It's a bit humid so bring lots of Friction Labs with you. There is a rainy season in May, but we climbed in a cave on one rain day and never got wet.

Lodging

The island has lots to chose from, we did an AirBnB, but there are hotels ranging from five star to dirtbag.

Eating

The food is amazing, Caribbean fare and its everywhere. Grocery stores have all the essentials.

Puerto Rico Rock Climbing Mini Guides

These are available online or at the climbing shop Aventuras Tierra Adventro.

Rest day

Bioluminescent bays are around the island and Coastal Living voted Vieques (a small island off the coast) as one of the Top 10 in the World. On the island, De Tour Con Ali runs tours out of San Juan to bays you can snorkel in and check out the bioluminescence up close and personal.

There are world class surf breaks in Rincon, and diving and snorkeling are abundant all over the island.

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