Updated: Feb 12
The indigenous pre-Hispanic people of Lower California are not, I think, widely known around the world. Everyone has heard of the Aztecs and the Maya; perhaps the Olmec.
But the hunter-gatherer tribes in Baja numbered only perhaps in the several tens of thousands. They founded no cities, forged no empires. As a result, by the time the Spanish and the missionaries had done their work, in the 19th or early 20th century little trace of their language or culture remained.
The Guaycura and Pericúes were two such peoples. They occupied the southern tip of the Baja peninsula, north and south around what is now La Paz. They had no metal or agriculture, and may have developed or adopted pottery not long before the arrival of Europeans.
I discovered that although the people and language were gone, some of their rock art remained out in the desert. I thought heading out to explore would be worthwhile.
Out Into The Desert - Again
This would be the third time we'd ventured out into the desert, hiking and birdwatching and before that exploring La Paz from the heights. We booked an Airbnb experience with Silvia, were picked up about 8am, and drove south to a ranch in the Sierra las Cacachilas.
There we met Umberto and his wife, the ranchers. Umberto was to travel with us. He's lived on the land here for 40 years. Despite his 75 years, he was fitter than all of us, and ghosted along the trails like a mountain goat.
The ranching lifestyle in lower California has been in place for a couple of centuries. Originally established by land grants from the Spanish and Mexican governments, settlers (mainly poor Spanish and Mexicans) raised cattle and farmed the land. They seem to have coexisted with the indigenous tribes, sharing knowledge of medicinal plants and the use of local resources. Nowadays they are the last remaining thread back to that folk knowledge.
It's also the direct forerunner of the US cowboy. Sorry John Wayne fans - that should really be Juan Wayne 😉 Early settlers in the US came across Mexican vacqueros who taught them the ropes, and realised that this was a way to make a living.
We set off - Mrs Wench, Silvia, Umberto and I - into the sierra.
I'll be honest, the hike wasn't too taxing, but if you're expecting a walk in the park, forget it. Do not think to turn up in a t-shirt and flip-flops 😀You're going to want decent boots, long trousers, and a long-sleeved top. I had a t-shirt on and got away with just a few scrapes from the thorns and cactus.
And again - hopefully obvious, but... sunscreen, hats and water. We went on an overcast day in the middle of winter. It was about 25°C and when the clouds thinned the sun was brutal. This place in the summer can hit much hotter.
The walk goes from ground level and dry arroyos, up through the forest and lower parts of the mountains and back down. In places we followed the old native trails. Umberto has been walking them for many years, and often finds flint spear and arrowheads.
But the landscape and views are pretty special.
After about 2 hours we made it up to the spot where the rock art is. It's an enormous round boulder. I wouldn't even want to guess how much it weighs, certainly hundreds of tons:
It stands out. There's often something special about the places we choose to mark out as religious, symbolic or just beautiful spots. Great views, proximity to water, natural resources; prehistoric people didn't think any differently to us in that regard.
Here we have a huge stone that can be seen for a long way. It's a landmark; there's space underneath for shelter. It's got great visibility from the ground, even further from the top.
I'd probably pick somewhere like this for my art if I was around a few centuries back.
Sadly, unlike the cave art found further north on the Baja peninsula, the work of the southern tribes is rock art. That means it's exposed to the elements, and naturally enough has degraded over the 3,000 to 7,000 years since they were painted. Entire sections of stones have flaked off due to freeze-thaw cycles and erosion.
As well as this, Silvia told us that in some cases people have literally tried to hack 'onion skins' of rock off, with the paint intact. Clearly this was not a success 🙁
Walking round the giant rock, we came to a spot with an incredible view down towards what's now La Paz. There's a hollow carved into the rock and painted, with the same ochre-red ink.
When I say hollow - I've seen cup and ring marks before. They're very common in Scotland, Ireland and other parts of Western Europe. But this is... well, have a look:
You can sit on the ground, lean back and put your head right into it. It has an amazing effect on your voice, and it's really easy to imagine a shaman or elder using it to intimidate or inspire his people. (It's also easy to imagine kids mucking about with it and making dumb noises, much like we did!)
Round a bit further we came across some more paintings. This looks like a nest of snakes:
There are hints of paint heading round in all directions from these snakes, suggesting there was once an entire fresco on this side of the rock. Sadly, either from theft, vandalism or the simple ravages of time, they're now lost.
We stopped and had some lunch/late breakfast, then began to wander back to the ranch. A few minutes after we left the boulder, a primal instinct I never knew I possessed leapt instantly into action. I heard a noise a few yards ahead and immediately froze:
Not the greatest picture, but in my defence, I had self-preservation on my mind. Rattlesnakes are meant to be fairly quiet and elusive at this time of year. Silvia doesn't bring people out here in the summer, because they're everywhere. This specimen obviously didn't get the memo.
After laughing at us all panicking for a few seconds, Umberto helpfully picked up a stick and poked at the thing. It sulkily snuck off into the undergrowth.
Silvia (equally helpfully) suggested that if you're walking downhill, you usually get enough notice to stop and avoid each other. Apparently, if you're walking uphill when you and the snake surprise each other, it's easier for them to "jump on you"!
We carried on slightly warier than before!
The rest of the hike was fairly uneventful, but here are a few nice photos.
We reached the ranch and were greeted by Umberto's wife, as well as his super-friendly dogs Salome and Gardenia, and cat Tato! They kindly provided us with coffee and iced water, and we sat out relaxing in the shade for half an hour or so discussing the trip.
After that, Silvia drove us all back into town.
We booked the Airbnb experience "Hike a Native Rock Art Trail" and travelled with Silvia and Umberto. She's very knowledgeable about the region, its history and culture, and both were great company.
From pick up to home was about 6-7 hours, and we paid approximately £50 each. We walked about 5 miles.
A great part of the world, wonderful scenery, great history and anthropology. I thoroughly recommend this trip.
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