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Pre-Hispanic Forms: Cave Paintings

Pre-Hispanic cultures left a wealth of fantastic painted murals and cave paintings, many of which are remarkably well preserved, in the central mountain region concentrated in the San Francisco de la Sierra mountains. Cave drawings in Bahía de los Angeles, San Ignacio, Mulegé, and San Francisco de la Sierra show humans and larger-than-life animals like deer, fish and manta rays, rendered with natural stone and clay pigments. One modern theory suggests that the paintings are an attempt to magically improve hunting conditions; there is also evidence that painters of at least one site, El Vallecito, near Tecate in Northern Baja, used knowledge of astronomy: a human figure is lit up for just a few moments every year on the winter solstice.

Spanish Influence: Missions

Almost every major town in the Baja peninsula has the remains of a mission nearby. Many were built in the late 17th century following the arrival of Jesuit friars. Prime examples include the Misión Nuestra Señora de Loreto, the first mission in the Californias, started in 1699. The catechization of California by Jesuit missionaries was based here and lasted through the 18th century. Misión San Francisco Javier is one of the best-preserved, most spectacularly set missions in Baja -- high in a mountain valley beneath volcanic walls. Founded in 1699 by the Jesuit priest Francisco María Píccolo, it was the second mission established in California, completed in 1758. Its walls were constructed with rock from a nearby quarry and its gilded altarpieces were brought in on mules all the way from Tepoztlán, south of Mexico City. It's about 2 hours from Loreto, on a section of the old Camino Real used by Spanish missionaries and explorers. The original building of the Misión Santa Rosalía de Mulegé, founded in 1706 by Father Juan de Ugarte and Juan María Basaldúa, was completed in 1766. A fire a few years later destroyed nearly all the common buildings, and the mission was rebuilt on the site it occupies today, on a bluff overlooking the river.

Arte Moderno

It's easy to miss amid the scary headlines, but Tijuana is home to one of Mexico's most vital and important art scenes, charged by the volatile cultural mix of the border. Its graffiti artists splash the city with edgy, accomplished murals; its film and art collectives tweak convention and play with political fire, and its musicians are responsible for hot new styles with fans on both sides of the border. In 2002, Newsweek crowned Tijuana one of the world's "top new cultural meccas"; escalating violence since then has only inspired artists more.

The quiet, sunny streets of San José del Cabo's Art District are home to at least a dozen galleries and a Thursday evening Art Walk, and nearby Todos Santos has matured into a worthy art destination as well. While far from the cutting edge, inventive and colorful painting and sculpture by local artists as well as occasional shows by internationally known talent draw an increasingly sophisticated audience to these two southern towns.

Border Art

Originally from Guadalajara, Einar and Jamex De La Torre (www.delatorrebros.com) have been creating bi-cultural and border-inspired glass work in Ensenada and San Diego since the 1990s. Their larger-than-life pieces are bursting with imagery from both sides of the frontera: bleeding hearts, flaming Virgins, skeleton revolutionaries, and frog mariachis matched with Elvis heads and Budweiser bottles. In addition to showing in galleries around the world, their work has been incorporated into the private collections of Cheech Marin, Elton John, and Sandra Cisneros. If you can't find an exhibition while you're in Baja, their website is a trip in itself, straight into the broken heart of border art.

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