Rock Paintings in the Middle of Nowhere, Mexico

By Pablo Arturo López Guijosa, Chasing World Heritage

Road Trips are fun. I have done many of the top rated road trips all around the world, including the Great Ocean Road, Jebel Hafeet, a World Heritage site in the United Arab Emirates, and Milford Road, New Zealand, also a World Heritage site.

But as a Mexican, one of the road trips that I have always wanted to do was the Baja Peninsula. In this little strip of land which seems to be separated from Mexico, you can find three World Heritage sites:

  • Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino
  • Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California
  • Rock Paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco

Besides, it is right in front of another very important World Heritage site: 

I could write more than one article for each of these sites! However, I will focus on the Rock Paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco. But let’s go step by step.

Sierra de San Francisco from the road.

I remember when I was a kid, I had the opportunity to visit for the very first time the National Museum of Anthropology and History of Mexico. Apart from the iconic pieces one can find there, such as the Aztec Calendar.

Aztec Hall, National Museum of Anthropology and History, Mexico City.

I remember visiting a hall dedicated to the North of Mexico. There I found out about all these civilizations and cities I haven’t really heard about before, like Paquimé, a labyrinth in the desert. But there was a specific hall with reproductions of the very first rock paintings I have ever seen in my short life!

By then I didn’t know what World Heritage was, moreover, I had no idea about where exactly these paintings were, or who made them. But as I embarked in this journey of #ChasingWorldHeritage, I discovered so many things, not only about the rock paintings on the Sierra de San Francisco, but also about rock paintings from all over the world!

Kakadu World Heritage site, in Australia, hosts some of the world’s most outstanding rock art.

And what did all these paintings have in common? They are in dry climates which have allowed their preservation, and/or they are located in very isolated areas difficult to reach and with little to no populations around.

Mexico has a great tradition of mural paintings, from Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco from the 20th Century to the prehistoric paintings in Baja California, dating as far back as 7,500 years ago!

Diego Rivera’s mural in the National Palace of Mexico.

The Great Mural Rock Art, as it is known by the scholars, consists of prehistoric paintings of humans and other animals, often larger than life-size, on the walls and ceilings of natural rock shelters or caves in the mountains of the states of northern and southern Baja California. They lie within the historical territory of the Cochimí, a hunter-gatherer culture, without agriculture or metallurgy. 

This group has been commonly linked with the late prehistoric rock paintings, although in the 18th Century they denied to the Jesuit missionaries that they were responsible for the paintings.

Great mural rock art.

The Baja Peninsula is full of amazing geographical features. Starting from La Rumorosa, a scenic route close to the border with the USA all the way down to Cabo San Lucas, where you can see the Arch (also World Heritage site) which symbolizes the touristic area of Los Cabos!

La Rumorosa roadway, considered one of the most dangerous in Baja California, Mexico. Before its construction, land travel between Tijuana and the rest of Mexico required travel through the United States of America.
The arch of Cabo San Lucas is a distinctive rock formation at the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula.

But right in the middle of the peninsula, and on the east side of the Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaíno, there are a few mountain ranges (sierras) where expressions of the Great Mural Rock Art occur: Guadalupe, San Francisco and San Borja.

The Sierra de San Francisco is a relatively small mountain range, also part of the Biosphere Reserve of El Vizcaíno a protected area in Mexico and the largest wildlife refuge in the country, located between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortes.

Because this mountain range is in the center of the peninsula, getting there requires a bit of time, since it’s literally in the middle of nowhere! 

El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, included in the Tentative List of World Heritage.

One of the best ways of getting there is via a road trip, so when I had the opportunity of doing it, even though it was too rushed, I still got to drive up to admire one of the most accessible and representative rock paintings in the area!

The Mouse Cave is located at the highest elevation of any painted cave of importance in the Sierra de San Francisco. There are several theories about the name of this place, the most visited and easily accessible cave in the Sierra de San Francisco. Some say it was named after an image of what inhabitants once thought was a mouse, but is more likely a cougar. Some others say there was a donkey called “El Ratón” (the mouse) who would always hide from the weather in that cave during sunny days, so when the inhabitants asked for “El Ratón”, they would always reply he was in his cave.

Mouse Cave Rock Paintings, Sierra de San Francisco, Mexico.

This cave is also the point from where most expeditions to see other caves and paintings in the area depart. The access to this cave is controlled and you have to pay for a ticket to go in. The guards in the town have the keys, and they will guide you to see the cave to walk around, to explore, to take pictures, and of course, selfies!

According to the available dates, one of the figures in the Mouse Cave could be almost 5,000 years old! This means that the site is of great significance, since it denotes a practice of painting in caves that extended over several millennia, having its last manifestations at the time of “contact”, when the Spaniards arrived to the lands of California.

More than 400 sites have been recorded in the region! There are several other caves deep in the canyons of the Sierra. They are also guarded, and have different aesthetic values!

Arid and steep landscape in the Sierra de San Francisco, Mexico.
The Palmarito Cave, or “Cuesta Palmarito” is one of the most difficult to access and has the oldest paintings, dating back as far as 9,200 years. Copyright by: Sendarupestre.

I heard that visiting them all can take a few days. It is definitely something that I would love to do someday! 

But not only paintings have been found in the area. There are also other cultural expressions that are no less important, such as the presence of “metates” to grind seeds, triangular and serrated obsidian tips, wooden hooks, tubular stone pipes, as well as fabrics, baskets and sandals. Most of this you can find in the National Museum of Anthropology and History, together with other representations of the mural paintings.

Representation in the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City of the “Snake Cave” of the Sierra de San Francisco, Mexico.

After visiting the rock paintings, we drove down to the Whale Sanctuary, where me and my friends embarked on an expedition to see the annual gathering of hundreds or thousands of grey whales that come to this place to give birth, but that is for another story!

The road trip continues in the Baja California Peninsula, Mexico.
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