Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Trip Report: San Javier, Mexico

After this past weekend's cold and wet hike, I'm feeling the need to revisit warmer memories. The following is a report of a hike I did with Rebecca and my parents in December.

The Plan...
Rebecca and I flew to Loreto, Mexico, to spend Christmas with my parents who were spending 3 months camping and travelling around the Baja. After a few days of local sightseeing and beachcombing, we were all feeling the need to see the real Baja, and get some exercise to boot. A guidebook article suggesting the cave paintings at San Javier, about 30km away, caught our eye. Checking with the very helpful hotel concierge, we found out that guided tours to the cave paintings were over $100 per person, much more than we were willing to spend. My parents had heard of some people who drove to San Javier and asked at the police station for a guide, so we decided to give that a shot.

The Drive...
We started out with a hefty breakfast at Del Boracho, where my parents already had established a rapport with the Canadian owners. When we told them what we were up to, they scribbled out a note in Spanish to hand to someone in San Javier explaining that we were looking for a guide to the cave paintings. They also offered to make us a bagged lunch, but we had already prepared sandwiches and snacks.

The road to San Javier starts in various locations, depending upon who you ask or what signposts you believe. After 10 minutes in the wrong direction, we eventually got onto the right road and were on our way. The road is quite rough, and were were thankful for being in my dad's four wheel drive pickup. Winding our way uphill, through riverbeds, up snake-like switchbacks and over washouts, the 32km drive ends up taking nearly two hours. The area is desolate, with only the occasional shrine or ramshackle house as signs of life.

Eventually we arrive in San Javier, and are amazed by the difference in scenery. The immaculate streets are paved in cobblestone, and well tended gardens grace every sidewalk.

We find the tiny police station, grab the phrasebook, and begin an interpretive dance outlining what we're looking for. The officers chuckle over our note, and after a bit more sign language, we finally convince them that we're looking for a guide. They signal for us to wait for 5 minutes or an hour, and drive away in a cloud of dust. Some time later, a dusty gentleman shows up and we begin negotations for the price. We seem to agree on 300 pesos ($30 US), and begin the introductions. Miguel, our new friend, starts to climb into the back of our truck. As we have no idea where we're going, we convince him that he's welcome to sit in the front and offer directions.

About 20 minutes later, we arrive at a small farmhouse at the base of what we assume is to be the hill we're climbing. Miguel finds the owner of the house and obtains permission for us to cut through the farm to the start of the trail. We leave the truck at the farmhouse and begin our trek.

The Hike...
I'm not sure if they have mountain goats in Mexico, but they have Miguel. Our intrepid guide led us up a steep, rocky trail for two hours without breaking a sweat. When we stopped for water or a breather, Miguel stopped for a smoke. We took countless pictures of cacti, lizards, and other such flora and fauna, which made Miguel grin as it was probably like someone taking pictures of dandilions and mosquitos where we live. We gained considerable elevation, and were treated to incredible views of the valley below, and the Sea of Cortez far in the distance. Eventually we reached the top, and had a brief rest while our guide hunted around for a lost memory of the location of the caves. We were then waved on, and made our way along a narrow ledge to the first of two small caves.

The Paintings...
Although they don't look like much in the photos, the faded cave paintings emitted an almost overwhelming sense of history, timelessness, and awe. Seeing ancient art in its original location, without tour busses and interpretive signs, made the experience unforgettable. I'm not sure how much time we spent in the caves, taking photos and discussing the motivation and meaning of the paintings, but we finally had to leave as we still had a long hike and drive ahead of us. We had a quick bite to eat while Miguel had a smoke, then slowly picked our way down between the prickly cacti. An hour or so later we were back in the truck, and heading back to San Javier.

The Mission...
We didn't have too much time to spend in San Javier as driving at night is not desirable in this area, but the Church of San Francisco Javier, built from 1744 to 1759, was a must-see. Not really dressed for church, we timidly poked our heads in the door, where we were welcomed by two friendly ladies. Flash photography was forbidden, and so was not signing the guestbook. I abstained from my usual cheekiness and wrote a quick hello, then we explored the church and surrounding grounds. The architectural detail was fascinating, and the surround grounds were a tranquil combination of gardens, farm, and open space. A few more photos, and it was time to go.

Although I saw many things and have many memories of my trip to Mexico, I think the hike in San Javier was the most enjoyable experience. From the confusion of getting there and hiring a guide, to hiking in terrain I've never even dreamed of, it had all the elements of a perfect adventure. Thank you and gracias to the owners of Del Borracho, the San Javier Police, Miguel, and all the residents of San Javier for allowing us to share your treasure!

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