By Rodrigo Manterola
The cave paintings of Baja California, Mexico, are a unique type of rock art rooted in the heart of the mountains of Sierra de San Francisco, in the central deserts of the Baja California Peninsula.
There is an incredible feeling of respect that spreads all over your body when you cross that portal between light and shadow that makes you stand in awe in front of those ancient forms frozen on the walls of these caves.
It feels as if some sort of energy rushes thru each and every one of your cells.
You can hear that fire crackling while an ancient artist’s shadow moves and dances against those walls to the rhythm of the flames; a strange scene yet so familiar.
According to studies, some of this prehistoric art dates back more than seven thousand years, these paintings are clear evidence of the constant human activity in the area since the first population of the Americas thousands of years ago.
Little is known about the creators of this primal rock art, as they left almost no trace of their presence on earth, except for their amazing cave paintings.
The First Explorers
When Spanish explorers, mainly Jesuit missionaries, were able to explore the peninsula in the 1700s, they encountered semi-nomadic tribes that to their eyes looked like Stone Age people.
These explorers saw in these men no affinity with the more complex civilizations they found back in Mexico’s mainland, like the Aztec or the Maya.
As the matter of fact, in some Jesuits chronicles, they compared these men and women with animals that just looked like humans, where no signs of civilization were to be seen, and where any attempt to educate them was futile.
As the Jesuits learned the language of the Cochimi, the name of these indigenous people present in the area at the time, they were able to ask who created that rock art; to what the Cochimi replied:
“…it was created long before our time by a race of giants that came from the North”
The Trip To The Sierra
To visit the Sierra de San Francisco cave paintings is an adventure into the deserts and mountains of Baja. These caves are trapped in an area so remote it seems time forgot about them and the people who inhabit these canyons. Almost inaccessible, no roads lead there, and to reach these secluded sanctuaries, one needs to go far and beyond comfort.
The nearest sign of civilization is the small village of San Francisco de la Sierra, located in the top of these mountains some 90 minutes from the main Transpeninsular road better known as Highway 1.
The road to San Francisco from the highway is a winding road half paved recently, and the other half, a car wrecking dirt road filled with rocks, goats, burros, and cacti; the quintessential Baja landscape.
Once on the top of these mountains, you will abandon any motor vehicle, as they grow useless from this point on.
You may have to spend the night in town if you can call it that, as your journey is only starting. Ahead of you lies a seven-hour ride on the back of a mule to the bottom of the canyons.
San Francisco de la Sierra
San Francisco isn’t much more than a few, very humble houses, a small church, and a shop with mostly canned food and Coca-Cola that sells to a seasonal population, slowly shrinking due to poverty and old age.
While in town, we explored a little to meet the dwellers of these mountains. We learned that the locals subsist mainly from goat-cheese production and the very occasional tourists that visit the cave paintings.
There’s not much to do in the village so the young soon flee the town seeking for a “better life” leaving the old-timers, who once inhabited the ranches upon those mountains, and whom due to the harshness of life up there, moved into the village for an easier way of life.
I must say life isn’t easy in the village either, but there is “easier” access to the highway.
We walked around and visited one of the houses as per directions given by the locals, where the INAH (National Institute of Archaeology and History), has appointed a local rancher as some sort of cave paintings deputy.
The house was old and was no different from the other houses surrounding it.
No big sign, no officials, nothing to point it as an INAH office, in fact, this house was just another San Francisco house with goats, chickens, dogs, and old junk, all over the yard.
As we walked in, we were able to see more of this house; it was built in no particular architectural style. Wrecked and almost discarded; it housed a family of at least six.
Three rooms one next to the other connected by a long corridor with arches looking out to the yard, a kitchen marked the end of the corridor, while an old metal desk, similar to those used in government offices in the 1950s, marked the other end. In the middle of the corridor, a kid and a dog went about their day.
As we walked in we noticed this kid tormenting the dog while he looked for our attention with a smile. A very bizarre image present in most rural Baja. Animals are work beasts, not pets.
Life is hard in those deserts and those mountains, with little room for sentimentalisms.
Don't Judge a Choyero
We were almost put off by this to the point of walking away with no intention of completing our trip, but one must not judge Baja if you want to understand it.
The men, women, and children of this land are tough as nails, and while acquaintance status is easy to obtain, real friendship can take years to build, and trust is as valuable as gold.
Now, one must also not judge a “choyero” by this, while they are tough as nails, they are also as sweet as a “pitahaya”
The people of Baja will take the shirt off their back for you if you need it, as long as you’re not a douchebag.
We got our tickets for 75 pesos each, and we were appointed with a local guide, who would provide the mules and knowledge for our trip.
We purchased some food for us and our guide, and we walked around a little more. We met other locals who shared with us amazing stories about life in the mountains, and how they guided early explorers like Erle Stanley Gardner and Harry Crosby, amongst others, whom they helped to get around and document these cave paintings.
In our little exploration we met other people as well as locals, two Americans who were there, like us, to quench their curiosity about the cave paintings, but on their way back from the caves.
We were able to exchange information and learn what our trip would look like; we talked over dinner and some beers.
Our night ended early as we had to meet our guide, Juan, at the crack of dawn, for our journey to begin.
We went back to our van to spend the night, although falling to sleep wasn’t easy; our excitement kept us imagining our imminent adventure.
Into The Mountains
The rooster crowing was the sign for us to jump out of bed, it was 5:00 AM and we had just one hour to get ready and meet our guide. We were all packed, so by 5:30 we were knocking on our guide’s door, his wife opened the door, just to tell us that Juan was ready and at the back of the ranch.
Juan was breaking a green mule at the time, so he said he would ride at the back, while Lorna and I were given a gentler pair of mules, the two donkeys would lead the way.
Juan released the two donkeys first, about half an hour before us; they were a pair of female donkeys, mothers to the two mules Lorna and I had.
The burros know the way better than I do-Juan said …just let your mules follow their mothers and you’ll be fine, I’ll catch up with you at some point in the mountains.
And just like that, we were off; the ride to the canyon is about an hour and a half on an old path between cacti and mesquites, and through ranches that slowly but surely became scarcer as we went. The two donkeys were nowhere to be seen as they had at least a 30-minute handicap.
Eventually, there was no sign of humans in the area, no houses, no fences, actually not even a path was there anymore, we were riding on a flat mountain-top with nothing but sand, rocks, and a very lean-short bushy-vegetation. We were fairly comfortable on our mules, but the burros and all our gear were still nowhere in sight.
We rode until there was nowhere else to ride to; the mountain-top gave way to a wide canyon so deep we had to stop, we were sure our mules lost their way somewhere.
Down The Canyon
We waited for Juan who showed up some 10 minutes after, we were able to hear him talk to his mule way before we could seem him; his mule was a young and tough one.
We dismounted and took some time to drink water, stretch our legs, and rub the saddle off of our bottoms.
Juan explained the plan to us; the next leg of our trip was all downhill, in a steep narrow path on the cliffs ahead of us with no room for two horses riding in opposite directions if they met.
Let’s hope nobody is coming up as we go down …Juan said, -it’s not easy to back up on a mule down those cliffs! He continued…
The whole thing was very exciting, to say the least, the bottom of the canyon was at least 1000 ft. below us, and the path, if you can call it a path, was something I would probably think twice to walk on, never the less on a mule.
Juan assured us that mules were way safer than on foot, not without mentioning that the only accidents ever happened here, happened to people on foot …not very assuring.
We got back on our mules and headed down the cliffs, it was as if our mules turned into goats, they were firmly walking down, jumping rocks and other obstacles, and maneuvering thru sharp turns, zig-zagging down the canyon; at some points, the inclination was such, that I remember my head touching my mule’s rear end, and my feet so high up, my spine and my mule’s spine were two parallel lines.
About one hour into our ride down the canyon, we finally catch up with our donkeys, they were placidly grazing halfway down those cliffs, blocking the road; I thought, great, a traffic jam 5oo ft. high up a mountain wall!
As we approached the donkeys I could hear Juan up in the distance screaming, –Burro!! …but Juan had plenty of problems of his own while trying to tame his mule without falling off the cliff in the process.
As to be expected, the burros didn’t care, they kept grazing, and our mules went straight onto them; definitely, a bad situation, if you ask me.
My mule crashed straight to the burro in front of us, and Lorna’s mule crashed right onto my mule’s back end.
Of course, my mule kicked Lorna’s mule right in the face!
Following Juan’s example, I did what any other man in my position would’ve done, I started yelling from the top of my lungs -BURRO!!
Don’t get me wrong, these mules will navigate down steep cliffs and narrow paths better than any other form of transportation, but donkeys are famous, or should I say infamous for one thing; stubbornness.
As our little traffic jam started to transform into some sort of choreography of chaos, at least in our heads, we notice something; you must decline the urgency to control your mules.
You see, mules are the ones in control up there; you are nothing but cargo, so try not to be of the annoying type of cargo.
We understood the importance of letting the mules lead, yes, you do need to hush the cattle here and there, but in general, these mules know what they’re doing, at least better than us.
We made it down an old arroyo, an ancient river bed in which a thin stream of water runs through the creek between majestic rock formations and seasonal water springs and palm trees so high they seem to reach the top of that canyon.
We were able to set our camp next to a small ranch nestled right at the end of the path from those cliffs, we started a fire as the canyon was covered by the shadows of the mountains, we cooked dinner and we shared with Juan as we talked about our adventures.
Juan is a man of very few words and even fewer laughs, the social skills needed in these mountains are very different to the ones one learn in the city; you ask when you need to know, you answer when asked, and very few other words are needed in between.
Never the less, Juan was pleasant, and even a joke or two came out of him.
Time To See The Paintings
We didn’t set our tent; we didn’t want to miss the stars, so we fell to sleep in our sleeping bags; we tried to stay awake the longer to admire the celestial vault on top of us, but our journey down got the best of us.
The next morning caught us sleeping next to the long extinguished fire, although you could still feel its warmth and the smell of coffee brewing on the charcoal.
Juan, of course, was already awake and feeding the mules and donkeys, and he even had the time to make the coffee. It was 6:00 AM, I wonder if the man slept at all.
By 7:00AM we were ready to carry on with our adventure, Juan gave us two options; to take the mules down a path next to the arroyo into the caves, or walk our way there.
Don’t get me wrong, I do think animals are sentient beings, and I do think they deserve a break, or at least that’s what I taught back then.
When asked, Lorna insisted the mules needed to rest so we would walk, I seconded this …Juan smiled at us as if he knew we were going to regret our decision. We did.
If you never walked on a dry river bed filled with boulders, some of them the size of a house, you probably won’t understand my next statement. On the other hand, if you have walked it, you’ll agree with me.
Feck the donkeys!
We walked, or should I say climbed, for what it seemed to be hours, everything hurt, our legs, our feet, even our love for donkeys. And the hardest part was that we still needed to walk back to the camp.
If you ever do this trip, feck the donkeys, they are way more costumed than you to do this, and you will not hurt weeks after your trip, just take the donkeys and enjoy the ride.
We eventually made it to our first stop “La Cueva pintada”
The Cave Paintings of San Francisco Sierra
To reach the overhangs where these paintings are located one must climb from the river bed onto the walls surrounding it, some 30 ft. above. Once on the site, hundreds, if not thousands of paintings tell the stories of the families who once inhabited these canyons.
You can find many different styles of cave paintings in the thousands of archaeological sites dotted all over the peninsula, but the amount and the quality of the cave paintings in the Sierra de San Francisco have made these paintings the archetype of the Baja California rock art.
Some experts even choose to call this particular art style, the Sierra de San Francisco style, and it refers not to an area, but a cultural pattern present in other sites in the peninsula of Baja California but with a stronger presence in these mountains, with its apogee between 1300 and 3300 years ago.
In this style, anthropomorphic designs are extrapolated amongst zoomorphic forms in what seems to be scenes of hunting and war, that blends with the wildlife present in these mountains.
While some abstract forms are present in some of the caves in Sierra de San Francisco, these are present in a smaller number in comparison with other archaeological sites in the Baja California peninsula.
This representative style probably aimed to explain reality and to define identity, maybe to keep a social agreement of belonging to a specific group of people; who knows.
We know this art was important for its creators as much as for the people they were aimed to. We were never the recipients of this art, therefore our capacity to understand it is limited.
The anthropomorphic, as well as the zoomorphic figures, are present in the majority of the caves, yet there are subtle differences between them.
Men and women are painted in different colors, different sizes, and even with 6 fingers.
The animal forms also show subtle and not so subtle differences including color, a combination of colors, size, and other elements.
The Shamanic Origins
The shamanic origin of these paintings has been proposed over the years, and while the certainty of its authors and inspiration continues to elude science, some theories are proposed.
The word shaman has Asian origins, but the universal use of substances to achieve an altered state of consciousness is well documented across the different cultures of the world.
This could explain some features of this art like people with six fingers.
When you’re high the way you perceive time, space, and even your body changes. In some cases, deformity is one of the many manifestations of a hallucinogenic substance in our brain.
So we know our nervous system is molded by our environment, and while cave paintings in Europe show elements inherent to their environment, the cave paintings here show elements relevant to this area, and there’s strong evidence of altered states of consciousness in this rock art.
It makes one wonder.
Was the shaman the creator of these paintings?
Did the shaman conduct the artists behind this art?
Was everyone high on something, and therefore this art was not exclusive to men of knowledge but open to anyone with the skills and patience to create it?
Did the ancient Baja Californians have six fingers?
Some local plants can induce these altered states of consciousness, and some testimonies from the early Jesuits in the seventeen century talk about the shamans of the Cochimie people, called “Guamas” who use to smoke a local kind of tobacco to induce themselves into altered states of consciousness in celebrations and rituals.
I guess there are only two angles that could give us a real answer, the story behind the creator of this art, and the story behind the audience this art was intended for, and we are neither of those.
Little is known about the creators of this primal rock art, and probably, the message they were set to transmit may elude us forever for one simple reason; we are not the people those paintings were made for.
We can propose theories about them but I think our theories will be more prone to tell something about us than about those cave paintings.
Someone said once; archaeology tells us more about the culture studying a subject than what it can tell us about the subject being studied.
Never the less, this art is astonishing and well worth the mule ride, we visited another cave painting just a few meters away in the opposite wall of the canyon, and Juan asked us if we wanted to go further to other cave paintings in the area, they are all over the place!
Unfortunately, this would mean another couple of hours walking down the arroyo, to what we declined; we decided once you’ve seen one cave painting you’ve seen them all, and voted to go back to our campsite and chill and enjoy the rest of the day.
We swam a little in a pond where the water was just enough for a quick dive in the water.
The water sprung from a small crack the mountain and formed a little pool just to run and disappear under a rock.
The purest water ever, we drank it straight from the rock, filled our water bottles with it before our walk back to camp.
Back at the Campsite, the Ranch and the Turkey
A few hours later we made it to the camp, tired and in some pain, but satisfied; we were able to see that millennial art with our own eyes and the experience is of total awe.
There was a ranch next to where we camped and we went in to see if they had fresh food for sale, we purchased some eggs and even some beer! Yes, to our surprise the lady at the ranch had some beer for sale.
I’m no expert but I know every community has its ways, and the people in these mountains are no exception; the etiquette here seems a little weird though.
We walked across some orchards and buildings and into what seemed to be the main house, next to it, a small hut made of reed walls and thatch roof, smoke poured out from the walls; my guess is that that was the kitchen, who knows.
Juan called a name I can’t remember, and from the smoky inside emerged the presence of a woman. She was probably in her 60’s but who knows, she could’ve been 30, life is hard down in these canyons.
She was holding a cigarette and looked a bit off, can’t really say how, but just a little off.
Juan asked her if she had any food for sale, she knotted her head in affirmation and walked out of the hut to sit down in a chair, Juan sat in another chair there so Lorna and I sat in a small bench as well.
Nobody said anything for the next 5 minutes, it was weird, and not even eye contact was made, for what I know it was as if this was just a normal thing to do when you visit someone’s house. You sit down and for 5 minutes, you do nothing.
Sadly, we have no pictures of this, as it was awkward enough already
As if this wasn’t weird enough, suddenly, the lady’s “guajolote”, (Mexican for tourkey) came out of nowhere vibrating and showing off in some sort of I’m the boss-dance, even the dog, who was lying there got up and left …weird
Like if something switched on, the lady got up and brought our groceries, I paid her, and we left the ranch as the turkey danced away. One minute you are there sitting in the porch of a house in the bottom of a canyon doing a lot of nothing with the locals, and the next one you are cooking fresh eggs beer in hand. Life is good.
We spent the night in our camp and left early the next morning, despite the hours it took to climb up those cliffs and into the village, our trip back felt almost uneventful, we were seasoned by those mountains and educated by those cave paintings.
The time in the sierra gave us such an experience, a feeling of peace maybe; the paintings on those walls tell you, if anything, that time can go slow if you let it.
The lady and the turkey at the ranch showed me that we are equipped with what it takes to survive even in the hardest of environments. You can dance cocky, like the turkey, or stand straight in silence, like the woman.
Being in these mountains allowed us to recognize the value of simplicity, whether is simple food, simple conversations, simple lives; simple is good.
I don’t know when we are going to be able to go back to sierra de San Francisco, but I think what’s important is to allow some of it to stay present in us every day; even when the world gets crazier every day, remain placid and in silence, like those cave paintings, only in that state of mind you’ll be able to withstand whatever the wind blows your way.