Historic Cave Paintings of Baja
Explore where few have had the privilege to venture on this unforgettable hiking tour to the cave paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco. While many were known to Spanish missionaries in the late 19th century, it wasn’t until an article was published in “Life Magazine” in 1962 by Erle Stanley Gardner that their existence was revealed to the wider world. In 1993, the Rock Paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognizing their power and magic. Hidden in dramatic desert canyons, it’s only the most adventurous who bear witness to these wonders left by our ancestors, with images of people, animals, and icons that are still being interpreted to this day.
On this six-day adventure, you’ll hike through these spectacular rock canyons with the help of local cowboys and their trusty mules, a mode of transport that’s been used in the region for hundreds of years. Each evening, we’ll set up camp in an idyllic oasis of native palms, with nights spent around the campfire beneath a star-studded sky.
Note: This trip is best suited to people who are in good physical health, with the trails rough and uneven at times. The climb into the canyon includes a drop of over 1,000 feet (330 meters), which we also trek out of on the final day. This Baja California hiking adventure can also be modified if you’re not at peak fitness by supplementing some (or all) of the hiking for riding mules.
We’ve scheduled this trip so that it can easily be combined with one of our whale watching tours on the San Ignacio Lagoon for a seamless and unforgettable adventure in Baja California.
Images & Videos
Arrive in Loreto
After collecting your luggage at the airport, grab a cab to the hotel where you can relax on simply drop your bags before heading out to explore lovely Loreto. Overlooking the Sea of Cortez, it’s the oldest permanent settlement in the region, having been established by Jesuit Missionaries in the late 17th century. We’ve selected Loreto as our base of operations due to its sun-drenched beaches, outstanding hiking and whale watching opportunities, as well as its proximity to the islands of Loreto Bay National Marine Park, which we visit on our kayaking tours.
We’ll congregate in the evening for a brief orientation meeting where you’ll have a chance to meet your guides and your fellow travelers.
Drive to San Ignacio via Santa Rosalia
After breakfast at the hotel, it’s time to depart Loreto for the spectacular drive to the port town of Santa Rosalia. This atmospheric former mining settlement was established by the French company, El Boleo, in 1884 as they developed copper mines in the region and it retains touches of this legacy in its wooden buildings. In the heart of town, you can still see some of the huge industrial structures that were used up until 1954, including mining equipment, machinery, and vintage locomotives.
The old mining company offices now house the Museum of Mining History, which we’ll visit for an insight into the people and events that have shaped Santa Rosalia. Also on our itinerary is a visit to the prefabricated iron church of Santa Barbara, which is said to have been designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) and first appeared at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. No visit to Santa Rosalia is complete without a stop at the famous El Boleo Bakery, which will be followed by lunch at a local restaurant.
In the afternoon, we’ll continue our journey northwest to the mission town of San Ignacio. Here, you’ll discover the fascinating history of Baja California’s missions while wandering through this 18th-century settlement. You’ll then check into your hotel for the evening, with plenty of time to explore the town at your leisure before reconvening for dinner.
San Ignacio + San Francisco + Guadalupe Ranch + Hike to Santa Teresa
Today you can enjoy a more leisurely start and a late breakfast before we meet with guests joining our tour from the San Ignacio Whale Camp. It’s then time to drive north on Mexico’s Highway 1, which leads to the charming village of Sierra de San Francisco. Perched at 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) above sea level, this small settlement is known for its crisp air and the large mural of the Cueva del Raton that depicts the figure of a mountain lion.
It’s here that we’ll pick up our permits from the INAH (Mexico’s archaeology authority) and meet up with some local cowboys who will guide us into the Santa Teresa Canyon. After the mules and horses are loaded up, we’ll make our way to the rim and begin the 1,000-foot descent as the trail winds its way past giant cacti and beneath the spectacular canyon walls. Juxtaposed against their red and brown hues are palm-dotted oases that seem otherworldly as they come into view.
As we descend into the Arroyo San Pablo, we’ll make our way to our camping area where you can settle in beside the campfire as your guides prepare a delicious meal. Spend the evening listening to stories of the adventures had and what awaits over the following days.
Hiking Distance: Four miles with a 1000-foot descent.
Santa Teresa Canyon + Arroyo San Pablo
The next two days will be spent hiking through the canyon’s steep-sided gullies and exploring its mural-adorned caves. There will be plenty of time to rest beneath the palm trees as we enjoy meals together in an environment that feels a world away from our everyday reality.
A highlight will be the Cueva de la Soledad, which requires a bit of a climb to reach due to its setting high above the floor of the canyon. Take note of the human figures (known as “monos”) that are depicted on the cave walls, together with deer and birds. As we explore further, the cave reveals an unusual checkerboard mural featuring ochre yellow lines that are colored in with red and black.
Also of note is the Cueva de las Flechas (“Cave of the Arrows”), which is named for the human figures with arrows pierced through them that can be seen. It’s worth noting that while it’s common to see images of animals with arrows in them in the paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco, seeing the same in human figures is unusual. Each artwork we encounter is shrouded in mystery, with plenty for us to interpret regarding its meaning and symbolism.
One of the most spectacular caves we will visit is the Cueva Pintada (“Painted Cave”), which features such a high ceiling it’s believed the painters built scaffolding using native palms to reach it. It preserves the most impressive collection of paintings in the region, with images of humans, birds, beasts, and even sea mammals depicted. Due to its remote setting, it was largely overlooked by missionaries and it’s thought that it didn’t become known to the outside world until the late 19th century.
Not far from the Cueva Pintada is Boca de San Julio, which many people feel is the most beautiful of the painted caves in the Sierra de San Francisco. Facing south, it enjoys all-day sunlight, which only adds to its appeal. Look out for the pregnant deer and arched buck that can be seen leaping, together with an image of a healthy sea lion.
Boca de San Julio is not far from Los Musicos, a cave that features a mural of human figures set across white lines resembling musical staffs. Some interpret this as the human figures being musical notes dancing along a score.
Hiking Distances: Four to six miles each day (this is flexible depending on the group’s abilities).
Hike out to Guadalupe Ranch + Return to Loreto
We’ll make an early start to the day and stop to see any caves that we haven’t already ticked of our “wish list”, with the knowledge that we’re among the few privileged enough to see these cave paintings. Before the heat of the day sets in, we’ll begin our hike back up the Arroyo San Pablo and ascend to Guadalupe Ranch, then on to the village of San Francisco de Sierra.
Once we’re back on the rim, our van will meet us for the drive back to Loreto, with it expected that we’ll arrive in the late afternoon. Check into your hotel where you can enjoy a refreshing shower and rest before meeting the group for a farewell dinner at the local restaurant, La Palapa.
Hiking Distance: Four miles with a 1,000-foot ascent.
Flight home or onward travel
It’s time to say goodbye to your group as you make your own way back to Loreto International Airport or continue your travels through Baja California. We offer a variety of single-day Trip Extensions, as well as multi-day sea kayaking adventures through Loreto Bay National Marine Park.
Note: The above itinerary is a guide only and we are happy to organize a custom trip if you have a small group of six or more people who would like to visit other destinations.
Dates & Rates
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.
*Please inquire for 2024 pricing.
- 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.