Sierra de San Francisco

Part of the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve and a designated World Cultural Heritage Site, the Sierra de San Francisco is home to the most spectacular manifestations of Baja California's unique cultural heritage: pre-Hispanic rock art. To date, researchers have located about 500 pre-Columbian rock-art sites in an area of roughly 11,200 sq km (4300 sq miles) in this mountainous region north of San Ignacio.

The gateway to the Sierra is the village of San Francisco de la Sierra. San Francisco's residents, descendants of the early vaqueros who settled the peninsula along with the missionaries, still maintain a distinctive pastoral culture, herding mostly goats in the surrounding countryside. They also retain a unique vocabulary, with many terms surviving from the 18 th century, and produce some remarkable crafts - look at the guides' polainas (leather leggings) for riding in the bush, for instance. Such items are generally made to order, but occasionally villagers will have a pair of men's teguas (leather shoes) or women's open-toed huaraches (sandals) for sale.

INFORMATION

Visitors to all rock-art sites in the Sierra de San Francisco must obtain permission from INAH in San Ignacio (see Museo San Ignacio, p162) and pay a US$3 admission fee. INAH will contact an authorized guide (required for anyone visiting any site). You are required to agree to a series of INAH restrictions established to preserve the paintings. (Visitors may not touch the paintings, smoke at any site or take flash photographs. Campfires and alcoholic beverages are prohibited in the vicinity of sites.)

ROCK ART OF CENTRAL BAJA

When Jesuit missionaries inquired about the creators and meaning of the giant rock paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco, the indigenous Cochimí responded with a bewilderment that was, in all likelihood, utterly feigned. The Cochimí claimed ignorance of both symbols and techniques, but it was not unusual, when missionaries came calling, to deny knowledge of the profound religious beliefs that those missionaries wanted to eradicate.

At sites such as Cueva Pintada, Cochimí painters and their predecessors decorated high rock overhangs with vivid red-and-black representations of human figures, bighorn sheep, pumas and deer, as well as more abstract designs. It is speculated that the painters built scaffolds of palm logs to reach the ceilings. Postcontact motifs do include Christian crosses, but these are few and small in contrast to the dazzling pre-Columbian figures surrounding them.

Cueva de las Flechas, across Cañón San Pablo, has similar paintings, but the uncommon feature of arrows through some of the figures here is the subject of serious speculation. One interpretation is that these depict a period of warfare. Similar opinions suggest that they record a raid or a trespass upon tribal territory or perhaps constitute a warning against such trespass. One researcher, however, has hypothesized that the arrows represent a shaman's metaphor for death in the course of a vision quest. If this is the case, it is no wonder that the Cochimí would claim ignorance of the paintings and their significance in the face of missionaries, unrelentingly hostile to such beliefs.

Such speculation is impossible to prove, since the Cochimí no longer exist. However, the Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Historia (INAH) has undertaken a survey of the Cochimí, the largest systematic archaeological survey of a hunter-gatherer people yet attempted in Mexico. INAH has discovered that, in addition to rock art and grinding stones, the Cochimí left evidence of permanent dwellings. In recognition of its cultural importance, the Sierra de San Francisco has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. It is part of the Reserva de la Biosfera El Vizcaíno, which includes the major gray-whale calving areas of Laguna San Ignacio and Laguna Ojo de Liebre.

The Sierra de San Francisco remains an INAH-protected archaeological zone, which means that all visitors need entry permits. The INAH office in San Ignacio issues tourist permits only; research permits must be obtained in Mexico City.

Guides, who can take up to four people, charge about US$5 per person or up to about US$10 for four people for a day trip to Cueva del Ratón. Excursions to Cañón San Pablo involve hiring a guide for about US$20 per day, a mule for each individual in the party for about US$15 per day, plus additional pack animals, either mules or burros, to carry supplies such as tents and food. Visitors must also provide food for the guide; San Francisco de la Sierra has a small market, but it's better to bring food from Guerrero Negro or San Ignacio.

Backpacking is permitted, but backpackers must hire a guide and mule. Most will find the steep volcanic terrain easier to manage on muleback, leaving more time to explore the canyon and enjoy the scenery. The precipitous muleback descent into the canyon takes five or six hours, the ascent slightly less; in winter this means almost an entire day devoted to transportation alone. The best time to visit is late March or April, when days are fairly long but temperatures are not yet unpleasantly hot.

One of the very best sources of information on these and other rock sites is Harry Crosby's authoritative The Cave Paintings of Baja California.

ROCK-ART SITES

About 2.5km (1.5 miles) west of San Francisco, Cueva del Ratón (h 6am-5pm) is the most accessible site, featuring typical representations of monos (human figures), borregos (desert bighorn sheep) and deer, but they are not as well preserved as paintings elsewhere in the area. Excursions to Cueva del Ratón can take about three hours in a 4WD and make a good day trip from San Ignacio.

The area's most rewarding excursion is a descent into the dramatic Cañón San Pablo to see its famous Cueva Pintada, Cueva de las Flechas and other magnificent sites. Cueva Pintada, really an extensive rock overhang rather than a cave, is the single most imposing site. It's also known as Gardner's Cave after the popular American novelist Earle Stanley Gardner wrote several books about his adventures in the area. Mexicans, however, intensely resent the identification with Gardner and strongly prefer the Spanish term. Exploring Cañón San Pablo requires a minimum of two days, preferably three.

TOURS

Going to INAH and working with guides directly generally requires proficiency in Spanish, your own vehicle and a fair amount of legwork. It's much easier (though a bit pricier) to visit the sites as part of a tour organised through an operator in San Ignacio. Along with others, Ignacio Springs Bed & Breakfast (p164), Kuyima (p163) and Hotel Posadas (p163) offer highly regarded tours. In particular, the family who owns Hotel Posadas has been guiding people into the Sierra de San Francisco for decades.

GETTING THERE & AWAY

San Francisco de la Sierra is reached by a graded road from a conspicuously signed junction at Km 118 of the Transpeninsular, 45km (28 miles) north of San Ignacio. The road is regularly graded, but spots can be difficult for vehicles with poor traction and low clearance (though 4WD is not necessary). It can be very difficult after a rain.

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