Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
As our van pulled into the wooded cul de sac, we could see many ropes hanging from gray, cobbled cliffs and dozens of climbers waiting their turn. Mexican hip-hop blared from a speaker somewhere up the hill. Cries of mátala! and venga! filtered through the woods as climbers urged each other on. We were the only gringos at the crag.
Three of us walked up to the nearest cliff, dumped our packs on the ground, and tried to puzzle out which route was which in our guidebook. Soon, a young, bearded Mexican came over and started pointing out the best climbs. Esta es bonita!
We’d been led to these cliffs by Bernardo Beteta and Steve Levin, two Boulder-based guides who had explored the crags near Mexico City one year earlier. Now we were tagging along on Colorado Mountain School’s first-ever Rock Climbing Mexico expedition, a 10- to 12-day tour of climbing areas within a few hours’ drive of the huge capital city.
My wife and I could have managed a simpler version of this trip on our own; we speak reasonable Spanish and have visited Mexico many times. The climbing areas generally are easily accessible and safe for foreign visitors, and guidebooks and online info are available.
But the planning and logistics would have added a lot of stress to our vacation, and the driving would have been somewhat terrifying. Plus, Steve was an old friend, with whom we were eager to spend more time, and Bernardo, a native of Mexico, not only brought his fluent Spanish to the group but also intimate knowledge of Mexican culture, customs, and food. At breakfast and dinner, Bernardo would order widely from the menus, giving us the opportunity to try dozens of foods we’d never had—and nothing like the Tex-Mex you see at home. Sampling local beers and liquors, stuffing ourselves on delicious food, and sleeping in comfortable hotels—we weren’t exactly roughing it.
Over ten days, our group of nine climbed at four separate places in El Bajío, a region northwest of Mexico City that long has been among the country’s most fertile and prosperous areas. After three of us headed home to Colorado, the rest of the team continued to a fifth climbing area, closer to the capital. Each of the crags had volcanic rock, but otherwise they were completely different. Few of their names would be recognized by most U.S. climbers, but the climbing at most of them is worth a trip. Together, they make for the trip of a lifetime.
Made somewhat famous outside Mexico by a Petzl RocTrip in 2010 (video/article) this is one of the most popular destinations for Mexico City climbers. High on a hillside in a wooded park, the crags ring an enormous monolith of ash-colored conglomerate called El Huevo (“the egg”), where hanging draws trace overhanging lines up to solid 5.14. When we visited in late January, the flowering trees were alive with buzzing insects and birds, and at over 8,000 feet above sea level, the temperature was perfect for climbing. On a Sunday, only two hours from the city, the crag was buzzing with climbers too.
We started at an area near the car called Sal de Mi, with routes up to about 25 meters high and a good range of grades, from 5.9 to low 5.12. The nearby El Pilar had three short 5.7 to 5.9 routes that made good warmups. Many of the climbs had stout, overhanging starts, making a stick clip desirable. In hesitant English, a young guy offered to clip the first bolt for me on one route, but I declined and bouldered it out as he watched.
A few minutes up the hill was a zone called El Circo, with some beautiful, sustained 5.10 and 5.11 pitches on vertical stone. As we walked back down toward the parking at the end of the first day, the young climber who had volunteered to help earlier came running over with a friend and a camera. “Can we take your picture?” he asked. Sure, why not. Half a dozen members of our group—all in their 40s and 50s—lined up for the photo. As he snapped the pictures, the young guy exclaimed, “We’ve never seen old climbers before!”
Peña de Bernal
After a morning of climbing at Jilotepec—nearly empty on a Monday—we headed north into the state of Querétaro and one of the highlights of the trip: the Peña de Bernal. The Peña (“rock”) is a spectacular volcanic plug—one of the larger monoliths in the world—with routes up five to seven pitches long on skin-friendly rhyolite. There are shorter and harder climbs nearby, including a sport climbing sector, but the long, moderate routes are the main draw. Three grand classics ascend the southeast and northwest sides of the rock, and over two days our group climbed them all: the Filo Noroeste, the Filo Suroeste, and Bernalina. Each was 5.9 or 5.10 and almost entirely bolted; I carried a small rack but never placed a piece.
With fixed protection and anchors, the climbs went quickly. On top we ate lunch, posed for photos below large green crosses mounted on the summit, and took in the views over green hills and the colonial city of Bernal. The descent was by rappel and scrambling down past a shrine that draws religious hikers up hundreds of steps.
On our second day in Bernal, I was sick (from a head cold—nothing to do with Montezuma or any feelings of revenge), so after breakfast at a rooftop place where the tables overflowed with glasses of fresh-squeezed juice, coffee, and cups of aromatic Mexican hot chocolate, my wife and a friend joined me to explore the town while the others headed back up to the Peña. Bernal is an attractive colonial town with colorful mustard and ochre churches and shops filled with weavings, clothing, and gifts for the mostly Mexican tourists who visit. We struck up a conversation in one shop, and my wife and the proprietor soon were sharing photos of their dogs; he walked his dog up to the Peña each day. For lunch we picked the place with the longest line in town, figuring it would be good, and chowed on gorditas fried up by a pair of women standing by a griddle at the front door. Then I made my way back to our colonial-era hotel, through the flower-filled courtyard, and up to my room for a long siesta.
After four days of climbing, the group was ready for a rest day and the spot for it was San Miguel de Allende, a colonial city and World Heritage Site in the neighboring state of Guanajuato. San Miguel is packed with art galleries, churches, restaurants, and other attractions that make it one of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations and the home of many Norte Americano expats (though it still has a Mexican feel). We spent an entire day wandering the streets and alleys and returned to our hotel with a painting, table runner, and three camisas to pack alongside our climbing gear in the already overloaded van.
The next day we drove about an hour to the colorful city of Guanajuato and then followed a winding two-track high above town to La Bufa, a cluster of rock fins and towers along a brush-covered ridge. The rock here is also volcanic, much like the pocketed rhyolite at Penitente Canyon in Colorado, but a bit easier on the fingers. We spent the day on the shady bolted cliffs, sampling routes from 5.8 to upper 5.11 and ogling a 5.13 out a stunning arête.
La Bufa itself is not a major climbing destination, but it would make a worthy sport break in a tourist trip to San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato, a bustling university city that has numerous attractions in its own right. After climbing, we drove down to a park honoring El Pípila, a hero of the early days of the Mexican war of independence, in 1810, and then walked down a series of stone steps to explore the center of the city. Long after dark, we ate outside at a restaurant bordering the tree-filled zocalo (central plaza), where, like good tourists, we paid a mariachi band to serenade us with Cielito Lindo, La Llorona, and other classics.
My only previous climbing trip to Mexico—and all of my mental images of Mexican climbing—had involved exclusively sport climbing. But we were about to discover that trad climbing is alive and well south of the border. After three nights in San Miguel de Allende, we drove to the whitewashed village of Aculco. Nearby, amid cool, grassy highlands, a river has carved a gorge from basalt reminiscent of the Lower Gorge at Smith Rock or Paradise Forks in Arizona, only more sandbagged. The guidebook calls it the “Mexican Indian Creek.”
About 150 climbs line both sides of the gorge below a pretty waterfall, and can be reached from above, with rappels or top-ropes anchored to convenient trees, or from below by a simple scramble and trail. The routes follow corners, splitters, and arêtes up to about 30 meters high—what they have in common is relentless steepness. We all agreed that every climb we did seemed under-graded by one to two letters. Or maybe we’d all just gotten soft from clipping bolts and following Bernardo’s menu recommendations.
Regardless, the climbing was superb and this is a place I’d definitely visit again. Next time, though, I’d bring three sets of cams instead of two.
For my wife, our friend, and me, the trip was about to end. But the rest of the group still looked forward to two days at Los Dinámos, one of the best cragging areas in central Mexico.
Los Dinámos comprises a series of cliff lines on a pine-covered hillside, with more than 150 routes on dark basalt, both sport and traditional routes, up to 60 meters high. High above the west side of the already high-elevation Mexico City, Los Dinámos tops out at nearly 10,000 feet, making for chilly climbing and perhaps a fun way to acclimatize for Mexico’s popular volcano climbs.
For us, the last full day in Mexico was capped with an afternoon trip to the 2,000-year-old pyramids of Teotihuacán, once the largest city in the Americas, and dinner at an amazing restaurant inside a huge cave, where some of us added ant eggs and moth larvae to the gross-out-your-family Facebook photos in our collection. (The latter, called chinicuil, were delicious, with salty, nutty taste and a crunch like Cheetos.)
I was sorry we were headed home instead of going to Los Dinámos with the rest of the gang. But I also took some comfort in the knowledge that Bernardo and Steve were planning a brand-new Mexican trip, this coming January, to the rock climbing areas near the city of Guadalajara. ¡Vamos!
- For information about the Colorado Mountain School trips, visit Colorado Mountain School: Rock Climbing Mexico. Three trips to El Bajío are tentatively scheduled for this coming winter, in early December, late January, and mid-February.
- Though it can be warm in the sun, this high-elevation part of Mexico generally does not offer beach weather. Bring a mix of clothing, including long pants for climbing and a puffy jacket for cold mornings and nighttime outings. Good climbing conditions can be found through much of the year, but avoid the rainy summers.
- The Centro/Sur (“central and south”) volume of the two-book Guía de Escalada en México, by Oriol Anglada, covers all the crags in this article. The guidebook is written in both English and Spanish and offers good overviews of the crags. However, even though it was published in 2013, we found that many newer routes were not listed in the guidebook. Online searches will reveal various other resources, and the locals are friendly and helpful. And, if you go with Colorado Mountain School, you’ll have guides!