To Hell with Tijuana

Getting Boulder in Catavina
Photo by Erik Gauger
Bring your torch: The eerie Baja landscape
See the Cave Paintings
Head south toward Catavina. When the road sinks into an arroyo, look left at the large boulder-hill that has a government sign. Climb toward this sign and you'll see the cave.

It's Baja's most bizarre desert: This section of the Sonoran feels as if Joshua Tree and Saguaro national parks have melded together. We had set out from El Rosario, a 300-year-old farm supply town set between two steep ravine-cliffs—the last significant piece of civilization we'd see for a while—and now found ourselves on a fiery, 76-mile stretch of Route One. From a crack in a stone, a barrel cactus, an elephant tree, and a boojum all take root. The arroyos (desert channels) are occasionally lined with palms, but always hold a soft, white sand. It's like the tropics without water.

The temperature's boiling, especially in the bottom of the windless arroyos. Sweating, we pitch camp in a steep-cliffed arroyo one mile west of the town of Catavina and then set out, climbing a bouldery hill to an ancient Indian cave. The cave holds an astounding mystery—cave paintings of geometric shapes and human-like forms. We take our guesses at the meaning behind the bright yellow, dark red, and brown pictures: What appear to be several figures circling the sun could be a symbol of this place itself, cloudless and hot. The sun had to be an important part of early life in the Sonoran Desert; escaping from it is certainly a part of our life right now.

The last accounts of the Cochimi, a people who settled this desert but never made it beyond Paleolithicism, reported that the paintings came from their ancestors, whom they referred to as "The Giants." But the most giant thing about these last Cochimi seemed to be their partying. According to the invading Spanish, the Cochimi had little to eat for most of the year, but when the fruits of the organ pipe cactus were ripe, the Cochimi would spend weeks feasting and engaging in massive orgies drunk on the sweet fruit.

We can't last that long out here. As we turn in for the night, we talk about how good it would be to find a restaurant and a six-pack of beer.

The best access to camping areas is in Arroyo Catavina, about one mile west of the town of Catavina. A sandy road leads to several sites, some of which boast tree shade. Since trails lead in every direction from these campsites, it's a good starting location for desert hiking. No permit, registration, or fees are required.

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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