Ah, El Chonta. If you ever told Angie she’d spend two weeks sleeping in a cave in Mexico, she definitely wouldn’t have believed you! But oh how life changes when you marry a rock climber… and then become one yourself.
Steve’s been wanting to check out this limestone cave a few hours from Mexico City ever since he read the great feature that ran in Climbing magazine in 2010.
We first checked it out on a two-day trip with Mac, which coincided with Angie’s birthday. It’s not every girl who gets to celebrate her big day with a 5 am wake up call to a fresh Mexican birthday cake and then a hike in the heat of the morning to a limestone cave, home of deadly chinches and long drop toilets. (Chinches are big beetles that live in the cave and bite you on the mouth when you are asleep. Apparently you can die years later from the bite without anyone knowing the cause. Long drop toilets, for our non-South African readers, are charming communal ablution facilities dug into the ground.) But some girls are just luckier than others, right?
One of the great features of El Chonta is that you don’t have to haul anything up yourself. Procopio and his family (owners of the 4,000 acre ranch at the entrance to El Chonta) provide a burro service to get your equipment and water up to the cave. Although the hour-long walk is not too bad, it’s a good thing to support the family… not to mention that a week’s worth of food, water and camping equipment gets heavy quickly! If you go during the warmer months, we strongly advise doing the approach during the cooler hours of the morning or better, the late evening or even at night.
Though the ideal time of year to climb here is during the winter months of November through February, the inside of the cave remains climbable year round. That is, so long as you’re willing to put up with:
a) climbing in the mornings or during and after the late-afternoon thundershowers or
b) very sweaty arms and torso! (Not as bad as it sounds given that most holds are juggy stalactites)
We spent most of our time in El Chonta around March and April and although most of the locals had switched to cooler crags, we didn’t find the heat and humidity all too bad.
Procopio loading up one of our burros
Efren (one of Procopio’s 15 kids!) on burro duty
Rudolfo, another of Procopio’s progeny, making the most of his burro
Procupio at work
Home sweet home!
Steve unwrapping his new Petzl rope. Not a bad spot for its debut!
Steve navigates the dreamy stalactites of El Chonta
Angie redpointing her first 5.11, Seres Inorganico (Inorganic Beings)!
Steve on belay duty
Mac on El Alguila Que Devora (The Eagle That Devours), 5.12d
Emiliano climbing out from the depths of the cave on his route, Planta Baja (Ground Floor), 5.13d
Steve onsighting Ataxco, a classic 5.13a/b that climbs out to the lip of the cave
Though we went to El Chonta for two shorter stints, we also returned for a two-week stay. During this trip, Steve teamed up with Alex, a visiting climber from Canada, to climb Mala Fama (Bad Reputation), the classic seven-pitch route that ascends from the back of the cave. The first six pitches (pitch seven is a dirty scramble to get onto flat ground) cover a greater horizontal distance than the route’s height. Indeed, one is able to reach the ground from any of the first four belay stations with two 60m ropes (or one 80m). The climbing is steep tufa hauling with grades ranging from 5.12a to 5.13a.
During the ascent there was more than one scary moment as key (and well chalked) stalactites kept popping off unexpectedly, sending the climbers tumbling into the abyss, usually still holding large chunks of rock in their hands! During one such incident, Steve caught his fall by grabbing another hold and pulling his weight up below a new tufa, However, he wasn’t the only creature seeking refuge under this stalactite as his entry chased a resident bat out and straight into his stomach. Luckily, after a moment’s pause, it recovered and flew swiftly away without leaving a scratch. (Apparently they can be highly infectious!)
Alex chilling out at one of the less-than-comfortable hanging belay stations on Mala Fama
Before Alex’s conversation finally degenerated into a string of French swear words, he remarked that this was much worse than other loose rock since there was no way to tell which stalactites would break until you found yourself in the air! Nevertheless, we finally made it to the top in ragtag fashion and happily celebrated the end of the ordeal. Unfortunately celebrations were premature as the rappel down turned into another epic due to the overhanging nature of the rock. (Definitely walk off if you do the route.)
Despite the fragility of many of the stalactites (many of which still cling desperately to the wall), Mala Fama provided us with a great day of adventure y vale la pena as they say here (it’s worth the pain.)
Alex managing the rope on the final stretch of pitch six, 5.13a
A group of four Belgians rolled through for a few days during our two week stay; here’s the Belgian team on pitch three of Mala Fama.
During the final stage of our stay Steve found himself a new project, Mexicanos Perdidos (Lost Mexicans), 14.b, a great roof problem buried deep within the cave. The line was opened by a local, Mauricio Huerta, a few years ago and received some attention during the Petzl Roc Trip last year. It’s definitely one of the proudest natural lines we’ve seen so far. Unfortunately, conditions for the next few months will be humid and sweaty so it may have to wait until next winter.
One evening, we headed to the cave entrance of a subterranean river, about an hour’s walk from El Chonta. The way was overgrown with parasitic air-plants that looked surreal in the humid evening light.
An abandoned wasp nest
Angie, thinking about her soon-to-come bath in the river, while Steve has trained his eye on the as-yet-unbolted 80m cave.
We also enjoyed a great rest day in the nearby pueblo of Taxco, a quaint town of cobblestone streets and old buildings nestled in the hills 25km south of El Chonta. It’s a must to check it out if visiting El Chonta.
Alex wheeling and dealing in town
We’ve now sampled tortillas in many forms, from store-bought flour ones to hand-pressed corn (the latter providing the most satisfaction!) Here’s a more industrial-looking corn tortilla production shop in Taxco. Unfortunately we only discovered the holes in our tortillas, visible here, when we got back to the cave.
We just missed getting caught in this crazy hailstorm in Taxco. Luckily, we made it to the bus station just in time.
Another afternoon, we checked out yet another cave (also unbolted) near El Chonta. The river was much less appealing in this one but the features were impressive nevertheless.
El Chonta evenings were an amazing time, filled with the soft noise of birds, the buzz of insects and an eery glow.
If you’re thinking about heading to El Chonta, here are a few tips. As always, feel free to contact us with questions.
– We highly recommend using the buses to get there instead of renting a car. Car rentals are very expensive here, and you’ll just pay to leave it parked. A bus from Mexico City or Toluca costs just a few bucks and is fast.
– We suggest a visit to ‘Miscelania Yoni’, which is the tienda (shop) located a few hundred metres from the entrance to Procupio’s farm (heading toward Taxco). You can walk there for a cerveza or Coke, but more exciting, you can eat a delicious home-cooked meal prepared by Rosea in the evenings when she gets back from her cooking job at the nearby Grutas caves. Her homemade tortillas are the best we’ve had yet.
– Although there are some nice hotels in Taxco, the 45 minute drive and hour-long walk up in the sun seem to us a substantial price to pay. Therefore, we recommend camping up by the cave and taking a side-trip to Taxco when you crave creature comforts.
– The last page of the Climbing magazine article gives an up-to-date 411 for planning a trip with contact details for Mac and Jaime who can help orient you, as they did for us. Also see the PETZL roctrip report and related climber blogs.