Donkeys, Rancheros, Ravines: A Journey to the Ancient Murals of Sierra de San Francisco

Located in Baja California Peninsula, the Great Murals are the oldest cave paintings in the Americas—but they are incredibly hard to access.


There are roughly 600 Great Mural sites in the Sierra de San Francisco.

Photo by Edmund Vallance

Prehistoric ravers. That’s how these towering nine-foot figures appeared to me when I finally laid eyes on them last autumn. Finely detailed in scarlet and black, with arms stretched skywards, they danced in gleeful unison, seemingly under the spell of some giant, celestial DJ.

I had first read about the Great Murals of the Sierra de San Francisco in 1997, when raving was, admittedly, very much on my mind. Back then, I was working as an English teacher in Villahermosa, Tabasco, and the mysterious paintings remained stubbornly out of reach. They were a thousand miles away—in a canyon, deep in the bowels of the Baja California Peninsula—and I had neither the time nor resources to make the trip. I marked the relevant page of my Rough Guide with a large, red asterisk and vowed to visit soon.

It took me 25 years to make good on that promise. But last November, I found myself in Loreto, shaking hands with anthropologist Orloff Nagorski: my guide for the next six days. Orloff is the director of Aventuras Mexico Profundo and has been leading tours to the murals since the 1990s.

“You’re about to see some of the best examples of rock art in the world,” he said, with obvious pride. “If you go to Lascaux in France, or the Stone Age murals in Spain, you’ll only find reproductions. But these are the real deal, exceptionally well-preserved.”

The Great Murals are the oldest cave paintings in the Americas, between 7,000 and 12,000 years old, according to carbon dating. They’re generally attributed to the Cochimí tribe and their ancestors. But like almost everything related to these ancient works of art, that’s impossible to prove with certainty.

We have very few historical records of the Cochimí: semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers living in the central region of the peninsula at the time of European contact. According to writer and adventurer Harry W. Crosby: “Movement was the key to life for those inhabiting the central desert. No area could support numbers of people throughout the year, not even the seashore. . . . They were completely dependent on seasonally available fruits, seeds, stems and roots. In aboriginal times, the chief pursuit of the Cochimí men was hunting deer, sheep and antelope—their only source of meat.” The first detailed accounts come from the Jesuits, who established a fledgling monastery in Loreto in 1697. Some of these documents make for painful reading. Father Johann Jakob Baegert, for example, described the Cochimí as: “stupid, mendacious, thievish, and abominably lazy.” Baegert gives us no clue as to the tribe’s spiritual beliefs. Their “absurd and superstitious rites” were omitted “for reasons of decency.”

Much like “The International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs” in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), the Jesuit order was intent on supplanting any native religion with their own. They brought Catholicism to the region. But they also brought disease. Seventy-five years after their arrival, the Indigenous population had dropped by 90 percent. By the late 19th century, the Cochimí had petered out altogether.

The mission bells kept me up half the night. But it didn’t seem to matter. Today I was to drive to San Ignacio: the jumping-off point for my long-awaited adventure. I was joined by Orloff; his wife, Janet; and two other guests, Allen and Chuy. Heading up Highway 1, we cut through central Baja: the stomping ground of the Cochimí.

Ospreys nested on telegraph poles, and hawks circled ominously. The road south of Mulegé was broken in half after the recent hurricane. Our van rolled over the cracked pavement, and we proceeded north, skirting the Sea of Cortez. Native tribes had fished here for millennia: turtles, manta rays, and sea lions all feature in the Great Murals.

As we drove, Orloff explained that the paintings were probably started by the Cochimí’s ancestors, estimated to have arrived on the peninsula about 12,000 years ago. After that, it seems likely the murals were superimposed and embellished. To add to the mystery of their provenance, when the Jesuits arrived, the Cochimí claimed that the artists were a tribe of giants from the north.

We arrived in San Ignacio just in time for my Zoom call with Maria De La Luz Gutiérrez Martinez, senior archaeologist with the INAH (National Institute of Archaeology and History). Martinez is responsible for the management of the estimated 600 archaeological sites in the Sierra de San Francisco. She has been studying the Great Murals since 1981 and is among the world’s leading authorities on the region. In 2014, her doctoral thesis: “Ancestral Landscapes: Identity, Memory and Rock Art in the Central Cordilleras of the Peninsula of Baja California” won the coveted Alfonso Caso Award.

“The Cochimí had no written language, so these paintings are really their only testimony,” she said. “It’s the job of the INAH to protect them.”

Maria told me that the Great Murals were created as a form of ancestor worship and that the headdresses on the human figures represented various family lineages. The Jesuits systematically destroyed Cochimí ceremonial artefacts, including guanakaes—sacred cloaks of human hair. The tribe’s customs, their way of life, their way of dressing: All of it was erased.

When the Sierra de San Francisco became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993, the INAH launched the Sierra Management Program, setting out clear rules for tourists. The number of visits and the size of the groups are limited. All trips require permits and are supervised by the rancheros, who have lived in the Sierra de San Francisco for centuries.

Several people sitting next to the Sierra de San Francisco River

All trips to the Great Murals require permits and ranchero guides.

Photo by Edmund Vallance

The following day, I was scheduled to meet three of these rancheros: the custodians of the Great Murals.

“I think of them as the first real Californians: the direct descendants of the ranchers who came here to escape persecution in Spain,” Orloff said, as we made our way to Rancho Guadalupe, a tiny desert outpost near the entrance to the canyon. Following Highway 1 north for 28 miles, we headed east at a battered sign marked “San Francisco.” That other California—the one with movie stars and tech gazillionaires—seemed impossibly remote. The pavement ended abruptly, and we appeared to be floating on a magic carpet of rust-colored dust.

The road narrowed, and the valley plunged deeply to our left. After a quick pit stop to pick up our permit, we arrived at the ranch, where we met our guides: Jesus (22), Ramón (54), and Gertrudis (70). The men worked quickly, strapping our luggage to a line of donkeys and mules, and we began our three-hour descent into the canyon. I started on foot: a pencil-thin path spiraling through the steep mountainside. Vultures hovered overhead, and I slipped on the scree, spiking my hand on a stray cactus paddle. I tried my luck on a mule. But the poor creature brayed and swayed, threatening at any point to plunge into the sun-bleached ravine, 500 meters below. My Harrison Ford fantasy was flagging. I was a city boy in a sombrero, a poseur in double denim.

By the time we reached the valley floor, I was shivering, my jeans drenched in mule sweat. High cliffs loomed on all sides, and a full moon shone like lurid Vegas neon. Politely declining a tequila shot, I fell into my hastily assembled tent, wrapped myself in a sleeping bag, and passed out, fully clothed.

If the canyon had looked hellish by moonlight, in the morning it seemed like the Garden of Eden. Yellow brittle bush, purple marisol, and giant barrel cacti sprouted from every corner of the campground, each petal and thorn outlined in psychedelic detail. The air was so clean, it scorched the lungs.

“I would offer you pancakes,” Orloff said. “But a donkey broke into our icebox last night and ate them all.”

A horse and rider in rocky Sierra de San Francisco

Horses and donkeys are typically used to descend into the canyons of Sierra de San Francisco.

Photo by Edmund Vallance

After breakfast, our party of eight set off down the dry riverbed on muleback. Fifty-foot palms swayed in the breeze, and powder-pink boulders punctuated our path like chunks of cherry candy. These arroyos were the Cochimí’s highways during the hunting season. And some of these stones were used to make paint for the murals. For red, they ground iron oxide, for yellow, sulphur compounds, and for black, volcanic rock.

“We paint our houses every 5 or 10 years,” Orloff said. “But this paint lasted 10 thousand years. Think about that.”

I did. But it was giving me a headache.

“Look!” said Jesus, signaling with his reins. “La Cueva Pintada!”

This was the site that Harry W. Crosby had described as: “the most painted part of the entire range of the Great Murals . . . the focus of the phenomenon.” I’d enjoyed his book, The Cave Paintings of Baja California (1975). But no amount of reading could prepare me for what I was about to see.

Shielding my eyes from the sun, I spotted a wide brim of rock, peppered with dozens of black and red figures. The paintings snaked along more than 200 meters of the canyon wall, high above a silvery oasis. For one giddy moment, I pictured Monty Python’s hand of God puncturing the sky.

Clambering up the slippery slope on our hands and knees, we soon reached the ancient gallery. Six groups of murals adorned the walls, each seemingly more beautiful than the last. Pumas, coyotes, antelope, and all manner of desert creatures jostled for our attention. The human figures seemed like blood-red hallucinations, morphing and mutating in the midmorning light. Seeing the Great Murals up close, with no other visitors, I choked back tears.

“The hallucinogenic plant, datura, grows all around this site,” Orloff said. “The Cochimí probably used the flowers to achieve altered states, along with repetitive music and dances. See how their arms are raised above their heads in a ritual dance, an ecstatic flight.”

Perhaps my raver theory hadn’t been so far off the mark.

The author sits beside one of the Great Murals

The author next to one of the Great Murals

Photo by Edmund Vallance

“What do you think, Gertrudis?” I asked. “What did these images mean to the Cochimí?”

The ranchero scanned the paintings thoughtfully, thumbs hooked in the pockets of his jeans. He paused for so long that I didn’t think he was going to answer at all.

“Well,” he said, eventually, nudging his sombrero with an index finger. “The tribe saw the animals in the valley. Then . . . later on . . . they painted them on the wall. . . .

“That’s all,” he said.

I wanted to stay. But we were running out of time. We needed to reach La Cueva De Las Flechas (“Cave of the Arrows”) by four o’clock, so that we could return to camp before sunset. Rattlesnakes and tarantulas were among the reasons why.

Fortunately, the second cave was located directly opposite the first. We clambered down, then up, and within 20 minutes, we were there: face to face with another prehistoric exhibition. The site was considerably smaller, but the figures were fluid and detailed, with all the grace and austerity of a medieval tapestry. Standing above the image of a deer, a human figure was shot through with arrows, a sort of Stone Age Saint Sebastian.

We never found any arrowheads; no Temple of Doom artifacts. Hollywood inundates us with golden statues, secret chambers, and human sacrifice. But the Cochimí had none of these. They only had their art: magnetic images that defy interpretation. The painted figures regard us from afar—stubborn, aloof, impenetrable.

I’m not an archaeologist, or an anthropologist, or the member of an Indigenous tribe. I’m just a writer who loves Mexico, a middle-aged guy with a laptop. Even so, the Great Murals touched me deeply. They hooked me in like a roaring rave tune or the lyrics to a caustic folk song. Were they drug-induced shamanic visions? Offerings to the ancestors? Or just artful decorations, a kind of primordial wallpaper? The truth is that no amount of chin-scratching will ever offer up a definitive answer. Their beauty is the only certainty.

These thoughts were running through my mind as we returned to the camp that evening. When our happy group finally sat down to eat, Ramón sang to us in a rich, shaky baritone:

I don’t know where I’m going.
And I don’t know where I’ll end up.
I just want to revel in the landscapes of this life.
The beauty of this canyon!

Edmund Vallance is a London-born travel journalist based in Los Angeles. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the Independent, Bon Appétit, and National Geographic Traveler.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR