A trek to hidden troves of rock art

A trek to hidden troves of rock art
Campers gather at the mouth of La Palma Cave, which contains “The Family of Man” and “The Phoenix,” a bird with its head in profile. (CAROL EKEGREN TRAVIS)

The air was clear and fresh. Heat from the sun radiated from volcanic rubble, intensifying a midday temperature in the high 70s. Some nights were mild; some were frigid. But always, as the winter light waned, a concert began. Doves sang plaintive songs from the red willows or palms that lined the pools. Frogs started croaky calls, so loud at times that our tent vibrated in the echoes. Owls occasionally swooped up the canyon, hooting softly. Seldom was there silence.

My husband, Charles, and I had come to this remote part of central Baja California, about 140 miles southeast of Guerrero Negro, last January to see rock art. Primitive art can be found throughout the Baja Peninsula, but the mountains and canyons of the Sierra de San Francisco are so peppered with paintings, pictographs and petroglyphs -- some as much as 4,000 years old -- that the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization designated the area a World Heritage Site in 1993. Jean Clottes, a French authority on prehistoric art and one of our group, called the rock art of Baja California among "the greatest in the world."

Its origins are a puzzle. No one can say who the artists were or where they came from. They left little trace of themselves, except for their drawings and carvings. "They testify to the beliefs and ceremonies of long-gone Indian tribes," Clottes said. "Several of their characteristics made me think of much older art in the French and Spanish caves: the rarity of scenes, the use of natural reliefs to draw some animals or humans, the superimpositions, the way some animals were painted as though they issued from the walls."

We found exquisitely simple paintings of men and animals in caves and shelters, and delicately chiseled figures of fish and birds, men and deer in petroglyphs scattered on promontories and near rocky stream beds. We marveled at the massive size of some and the sophistication of many. Most were painted in red and black, but a few figures were drawn in white or yellow-orange, and we found chunks of chalky stone and a soft yellowish rock the artists may have used. We wondered at the meaning of the pierced figures at the Cave of Arrows and the white lines that resembled a musical score at Music Cave. I lost count of the number of sites we saw during our two-week trip, but Clottes jotted notes on about 50.

Unlike the sites at Altamira, Spain, and Lascaux, France, which are closed to the public, the rock art in the Sierra de San Francisco is accessible to all with permits from the Mexican government.

But many sites are difficult to reach. We traveled by mule and on foot into the tortuous volcanic landscape, led by guides appointed by the Mexican government. Guides are not only required, they are essential: They know the location of the art and the best paths to it.

Charles and I were part of a tour led by Andy Schouten, an amateur archeologist who is probably more familiar with the area than any other norteamericano. Several times a year he sets up medical clinics in the village of San Francisco. Timed to coincide with a visit by Clottes, our trip was to be solely an exploration of prehistoric art sites. In our group were Clottes and Schouten; Clottes' brother-in-law, Guy Caussanel; Mary Gorden and her husband, James, president of the Southern Sierra Archaeological Society; Charles, an amateur geologist; and me, an enthusiast of all but an expert in nothing. We had committed ourselves to 14 days of camping and hiking in the rugged Sierra de San Francisco.

Picking up permits

The village of San Francisco, which has one telephone, a church, a school, a market and a bar, is two hard days of driving south from San Diego and 23 miles northwest of San Ignacio at the end of an unpaved precipitous road. But we were prepared: Our caravan consisted of two sturdy SUVs and a four-wheel-drive pickup. And, in case of trouble, we carried tools, tire repair kits, spare parts, extra fuel and short-range radios.

The day before, we had stopped at the Mexican government's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in San Ignacio to pick up permits and hire guides, then backtracked to San Francisco, where six guides, including one from INAH, were waiting. Because we had archeologists among us, we qualified for a "level four" permit, giving us access to remote and sensitive rock art sites usually off-limits to the public. But a level one permit, which anyone can get without advance notice, allows entrance to easily accessible sites in San Francisco or Santa Martha, and a level two lets visitors into Canyon Santa Teresa and Arroyo del Parral, which aren't hard to reach.

Near San Francisco is Palo Rayo, a wind-swept mesa that was home to some of our six Baja guides, among them Manuel Arce Arce; Miguel Angel Ojeda Rojas and his 13-year-old nephew, Ricardo Guadalupe Ojeda Lere, an apprentice guide now that he had completed the sixth grade; and Ramón Arce Arce of INAH.

We spent our first evening in Manuel's efficient but humble kitchen. Walls were made from old boxes and boards; the dirt floor was well trampled. Dinner was as simple as the surroundings, but delicious. Potatoes and onion filled a pan with bits of dried meat. The mixture was served first to us, then to family, along with beans, salad and tortillas made by Manuel's wife, Juana. Everything was carefully prepared, so I had no worries about stomach ailments.

After dinner we set up camp a short distance from the pigs, goats, burros and mules. The wind blew ominously throughout the night, making me worry about what was ahead.

At daybreak we gathered our gear, the children watching intently, and left it in piles for the guides to load onto the 15 burros we needed. Next, we were assigned mules to ride.

About 11 a.m., when we rode off toward the canyon rim, I got my first glimpse of the landscape we would inhabit for the next 14 days. Canyon San Pablo is about 2,500 feet deep, a miniature version of the Grand Canyon, and as challenging in descent. Boulders the size of small houses littered the canyon floor; slick volcanic flows lined the narrow trail. And everywhere there was cactus: cholla, ocotillo, nopal, red-tinged barrel cactus and huge, tough cardón, which is used to build walls and is made into a fibrous rope.

San Pablo is home to Pintata Cave, which stretches 500 feet, with a narrow mouth of volcanic rock. A mural at the far end of the cave reaches skyward, with many figures 20 to 30 feet above the floor. The primitive artists showed a surprising sophistication in perspective, painting figures of men, women and animals in massive proportions. Smaller figures are near the floor.

The canyon is rich with rock art. Some images are tiny, some huge, some alone, but in many cases figures from different periods are overlaid, resulting in a large, complex mural. Each day we visited sites until it seemed we had scoured the landscape for rock art. Our daily excursions took us over the canyon bottom, littered with gigantic boulders and palm fronds sharp as a rake, and up steep, slippery walls on narrow goat trails too perilously close to the cactus for my comfort.

Charles and I have tramped hundreds of miles on many rough trails in the Sierra Nevada in California and in the mountains of Europe, Peru and Patagonia, but none of those compared to the toughness of the Sierra de San Francisco. The toe of my boot was ripped to shreds on the coarse volcanic stone, requiring a quick fix with red duct tape. After a strenuous day, camp, as basic as it was, was a haven of good food and conversation. Our evenings began by lightening the load in the wine box, then firing up the two Coleman stoves. The Gordens did most of the cooking, creating great meals from the limited supplies of Juana's tortillas, potatoes, onions, chicken and beef. Almost every night we had cabbage salad.

Water was scarce and had to be pumped and filtered from the trickle that flowed along the canyon floor. Warm water was such a luxury that I looked forward to washing dishes in hot soapsuds. Bathing was possible only at the nearest ranch. There, enclosed in a "bathhouse" built of cardón or palm, and with a bucket of water at my feet, I washed away the dust and grime, one arm and foot at a time.

We returned to Palo Rayo to restock for our next week in Arroyo San Gregorio. While supplies were sorted, we took side trips to see more art. I spotted my favorite petroglyph at Rancho Santa Ana, a site strewn with hundreds of carved and chiseled figures: a delicate, small deer carefully pecked into the stone with a fine instrument.

Marine life and a family tableau

We left for Arroyo San Gregorio, traveling east with two new guides. All the guides took care of us as if we were their children, carrying heavy gear on day hikes, guarding our safety and making sure our mules behaved.

My mount, Carbonero, was not only independent, he was also too smart for his own good. He would figure out his own routes on steep descents, ignoring commands. He could jump up onto a ledge when the trail was too steep for an easy climb. Besides, he was shiny and black and knew he was handsome.

We reached Rancho San Gregorio in the late afternoon and set up camp beneath orange trees in an orchard owned by ranchers whose families have held this land for 114 years.

The art was abundant at San Gregorio. We saw a series of caves named for the ranch, San Gregorio I, II and III. In the first, a painting stretched for 60 feet above us. It appeared to be the work of a single artist, but in fact the mural had been painted over time, with each anonymous artist expanding and adding to the original.

At La Palma Cave we saw "The Family of Man," a grouping of men, women and a child, each painted half red and half black. Wherever we looked in caves and shelters, we found whales, mantas and turtles inspired by the Gulf of California, 20 miles away.

By the end of the second week we had run out of red wine and were depleting our stores of white, a sure signal it was time to leave. We had seen an amazing gallery of art in this remote place. By the time we saddled up, I began to regret our departure.