Climbing Sicily: The Burning Spirit of San Vito lo Capo

Exploring the climbing and culture of the Mediterranean Sea’s largest island.

By Steven Cummings (@acrothornado)


Sicily, famous for its rich food, fertile vines, sunny beaches and colorful culture (perhaps infamous for much more), does not often dot the maps of the itinerant climber. X marks the spot, however, in San Vito lo Capo–a small town on “the cape” of the northernmost tip of the island. Sporting a population of around 5,000 residents, the town comes to life in the summers during the tourist season as well as during a host of vibrant festivals. When the roasting sun softens in the off-season, climbers in-the-know harken to the clarion call of the region’s dynamic cliffs, coasts, and ever-expanding tally of sport routes and trad challenges.

Local climbing aficionado Daniele Arena of the YMCA Climbing House guides, rents, advises, and befriends any and all voyaging adventurers who want to to jump on a rock face, mountain bike, trailhead, or otherwise hang on site for a morning coffee or craft beer aperitivo. The Climbing House is a one-stop-shop for gear, amenities, or friends to join the ascent and a great place to learn what San Vito’s rougher sides have in store for its bolder (boulder?) visitors.

Daniele’s current climbing endeavors include pioneering fresh routes to bolt in place during the off-season and repairing and replacing old routes with titanium pieces through a project funded by donations from visitors to the region. The shop also takes on volunteers and student workers on occasion, and serves as a meeting place for travelers favoring the outdoors.

The nefarious and nearly dangerous Marco of nearby Timbuktu Hostel provides quarters of no compare to backpackers, ne’er do-wells, and rockhound rogues seeking a night or three never to be forgotten. Marco’s dream for a hostel in his hometown burst into reality in 2014 through a combination of such forces as the support of a determined family, the unending labors of his own hands, a grant from the EU, a willing crew of international volunteers, several pieces of “dumpster-dived furniture art,” and the constant influx of his grandmother’s pasta.

The Sicilian Timbuktu hostel pumps fiery new blood into a landscape that could otherwise succumb to labels like “a lovely beach town” or “a family vacation dream destination” instead of the sui generis status it deserves. Guests at the hostel can’t miss (or accurately describe) Marco’s electric eyes and personality, and interactions on the grounds of Timbuktu alone make for many tales and turbulent evenings.

Marco and Timbuktu also put on a good number of events and activities* throughout the seasons–on and off peak–from the weekly stream of occurrences at the hostel (yoga, bbqs, Sicilian food crafting, karaoke, film nights, etc) to larger projects such as Burning Sands–Sicily and Italy’s principal Burn. Marco’s also down to help guests find opportunity to climb, free solo, hike, snorkel, and explore the area with a zeal unmatched by other canole-wielding tourism wards and, hostel activities permitting, often leaps into the fray himself!

The San Vito climbing scene itself proves quite versatile, as may be seen in this promo vid for the annual San Vito Climbing Festival generally held in early November.

The faces of Calamancina can be followed throughout the day to escape the sun in the summer, or one may happily find shade all day scaling within the shadows of the Grotto del Cavallo.

A morning multi-pitch up the face of Monte Monaco will bring tears to the eye of any climber gazing down to the crescent moon beach below, the mountain’s clasped hands in eternal prayer, though he or she may always blame the wind.

Free solo trips to the coast can simultaneously offer freedom to the spirit by virtue of the purity of the sea and to the body by the possibly less virtuous act of leaving all clothes upon the shore. The lush limestone above doth continue below, and avid divers may find the (secret) sea caves quite compelling. When the high-liners roll into town (especially for the climbing festival in November) the peaks alight with lines trodden only by the few and the worthy.

On the off-chance a visiting climber finds time to spare for the “normal” sights, a unique expanse of Sicilian majesty awaits among the rest of the area’s many accolades: expeditions to Zingaro National Park, hikes up Monte Monaco & Monte Cofano, serene beaches of sand and shoal, boat tours and snorkeling escapades, historic ruins and landmarks, a cornucopia of restaurants & gelato parlours**, and much, much more.

San Vito lo Capo sits on top of a bounteous region in Western Sicily that no single journey can hope to fully explore. Just as the greased-up poles of the cuccagna*** leave graspers returning again and again for the flag, wet with the delight of the sea, San Vito carries on as a remarkable haven of earthly abundance–a persistent purveyor of new experience.

So when’s the best time to go? Late September through November, before things quiet down fully for the “winter.” Time it right and you could kick off the excursion with San Vito’s revelrous ten-day Cous Cous Festival (yes, you read correctly!) usually occurring in late September. The town goes wild with non-stop couscous-meets-spritz to deliver an African-Italian gastronomic anomaly existing only in Sicily.

October brings the height of the climbing season, culminating in the climbing festival in November, and with December comes the hibernation period for San Vito until the tourists return again after the rise of Spring.

In December, Daniele straps up and sets off to lay new routes on Calamancina’s red face in the morning sun. Marco closes the doors of Timbuktu for the season to embark on a series of adventures of his own making–the Sicilian blood ever burning for the endless wonders of the world.

| Grazie to Roberto Zampino’s Lifestyle & Storytelling photography: |


**see Gelato Minaudo, pistacchio nocciola

***Cuccagna (the greasy pole game)