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Happy Tide—Climbing, Puerto Rican Style (Part 2)

Posted on: March 12th, 2012 by Luke Bauer

 Member Jim Aikman—writer, photographer, filmmaker—writes about his experiences in Puerto Rico, climbing and otherwise…This is the second part of a two part series. Read Part 1.

…The next morning we were finally climbing (readers rejoice!). We made it to the cliff, starting at The Gym and moving over to Vertical Jamming Wall. We were blown away by the steepness and esoteric quality of the rock, and happy to take a day or two to warm up. The Gym is about a hundred yards across with ten or eleven routes on it, each one having its own character. Stalactites hang off the wall like tongues and the limestone forms these briefcase-handle jugs that make up for the near horizontal style of most of the routes. Good bolts, great movement and great climbs, if you don’t mind a few spider webs clinging to your damp skin in the humidity of the jungle like cotton candy (not as bad as it sounds). We even climbed under the overhang while a torrential downpour soaked the world around us.

Next door, the Vertical Jamming Wall has some more varied vertical terrain and the best rock quality that I encountered in Puerto Rico. Most of the routes climb to 90 or 100 feet through overhanging tufas and technical faces, taking you high above the canopy into an exotic, prehistoric world. This wall contained what I felt were the best lines on the island, despite only having a few climbs harder than 5.11. This wall also contains several classic multi-pitch routes. We climbed Rayos y Centellas in the evening light, reaching the 5.11d crutch pitch in the glow of dusk. If you go to Puerto Rico, you must do this route, but get the beta on lowering off the top pitch (you can reach the ground with a double 70 meter rappel, but cleaning this last pitch can be epic).

The next five days were an utter haze of climbing, eating, smoking spliffs, drinking Medalla, beating the limestone like it owed us money, and sleeping in. We took one rest day in the surf town of Rincon, where 10-foot waves and Thai food thrashed us. 

Luis also took us to an annual celebration of El Dia de Los Reyes, or Three Kings Day, when every year his family has a big party to fulfill the promise they made to the Three Kings to sing to them on that date in exchange for peace in Puerto Rico and beyond. Pretty powerful stuff. Live music involving improvised verses and group sung choruses echoed down the beaches of La Parguera as the passion of Puerto Rico permeated our souls. We spent one more night with Luis and the Rosario family before we packed up the car for Cayey and the volcanic domes of Las Tetas, or in English, The Tits. And they were exactly that.

There we met up with Rosanno and Edda, the two most active route developers on the island, who were bolting a new multi-pitch line in a funky corner, smack dab in the middle of the main crag. The rock here is really good in its own way, but completely different from any terrain we’d yet experienced on the island. It climbed more like Boulder Canyon, requiring delicate footwork and technical crimping for success. Any visitors must try Head to Toe (5.11d) for a truly classic pitch before moving on to Antidota and Migrana, both 5.12. There is so much undeveloped rock here that it boggles the mind.

Enter full-moon-drum-circle-beach-party in San Juan. This scene was jumping with life as they burned their Christmas trees from the past holiday season on a massive bonfire, lighting up the backlit sky with golden memories of the previous year, burned up and carried away on the breeze to be recorded in that great big trip report in the sky.

I was woken abruptly at 3 AM that night after the party by a stirring inside my guts. An evil presence had snuck its way into my deepest, darkest corners and waited until the right moment to strike. I’ve never been so sick in my life and thought I’d been through the worst of it when the violent wrenching finally ceased. I was wrong. I’m not sure if it was the opaque brown waters of the Puerto Rican jungle river I bathed in or the late night chicken nuggets from Wendys, but something had taken root deep in the recesses of my GI tract. I can never seem to avoid the international stomach plague, but this one was different.

I waged epic battle against the diarrhea demon, utterly determined to not let it stop me from climbing and shooting the last four days of my trip. We finally rallied out of Cayey and moved on to join up with Bryant back in Bayamon, Puerto Rico’s most well known crag. It rests amidst the urban fervor of San Juan’s industrial corner, but ten minutes up the trail and you might think you were in Vietnam. We relished the climbing here and the area’s unique limestone features in the lush jungle. At dusk we headed back to Bryant’s apartment to sleep and to get ready for The Arch.

We woke up at 5 AM to get an early start in Arecibo, the deep water soloing mecca of Puerto Rico. The coast here is peppered with incredible rock formations, many of which have been carved into striking arches and caves. Our goal was an arch known by many as Es Pontitas because of the similarity that it bears to Sharma’s Es Pontas arch in Spain. The first and only line on this formation (as of January 2012) is called Marejala Feliz (Happy Tide) and goes at a casual 5.11c. One cannot look at this feature without imagining the many possible lines coming out the arch.

I was really starting to feel the effects of not eating for three days or having any electrolytes left in my body, but the psyche was high when we arrived at the arch to extremely mellow surf and spectacular glowing sunrise light. We sessioned the arch all morning, with some big whips and big sends. The line could not be more perfect and you would be remiss to not spend at least one day enjoying this monument by deep water soloing. I am certain that there are at least three more aesthetic and challenging lines to be established on the arch by anyone willing to make the journey and strong enough to pull through the basalt jugs and pockets.

After we finished with the arch the crew set to work on a new line on another formation down the beach where a new route was established amidst shouts of “Venga!” and “Don’t look down!”

As the sun set on the Caribbean sea, I sat on the beach drinking Medalla and contemplating my world back home, far from the frothy ocean surf and friendly locals psyched out of their minds to show us the goods. We went back to San Juan for one more authentic meal, some laughs,  and some stories. I felt more than a little reluctant to leave this enchanted place.

Besides the four distinct climbing areas that I visited during my trip, I heard of and saw photos and video of at least four more, each one having more promise and aesthetic splendor than the last. I was torn between wanting to explore these new areas, document the potential and put up some new routes of our own, and just wanting to climb the incredible routes that already exist on the island. So I fly home with a bag full of projects and a twinkling in my eye that glimmers with dreams of limestone first ascents and cold beer with good people in the jungle or on the beach under the Caribbean sun.

THE BETA

Anyone planning a visit to Puerto Rico with climbing ambitions should visit www.aventuraspr.com. This is Rosanno’s company’s site, where on top of offering guiding services for some super rad caving adventures, he makes a free climbing guidebook to the island available for download. This is absolutely the best resource for planning your trip and for finding the crags once you’re there, short of actually climbing with Rosanno or another Puerto Rican guide. Some of the areas can be a little tricky to find, especially if you remember that many roads go unnamed, but Rosanno has posted carabiner climbing signs along the trails in Bayamon, Ciales and Cayey to get you to the walls. Technically, access to most of the crags seemed a bit washy, and most crags exist in a gray area of ownership, where the land is either private and you are there based soley on the good graces of the property owner, or it is on park land where the city could easily step in to ban climbing if it was so inclined (But my impression was that this would only happen if climbers were disrespectful to the land or disruptive to its surroundings). SO DON’T BE! Remember that climbing is a burgeoning scene in Puerto Rico and in order to see it flourish we need to be respectful of its growth and give the access rights their due diligence.