Prehistoric Rock Paintings of Baja
Throughout the world and over the ages, our ancestors have left incredible rock art that inspires wonder. Not far from San Ignacio Lagoon (where we have a very special whale camp), are mountain canyons with hidden treasures of larger-than-life rock paintings. Images of people, animals and other iconography in various shades of red, black, yellow and white, have been artistically painted on the walls and ceilings of long overhangs and shallow caves. While known to Spanish missionaries in the 18th century, and observed by several other Europeans in the late 19th century, it wasn’t until 1962 that the existence of these paintings was made more broadly known to the world through an article in Life Magazine written by the author Erle Stanley Gardner, mystery writer and creator of Perry Mason. In 1993 the Rock Paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco were inscribed to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Rightly so, as these paintings, hidden away in dramatic desert canyons, are both powerful and magical to behold. If you have visited or heard of the legendary paintings of Lascaux in France, or the Tassili d’Anger in Algeria, or Altamira in Spain, then know that these paintings are equally remarkable.
Few people venture into these remote canyons of the Sierra de San Francisco. Working with local guides and cowboys or muleteers, we hike into these spectacular volcanic rock canyons while mules carry our camping and personal gear. In addition to the thrill of seeing one of the world’s most impressive rock art collections, you also step back in time as we travel with our local cowboys or California Vaqueros and their pack animals. They carry on the tradition of packing through these mountains that has been the main transport here for several hundred years.
Each evening we set up camp near an oasis of native palms. Our camps are simple, but comfortable with large backpack-style tents. We set up a small mobile dining room replete with tables and chairs and enjoy simple, but filling traditional fare. After our evening meal we enjoy a small campfire under a dark, star-studded sky and ponder what life might have been like for those who came before us and painted these canyon walls. What religious beliefs did they hold? How did they survive in these remote canyons? What wildlife did they depend on? Why did they paint these majestic paintings? Did all their people come to view these paintings, or only a select few?
This trip is best suited for people who are active and in good physical shape. The hiking is on rough, uneven trails and the temperatures are often very warm. There is the option of riding horses instead of hiking as well. On our first day we hike about five miles and drop over 1100’ (330 meters). Our next two days are spent in canyon bottoms with less vertical hiking, but some challenging climbs to the caves themselves. On our last day we climb back out of the canyons to the plateaus.
Note: This trip is designed to combine ideally with our San Ignacio Lagoon whale watching tours so that you can have two world-class adventures in one trip! There are few other wildlife watching experiences that are more dramatic than whale watching in the lagoons of Baja California. Start your trip at our San Ignacio whale camp, then move on to our hiking tour of Baja cave paintings for a seamless adventure in and out of the historic mission town of Loreto on our Friendly Whales and Ancient Paintings Comb Tour.
In the book The Cave Paintings of Baja California, author Harry Crosby says “In the sierras of central Baja California, hidden in most forbidding terrain, thousands of brilliant paintings survive in caves and shelters. Here a prehistoric people created giant images, heroic assemblages of men and animals. The Painters’ time passed, they laid down their brushes and disappeared, the art was lost to sight, and their existence was reduced to the breath of a legend.” This is a splendid introduction to the artistic legacy of the region.
On this amazing hiking journey you travel to the equivalent of North America’s Lascaux caves. While no one knows why these great murals were painted, it is hypothesized that it was done in the context of shamanic rituals among these hunter-gatherer people. As one looks at the paintings, some on ceiling surfaces over 10’ above the ground, the natural question is “How did they reach those surfaces to paint them?” Scaffolding is the logical answer, yet such sophisticated engineering is not something we might normally associate with hunter-gatherer people. There are images of people, deer, big horn sheep, rabbits, snakes, birds, and even though over a week’s walk from the sea, marine creatures such as whales and dolphins!
Besides being in a remote part of the world, the other reason few visit these paintings is that getting to them is challenging. The trails are steep and rough. However, our trips offer you the advantage of mules that carry the weight of our camp, leaving you free to hike unencumbered. If you are in moderately good shape, get out and walk several miles a week, or ride a bike regularly, etc. then you may be a good fit for these trips. You need to also bring a sense of adventure, as this is rugged country where our itinerary is only a guideline. Travel logistics are simple as we provide transport to and from Loreto. We invite you to join us on what will no doubt prove to be one of the most amazing, thought-provoking vacation adventures you ever enjoy.
Images & Videos
Welcome to Loreto in Baja!
Arrive in Loreto, headquarters for ROW Sea Kayak Adventures’ operations in Baja! We have been based in this lovely town since 1993 and consider ourselves part of the fabric of the community. We are proud that we employ over 15 Mexican guides, support a number of local businesses, buy all our supplies locally and generally have a large economic impact within Baja California.
On your arrival, catch a quick cab ride to our tour hotel. Drop off your bags and head out to explore this tranquil colonial town. Founded in 1697 by Jesuit Missionaries, it is the region’s oldest permanent settlement. Located on the Sea of Cortez, Loreto today remains idyllic in many ways. There are gorgeous beaches, whale watching opportunities, snorkeling, and superb hiking and, is our base for kayaking tours to nearby Islands of Loreto Bay National Marine Park. Enjoy the town and waterfront promenade before we gather for an evening orientation meeting.
Note: This Baja hiking adventure can be modified for all fitness levels by supplementing the hiking activities by riding Mules on tour. Please inquire with your Adventure Consultant for more information.
Please see our Baja Travel Guide for full details on travel to and from Baja.
Drive to San Ignacio via Santa Rosalia
Today you explore the spectacular and varied landscape as well as the cultural history of Baja. Departing from Loreto, we drive about 2.5 hours to the port town of Santa Rosalia, a historic mining town established by the French mining company El Boleo in 1884. The town retains a French influence, particularly in the wooden buildings that comprise most of the architecture. El Boleo founded the town to develop copper mines which operated until 1954. There is a ghost town like feeling when viewing the huge industrial facilities still located in the very middle of the town. While the town is very much lived in, there are still old locomotives, mining equipment and machinery scattered around. We visit the main mining company offices which now house the Museum of Mining History.
Another stop is at the metal Santa Barbara Church designed by the Eiffel Tower’s own Gustave Eiffel, which won first prize at the 1889 Paris World’s Exposition. Finally we stop at the famous El Boleo Bakery before going to lunch at a local restaurant.
Back in our vehicle we leave the coast and drive northwest to continue our exploration of Baja missions. After another couple of hours we arrive at tranquil San Ignacio, an old mission town. We spend an hour or so learning about the history of the California missions and visiting the Spanish Mission, constructed in 1786. We check into our hotel for the evening, then enjoy some free time to explore before meeting for dinner.
San Ignacio, San Francisco, Guadalupe Ranch and hike to Santa Teresa
Enjoy a leisurely morning to sleep in and eat breakfast before we meet up with any guests joining us from our San Ignacio Whale Camp. After joining up with the rest of our group, we continue north on the main highway in Mexico, Highway 1. It’s a nice paved road to our turn off for the small town of Sierra de San Francisco, and we continue on a paved road until the last few miles. The air is crisp and clean in this small village, where the elevation is around 3000’ (1000 meters). At the edge of town we stop to see our first large mural of the area, Cueva del Raton known for its rare black-faced humans and the figure of a mountain lion.
Then, in the town of Sierra de San Francisco we check in with INAH (the Mexican archeology authority) to pick up our permits. Next we meet our cowboys to load up our gear on their mules and horses. Within a couple hours we’re perched on the rim of Santa Teresa Canyon, ready to start our descent. We drop well over 1000’ as we descend on a rough, loose-surface trail that passes beneath canyon walls and slopes covered with giant cacti. As we descend, our first palm-studded oasis comes into view. The contrast of the green palms with the reds and browns of the canyon walls is stunning. We continue our descent into the Arroyo San Pablo and continue a few miles to our first night’s camp area. Your guides prepare a delicious meal followed by a mellow campfire to enjoy stories of the day and anticipate the discoveries of tomorrow.
Hiking Distance: Four miles; 1000’ descent
In Santa Teresa Canyon and Arroyo San Pablo
We spend our next three days hiking and exploring the arroyos and cave painting murals. Our days are a mix of walking, wonder, and relaxing under palm trees for meals, all in a world that seems very unattached from ours at home.
One of the remarkable caves we visit is Cueva de la Soledad. This cave requires a bit of hand-holding scramble to reach and is set high above the canyon floor. Here we find human figures referred to as “monos”, as well as deer and some handsome birds, one in red and one in black. Another part of the cave has a most curious checkerboard, colored with ochre yellow lines forming boxes that are then filled with red and black. The setting is dramatic and as this is likely to be the first mural we visit, the thrill of discovery is alive.
Another cave we visit is Cueva de las Flechas – Cave of the Arrows. It is so named because some of the human figures have arrows piercing them in a most curious fashion. While it is not uncommon for figures of animals to have arrows in them, it’s very rare in the paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco to find arrows in human figures as we see here. In addition, these are some of the most elegant human figures found anywhere. As we study this ancient art there is mystery for us to unravel in terms of the symbolism and meaning.
Perhaps the most dramatic and spectacular of all the caves we visit is Cueva Pintada (Painted Cave) which is 500’ (160 meters) along the base of its opening. The painters must have built scaffolding from the native palms that grow nearby in order to reach the heights of the cave ceiling. This collection of paintings has no equal and they are very well preserved. We see images of men, women, birds, beasts and perhaps most surprising of all, sea mammals such as a giant whale or sea lion. This cave alone has about three times as many figures as any other location of cave paintings in all of Baja California. The cave is so remote and off the main courses of historic travel that the missionaries missed it, and local knowledge suggests it wasn’t really known until the late 1880’s or so.
Not far from Cueva Pintada we find another cave, Boca de San Julio. Some find this the most beautiful of all the painted caves in the mountains, facing south and lit by sunlight all day long. There are a number of exceptional figures found here, including a pregnant deer and an arched buck, leaping in motion. There is also a bi-colored image of what would appear to be a well-fed sea lion.
Very close to Boca de San Julio is a cave now known as Los Musicos due to a most playful set of small human figures set across bright white lines that resemble musical staffs. It gives the impression that the figures represent musical notes dancing along two bars of music.
Hiking Distances: Four to six miles each day; depending on the group’s interests and abilities
Hike out to Guadalupe Ranch, Return to Loreto
We rise early and if we haven’t seen all the caves on our wish list, we take advantage of our time to visit it. Before the sun is beating too strongly, we start our hike out back up the Arroyo San Pablo, then the ascent to Guadalupe Ranch and finally the village of San Francisco de Sierra. The climb up is constant and gives us time to reflect on the magic of what we have seen, and the pleasure of knowing we are some of the few so fortunate to have seen these cave paintings.
Once on the rim we are met by our van to start the drive back to Loreto where we arrive by late afternoon. Check back into our local accommodations and enjoy a well deserved shower and rest. Later that evening join the group for a final farewell dinner at La Palapa, a local favorite. Recollect over fond memories with your new found friends before heading off to the comforts of a soft bed.
Hiking Distance: Four Miles. 1,000' elevation ascent.
Return home or extend your stay
Travel home or continue on another adventure such as sea kayaking in the Loreto Bay National Marine Park or one of our single day Trip Extension options.
Note: The above itinerary is one of several possible. If you have a small group of six or more people who would like to explore other areas with other cave paintings we are happy to organize a custom expedition for you.
Dates & Rates
2022/2023 Season Prices
- 4 - 6 Guests - $1790
- 7 - 8 Guests - $1570
Trips are scheduled for groups of 4 or more on a custom date basis. Please reach out to an Adventure Consultant (email@example.com) to inquire about a specific date.
- Fully escorted guided tour including professional naturalist guides to accompany you
- All meals from breakfast on Day 1 through lunch on the last day
- Camping gear
- Transportation while on tour
- All National Parks & Biosphere Reserve access fees required by itinerary
- Hotels before and after Tour
- Transportation to and from the Airport
- Meals in town
- Extra souvenirs you wish to purchase
ALL PRICES IN US DOLLARS. We will do our best to adhere to the itineraries and trip descriptions listed on our website. However, tour itineraries or subcontractors (such as taxi, cruise boats or hotels) may change slightly due to reasons beyond our control including but not limited to Acts of God, wind, waves, inclement weather or other. We always welcome you to call us to clarify any item - often this is the best way to fully clarify expectations - call us collect or on our toll-free number. You will be sent pre-trip email with latest details within a month of your tour - it is your responsibility to check in with us prior to your trip to see if you have all the information you need. We will always do our best to provide you with the best possible tour and to fully meet your expectations to the best of our ability.
FAQ & More
Fewer than 500 people make it to these remote canyons annually.
We offer these trips from January through mid-April when the weather is most conducive to hiking. Happily, this is also the only time of year to see the gray whales of the Pacific.
The first day’s hike leading down to the depths of the canyons is a challenging day. We recommend the use of hiking poles. The distance is around two miles down and the trail is comprised of dirt and loose rock. Most would consider it a moderately difficult hike. The elevation is not high, starting at about 3000’ (970 meters), so altitude is not really an issue. Once in the canyons the hiking is easy, but some of the climbs to the caves require travel over some steep stretches where hands and feet are needed to climb. On the last day we hike back out of the canyon, slow and steady. We estimate the climb to be around 1100’ (330 meters).
Yes, horses are available for a modest additional charge. If you choose this option we request that you bring your own riding helmet.
Sea Kayak Adventures will provide you with a detailed packing list prior to your trip. We provide all of the necessary camping equipment for you to fully enjoy your adventure. For this particular tour we highly recommend a broken in pair of hiking shoes or boots as well as a pair of treking poles for navigating the steep canyons. If you have any questions, or need help deciding what to bring, you can call or e-mail one of our friendly Adventure Consultants at any time for some extra advise!
During the days expect temperatures between 70-90 degrees depending on the month you visit. It will be warmer in April than February for example. At night it cools down to 40-55 degrees. Packing clothing items that will allow you to layer is essentail. We also recommend sun protective clothing for this adventure, as it will help shield your skin and face from direct sunlight.
We provide roomy 3-person backpacking style tents for each 2 people. Many nights people sleep out under the stars. We bring along a small portable kitchen and cook over propane stoves, serving ample but simple meals. There is limited water, plenty for drinking but not for washing up. We take a small portable toilet and carry our human waste out of the canyons. We are proud to practice Leave No Trace camping techniques.
We suggest a minimum age of 12 years old, but only if the youngster has had extensive hiking and camping experience.
Please see our Baja Travel Guide for full details on travel to and from Baja.
Our tour costs are based on double occupancy on any included hotel nights. Solo travelers who would like their own single hotel room can pay a single supplement (see "Dates & Rates" above for the single supplement price for this tour), or can be matched up with another solo traveler of the same gender if one is available and willing to share. If we are unable to pair you with another solo traveler, we must apply the single supplement charge to cover our hotel costs. Solo travelers will always have their own tent during kayaking tours, at no additional cost.
Please see our full Terms & Conditions HERE.