Sunday, December 14, 2008

"Once upon a Mule"

Since I am currently back in Calgary, visiting family and friends for for the next couple of weeks over the Holidays, I have asked several good friends and neighbors, who also live in Loreto Bay, to write "Guest Blogs" of some of their experiences. This weeks posting is by Dee, who writes about a remarkable adventure she had earlier this year, I know you will enjoy it, thanks, Dee!

When my friends, Cecile Martin and Debora Simmons of La Damiana Inn fame, talked about going on a mule trip to see the cave paintings northeast of San Ignacio, I was all about the mule ride. I knew I wanted a Baja experience and that this trip on mules would be just that. I am a horse lover and have even had my own but I had never been on a mule or even around donkeys much at all. The cave paintings were secondary. For Cece, the trip was about the cave paintings. Fortunately, she had studied a little before we left and was prepared to be our resident photographer. The trip turned out to be everything I wanted and way more. AND I was absolutely blown away by those 10,800 year old paintings.

We met Trudi Angell, our guide and owner of Saddling South, in San Ignacio late on a Sunday afternoon in early April. We figured April would offer us clear, warm, sunny days and cool nights for camping. We followed Trudi for two hours up a narrow, rugged, mostly one lane road that at times was worse than the road from Loreto to San Javier. The views were stunning…the higher we got, the wider the vistas. No one seemed to live anywhere near this road…only a few goats and cattle here and there. This road took us to the small mountain village of Sierra de San Francisco which is considered the jumping off point for the best of Baja’s rock art sites.

This first night we stayed in a hostel owned by the government. There we found fairly new, beautiful, rustic, little cabins that surrounded a communal kitchen and dining area where Trudi made us a really nice dinner of salad and pasta. We were also joined by the two cowboys who would be our guides, along with Trudi, over the next 3 days.

The next morning it was up early to go sign in at a rancher’s home so we could enter the area of the World Heritage Sites of Mural Rock Art. All three of our guides are registered with the government and are authorized to take tours throughout this unique area. The village where we packed and loaded up the donkeys and mules was a gathering of cement block homes with some gorgeous flower gardens. They raised goats and made goat cheese. They also tanned hides for saddles and shoes. We rode the mules while the donkeys carried all of our many, many things! Our guide, Chema, played the guitar and there was one little older donkey named Triangle because he had had three owners. Triangle’s special job was to carry the guitar and he became special to all of us on the trip. I have never seen a cuter donkey.

We were all on our mules, six mules for the humans and five donkeys for all the “stuff.” Saddling South provided everything needed for the trip including food and tents. We only brought our own sleeping bags, pads and clothes. We traveled for about 5-6 hours by mule on rugged trails through cactus garden valleys and back up over ridge tops with great views. Up and down we went on trails on the very sides of the mountains. Steep, windy, narrow trails of slippery rock. I know now why those sure-footed mules are called “four wheel-drive horses.” For hours, we wound our way through wide canyons into a more narrow one that was lush with palm trees and big boulders. We camped there for the next two nights.

The next day, we were not nearly as sore as we thought we would be. Nevertheless, after a cowboy breakfast, we were up hiking to our first caves. No mule riding today. Well, whew, we all thought an easier day!! No one mentioned that to see the first caves we would be climbing up and around boulders and hiking through dry streams with basketball sized rocks. I felt like I was in some kind of boot camp. We first visited rock art that was carved into the sides a big boulder. We then proceeded to two different sites of cave paintings, Los Musicos and Cueva Boca de San Julio. The next day, Chema, was our lone guide as we visited three more caves. He proved himself to be an expert at patiently guiding us up and down into these caves and out. I never dreamed rock climbing would be part of the trip. The caves this day were Cueva La Pintada, Cueva de las Fechas and La Soledad.

Cave paintings are truly a magical mystery. Their origins and purpose remain unknown. Most of the caves we saw were long and shallow with vast expanses of fairly smooth rock surface. Most were quite high. So high that it was baffling that these pre-hispanics could paint so high. It is surmised that they built scaffolding but would have had to travel a ways with the wood. Then they likely used it to cook their food.

The paintings can be quite elaborate and are well-preserved. They depict rabbits, mountain sheep and deer. Some even show marine mammals, fish and shorebirds. Humans are also included in these crude but distinct paintings. Most of the objects are over life-sized. The colors are from earth’s minerals, mostly red, black, orange red and yellow. They are stunning and quite unbelievable. There are several books about this including one with photographs by Harry Crosby and an early one by Earle Stanley Gardner of Perry Mason fame.

Our guide, Chema, was truly a high point of this trip. Raised in the Baja on one of the 30 or so ranches that are still only accessible by hiking or mule, he is a true cowboy and jack-of-all-trades kind of guy. He raises goats, makes goat cheese, tequila and many items from goat skins, including saddles and accessories. He decided the day before the trip that he needed some new boots so he just stitched some up out of goat leather. Really handsome boots! He is as proud of his daughters as he is of his sons for following in his footsteps to be Baja cowboys. Chema is quite talented musically, too - every night around the campfire we enjoyed his singing and playing the guitar. He plays in a band with his son and is also featured in the movie, “Corazon Vaquero, Heart of the Cowboy” that Trudi was instrumental in filming on life in the Baja.

This was truly a unique journey into the heart of the sierra. I feel fortunate to have shared this journey with really wonderful people and Trudi’s dog, Lucky. I feel honored to have been able to have this fascinating glimpse into a way of life that has hardly changed in 300 years.