A Journey to Baja’s La Trinidad Cave Paintings

Last Updated on: 13th February 2024, 10:26 am

With the native languages and traditions of Baja now largely extinct, the peninsula’s numerous cave paintings are all that remain of the ancient cultures that lived here for millennia. In fact, sites like the La Trinidad cave paintings, among others, are among the oldest surviving archaeological sites in all of Mexico.

The La Trinidad cave paintings, situated near the town of Mulegé in the state of Baja California Sur, are also sometimes called the Sierra de Guadalupe cave paintings. And they’re part of a larger UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing numerous similar sites throughout the area.

While other options exist, the La Trinidad cave paintings are arguably the easiest to visit as a day trip. Arranging a tour can still be tricky, however, which you can learn about in detail at the end of the article.

Reaching La Trinidad

While La Trinidad Ranch – the departure point for the cave paintings – is just about 30 km west of Mulegé, the journey consists of bumpy dirt roads. 

Fortunately, our guide and driver Salvador (learn more below) was taking us in a sturdy SUV. This remote desert wouldn’t be the most ideal place to get stuck!

La Trinidad Cave Paintings
La Trinidad Cave Paintings

Partway through the journey, we made a brief stop in the desert wilderness to check out an especially remarkable saguaro cactus. Not only does it contain multiple branches, but it towers over everything around it, including the trees.

While not directly related to the La Trinidad cave paintings, Salvador gave us a brief summary of some of the local plants in the area, along with their medicinal uses. We were also lucky enough to spot some lizards.

La Trinidad Cave Paintings

Moving on, our next stop was La Trinidad Ranch itself, after which the nearby cave paintings were named. This counts as the official entrance, and it’s here where a fee will be collected (on top of the tour price, that is) to access the protected area beyond.

You can also stop here for a bathroom break before the scenic hike to the cave paintings.

Apparently, getting to the La Trinidad cave paintings used to be much more challenging, requiring multiple river crossings. But the rivers have been dry for years now. The site, therefore, can be accessed with a hike from the ranch which takes about 20-30 minutes.

While this hike could be described as easy or moderate, it would be wise to show up in something sturdier than flip-flops.

Along the way, our guide explained the uses of more local plants, while we even spotted an ancient petroglyph on a rock – just a preview of things to come.

La Trinidad Cave Paintings

The scenery out here is breathtaking. While I didn’t know what to expect out of the tour other than the cave paintings themselves, the untouched desert landscape was easily one of the highlights of the excursion.

La Trinidad Cave Paintings
La Trinidad Cave Paintings

Before long, we entered into a canyon. And near the entrance, we passed by a cave where the ancient Cochimí may have rested in between long hunting expeditions.

We also saw evidence of the former river here which, as mentioned, is now dried up.

Moving along, we finally arrived at the ancient paintings.

The Paintings & Their Meaning

The ancient paintings of La Trinidad were created by the Cochimí culture, the largest of the various indigenous groups to inhabit the Baja Peninsula. Their culture existed from the north of the peninsula down to San Javier near Loreto, a few hours south of Mulegé by car.

Living nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles, the Cochimís thrived here for thousands of years. But today, their culture is almost entirely extinct, and what we know about them largely comes from Jesuit literature from the 18th century.

La Trinidad Cave Paintings

The Cochimís roamed the arid landscape in search of water and animals to hunt. But they also frequently fished along the coast, mainly targeting whales for their meat and oil. Accordingly, images of whales as well as turtles can be found amongst the paintings.

But when roaming the arid interior of Baja, animals weren’t always easy to come by, and Cochimí tribes often went for long periods without a kill. 

Whenever they could, they gathered fruits and other edible plants growing in the area. And they also had a bizarre practice to truly get the most out of what they found.

La Trinidad Cave Paintings

As revolting as it sounds, the Cochimí went as far as inspecting their own excrement and vomit for undigested seeds, which they would then eat again. Needless to say, when they got the opportunity to eat fresh meat, it must’ve been a pretty big deal!

Later on, the Jesuit missionaries, the first ones to establish permanent settlements in Baja, would have a very difficult time raising livestock. Their animals would frequently be killed and eaten by the natives, who were surely delighted by the ease of such a hunt.

La Trinidad Cave Paintings

La Trinidad’s central images date back as far as 1500 BC – roughly around the same time the Olmec civilization emerged on the opposite side of modern-day Mexico. 

Amongst the white-colored images in the middle, you’ll find a shaman standing over a dead deer, one of the main animals that the Cochimí hunted. Above him meanwhile, is what’s believed to be a coyote, while another deer in red can be seen in the panel above.

The La Trinidad cave paintings, in fact, would’ve largely been carried out by the shaman as the other members of the tribe brought him meat.

La Trinidad Cave Paintings

The shaman was considered to be the keeper of a tribe’s most important knowledge, not to mention being the mediator between humans and the spirits. As such, it was vital that a shaman passed down his knowledge to a successor before death.

The shaman’s heir would generally be decided from very early on. Another of the Cochimí’s disturbing practices involved various children ingesting high doses of hallucinogens like peyote. Some of the children would inevitably die in the process, but those who survived would become candidates to be the next shaman.

Eventually, when the shaman did die, a cannibalistic ritual would occur in which the new shaman would devour his heart and brains. This was believed to ensure that all of the shaman’s knowledge would be passed down.

You’ll also notice handprints to the right of the animal scenes. According to Salvador, children would paint their hands on the wall when they came of age. 

These handprints reminded me of the ones found throughout the US Southwest, though these are around a couple thousand years older!

Speaking of chronology, in addition to the images mentioned above, there’s an entire additional set of paintings along the rocks to the left. And incredibly, their estimated age ranges from 2000-7000 BC!

La Trinidad Cave Paintings

Clearly, this particular site was of great importance to the native inhabitants – so much so that they would continue contributing to it for several thousand years.

As the Cochimí would’ve had to go to great lengths to acquire the stones and plants necessary to create the white, red and black paint, creating this art was surely no simple leisure activity. And one can only presume that the images contain a deeper layer of symbolism beyond what we can decipher today.

Tragically, the Cochimí would be almost entirely wiped out by various diseases introduced by the Spanish. But at least the paintings themselves are still here for us to admire. 

Thanks to their remote locations, the La Trinidad cave paintings and many others throughout the Baja Peninsula have survived intact for all these years.

Supposedly, there’s an extra set of paintings about an hour away on foot. Reading some reviews online, it seems like many tours do indeed take visitors there.

While I’m not quite sure why my group didn’t go, it may have had to do with there being small children and adults with mobility issues with us. Nevertheless, the rock art featured above is said to be the more impressive of the two sections.

Additional Info

All ancient cave paintings in the Baja Peninsula can only visited in the company of an INAH-licensed guide.

As far as I can tell, Mulegé, the closest town to the La Trinidad cave paintings, lacks formal tourism offices. From my experience, I was only able to find guides by asking around on the ground and then messaging different guides via WhatsApp.

It seems like the guide I ended up going with, Salvador, is by far the most known when it comes to cave painting tours in the area. Communication with him was very smooth and as an added bonus, he speaks fluent English. And during the tour itself, he was a wealth of information. 

You can reach Salvador at +52-615-161-4985, while you can find additional info on his business card pictured here.

If you’re traveling solo or as a couple, you’ll have to wait for a day when a larger group also wants to go see the paintings. Otherwise, you’d have to pay much more for a private tour. 

In my case, I ended up tagging along with a large family visiting from Tijuana. Luckily, I was staying in Mulegé for over a week and had a flexible schedule, as there was a gap of several days between my initial inquiry and learning that a tour was indeed happening.

If you only have limited time in Mulegé, it would be wise to contact Salvador in advance and let him know that you’re interested.

Depending on the number of people and time of year, expect to pay in the range of $700-1000 per person for transport and guide services. You may also have to pay an extra small fee at the ranch which counts as official entry to the site itself.

While I’ve seen some sources online mentioning that you can show up at La Trinidad Ranch and arrange a tour on the spot, that doesn’t seem true at the time of writing. If you drive there on your own, not only will you likely find a locked gate blocking the road to the ranch, but there might not be any staff members there.

Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of the La Trinidad cave paintings before my arrival in Mulegé. While I was aware that there were a myriad of cave paintings across the peninsula, I came to the area with the intention of visiting the largest and most famous of them all: San Borjitas.

Unfortunately, despite being the most well-known cave paintings and Mulegé being the best base from which to see them, arranging a tour is far from easy.

Even though Mulegé is the closest town, the San Borjitas cave paintings are about twice as far away as the La Trinidad paintings, making it a very long day trip. And if you’re traveling solo or as a small group, you could end up paying several thousands of pesos for a private tour.

So if you’re not willing to pay so much, your only option will be to tag along with a larger group. But if there aren’t enough people wanting to travel there during your time in Mulegé, you’re simply out of luck.

And that’s what happened to me. But as mentioned in the guide above, there was indeed a group wanting to visit La Trinidad, so I joined that tour instead.

It seems like many of the travelers in Mulegé are domestic. And as Mexican tourists often travel together with large families, I get the impression that La Trinidad is the more popular option because it’s closer, cheaper and less physically demanding.

As I would later come to realize, the time of year will also greatly impact your chances of being able to find a tour to the San Borjitas cave paintings.

From my understanding, the high tourism season in the Baja Peninsula as a whole coincides with whale watching season, which is typically January through March. Visit outside these months and you may find that even tours and excursions completely unrelated to whales could be difficult to arrange.

Finding accommodation in Mulegé can be a challenge. In fact, there’s only a single hotel listed on Booking at the time of writing: Hotel Cuesta Real. But it doesn’t have great reviews.

Your best bet for finding accommodation in Mulegé is Airbnb, but the high prices can be shocking considering the town’s remoteness and relatively poor infrastructure.

I used Airbnb to rent a small camper in the Loma Azul area. The hosts were great and it was within walking distance of the beach, but it’s a very long distance from town if you don’t have your own car.

If renting a car is not an option, Mulegé is indeed accessible by bus. I took a bus from Loreto with the Autotransportes Aguila company, a ride which lasts just a couple of hours.

Moving on, I took a 15:30 bus with the same company to Guerrero Negro, a journey which lasted around 5.5 hours.

While I wouldn’t recommend it, it’s technically possible to travel directly to/from Ensenada in the north or Cabo San Lucas in the south.

Mulegé has a small bus station where they fortunately accept cards. Upon arrival, don’t be shocked if there are no taxi drivers waiting by the station, so you might want to check if your hotel owner or host could send someone over for you.

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