Postcards from Ecotopia

old new lefty

old new lefty
alienation, discontent
September 16
Making trouble whenever possible
virgin novelist, middle school teacher for the morally handicapped, government bureaucrat, most famous unknown photographer in LA, PhD dropout, coat hanger sorter, presidential campaign worker, sewer worker, and retired guy -- but not in that order.


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APRIL 14, 2012 5:14PM

I defied death for the sake of great art!

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I started out on my journey to the long lost cave paintings of San Borjita, but I didn't have the foggiest idea of how much trouble I'd actually be getting into.

When your truck has its second flat tire in the middle of the desert, and you wander for a couple of miles until you double back to your dead truck -- you know you're in trouble. Bad as things were, we were doing this in April.  If I had tried to do this in August or during hurricane season, I'd probably be dead.  But it was worth it.


 I could handle some of the multiple mechanical failures that occurred from the 58 kilometers of extremely bad road that went from sea level over multiple mountain ranges, but the exploded tire finally did it.  You can see what much of the road was like from the picture below.  And you can imagine how much force  a flash flood can generate on the land, literally in an instant.


After we got back to the truck again, we finally made it to this rancho. But it wasn't fun when the ranchero's dogs got all crazy and nearly brought me down.


 But despite of all of the problems I encountered, I want to go back as soon as I can -- bringing my friends!  For one thing, the desert environment changes incredibly as you go up into the mountains.  This is a photo taken near the highway.  Eventually, I'll make it to the most distant mountain range.


As I pass through one ridge of mountains after another, the environment begins to change.  The furthest mountain in the distance is where I'm headed towards. It's probably just under 3000' tall.


 I was never totally certain at times about whether I was on the right road or not.  Taking a wrong turn could be fatal, but I was happy to see that once in a while there were clues that I was on the right track.


After many miles of a boneshaking ride, I finally get to the ranch where the cave paintings are.  Only six more bad miles to go.


Juan Gorosalves comes out to meet me.  His family got titulo to the ranch hundreds of years ago from a Spanish king.  He's doing quite well, as even in the middle of nowhere -- when you've got something that's classified as a United Nations World Heritage Site, you get a steady stream of tourists who are willing to pay for the guide service to the caves. The day before, he'd entertained a school busload of children coming all the way from Tijuana to see the prehistoric masterpiece. ↓


One of his ranch hands fixed my first flat tire, and he took me up the trail in his pickup truck to the third gate.  Juan tries to protect the integrity of the environment from the stray cattle and goats, and the next picture shows you where the magic begins!


You have to excuse the dust I have on my camera lens. But those grey smudges give you an idea of what I was actually taking a picture of.  There must have been hundreds of tiny yellow butterflies frittering around in front of those globe-shaped marsh plants that are taller than I am.  What you can't experience is the absolutely heavenly scent of the cidura tree.  The cidura tree  on the right has the most heavenly scent of any tree I've ever experienced in the world.  Its natural perfume is finer than a $500 an ounce spray that you'd get in Paris.

This is the gateway to the cave paintings, and it showed me what the desert used to look like before livestock denuded the environment. With the exception of the water line running to the corral, this is exactly what the cavemen 7,500 years ago must have seen as they brought back animals they'd killed for their celebrations.


About a mile in on the trail, this is the first sight of the gorge where the cave dwellers actually lived. ↑ 7,500 years ago, there was much more water here, and the ocean level was much lower than it is today.  The climate back then may have been more like California.  But this is where some of first Americans in the Western Hemisphere lived.  When the Spanish missionaries arrived, these people had disappeared many millenia ago.  The natives had absolutely no memory of the actual cave dwellers, only legends.


This may not seem very impressive, but you have no idea how large this cave actually is!  ↑ It took the cave dwellers hundreds of years, to not only paint their mysterious images on the ceiling of the cave that's at least ten feet above my head.  But they spent additional time excavating the cave in the back to make living quarters for the families that called this place home.  The next photo was taken from the back of the cave, looking towards my guide.  This will give you an idea of how large a space we're actually talking about.


Along one side of the wall are vaginas etched in the stone.  My guess is that the dwellers operated under a matriarchal system, honoring their First Mother by engraving her symbol here.  If the life span of the dwellers was only 20-30 years old, you can get an idea of how long people actually lived here.  Perhaps like in New Mexico, climate change forced them to move elsewhere, but who knows? ↓


 But this is what I came for.  The pictures were all painted on the ceiling, and they must have been done either with scaffolding or with stilts. The collective drawings are so big that it was impossible for me to look at all of them with one glance.  Finally, I had to settle on lying down on the floor of the cave, and shooting my pictures in bracket fashion.  Some day when I get back to the States, I'll take a Photoshop course so that I can blend these pictures together.  But for now, I'll only give you a taste of what I actually saw on my trip.



This is the outline of a giant marlin or swordfish that's perhaps ten feet long. ↑ Imagine our cave dwellers going upstream for 28 kilometers or more with this 300 pounder tied to logs to keep it afloat.  How they caught such a giant fish is a mystery, and I can't even begin to comprehend the human effort it took to bring this monster this far inland.  I only know that they must have had a helluva feast!


This is one of the most layered parts of the cave painting. ↑  I don't know how well you can see the white and black figure in the upper center-right section of the picture, but he was the only figure of his kind.  I asked the guide about his significance, and he didn't know.  Only half jokingly, I said, "He must be the astronaut."

I'll try to give you a bracketed panorama of the cave painting from its left side to its right.  No words from me for a while. Just enjoy.  And to put things in perspective, each of these human (?) figures is fifteen to twenty feet long!







These photos don't really do justice to the paintings, as the reds, blacks, browns, and oranges are actually much more vivid and vibrant.  If I didn't know better, I would have guessed that the artwork was a couple of years old.  It's remarkable how well the paintings have stood up to the travails of time.

 From studying a book of the cave paintings of Baja, it's my opinion that these are the finest in all of the peninsula.  Some experts say that they're the finest cave paintings known in the Western Hemisphere.

This was my visit to the Sistine Chapel for this year.


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From what I can see in your pics,it was well worth the trip.
OH MY That was a wonderful trip. Thank you for giving me the chills as I contemplate artists in that day and age. What you leave behind is important!
Your comment about the Sistine Chapel is apt. That's amazing.
Too bad you didn't have a video camera, Lefty. These images are stunning. Any idea what material was used as paint?
Thanks! History and art and adventure, all rolled together. Beautiful!
Chicken, I don't know precisely, but I'm under the impression that the black color was tar or mesquite tree sap mixed with charcoal. The red ochre was probably either powdered clay or red mineral. I don't have a clue how they made orange or white.
Hard to comment other than to say Wow! Thanks for this OLN!
Never heard of this place ONL but it's fascinating. One question though. If the human figures are 15-20 feet, isn't it possible that the marlin was some magnitude less than 10 feet? Being a fisherman myself I'd be the last to suggest they exaggerate, but perhaps they were proto-Texans so everything has to be bigger.
Abrawang, I can't really estimate the size of the marlin precisely, because of the distance to the ceiling (and my ignorance as to the actual size of marlins). However, I can say with authority -- before the Sea of Cortez was fished out, the fish grew to gigantic proportions. Even the old photos of the 1930s show people catching marlins considerably longer than 8' when you include the bill, so who knows how large it was?
Interesting tale and pics.
The Western Hemisphere's first Taggers.
Awesome adventure, lefty. The desert is full of amazing remnants of civilizations past, isn't it.
Thanks for sharing these with us.
This is too much! You are the master of documenting a journey that has something more than worthwhile at the end. It is amazing how you describe plants that are as tall as you. The scale of things has no meaning until we see the photo from the back of the cave. R!
Wow! What an experience. I'm insanely jealous
Doing the happy dance as I see this Lefty.
Marvelous indeed.
Thanks for sharing this...
incredibly coooool ! :) r.
beyond fascinating yet lingering
I had never heard of this place--it's really amazing. I'm glad you gave some perspective, because the size is deceptive. What an outing this must have been.
ONL: Really neat exploration. I like how you reference this to visiting the Sistine chapel. It's true.

I've seen some similar ruins in the outback in Arizona (can I call it the outback?). Far less glyphs on the rocks though in AZ but the whole panel told a story as do these I'm sure. Plus, in the one spot there was modern day graffiti on the rock. A sign of past meets present. I always like to consider these wall paintings as the newspapers of the day. In these cases, the writing really is on the wall.
As I started, I was hoping for an obvious Alien. Lots of shows on History and such cable channels, which claim meso-American cave paintings all have such. Oh well. But a may be is welcome news.

-- If the life span of the dwellers was only 20-30 years old
Life expectancy at birth might be that, but those reaching adulthood likely lived about as long as we do, may be longer, as their diet didn't have sugar or beer or tobacco or ...

And, have the Scientists determined carbon date aging or something like it?
Robert, carbon dating has definitively placed the works as happening 7,500 years ago. The bitumen or charcoal in the black pigment (possibly along with the smoke on the ceiling in the back of the cave) placed it in that era.

I actually learned a lot about our ancestors by teaching world history to middle schoolers. For example, at one point on the trail, I found hundreds of stone tools lying around. I have a collection of stone tools and sea shells that I've dug up from my own back yard. I picked up a stone tool and showed it to the young lady of the family who was visiting from Ensenada, and I surprised her. It seems that no one in the Gorosalves family was aware of the presence of the prehistoric tools, many of which are shaped like awls. Or else they were shaped into clubs that could be used to smash bones of animals so that the marrow could be sucked out of their bones.

It's said that the Old Ones only painted what they saw, and in life size. So, when I see a giant swordfish or grouper on the ceiling it was a WYSIWYG. Interestingly enough, in some cave paintings there are portrayals of animals that can only be called sea serpents -- snakelike creatures over 20' long, having torsos as thick as a human with antlers!

The human figures of course, are not actual size.
WOW.. what an adventure, getting there first off.
And the pay off! The art, the mysteries.The matriarchs (?) The Marlin.
Incredible Lefty-- thanks much!!
That is fantastic, so say the least. Cool adventure.
Robert's comment about life expectancy makes sense. When a society has a young life expectancy like that, it's normally because of infant mortality bringing the averages down, not because all these people are dying at 35.

Concerning a point you made: The best way to learn something is to teach it. I've sure learned that.
Wow how amazing that these are so old yet there they are...I love that you shared this trip with us and got there and back safe!
ONL, that's an amazing story and what a treasure at the far end of the journey! I guess if a tire company comes out with a better tire design that resists blow outs/flats on rugged terrain that will be a boon for any drivers traveling back roads and trails!
Wow! -- God this takes you deep inside. Yes, enormously compelling. What a trip. And I have to say that you have the gift for capturing our history. The pics are gems. Also, it's telling on the level of your experience of finding the place, then your challenges of navigating your way to the treasures. Impressive, man. Please give us more. Thanks for paying the price that some must pay just to share a great moment. What we do, right? ...
Great Post Lefty. Almost EP worthy. If you would have just faked a picture of someone on "Mad Men" you would have had the cover for sure buddy, Hah~No kidding, this was outstanding~
Wow!!! I've never heard of these beautiful cave paintings before...thanks so much for sharing your journey, Old New Lefty!
Wonderful post, Lefty; loved it. R
These are wonderful, thanks for sharing, cuz if Globus doesn't have a bus tour there, we ain't gone (a little spoiled and a little lazy). These photos are amazing. What a great experience.
Wow! Thank you for the effort in putting this piece together. I loved it.
Awesome adventure! A very challenging picture taking environment, though.
Muy interesante! Boy, that land is desolate! Even if I was a rich "haciendado" I couldn't handle the isolation.

Some day I'm gonna show up at your door down there, Lefty! LOL. The place fascinates me.
This is absolutely fantastic. Thanks for sharing. I am posting to FB for all my traveler friends.
WOW Lefty. I am so impressed and so happy for you to have this incredible experience. Thanks so much for sharing the story and the photos. My 4-yr-old just asked me to scroll through the pictures 3 times ~ was a great learning experience for him right now!
I held off on this because it's a bad pun, but even bad puns are irresistible. I know who painted this ancient Sistine Chapel ceiling.


I'll assume groans and raspberries, so any response is optional.
Cool pictures from what sounds like a neat adventure, overall.
amazing, thanks for this. the journey sounds arduous.
An eminently fascinating journey and destination Lefty. I'm always fascinated by the first peoples in the western regions. I've stood at the end of Point Loma with my back to San Diego and imagined the clash when the European explorers sailed into the indigenous lives, forever changing their arc of time. It's too idealistic to think what might have been if the aborigines across the world were left alone to chart their own destinies...I'm not sure what benefit that invasions and colonialism has ever brought about a lasting good either for the conquerers or the conquered--except perhaps for the railroad system in India.

There are so many unanswered questions, things that probably will never be known. Why, for example, did the ancient pueblo people, formerly known as Anasazis, suddenly vanish from what they had spent generations in creating? Similarly, and perhaps even more so, it's hard to trace the history of the coastal first peoples, there are only hints, such as the glorious art in the painted caves.

I wish I could have been on this journey with you, but will with mixed emotions thank you for taking me along on this page. Best wishes and well done. Congrats on the EP.
Well, when the day comes I hit the lottery, You, Old New Lefty, will be one of the first OSrs I visit -- so we can go see those paintings together! I'll bring plenty of gear. And spare tires.

I would be willing to bet the marlin was sliced up and divvied out to several carriers to get it from the Sea of Cortez to their encampment. It just makes more sense for folks to catch something that big to slice and dice before transport.

Like with any living creature, the best way to preserve the flesh is to butcher it and dress the carcass as soon as possible -- to avoid having the entrails and major organs "pollute" the meat during transportation. It also makes it hella easier to carry if one guy only has to deal with a twenty to forty pound load of fish in a basket, instead of fifteen guys hauling on sisal, hemp or gut ropes tied to logs in a stream *(running downhill against their climb, pulling on the load) pulling up a fish of that size.

I'd love to be wrong, though; the idea of them pulling the BIG ONE that didn't get away like you describe would be a pretty amazing sight. When you go again, please be sure to get photos of the stone tools as well. (And bring extra batteries! Batteries are to digital cameras what rolls of film are to analog cameras in the Bad Old Days -- once they're done, you're not taking any more photos.)

It's pretty amazing what and how and where our ancestors lived on the face of this planet.

I don't know about that sea serpent with horns, but I wonder if Oarfish (when turned in the right direction, they look like huge sea serpents and their "frills" along their spine can look like horns -- I mean, if you aren't too busy pissing yourself when it comes out of the water, that is) ever lived in the Sea of Cortez?

Or maybe the horns were their idea of the forked tongue? I imagine something, if it was remotely as big as the rest of the things on the cave (if we're considering WYSIWYG art) could have been some sort of giant python or something. I just don't know of any snakes that large that don't also live in the Southeast Asian region of the world -- or maybe the deep jungles of Africa or South America -- no matter which region you choose, you're talking a lotta miles for a giant snake to wander away from.

What a great little story and such an interesting place where you live. The desert's not my preferred stomping grounds, though I love hiking in those places. I prefer big pines and Sequoias, mountains, alpine meadows and spring blooms, but I'll trek through damn near anything to get new photos.

Thanks for posting this cool bit of Baja History.

What an awe-inspiring trip! Thank you for this. /r/