Beauty in BAJA

Cave-paint­ings, rus­tic ranches and goat cheese among the nat­u­ral won­ders in Baja Cal­i­for­nia Sur, Mex­ico

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - TRAVEL - STORY AND PHOTOS BY BRIAN J. CANTWELL

BAJA CAL­I­FOR­NIA SUR, Mex­ico — Chances are you’ll be luck­ier than I and you’ll get a warm day when you visit the an­cient paint­ings at Baja Cal­i­for­nia’s La Trinidad Cave.

But I was there in the cool of Jan­uary and grit­ted my teeth as I dived into the cold river that me­an­ders through a canyon of rock the col­ors of cho­co­late and cin­na­mon.

This is a rite of pas­sage — quite lit­er­ally — re­quired to see the fas­ci­nat­ing prehistoric images at La Trinidad, named for the three-peaked moun­tain above the canyon.

Guide Sal­vador Cas­tro Drew’s email the day be­fore was terse and slightly mys­te­ri­ous: “Meet at the town arch at 9 to­mor­row and bring your swim­suit.”

That all be­came clear af­ter a bumpy, four­wheel-drive jour­ney across the desert and a 20-minute hike dur­ing which we ex­am­ined pet­ro­glyphs at trail­side.

The river wasn’t wide, but it was deep enough to re­quire swim­ming to reach our des­ti­na­tion. Gi­ant boul­ders were con­ve­niently placed to pro­vide pri­vacy as other tour­go­ers and I changed into our swim togs.

Splash­ing out at the far side, Pa­tri­cia Ber­man, vis­it­ing from Cor­val­lis, Ore., an­nounced, “Whoo! I’ve been known to jump into moun­tain lakes, but usu­ally I’ve been hik­ing all day and I’m hot and dusty and it’s 90 de­grees out.”

But as we shook like wet dogs and climbed to the cave site, we saw that it was worth it.

RUS­TIC FIG­URES

The cave had col­lapsed some years ear­lier, but that didn’t ob­scure the rus­tic fig­ures of an­i­mals, fish and hu­mans in daubs of black, white and red that fes­toon the en­try wall.

Sal­vador, a 53- year- old na­tive of nearby Mulege, has de­voted years to learn­ing about the paint­ings here, of­fer­ing guided trips to sup­ple­ment his fam­ily’s ranch in­come.

The paint­ings vary in ori­gin from 1,500 to 7,500 B.C., he said. Lit­tle is known about the orig­i­nal artists, but some were the indige­nous Cochimi peo­ple, who fished in the sea and roamed in­land for seeds and desert fruits.

White paint came from lime­stone. Black came from iron. Red and yel­low from desert plants.

Some images are phe­nom­e­nally well pre­served, a credit to the dry cli­mate and re­mote lo­ca­tion. A red deer head looks as if it might have been sten­ciled on the wall last week. (On­line ex­perts credit the Trinidad Deer as the best prehistoric deer painting in Baja.)

Two fish shapes are next to what Sal­vador de­scribed, only half in jest, as “an an­cient bar­be­cue fork.”

A shaman fig­ure per­pet­u­ally holds his arms to the skies. White hand­prints dot the wall as if kinder­gart­ners had been play­ing with paint.

Chil­dren were given pey­ote and en­cour­aged to add to the wall painting as part of cer­e­monies, Sal­vador said. Some, too young for pey­ote, would die. Others, who had hal­lu­ci­na­tions, might be­come shamans.

CAVE OF THE SERPENT

The next day I’m rid­ing with Ivette Grana­dos Marines, a 43-year- old guide with Sea Kayak Baja Mex­ico, a Loreto-based out­fit­ter, in her friend Erika’s dusty old Pathfinder, which starts when you thread the key into the ig­ni­tion that hangs by loose wires from the steer­ing col­umn.

We’re lurch­ing along a rocky path when I am as­tounded to see a taran­tula the size of my hand se­dately cross­ing the track in front of us.

No­body else thinks it’s a big deal.

We’re on our way to see more cave paint­ings, this time at “Cueva La Ser­pi­ente,” the Cave of the Serpent. It’s 35 min­utes up the ar­royo from San Javier, a vil­lage of 1,000 peo­ple in the craggy hills of the Sierra de la Gi­ganta, 23 up­hill miles from the sea­side city of Loreto.

Ivette has been want­ing to check out the cave as a pos­si­ble new ex­cur­sion for the guide ser­vice. I tag along.

We stop at San Javier, where Je­suits founded their sec­ond per­ma­nent mis­sion in the Cal­i­for­nias in 1699 (the first was Loreto, two years ear­lier). Here, nat­u­ral springs turn the desert hills green.

Build­ing ma­te­ri­als for the prim­i­tive church came by mule from Loreto. Out back, the mis­sion­ar­ies planted or­chards. An in­cred­i­bly gnarled 300-year-old olive tree still bears fruit, its trunk twisted like the rub­ber band that drives a child’s toy air­plane.

Ivette and I fol­low a path through or­chards to the home of her friend, Erika Cas­tanon Moreno, whose four-wheel-drive we need to bor­row. Her small home is of con­crete blocks, with an open-air, palm-frond-roofed din­ing area.

There is a chicken coop. Empty.

“They had chick­ens but a puma came,” Ivette ex­plains.

Erika’s bright- eyed son, Este­ban, 10, climbs a tree and plucks tan­ger­ines for us to take on our cave hike. We pile into the Pathfinder and stop to fill up at a nearby home where they sell gaso­line from a bucket. Erika’s hus­band, Luis, sucks on a plas­tic hose to start a siphon.

At the wheel, Erika zigzags through the vil­lage, stop­ping ev­ery few feet to hang out the win­dow and hail a friend.

She stud­ied oceanog­ra­phy at a univer­sity, she con­fides to me.

“I am an oceanog­ra­pher and now I live here in the moun­tains. Lots of things grow here. The weather is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent, and there is mu­cho agua — lots of wa­ter!”

Erika used to be a kayak­ing guide in Loreto.

Near the trail­head, we stop at Ran­cho Santo Domingo to meet the straw-hat­ted rancher, Hum­berto Ver­dugo Gar­cia, and his wife, Raquel Mo­rillo Tala­mantes. Hum­berto will be our guide and — be­cause the cave is on his ranch — will col­lect the 100 peso fee set by the gov­ern­ment.

We drive be­hind him a few min­utes, yield­ing mo­men­tar­ily to that taran­tula, then rock-hop up a talus hill­side to the cave.

There are fewer paint­ings here. Some have been oblit­er­ated or par­tially hid­den by rock fall. There is a snake im­age, very faded. (An­other “Cave of the Serpent,” to the north of this, has more spec­tac­u­lar snakes with — in­ex­pli­ca­bly — deer antlers.)

But here there is a nice im­age of a spout­ing whale. The tri­an­gu­lar whale spouts look like “early Mar­garita glasses,” Hum­berto jokes.

Back at the ranch, Hum­berto and Raquel in­vite us for cof­fee un­der their palapa.

“It is ranch cof­fee! With goat milk!” Ivette whis­pers to me.

The milk is rich and light yel­low. There’s a tub of coarse su­gar. It’s de­li­ciously re­viv­ing.

Hum­berto tells us that he and Raquel can also give tourists a lunch of roast goat, with goat cheese and other sides. Ivette sug­gests she might add it to her ex­cur­sion.

We leave with big smiles and lots of hand­shakes.

HARDY IN­HAB­I­TANTS OF BAJA

The next day I am on a mule.

I booked a half-day ride near San Javier with mule wran­gler Trudi An­gell, who came here from Cal­i­for­nia’s Napa Val­ley in the 1970s. Now she has dual cit­i­zen­ship.

For years she ran a kayak guide ser­vice called Pad­dling South. These days she runs a string of mules, with a new busi­ness name: Sad­dling South.

Trudi’s 27-year-old daugh­ter, Olivia, and their Weimaraner dogs, Luna and Her­shey, ac­com­pany us on a ride through the high desert of cac­tus, mesquite, aro­matic worm­wood and desert laven­der.

Mules are the hardy work an­i­mal of choice in Baja. Trudi sets her mules loose to fend for them­selves in the hot sum­mers here be­cause they are so adept at finding food and wa­ter.

“They’re in the nat­u­ral-foods store when they’re out in the desert!” she quips.

Trudi likes to take vis­i­tors to the small ranches near San Javier to meet the lo­cals, who are like­wise hardy. (A 2013 photo book, The Bare-Toed Va­quero, from Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press, de­light­fully doc­u­ments this self-suf­fi­cient breed of “rancheros.”) What Trudi calls the “Goat Cheese Ride” is one of her most pop­u­lar out­ings, with a stop at Ran­cho Viejo.

We stop in to meet the lady of the ranch, Maria del Rosario de los San­tos de Romero. She just goes by “Chari.” She shows us a batch of goat cheese in the works be­neath a shelf weighted with big rocks to squeeze out the whey.

“This is where they will bring out the goats for milk­ing and they give a cheese-mak­ing les­son,” Trudi tells me.

Olivia shows me the ranch’s old stone-walled cor­rals and a pen of bleat­ing baby goats, which are among the more adorable crea­tures on the planet.

We leave the ranch and am­ble along old jeep trails on our mules, Ra­ton, Chino and Dulce, as we gaze up at the high Mesa San Geron­imo. From its top, Trudi tells me, you can see both coasts of Baja, which is 50 miles wide here. We see quail, a red-tailed hawk and turkey vul­tures.

I’ll end the day back in a cozy ho­tel at sea­side in Loreto. Over a cold beer I’ll tell strangers how I’ve fallen in love with the raw beauty of Baja’s high desert. The gi­ant spi­der, they can keep.

The Trinidad Deer in La Trinidad Cave is known among ex­perts as one of the best-drawn cave-painting deer in Baja Cal­i­for­nia Sur, Mex­ico. A fawn is at left and be­low.

Greg Ko­erer of Cor­val­lis, Ore., pre­pares to fol­low his wife, Pa­tri­cia Ber­man, and guide Sal­vador Cas­tro Drew into the canyon wa­ters to reach cave paint­ings at La Trinidad Cave near Mulege, Baja Cal­i­for­nia Sur, Mex­ico.

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