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MEXICO

A trek to hidden troves of rock art

A camping trip into the rugged Sierra de San Francisco gives tantalizing glimpses of an ancient civilization through its art.

October 27, 2002|By Carol Ekegren Travis | Special to The Times
  • 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.
Campers gather at the mouth of La Palma Cave, which contains ?The Family… (CAROL EKEGREN TRAVIS )

Sierra de San Francisco, Mexico — 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.

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