Traveling in Mexico can sometimes seem like a dicey prospect. Here’s our guide to traveling to El Potrero Chico safely this season, along with a few evergreen recommendations for visiting climbers.
Everybody who’s a climber in the U.S. and Canada knows the party is in Mexico for Christmas and New Year’s. Every December (and for a few months in each direction on the calendar), climbers pour into Hidalgo, Nuevo Leon, eager to pull down on Mexican limestone, swill Mexican substances, and party all night.
They’re right to do so, in my opinion. I’ve driven down from Austin, Texas, to revel there many a time, and wish that’s what I was doing right now. Can’t-miss routes drape the cliffs as densely as streamers at a Mexican Easter party,
Leo’s Tacos is always open late, and I feel deeply welcome at Homero’s every time I arrive. And for the seasonal stalwarts who’ll require a change of pace, El Salto perches just up the road.
The answer to the question, “Should I go to El Potrero Chico (EPC) this year?” is obvious to many of us; from a point of view that excludes everything but the Potrero.
I also know people whose families have attempted to forbid them from traveling there due to worries over safety. We’ve all heard the “EPC is dangerous” stories. People have sat around tables at the campgrounds with men they’re certain are narcos.
One time in the early 2000s, police found four corpses hanging from a tree far up the canyon. They were the members of a band that had played at one of the resorts the night before.
Goodwill doesn’t always prevail; that’s the case no matter where in the world you are. So, here’s some information to help you decide whether you’re comfortable visiting the Potrero this season. We collected government recommendations, contacted campground hosts, and sourced recent visitors to get a feel for what’s up at “the little corral.”
Consider Avoiding Nuevo Laredo Due to Reported Police Bribes
Luke Riethman, who recently graduated from SUNY Plattsburgh with an Expeditionary Studies degree, visited the Potrero in September. He spoke with me from Puerto Escondido, a surf town on the Pacific coast in southern Mexico.
Riethman drove into the country along with his dog and said his trip was generally amicable. While he did encounter some concerning evidence of roadside violence (including what appeared to be a corpse covered by a sheet, surrounded by police) while driving southbound away from El Potrero through San Luis Potosi, he said that his travels in Nuevo Leon went smoothly.
Riethman stayed at La Posada along with just two other parties — early-season visitors were sparse in the canyon at that time.
Riethman offered two key recommendations for El Potrero visitors this season:
- Don’t drive through Nuevo Laredo.
- Depending on your port of entry, file your tourist paperwork online.
Visitors to Mexico have long needed to fill out a Tourist Card containing basic information about their identity, their origin, where they’re headed, and how long they plan on being there.
In the past, stopping at a border town building to go through customs was requisite. In practice, it meant wading through a bureaucratic process that could be cumbersome or confusing — especially for anyone without a conversational understanding of Spanish.
Not so anymore. Now you can fill out your Tourist Card online, whether you’re flying or driving in. Instructions are easy to follow, and it’s free.
That depends on where you’re entering the country. Many airports and bridge entry points make the list, but unfortunately, Monterrey International Airport is not one of them.
Neither are the entry points in Piedras Negras — Puente Internacional Camino Real and Puente Internacional Piedras Negras II. That’s where Riethman recommended entering the country this season due to tips about nefarious police activity in Nuevo Laredo.
“We heard that there were a lot of police bribes happening with tourists in Nuevo Laredo,” he told me.
So he and his climbing partner chose Piedras Negras (Eagle Pass, Texas, on the U.S. side) instead. He reported no issues and an easy drive down highways 57 and 53 to Hidalgo.
When they got there, he said, the few climbers staying in the canyon at the time corroborated what they’d heard about Nuevo Leon.
“There were two other parties, and they both said they’d been bribed,” Riethman said.
Note: You’ll also want to get “Mexico insurance” (yes, that’s what most providers call it) for your car. It works just like normal American car insurance, but in Mexico, and you can purchase short-term plans for your visit. Many providers make it available.
La Posada Stands Out With New Programs to Welcome Climbers
There are several common places for climbers to stay in the canyon below El Potrero, but by far, the most popular is La Posada. Big groups can choose from various private houses, traditionalists can opt for Homero’s, and anyone who wants a down-home Mexican experience can bivy at Chon’s.
Homero’s is the original and still draws justified traffic with hospitality and a depth of story that’s unrivaled anywhere in the sport climbing universe, to my knowledge.
However, it can’t match La Posada’s amenities. The compound stands out for its restaurant, pool, cabana hangouts, private rooms, glamping sites, and two private houses.
It then upped the ante by offering direct shuttles for visitors from the Monterrey International Airport. This year, it welcomes tourist climbers with Spanish language programs and even opportunities to talk shop with local Mexican climbers.
Some Mexican climbers affiliated with La Posada will be there in an ambassador capacity — helping the resort with photoshoots and projects related to its own marketing. But a spokesperson did say that visiting climbers will have some opportunities to get on the inside track with help from the locals.
The spokesperson could not confirm any accounts of police bribes in Nuevo Laredo among La Posada guests. She said she was unaware of any safety incidents in the canyon involving tourists this season. When asked what her number-one safety recommendation for climbers visiting the Potrero was, she answered immediately: travel in groups.
Best Practices: How to Stay Safe, and One Story About Danger
To stay safe in Mexico, you’ll generally want to stick to a handful of best practices. Each one is simple to follow, and doing so can strongly improve your chances of success.
Broadly speaking, common sense and some comprehension of Spanish are your most important tools. Be respectful; don’t get in a car with anyone you don’t know or can’t confirm is affiliated with your group; be familiar with how to access Mexican cash; and don’t buy or sell drugs.
Speaking of drugs, if you live in the United States, Canada, or many of the other countries most tourists typically visit the Potrero from, you’ll likely notice that some Mexican police are very heavily armed.
If you want anything to do with criminal activity in Mexico, you’re on your own. Notably, that goes for drunk driving as well — which Mexican authorities take very seriously.
Three other key best practices to follow as general policy:
- Drive on main roads and toll roads.
- Commute during daylight hours.
- Travel as a group.
These are mostly matters of common sense, but they’re worth reiterating. You’re less likely to get waylaid or otherwise bothered on any road that’s well-trafficked. And everybody knows it’s easier to pull shenanigans after dark.
I cannot overemphasize the asset that is group travel. If you’re part of a group, you can pool resources, including but not at all limited to money. Varied skill sets between comrades, like language, travel experience, navigational ability, etc., can help all boats rise.
And, of course, you can look out for each other.
One of the only terrifying circumstances I’ve ever experienced in Mexico happened a few years ago when my partner and I rappelled down from a climb after dark to find a woman we were traveling with missing.
It was very late in the season, and we were the only tourist group in the canyon. Our car was in the parking lot, locked. Our passports were inside. The missing woman had the keys.
The few stragglers back at Homero’s, where we were staying, had not seen her. It took all the composure I could muster not to smash a window, grab my documents, and take a car to the airport.
Finally, she showed back up, under the care of a good Samaritan, a few hours later. She told a vague story.
Takeaway: you don’t want to be in that spot. Travel with people you trust, stay in contact, and — above all — maintain common sense.
Also, the U.S. Department of State maintains and updates travel advisories regarding Mexico on its site.
What You Cannot Bring to Mexico: Guns, Etc.
If you’re driving to Mexico, you’ll want to make sure you’re not carrying anything authorities won’t let you bring in.
The list is relatively short. Apart from illegal drugs, firearms, and ammo, you can bring in most personal effects duty-free. You can even bring in gifts up to a few hundred dollars in value, according to travel guide company Frommer’s.
However: do not bring illegal drugs, firearms, or ammunition into Mexico. Despite what some Americans might think, Mexico’s gun carry laws are stricter than in the United States. If you do want to bring a gun into the country, you face a mountain of paperwork.
And feel free to bring a few things on your way out. Fruits and vegetables won’t make it through Customs if they send you to a secondary inspection. I’ve made it back with various amounts of Mexican beer and liquor, though U.S. Customs explicitly allows only one liter of alcohol and one case of beer per person for every 30 days you’re in the country.
Pro Tips: Hidalgo Hangouts and Light-Duty Beta
My experiences in Hidalgo have been categorically welcoming, casual, and colorful. I’ve always found it pretty easy to get around once I get the hang of it, and locals have treated me with attitudes ranging from tolerant ambivalence to open-armed kindness. I do speak rudimentary conversational Spanish, and it often improves during my visits.
Climber base camp in Hidalgo is, unequivocally, El Buho. The coffee shop is typically full of visiting climbers, and you can reliably go there for bilingual banter on how to get around town, do’s and don’ts, Wi-Fi, and other generally useful information. (As of several years ago, you could still grab a hand-drawn paper map of the town with key points of interest for climbers, like where to get beer, ice cream, and other essentials, plus market dates.)
El Buho is located right down the street from the grocery store, which is planted (conveniently) at the corner of the road leading to the Potrero. There’s a Santander bank with an ATM in the vestibule catty corner across the square from the store.
In the square, you’ll ideally find the elote guy. Whether you go entero or en vaso, elote is always a fortifying and affordable treat. My other key recommendations include a tiny restaurant with excellent salsa on the street corner across from the cemetery (which is also well worth seeing). As long as it’s still there, it’s right near the train tracks and the Friday market.
But speaking of markets, I can’t recommend spending a day at one highly enough. As long as you’re staying long enough to visit one, it’s a fun way to lose yourself in the culture of the town and channel some money directly to the people that help make it the seasonal climber destination it is.
Potrero-Specific Climbing Recommendations
There’s a lot to be said for the climbing style at the Potrero. Rad rock, bomber bolting, long, direct routes from well-trafficked classics to obscure sport climbing adventures, consistent rappel methodology, and pretty excellent views.
Words to the wise, though: no matter how chill it may seem, remember you’re on a 2,000-foot cliff. Not everything always goes according to plan. Storms can blow in, especially out of the northern valley, with surprising immediacy.
Popular routes can get so busy they can become dangerous during high season. And though the most climbed-out lines get very heavy traffic, loose rock still exists.
I’ve taken cover at the bottom of a shooting gallery of dropped gear and pebbles below “Pitch Black.” I’ve rappelled off a palm tree in the dark after missing the belay bolts on “Time Wave Zero.” And I have hauled a new climber back to the belay bolts after he rappelled into space all the way to his knots on “El Sendero Diablo.”
That said, here’s my checklist for every El Potrero climb:
- Helmet. Helmet, helmet, helmet. I know people who won’t get out of their car in the parking lot below Mota Wall without wearing one, and I don’t consider them extremists.
- 70m rope. I have found rappel bolting highly consistent at the Potrero. The standard pitch length seems to be between 30-35 m. Rappelling on a 70m line, I have reached anchors due to rope stretch only on multiple occasions. (Always tie knots.)
- A quad. Bolt spacing at anchors in the Potrero is so consistent that, in my experience, I can usually pre-rig one and use it at every single belay for my entire trip.
- Gri-gri and ATC or similar. Belaying with either one will always work. But it varyingly makes sense to simul-rappel or go one at a time in the Potrero. (Always tie knots.)
- Headlamp and sleeves. You never know.
- Cash, baby. If Eduardo’s doing his thing in the canyon by the time you get down from a long day on the wall, I just about guarantee you’ll want to go see him for a margarita or some pizza. And even if he’s not there, you can usually still stop on the way back to your flop for refreshments along the way.
Above all, respect the locals, clean up after yourself, stay safe, and have fun. I have yet to want to return to the U.S. after a trip to the Potrero — and I have zero reasons to believe this winter will be my first time.