Sierra de San Francisco Rock Art
The mountains northeast of San Ignacio hold some of the most spectacular prehistoric paintings found anywhere on the peninsula. It is for this reason that historian Harry W. Crosby described the Sierra de San Francisco as a “gallery of ancient art” and UNESCO designated the region a World Heritage site in 1993.
Getting there, however, takes some planning and a willingness to rough it in the backcountry for at least a couple of days. The Mexican government requires you to obtain a permit and hire a guide before visiting these sites, which you can do at the INAH offices in San Ignacio or La Paz. Then you’ll need to make arrangements to travel by mule, bringing your own food and water.
First-time visitors to the Sierra de San Francisco typically head to the Arroyo de San Pablo, where a series of five rock art sites are relatively accessible: Cueva del Ratón, Cueva Pintada, Cueva de las Flechas, Cueva de la Música (Los Músicos), and Boca de San Julio. INAH categorizes all of these sites as Level 2, meaning they are open to any visitor with a permit and guide.
You need at least one night and two days to see Cueva de las Flechas and Cueva Pintada. Departing from San Francisco, on the first morning you’ll ride down to the canyon floor, a 360-meter descent, and set up camp, and then visit the caves in the afternoon. On the second day, you’ll climb out of the canyon and return to the village.
If you have more time, you can add up to three additional caves in the area to your itinerary: Cueva La Soledad, Cueva La Música, and Boca de San Julio.
San Francisco de la Sierra makes a good starting point for trips to rock art sites in other arroyos, including San Gregorio, El Batequí, and Santa Marta.
Cueva del Ratón
If the idea of camping overnight in the backcountry makes you uncomfortable, you might begin with Cueva del Ratón, a short hike (20 minutes) from the village of San Francisco de la Sierra. This is by far the most accessible rock art site in the Sierra de San Francisco.
Measuring 12 meters long, the overhang is among the smaller canvases but nonetheless important for its relative completeness. Images include deer, desert bighorn sheep, rabbits, human figures, and a rare mountain lion.
Park in the village near the set of stairs that ascends to the site, but remember to register with INAH and hire a guide in the village before setting out to view the rock art.
Cueva de las Flechas and Cueva Pintada
Two of the most striking cave paintings in all of Baja occupy opposing walls of a deep, palm-filled canyon in the Arroyo San Pablo. If you have just one night to spend in the Sierra de San Francisco, spend it on a trip to Cueva de las Flechas and Cueva Pintada.
The setting alone makes it worth the ordeal of getting into the backcountry. And the art you’ll see represents some of the most dramatic and best-preserved examples of Baja’s prehistoric rock art.
The relatively small canvas of Cueva de las Flechas (Cave of the Arrows) features three large human figures notable for the many black arrows that appear to pierce their bodies. Historian Harry Crosby calls them three of the most elegant monos (human figures) found anywhere. You can see parts of Cueva Pintada (Painted Cave) from Flechas.
A 30-minute scramble over to the other side of the canyon reveals Cueva Pintada, the most well-known and most-visited rock art site in Baja. Discovered in 1962 by mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner (and also known as Gardner’s Cave), the cave features 150 meters of painted walls and ceilings with remarkably well-preserved figures. The back wall alone depicts more than 40 signature red and black images of humans, deer, and sheep.
“This grand cave is the most painted place in the most painted part of the entire range of the Great Murals. It may rightly be considered the focus of the phenomenon,” wrote Harry Crosby in his beautiful photography book, The Cave Paintings of Baja California: Discovering the Great Murals of an Unknown People. Other caves in the region are larger, but none rivals the quantity and quality of the art you’ll see here.
Getting to the Sierra de San Francisco Rock Art Caves
Look for a well-marked turnoff for San Francisco 36 kilometers northwest of San Ignacio. The rocky road climbs into the mountains and meanders along a mesa. Allow about two hours to reach the village at Km. 23.5.
© Nikki Goth Itoi from Moon Baja, 9th Edition