Cave Paintings

Cave Paintings in Baja

If we had to pick a favorite activity out of all available to Baja travelers, a visit to the magnificent cave paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco would be one of the top two. Granted, a visit to the cave paintings of Sierra de San Francisco of Baja is not the easiest thing to accomplish, but the reward is certainly worth the effort.

There are cave paintings and rock art in many locations in Baja. Some locations are relatively easy to get to and others are more difficult. The best and most well preserved sites are, of course, the ones that require the most difficult journey. A journey to cave paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco is definitely a serious Baja adventure!

The existence of the cave paintings were known to Spanish missionaries in the 1700’s. They only became known to the outside world in 1962, when an expedition was initiated by mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner. The painters were probably ancestors of the Cochimi Indians who were early inhabitants of the area, but the motives for their primitive art are still unknown.

Originally, the paintings were thought to be somewhere around 2,000 years old. Recent carbon dating tests have suggested that some of the paintings may have been painted as many as 7,500 years ago. The method used in the carbon dating process has been disputed. We are not going to get involved in a debate about “who done it” or “how old” the cave paintings are. We do know, from visits to several of the sites, that these ancient cave paintings are one of Baja’s greatest treasures. We have posted links to a few research sites at the end of this article.

At bare minimum, you should set aside a full day to see the caves up close. There is one cave, Cueva del Ratón in the Sierra de San Francisco, that can easily be visited in a day from San Ignacio by way of vehicle. No hiking is involved to visit this site. There are a couple of other caves at El Palmarito, east of San Ignacio, that can be visited in a day, by way of vehicle and then riding trained mules. This excursion requires some medium hiking as you get close to the cave site.

But…since you are already in central Baja, and the chances are you will never do this again, why not do it right. Plan to spend at least two nights in the mountain canyons. This way you can visit five or six different sites without wearing yourself out. When you are back in civilization, reliving your trip, I guarantee that you will be thankful you spent the extra time.

Overnight trips into Sierra de San Francisco require a guide and a cave custodian (both INAH approved) mules (even if you are really hardcore and want to hike), burros and handlers for the animals. You have to pack in tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils and enough food, water and supplies for the number in your party plus the guides and animal handlers.

In addition to the paintings themselves, there is the feeling of inner peace and serenity that a visit to Canón Santa Teresa instills in its visitors. This area, a beautiful palm-lined canyon, is absolutely quiet, incredibly clean and the number of stars in the night sky will absolutely astound you. Sleep comes easy and early in the canyon after a day of hiking to the caves.

Control of the cave paintings falls under the guidance of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). All visitors to the cave paintings must purchase a special permit and must be accompanied by a registered guide.

The necessary permits, guides and guided tours can all be arranged in San Ignacio. If you are not proficient in Spanish, it may be best to use a tour company. If you are planning an official research trip arrangements must be made through the INAH office in México City.

We have used Ecoturismo Kuyima in San Ignacio for cave painting and whale watching tours, on more than one occasion, and we feel comfortable recommending them.

Don’t want to ride mules or spend a couple of nights in the mountains…but you do want to see some great cave paintings? Check this out, Cave Paintings and Rock Art near Mulegé. There are some easier day trips to some absolutely incredible sites from Mulegé, a bit further south. Mulegé is approximately two hours south of San Ignacio, by car on the main Baja highway.

Online Research links:

Cave Paintings and Cowboys of Baja California
by: Debra Valov

Great Mural Rock Art, Baja California

Images of Baja California: Images by Harry Crosby
U.C. San Diego Special Collections Library