Potrero Chico gets all the attention, but this alluring monolith outside of sleepy Bernal has bolted moderates for days
I looked up at the rock that bulged out above my head then rounded away out of sight. Across the rock, occasional bursts of fuchsia Tillandsia, a flowering air plant, decorated the route. The glint of the next bolt then re-centered my attention, and I climbed up towards it.
My boyfriend and I were on the third pitch of El Rosal (5.9) on La Peña de Bernal in Querétaro, Mexico, and I was finally learning to lead. I clipped my quickdraw into the bolt, then my rope into the draw. As I worked my way up, a giant grin spread across my face.
Lead climbing was a lot more fun than following. Exhilarating, in fact. La Peña's hard rhyolite was peppered with small crimps and pockets and was textured enough that my shoes stuck nicely to the wall when there weren’t obvious foot holds.
My boyfriend came from the States to visit over the holidays, and we had decided to spend Christmas in Bernal so that I could practice leading. He used to guide, so I hadn’t really needed to lead—at least I didn't think so. After we climbed the full Exum on the Grand Teton the previous summer, I decided that in order to climb what I want to climb with or without him, I needed to learn.
About a week after we returned from Wyoming, I moved to Mexico City for the year. I’d been sick with Lyme disease for two decades (seriously), and now that I was mostly well, I needed an adventure, a new perspective, a new language. Also, I have Mexican roots and wanted to learn more about the culture.
Though there are plenty of bouldering gyms in Mexico City, there isn’t a formal place to learn to lead. Bernal, however, is a climber’s and traveler’s paradise and the perfect place to cut your teeth.
La Peña, a volcanic monolith, boasts 25 routes, the majority of the lines are 5.10 or easier and generously bolted. Most are multipitch, and the rappel stations are well-protected. The approaches are easy, and you can toast your successful summit with a michelada (a delightful, sometimes spicy drink combining beer, tomato juice, lime, and salt) and a view from the open-air restaurants at the base of the trail.
Behind La Peña sits El Capitán, a massive split rock with another 20 single-pitch sport routes, between 5.9-5.12b, and the area is strewn with boulders. A well-kept and marked network of trails winds through the dense foliage of the area between El Capitán and La Peña, leading to bouldering problems. When I asked how many boulders there were, a fellow climber, familiar to Bernal shrugged and guessed, "a hundred?" But there is great potential for more.
La Bernalina (5.8) is the classic route and begins on the front side of La Peña, just off the walking path and past the big flake. The face is clean; the route, well-protected and fun. The second pitch is near vertical, but the crux of the climb, a steep blank section, is at the start of the fourth pitch. La Bernalina joins in with the three routes that start to its right–La Vía de Padre (5.9), El Lado Oscuro de la Luna (5.10a) and Horizante de Estrellas (5.10b)–as well as a new one that starts on the backside–Cadena Nebular (5.11b)–at the base of the fifth pitch before summiting.
It’s best to get an early start on the weekends, to avoid the climber-bottleneck that form where the five routes converge into one. Conditions are primo from late fall to early spring. The summer bakes.
We stayed in the town of San Sebastian de Bernal that weekend, which is one of Mexico’s "Pueblos Magicos," and as the designation suggests, it's a magical little village. Its cobbled streets wind through the old town to the center where gardens surround the distinct yellow and red church, shops and restaurants fill the old, low buildings that are painted in desert shades, porticos covering the sidewalks. Open-air markets line the narrow streets and people move slowly through them, pausing at the food and craft vendors. Esquite carts are set up nearly on every corner, and the smell of roasting corn permeates the air.
It’s a quick and well-signed walk through town to reach the trail to La Peña. It's steep and dusty but leads to ever more impressive views on all sides. Cacti and succulents were in bloom during our holiday stay, and mesquite and copal trees gave shade. It was crowded—even on Christmas Day—with people hiking to the vista and tiny chapel at top of the trail. About halfway up the trail, there are usually a few people with a refreshment stand set up, selling bottled water and sodas, just after most climbers leave the bustling trail to work their way over slab and shrub to the base of winter's dreamiest routes.
[Stay] The town of Bernal offers a variety of places to stay, from budget to boutique hotels, but if you are heading into Bernal to climb, drive past the town, loop around to the back of La Peña and stay at Chichid’ho, a climber’s resort. It has a fully stocked open-air kitchen (but bring your own groceries), BBQs, camping area, hostel-like setup and bathrooms with running water. Tables fill the upper terrace, just off the kitchen, and hammocks are strung across the bottom terrace; both have a full view of La Peña. From Chichid’ho to town is about a 10-minute drive or a 30-minute walk. Boulders and El Capitán are a 10-minute walk away and La Peña about 20 minutes.
[Eat] There is a food market where Highway 100 enters town (from 57) where you can get a variety of traditional foods for a few bucks. At the bottom of the steps of Calle Mesón, there are usually food vendors selling snacks like esquite (grilled corn covered with mayonnaise, lime, chile, salt, and cheese), fresh fruit and vegetable cups, tacos, and huarachas. Find delicious traditional breakfasts at El Arroyo de la Peña (18 Calle Independencia). Don’t miss the Café de Olla.
[Drink] Seek post-climb beers (if you didn’t bring your own to enjoy at Chichid’ho) at El Mirrador, a rooftop bar and restaurant with great views, great beer, and food.
[Get there] From Querétaro, the quickest and easiest way to get to Bernal is to drive. Head towards Mexico City on 57, turn off on Hwy 100 at the Peña de Bernal exit. 100 goes right through Bernal. A taxi from Queretaro will cost about 1200 pesos or 60 dollars. There are no buses that run to Bernal.