The earliest timeshare scheme known to man
Most people come to Mulege (pronounced Moo-le-hey) in Baja California in search of nature and tranquility, or to go whale-watching and sea-kayaking. But recently, more and more tourists have been coming just to see the impressive painted rock-shelters in the area – which were added to UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites in 1993.
I’m not normally one for guided tours, but there are cases where it’s illegal to visit some places without one. Making a day trip to the cave paintings in Baja California is one of them. Canon La Trinidad near Mulege hosts Northern Mexico's most famous cave painting, and a surprisingly large number of Cochimi petroglyphs, which are still intact and thankfully unharmed by vandals. The Mexican government understandably wants to keep it that way.
It transpires that our guide Salvador – the first in Mulege to lead people into La Trinidad and who now has sixteen years of experience - learned Indian medicine from his grandmother. He stops his van in the desert between Mulege and the mountains to explain the mostly ignored medicine of his heritage. "This one," he says, pointing at a knobbly cactus, "is good for cancer”. “This one,” he adds, “is good for diabetes”. The group murmurs in admiration.
“But if there are so many natural resources in the plants that have been growing here for centuries, why isn’t alternative medicine being developed in this area more?,” somebody asks. “Money,” Salvador replies, “America has all the medicine.” “But Mexico pays America for medicine – why can’t it put some of that money into developing its own medicine?” “America already has medicine,” he replies.
We walk past a giantesque cardon cactus. “The pulpa is an antibiotic, but this one,” he says, finding a candelia, “is a great laxative. But you must be careful how much you take”. It seems there’s nothing that can’t be cured with careful selection of the various cacti that abound in the desert here, which also serve as food (the tasty nopal for example) and water.
I’m keen to learn more about the medicinal properties of the plants from Salvador, but he refuses. “I’m going to write a book,” he explains. And so we head on to the canyon with no further discussion about cacti, past breathtaking scenes of deep, wide valleys literally covered with cacti - which from a distance look like millions of miniature green dots.
I’d got the impression that the journey into the canyon could be demanding, and that along with being an able hiker you needed to be a strong swimmer. The broken dams and recent droughts, however, mean that walking between the steep red cliffs – which without water look like the entrance to Petra in Jordan – turns out to be a piece of cake.
Salvador explains that the petroglyths at the canyon's entrance were left as markings for other Indians, who were semi-nomadic. The paintings told them what animals were in the canyon, if it was a good place to be, and if they were welcome there. “It’s the earliest version of a timeshare scheme,” he jokes.
He continues to tells us the history of the Cochimi, the role of the missionaries (who attempted to convert them), and how the Indians 'disappeared.' It seems the introduction of Western diseases had a lot to do with it.
Along with geometric shapes of fish, whales, deer, manta rays and crude paintings of men and women distinguished only by their genitals, we see an image of a man that looks like he’s been shot full of arrows. Salvador tells us this could indicate a sacrifice, or a creature with magical powers, or be linked to the availability of mushrooms or peyote. Nobody really knows what the images mean. We’re impressed to see that the red and white paintings, which are apparently made from a slurry of water and volcanic rock, have over the centuries been totally unaffected by air or water.
The image that really appeals to me most, however, is the cluster of tiny hand and feet markings that show the size of the people that used to live here. It’s also been suggested that children coming of age came here to make their mark on the walls.
As we return along the narrow, sandy pathway through the canyon, Salvador cries out “Stop! A Rattlesnake!” The Mexican lady infront of me jumps back in alarm, “Where?! Oh my god! Where is it?”. But we’re in luck. It’s only a baby. Salvador picks a stick off the ground and pushes it towards the snake, which curls itself around the wood as he lifts it off the ground. "Have a look,” he says. We move closer with slight hesitation, and find that on closer inspection, the snake looks kind of sweet and almost harmless. “But don’t be fooled,” he warns us. And we all withdraw quickly again, out of respect for the beguiling power of the desert.
Mulege is on Highway 1 (more than half way down the Baja Peninsula), near Bahia de Concepcion on the Sea of Cortez. Salvador Drew conducts tours to La Trinidad in English, with a packed lunch, and optional stop-offs at citrus orchards and ranches along the route – where you can see how goat cheese, ropes and lassos are made and how hide is tanned to make leather.
The day trip costs roughly $380 per person, or less if there are more than five people. Visitors must bring a photo I.D (either a passport or driver’s licence) to register with the local authorities, and suitable hiking boots/swimming gear. For current rates and to book a space, contact Salvador at tel/fax: 52 (615) 153-02-32 or leave a message at Hotel Las Casitas in Mulege on tel/fax: 52 (615) 153-00-19.
by Lucia Appleby
Material by Lucia Appleby has appeared in a variety of print and online material world-wide, from UK newspapers such as the Birmingham Post, Herald and Western Daily Press to books such as Rough Guide to Mexico and Bouncing Around Baja, websites such as www.i-escape.com, www.travelmag.co.uk, www.arabnews.com, and magazines including Positive Health, Trailfinders magazine, Namaste magazine and Wanderlust.