It’s hard to believe, but there still is a place where you really can go back in time. High in the Sierra San Francisco mountains, in the center of the Baja peninsula there exists a place where a quaint culture still exists, isolated from the rest of the world. Where no one wears a watch, there is a deep sense of belonging and community, almost everything you use is made by hand by you or your family, where no one hurries, yet you know that what you do is important, so you put your heart into it.
The people who live in these mountains are descendants of the soldiers and artisans who accompanied the early European missionaries to Baja California in the 1600s. They live and work on ranches started a dozen generations ago by their ancestors, the original cowboys in the Californias.
Today, the inhabitants of these mountain villages are the keepers of a little-visited UNESCO World Heritage site comprised of hundreds of prehistoric cave paintings buried deep in the canyons. Remarkably well-preserved because of the dry climate and inaccessibility of the sites, and estimated to be at least 10,800 years old, these murals are considered to be the most distinctive trove of rock art in the Western Hemisphere, and rival those of Lascaux, and Altamira in Europe.
Visiting the cave paintings is not for the faint-hearted, one of the reasons they remain largely unknown outside Mexico. It takes quite a bit of planning and effort to get there. For one thing, you can’t drive to these sites. You must leave your vehicle at a tiny village high in the mountains, get on a mule, and use burros to carry all of your supplies and water. You are going to a place that is really off-the-beaten-path!
Because these sites are protected, all visitors must be registered, pay a small fee for a permit, and are required to have a guide. There are 115 licensed guides in the area, and their names are all on a list; when you visit, you are designated the next guide on that list, so there is no competition, and they are all trained and evaluated for their knowledge and expertise, before being allowed to work with visitors.
All of the guides are men. In this culture everyone has an important role. One day, I asked a vaquero, “if a girl wanted to be a guide, could she do that”? It really wasn’t a sexist comment when I was told “no”, rather it was that the work women do is so extremely important that without that infrastructure, they could not exist. And, being a guide is hard, physical work. I know it is something I certainly could not do.
There are ancient animal and Amerindian paths leading from the village; if you grow up in the mountains, you know them like the back of your hand – they are your lifeline to your friends and family, and ultimately, the outside world.
From the village, we followed one of those well-worn paths to an escarpment where we rested the mules for a short time while the little burros, loaded with our precious cargo, dashed down the rocks like a pack of greyhounds, to the canyon floor, far, far below.
We followed for almost three hours, winding down the steep canyons until we saw signs of human habitation amongst a profusion of flowers, fruit trees, date palms, and a crystal clear stream – an oasis on the floor of the canyon. An old ranch rests there, hours from any road, and yet it once thrived because of the hard work of the vaquero and his family who established it years ago. Now, just an elderly widow, her son, and her sister remain – allowing us travel-weary riders to camp for the night.
The next morning, we loaded up the burros once again, and rode a few hours down the boulder-strewn arroyo, and then along a precipitous mountain trail to another stream, where we set up camp. Fortified by lunch, we hiked over the boulders along the stream to explore one of the most awe-inspiring sites: 500 ft. x 33 ft. Cueva Pintada. The mural shows overlapping images of men and women, deer, bighorn sheep, rabbits, and birds. The figures are huge and we felt the frenetic action of the animals during the hunt drawing us in.
Immediately across the arroyo we climbed to another site showing tall human figures impaled by arrows, Cueva de las Flechas. This is unusual among the paintings, many of which show animals with arrows, but rarely humans. And, some of the human figures wore head dresses – their bodies painted bi-color, with the left half of the body painted red, and the right side in black.
We spent the next day hiking from our campsite to other nearby rock art sites, one called Musica for its painted human figures on what appears to be a musical scale, and a completely new discovery in the canyons over the last few years, a huge boulder covered with carved petroglyphs considered over 15,000 years old.
Who left these huge murals and petroglyphs thousands of years ago? Not much is known about the painters, other than they were migratory people leaving no permanent dwellings or any pottery remnants. Like all early Amerindian cultures in Baja, they moved with the migrations of game and seasonal changes. The Cochimi Indians who lived in central Baja when the Jesuit missionaries first arrived, said the paintings were the work of a race of giants who inhabited the region well before the time of their ancestors. I find this intriguing because the human figures are all depicted as tall, unlike any humans who have been known to reside in Baja.
Part of the fascination for me is the fact that these spectacular murals have been hidden for so many years. Although the Spanish missionaries were aware of them, no one seriously studied them until Leon Diguet in 1893-1894. He was a French naturalist who worked with Boleo copper mine in Santa Rosalia on the east coast of the Baja Peninsula. But, he missed the most extensive sites in the Sierra San Francisco.
And then no one visited until Erle Stanley Gardner, the American mystery writer (author of Perry Mason) became captivated by the murals in the 1940’s. 20 years later, Gardner met a Baja bush pilot, Francisco Munoz, and hired him to fly into many of the sites he studied. Described by Gardner as having “uncanny skill as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of the country over which he is flying”, Munoz flew his friend into cave painting sites throughout Baja for 10 years, and these sites inspired Gardner to write six nonfiction books bringing these spectacular works of art to public attention.
In 1972, Harry Crosby succeeded Gardner in the search for undiscovered sites, publishing “Cave Paintings Of Baja California: Discovering the Great Murals of an Unknown People” in 1998, now considered the “bible” for information about rock art on the peninsula.
There are hundreds of cave painting sites throughout the canyons; we spent just three days exploring, and only saw a few, but we will keep returning, not just to find more of the rock art, but also to get to know the wonderful people who live there. They are warm and welcoming and enthusiastically showed us their handmade and hand-cured leather saddles and polainas – (strap-on leg protectors), described their traditional medicines derived from plants, and told us how they live, removed from our chaotic world. It’s something I want to learn more about before it’s no longer possible to do so. The young people often leave for the cities for education and work, and many times do not return, and I know that the beautiful oasis ranch we first visited will not have people there much longer. It is a hard life being a vaquero in this harsh environment and being a keeper of sites that are not often visited by many people.
As well as an incredible journey into the Sierras, it was also a sojourn into the hearts and minds of people whose simple ways owe more to the traditions of 17th century Spain than that of 21st century America. When we returned home, we felt as if we had been transported to another time and place – and what we experienced stayed with us as a gentle reminder of a way we can live our lives, too – with more heart.