Baja’s Cave Paintings: Cueva Pintada

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Scrambling down small cliffs and hopping over boulders on our way to visit Cueva Pintada in Baja’s Sierra Nevada, our guide –  Mauricio Zuniga Arce – navigated the desert canyon nimbly in smooth-soled cowboy boots.

He carried nothing more than a water canteen, a machete, and a lariat.

Part of our guide’s kit for exploring cave paintings in Baja’s Sierra de San Francisco. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Noteworthy: Our guide carried little during the day because it was our responsibility, on a self-arranged trip, to provide food. Good food – and lots of it – makes for a happy guide!

Packs on backs (loaded with food), hiking shoes on feet, we scrambled to keep up with Mauricio on the short slopes out of the verdant, palm tree lined, Arroyo de San Pablo.

We had one thought on our minds – besides making it unscathed – the great murals of Cueva Pintada.

Cueva Pintada

Cueva simple means cave in Spanish. Pintada means painted.

There are hundreds of painted rock shelters in Baja’s Sierra de San Francisco UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cueva Pintada is one of the best.

This great mural is one of the most heavily painted in the most painted part of the canyon.

It’s a view that never gets old – even after more than 36 years of guiding. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The approximately 150-metre (500 ft) long rocky recess of Cueva Pintada holds hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of overpainted images.

Although the cave is not deep, maybe 12 metres (40 ft) at most, it provided a multitude of well-protected surfaces for the ancient artists to work.

There are images of deer (in Spanish, venado), sheep (borrego), rabbits (conejo), men (hombres), and women (mujeres).

Marine species figure prominently in many panels. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

One of the largest figures in the cave is that of what is thought to be possibly a whale (ballena) or sea lion (león marino). There are also numerous images of fish (pescado). Notably, the ocean is hundreds of kilometres (more than 100 mi) away if you were to follow the drainage to the sea.

Superimposing one image on top of another, on top of yet another, was commonplace.

What the images really mean – and why they were painted in these locations – is up for interpretation.

Turkey vultures stand out clearly in this painted panel. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

In his book, The Cave Paintings of Baja California, Harry Crosby suggests that that act of painting was more valuable than preserving the visibility of each individual image.

We agree with Harry.

The muddled artwork we see today is as wildly confusing as it is thought-provoking and perfect.

Read more: Baja’s Cave Paintings: An Overview 
Next up: Cuevas de las Flechas

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