Baja South, Unplugged

Drawing Close to Baja
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Southern Baja's inhospitable terrain has kept secrets from prying travelers for years, but its most impressive mystery can be found in the mountains, home to the Western hemisphere's greatest number of cave paintings and petroglyphs. Unlike the scattered but plentiful cave paintings in northern Baja, these are larger, more intact, and tell much more of the story of the Cochimi tribes that wandered through Baja's canyons. Some of the paintings in Baja Sur, in fact, are mural-size: an endeavor that would have required scaffolding and ladders.

Visiting the cave paintings without a guide is illegal, so we nabbed a local named Salvador to show us around. We got lessons in history and art, along with ancient medicine, as Salvador uncovered the drug store that only nature can provide out here: creosote used as deodorant, pulpa from a 50-foot cardon cactus used as antibiotic."And this one," he says, pointing to a candelia, "is a laxative. It's used for party jokes."

But cave paintings are the real treasure out here, so we laced up our boots for the easy walk into the steep red cliffs. Along the way we passed petroglyphs — used for communication with the other seminomadic Indians who showed up here.

Soon, we're at the site of Baja's best-known painting, a large ochre drawing called The Trinidad Deer. This animal is studied and compared to other world-famous painting sites because of its artistic detail, bold color, and large size. Seeing the deer in the dimly lit underhangs, the inks and paints still bright despite their age, is to catch a glimpse of a continent's long human history. Seeing the last trace of the Baja Indian's existence helped me to respect this culture's migration here and its survival in a place of heat and inhospitability.

The rest of the trek took us through red and white cliffs, reedy waters, and cactus-covered landscapes. The last site, roughly two miles from base camp, is in a cliff alcove high above the sea — for centuries, a meeting place for several groups of Indians. Here, according to Salvador, paintings of whales symbolize the Pacific, and fish, the Sea of Cortez. But their meanings aren't always so clear:"Some of the symbols are a mystery," said Salvador. "Maybe the Indians were crazy on peyote."

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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