The surprising rise of climbing in flat Uruguay

by Barnaby CHESTERMAN
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Pablo Veloso (L) climbs the Cerro Arequita outside the city of Minas in Uruguay, where sport climbing is a growing activity

First-time visitors to Uruguay are often taken aback by how flat the South American country is.

Much of its topography features rolling plains that rarely rise above 200 meters (650 feet).

And yet, despite a distinct lack of mountains, sport climbing is a growing activity in Uruguay -- once people realize it's possible.

"When I came here, I didn't climb because I didn't know they had rock faces -- I thought it was totally flat," said Lorena Prado, an Argentine who thought she would have to give up her passion when first arriving in Uruguay.

But now she makes regular trips to the Cerro Arequita hill just outside the city of Minas, around a two-hour drive from the capital Montevideo.

"When I discovered Cerro Arequita, it was my favorite place in Uruguay," added Prado, who works in IT systems.

Discovering climbing was a challenge even for the locals.

Martin Bone said he and his best friend decided to try climbing after watching a video.

"We went to Argentina to buy ropes, harnesses and everything because here in Uruguay, there was nothing," said Bone, a market seller.

He heads off every weekend to climb on the various rock faces available in Uruguay.

"It's super relaxing; it's almost therapy. It's the disconnection from the daily grind when you're concentrating on climbing and making the most of the environment with your partner," he said.

- 'Radical change' -

While the options are limited, there is an indoor climbing venue in Uruguay that caters mostly to bouldering -- climbing without safety equipment in a gymnasium with thick crash mats on the floor and walls that rarely get above five meters (15 feet) high.

The Montevideo Bouldering Club is run by three friends, including Venezuelan-born Pablo Veloso.

His parents are Uruguayan, so five years ago he took advantage of his dual-nationality to escape Venezuela's economic meltdown and study in Montevideo.

"Climbing called me more than academia; it's a radical change of life. Then I got together with some friends to open a gym because it's something that once you start, you can't stop," he told AFP.

"Climbing is a passion for me that has transformed into my work. I didn't want to come to Uruguay to start a climbing club -- it's something that came about through circumstances. There was a need for a space."

While Uruguay has little climbing culture, and only a handful of clubs, Veloso believes there are a lot of untapped rock faces out there waiting to be discovered.

"Like many countries in Latin America, Uruguay is a country that has the possibility to develop climbing because it has a lot of rock faces and a lot of hills with potential such as Arequita, which is the closest hill and the one where there's been the most work to service sport climbing," he said.

- Bees and wasps attack -

However, it's not all fun and games. For instance, when potential rock faces are found, someone needs to climb up them to fix bolts, hangers and carabiners.

It can be tiring, and also fraught with difficulties.

"Sometimes you have bees, wasps up there, and I was attacked once, but it's very gratifying at the end to put a route together," said Prado.

There's also the question of taking care of the environment.

Climbers are like any nature lovers who want to preserve the environment they call their playground.

"It goes hand in hand with climbing and all these sports linked to climbing: the aim is to be in natural environments, in beautiful places," said Veloso.

At Cerro Arequita, there's a native type of bromeliad -- the plant family to which the pineapple belongs.

"We're respectful that climbing can have an impact, because the plants grow where we climb on the rock faces," said Veloso.

In Cerro Arequita, there's an ongoing project to study the bromeliad "to see if it's possible to climb sustainably here, to see how it grows, to live together so that we can enjoy climbing while preserving the environment," he said.

Pablo Veloso (L) climbs the Cerro Arequita outside the city of Minas in Uruguay, where sport climbing is a growing activity

Lorena Prado gets ready to climb the Cerro Arequita near the city of Minas in Uruguay

Climbers get ready for Cerro Arequita, a rock face north of the city of Minas in Uruguay

Sport climbing is on the rise in Uruguay, even if rock faces like this one near the city of Minas are few and far between in a country of mostly rolling plains

Pablo Veloso climbs Cerro Arequita