25°36'32.24" N -100°27'29.21
While Potrero Chico was definitely a must-visit, we were also excited to explore some of the other natural areas around the metropolis that is Monterrey. And one place that kept popping up on our adventure radar was La Huasteca National Park.
So after dealing with the heat and crowds at Potrero Chico for a couple days, we decided to forgo a visit and instead head towards La Huasteca for another exciting and different kind of adventure.
One of the first things you notice about La Huasteca National Park is that it is not like the United States’ national parks. This is something we also talked about briefly in our Mae Hong Son article (check it out here). Whereas national parks in the USA are pristine (usually), require payment to enter, and only have national park buildings inside, parks in Mexico - at least the ones we visited on our trip to Monterrey and previously on our trip to Baja Sur - often had actual villages inside, cost nothing to enter, and had very little infrastructure in the form of park rangers, visitor centers, etc.
This doesn’t necessarily bother us. But it is a bit surreal to head into a national park and see no ticket booths, and instead lots of houses, shacks, and trash. While we don’t want to talk badly about these parks, it is sometimes hard to visit a beautiful natural area that has been deemed “protected” and yet still see if full of garbage. We are not saying USA national parks don’t have their fair share of trash - but it is definitely less of a problem (or at least less obvious).
Either way, it was really cool to explore La Huasteca as it felt really different than Potrero Chico, even though they were in the same sort of geological area (and only about 47 miles apart). Whereas Potrero Chico is just one big canyon, stretching maybe 300 meters long, La Huasteca is a massive, long canyon that you drive through for miles and miles, with massive, straight limestone rock formations lining both sides. The only color are the various plants (some type of fern-cactus) that marked the rock.
The park is also a lot more accessible than Potrero Chico, as the road that cuts through it is paved all the way to the no abandoned dam - about 20 miles from the entrance. There is also a Via Ferrata along one of the rock outcroppings, though when we were there it was either closed for the season or forever (you could still see the bridges and walkways though).
We showed up nice and early with the intention of climbing for a bit before heading out to explore the abandoned dam and maybe a few of the big caves that dotted the rocks. Everything was going good: we found a fun route, played with a couple of cute dogs, and even saw a wild (?) herd of donkeys. Then we realized that we only had one pair of climbing shoes. Uh oh.
Turns out, in the time it took to finish climbing the day before in Potrero Chico to arriving in La Huasteca we had somehow misplaced my (Madalyne’s) shoes. Whoops. After clearing out our car and calling the grandparents back at the apartment to see if we had left them there in Monterrey, we finally realized they had disappeared into the void and our plans now needed to change. Luckily, La Huasteca has a lot of adventure to offer. So instead of climbing a rock wall we instead decided to climb up some veeeery steep steps along the face of the now-abandoned dam that sits at the end of the road in the park.
The massive concrete dam, which was abandoned years previously, stands as a forgotten beacon in a narrow, but beautiful canyon. On the other side of the wall is just a dry open wasteland that looks like it hasn’t seen water for years. And we were there in the winter, which is likely more of the “rainy” season, so the fact that it was still bone dry doesn’t make us think the area ever sees that much precipitation (though we could be wrong).
Because the dam is no longer in use, it has instead turned into an urban playground complete with 100 or so steep steps to the top, dark, creepy tunnels, and old metal ladders that Luke was daring enough to conquer (but I was not).
The views of the canyon and the dry riverbed were pretty cool - plus it is not every day that you get to explore an abandoned dam. So if you are in the area, we do recommend checking it out - even for just a quick scare while walking through the dark, murky underground tunnels.
After checking out the dam we decided to go for a nice hike up to the two big caves that we saw from the main road below. Now we will be the first to admit that safety is not always our number one priority. We sometimes take risks without much forethought and often lack significant planning before a big adventure. But as we say (somewhat only jokingly), well we haven’t died yet (we know it is a dark joke, sorry mom).
This time though, we saw a group of hikers already making their way up to the caves and they were
wearing helmets. And because we had planned on climbing all day we also had our own helmets. So we wore the helmets - but if we didn’t have the helmets we 100% still would have hiked without them. Like we said, safety isn’t always at the top of our list.
The hike up was a bit more challenging than expected: it was steep, but also somewhat exposed, especially on some of the rockier parts. We absolutely loved it. There is something just so magical when you conquer something that scares you.
Once up to the first cave, the smaller of the two, we just stood there and took in the views of the park and the rock formations that stretched out for miles in front of us. Wow, just wow. Honestly, if you are in Monterrey and are looking for some stellar views (and a fun off the beaten path adventure) then we highly recommend coming to La Huasteca for the caves alone.
Then it was on to the second cave - this one a bit higher up, and quite a bit larger.
We eventually made it, going slow over the last bit of rock to the entrance as it was quite exposed (and steep). But once again the feeling of making it to the top, plus the views, made us so, so thankful that we had decided to take on the hike in the first place.
Now, all we had to do was make it back down safely. And for anyone who has done a good amount of rock scrambling - which is that weird middle area between hiking and climbing - knows that the going up part is by far the less scary of the two. The going back down part is often way more terrifying - and that was exactly the case with our adventure up to the caves.
Luckily, we weren’t alone.
Turns out the people we had seen hiking up when we were still considering taking on the adventure were there to celebrate a birthday and go canyoneering. We, as two somewhat nosy bystanders, were quickly deep in conversation with the group of five, questioning them about the area and the adventures to be had there. That is when they mentioned they were going to rappel down the cave instead of take on the sketchy downclimb. We then mentioned our passion for canyoneering in Utah. Then one thing led to another and somehow we found ourselves sliding down the mountain, with harnesses on our waists and a new goal of taking on four rappels.
Now the way down wasn’t really a trail. More like a steep rock slide that led to a cliff edge. Don’t worry it sounds way scarier than it actually was (see for yourself below). The only thing we really had to worry about was falling rocks from above, hence why piedra - rock in Spanish - became our new favorite word.
Then soon enough it was time for the first rappel. The group of five consisted of the two male guides, and their three clients - all middle-aged women with a penchant for adventure. Everyone was super friendly and very welcoming, even when we totally butchered their language and had very mime-y conversations.
All too soon the rappels were done - all four of them nice and open, with amazing views of the park’s main valley and limestone rock faces. Then it was just a short, but rocky hike back to the cars. The whole time we kept up a conversation, us using our basic Spanish, them using their basic English, and both of us using a lot of hand gestures. Even though we had met the group only an hour or so before, somehow we quickly became fast friends and were already planning a return trip to Monterrey filled with more canyoneering adventures.
The day ended with all of us sitting on a small wooden balcony overlooking the park entrance with a couple of Mexican cervezas in hand. While we had loved the natural areas around Monterrey before - and were definitely thinking of all the adventures we’d get up to if we ever found our way back - after talking to the two guides, Diego and Edvardo, we became even more fascinated by the area. The amount of beauty and adventure to be had in the close proximity of Monterrey was slightly overwhelming.
A few short hours later we were headed back into the heart of Monterrey for one last dinner before the long drive back to Texas the next day. Our time in Monterrey was filled with outdoor exploration, a good dose of culture and cuisine, and a lot of off the beaten path adventure.
In the end, we both agreed that if we were to head back to Monterrey again in the future we would definitely spend more time in the La Huasteca region than in Potrero Chico. Why? Because not only is there still tons of climbing, but there is also no one there (at least from what we could tell). Similarly, there are also a lot of things to do in the park besides climbing - like hiking to the massive caves, canyoneering, exploring abandoned dams, summiting mountains and meeting friendly dogs and timid donkeys.
If you are considering a unique, off the beaten path outdoor adventure then we cannot recommend Monterrey and the national parks that surround it enough. It is easy to get to, has all the amenities you could want, and it is completely off the tourist trail (unless you are a badass climber and have dreamed of Potrero Chico for years).