Painted Cave of El Carmen
Article and photos by David Kier
Located in the very center of the peninsula is a beautiful painted cave that is a great reward for the short, but steep hike. This is perhaps the furthest north example of giant humans painted on a cave wall, similar to those of the Sierra de San Francisco made famous by Erle Stanley Gardner in the 1960's. The native Indians that were on the peninsula when the Padres arrive to build missions 300 years ago did not claim responsibility for the art. The Indians believed the paintings were made by a race of giants who inhabited Baja California long before them. Since the paintings are larger than life and out of reach from the cave floor, this isn't too difficult to imagine.
This cave has been known to 'outsiders' for more than 100 years and was mentioned by the French explorer Leon Diguet in his 1895 publication as the
Cave of el Carmen. Diguet worked for the El Boleo French copper mine at Santa Rosalia. In those years the painted caves of Baja were virtually unknown. From his expedition of 1893 he published 'Notes on the Pictographs of Baja California'. The Cave of el Carmen was number 2 on his list of localities where one can observe specimens of the ancient painted caves.
Harry Crosby, the author of 'The Cave Paintings of Baja California' was unable to locate El Carmen during his research in the early 1970's but this is just one site in a land of so many. Local ranchers have been visiting the site for a number of years as indicated by their name (Arce) carved in an elephant tree at the site, with 1990 as a date. Less than 10 miles away is the
guest ranch of Piedra Blanca which advertises tours of painted caves in the area, their Facebook page has the El Carmen cave featured. A book of Baja California photos called 'Sierra, Mar y Desierto, El Vizcaíno, Baja California' by Patricio Robles Gil and Bruce Berger features the painted cave site, as well. If the site wasn't so well published I would be more discrete with the location, being so close to a main road.
This past July, during our summer vacation trip, a visit to the painted cave was on my to-do list as we were visiting the nearby mission of Santa Gertrudis and the ghost mine town of Pozo Aleman.
The Baja California Almanac map of the area northeast of El Arco shows a mesa named El Carmen, just south of the road to Punta San Francisquito. A side road goes less than a mile to the base of the mesa where the trail to the cave begins. This road is about 7 miles eastbound from Pozo Aleman, and 8 miles westbound from Rancho Piedra Blanca.
We spent a total of 90 minutes hiking and enjoying the cave and scenery of boojums, pitaya dulce, cardón, and elephant trees along the trail. At the cave is a small sign asking to respect the site, otherwise it is just the same as when the natives painted the cave hundreds or perhaps thousands of years ago. Men, women, shaman, deer, bighorn, fish and more are depicted on the cave wall. The longer you stare, the more you will see. Most obvious to us were that most were in groups of four: four men, four women, four deer, four fish, but only two shaman. See what you can find!
Other caves are beyond the painted one, but I did not see any paintings in them. If you visit this cave or others, please preserve it for future generations as they are among the great treasures that Baja California has to offer. As they say, 'take only photos/ leave only footprints'.