We’ve visited El Potrero Chico more times than any other destination in Mexico. It’s as if the spectacular limestone cliffs of the canyon have a magnetic pull that draws us in each time we cross the border. Our first visit to this special place was in 2016, on our first road trip to Mexico. We rocked up the canyon in our 2003 Toyota Matrix, completely strung out from the drive, which included a dicey journey through the city of Nuevo Laredo, accidentally driving through a town the wrong way on a one-way street (Google was less accurate in those days), and a lot of speed bumps, something we were not yet accustomed to. Arriving at the canyon was like reaching an oasis. We had no idea at that time what to expect from Mexico, and this first experience set a very high bar.
That first road trip was 8 years ago and we’ve since crisscrossed Mexico from north to south and east to west, exploring much of what this country has to offer. And guess what… El Potrero Chico remains one of our favourite places and one that we will continue to visit every time we pass through. In this post, we’ll share 5 things we love about this place, why it keeps drawing us back, and why you should make this stop if you’re driving through Northern Mexico.
#1 – The Canyon (El Potrero Chico)
The main attraction here is without a doubt, the Potrero Chico (‘little coral’) canyon. It towers above the town of Hidalgo with its’ limestone cliffs and spires. With over 600 climbing routes, the canyon is an internationally renowned destination that attracts climbers from other parts of Mexico and worldwide. When we first arrived 8 years ago, we didn’t come for the climbing. We weren’t climbers at the time and in fact, didn’t even realize that Potrero Chico was a climbing destination. We came for the camping. When we explained this to the climbers we met, they were baffled and we were constantly asked, ‘but then why are you here’? Every Gringo is here for the climbing.
After stopping here year after year, the beauty of the canyon (and some friendly peer pressure) converted us to climbers, and now we’re hooked. Climbing is terrifying, exhilarating, and rewarding, all at the same time. I saw a sticker the other day that said “Climbing – it tears the screams from your throat”. That about sums it up.
While climbing might be the main activity at El Potrero Chico, the canyon has something for everyone… hiking, biking, strolling, picnicking, and staring in awe at the crazy climbers, visible mostly by their brightly coloured helmets on the steep canyon walls. We’ve always really enjoyed spending time hiking in the canyon. This year, we finally found ‘The Big Tree’. After years of wondering where it was in the canyon, we located it thanks to the AllTrails app. It turns out we had been walking under its branches every year without knowing it.
Our favourite hike is the Cumbre El Toro Sierra de Fraile (‘El Toro’) trail. It is a punishing 8-km hike that takes you straight up the back of the south-facing El Toro cliff. This year, I (Nat) hiked the trail with Walter and his doggy friend Brujo – a little brown stray who joined us en route. Parts of the trail are incredibly steep and scrabbly, sometimes requiring mini climbs up rock faces (and hoisting dogs up those same faces), but all the work is absolutely worth it for the 360-degree views from the top.
#2 El Bùho Café
The El Bùho Café in Hidalgo is our #1 favourite hangout. We spend a lot of time in this cozy nook, and I do believe we come to El Potrero Chico as much for El Bùho as we do for the climbing! They serve flavourful lattes (and coffees of all types), giant biscuit sandwiches, waffles, and delicious chocolate chip cookies. I like to spend time perusing the merch and the used book selection. Marc just loves when I find a good, heavy hardcopy book to bring home to the van, lol. They also have board games and magazines to keep climbers entertained on cold, rainy, or rest days. But I think what we love most of all about this place is the excellent vibes. Everyone in this little cafe – customers and staff alike – is so friendly and welcoming. They even let Walter come in with us and he enjoys the attention from everyone while we’re there.
It’s worth noting that El Buho is a faith-based organization and the Staff there are volunteers. All the proceeds from the Café go to support the nearby middle school in Mission and other local education projects.
#3 Market Day & The Town of Hidalgo
Tuesdays and Fridays are ‘market days’ in Hidalgo. On Tuesdays in particular, gaggles of climbers descend on Hidalgo to experience the market, stock up on fresh produce and grab a bite of market grub. We try never to miss a market day because it’s the best place to get fruits and veggies, an excuse to take a walk into town, and an opportunity to mingle with the locals. Everyone is friendly, the vendors are accustomed to climbers and charge fair prices, and Walter gets lots of pets and compliments. He’s always being told how ‘guapo’ (handsome) he is. It’s also a perfect time to find things you might need for your vanlife adventures (electrical tape, stationary, nuts, bolts, detergent, etc.) as well as things you absolutely don’t need but must have (fleece-lined leggings and velvet onesies, for example). If you’re looking for some typical, bustling, Mexican street life, the market is the place to find it.
Hidalgo isn’t a touristy ‘pueblo magico’ – it’s a typical northern Mexican town originally founded on the local Cemex cement plant. We like that it’s a traditional town and enjoy spending time in it. While we’re in Hidalgo for the market, we often take the opportunity to run other errands and explore. The town has a Plaza Principal with a church, park benches, shops, a bank, and, best of all, an ice cream parlor. During our last couple of visits, we discovered Tamales Esperanza and La Gloria Panaderia, which should not be missed. Some cheeky little murals have recently been added throughout the town, which really brightens things up.
Camping – it’s what we came for in the first place! As we mentioned earlier in the blog, we first chose to stop in El Potrero Chico because it was along our route through Mexico and we noticed in the iOverlander App that there were a number of campgrounds near the canyon. The number and variety of campgrounds, hostels, and hotels in the area have exploded in recent years. They vary in amenities, price, and proximity to the canyon, but just about all of them boast fantastic views. Perhaps more importantly, they all foster a sense of community. Spending time in any of the campgrounds means meeting other climbers, making friends, exchanging stories, and finding climbing partners. We always meet the best people here and it’s one of the things that makes it so hard to leave.
We’ve stayed at a couple of the local campgrounds over the years. Homeros’ Campground remains our favourite and it’s where we stayed again this year. It has the best canyon views and is only a 5-minute walk from the canyon entrance. It’s also the cheapest, quietest, and lowest amenity option, which is perfect for us. We start and end each day by sitting in our little camp chairs, sipping on coffee or beer (depending on the time of day 😉), and enjoying the view. The daily fee for camping at Homeros ranges from 100 – 150 pesos (~ $5 – $7.50 USD) per day, depending on the length of stay. Amenities include a quiet spacious camping area, water for our tanks, flush toilets (rustic but functional), hot showers, and a community kitchen.
For those of you traveling in an RV, I’d be reluctant to drive through the town of Hidalgo in anything bigger than a Class ‘C’. That said, we have seen buses and larger RVs make it through, so it is possible. Best to know your route and FYI, none of the campgrounds have dumping stations.
#5 Proximity to the Border
Finally, we love that El Potrero Chico is so close to the US border. The process of crossing the border to Mexico and the culture shock upon arriving can be exhausting, so we like to keep our first driving day in Mexico short. From McAllen or Laredo, Texas, it’s just a 3-hour drive. This makes it a perfect first stop and an excellent place to unwind or experience some canyon adventures before continuing south.
Other Things We Love
We’ve listed the top 5 things we love about this place, but there are others that are worth an honourable mention:
- Friendly, Welcoming Locals: Locals in Hidalgo are accustomed to climbers visiting during the Fall and Winter months and are friendly and welcoming. One year, we were having trouble finding the main square and a kind woman went out of her way to drive us there and provided all sorts of local intel along the way. This year, a group of locals greeted us on our way back from a climb, offered us a beer, and took photos with Walter.
- A Good Mechanic: We’ve had a number of pre-emptive van repairs completed in Hidalgo over the years by Juan, a local mechanic. We bring parts/fluids from the US and he installs them. Over the years, he’s changed Sally’s front and rear shocks, differential fluid, and oil. His rates are very reasonable. This year, his daughters chatted with Marc in Spanish and cooked him lunch while he waited. How’s that for service?!
As always, it was difficult to tear ourselves away from El Potrero Chico this year. We would like to have stayed longer but there’s a long hot spell in the forecast, which means it’s time for us to continue south toward higher elevations and cooler temperatures. Stay tuned for more about that in the next blog. Hint: we’re going silver hunting!
4 thoughts on “5 Things We Love About El Potrero Chico, Mexico – Vanlife Adventures”
Sounds amazing…thanks for sharing all the details in your post!
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Wow, that place looks awesome and this would be close enough to Fun N Sun to do a 4 to 6 day trip. It is now on my bucket list. Natalie, you write a great blog.
Thanks Brian. Yes, it would make an excellent mini trip for you guys. I think you would really enjoy it. You could come and meet up with us there next year!