The Interview: Enrique Hambleton

Professional photographer, writer and conservationist of Baja California Sur’s heritage. Thanks to Enrique’s research and work, the Cave Paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco were declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1993. The Sierra de San Francisco and the Sierra de Guadalupe contain 1600 sites with paintings in the style called Great Mural. These paintings represent 43 percent of all the cave paintings found in Mexico and one of the most important concentrations in the world.

Mexican citizen with deep roots in Baja California Sur, the first von Borstel arrived to La Paz from Germany in the mid nineteenth century. Enrique has lived for 45 years in La Paz.

Photo by Daniel Jireh

“I became interested in photography and cave paintings at a very young age in 1972. It was through work I did for National Geographic, we traveled the peninsula from end to end on three occasions. On one trip we were in the Sierra de San Francisco and the local people took us to see a site that was published in the magazine. I was stunned by what I saw, and a seed was planted in me. When I had time to return I did. When asking the locals if there were more paintings, they said yes and everywhere. Since then, it has been a passion in my life.”

The Jesuits were the first to report on the paintings, they made very specific observations without further effort being made.

Enrique confesses that it is difficult to pick a favorite place to photograph the primitive art. The Boca de San Julio, The Cave of the Arrows, and La Boca de la Trinidad are some of the places he has visited.

“There are paintings on every inhabited continent, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, Africa, Asia, Europe, everywhere; you can find them in any state in Mexico, each one of them from different periods, quality and style. It is one of the first graphic manifestations by human beings, placed sometimes on very flimsy surfaces where they crumble and perish”.

“In the northern part of the peninsula near the border, there is a symbolic geometric style that is very similar to what exists in the southwestern United States and Sonora. In the middle of the peninsula, the Great Mural tradition, is the one I have most studied. It consists of huge figures made by the first Mexican muralists more than 9000 years ago, they appeared 5,000 years before the Olmec culture, considered the mother culture of our country. And then, from La Paz to Los Cabos there is another style consisting of tiny figures like fish and human figures on granite boulders. It is a vast menu of styles, places and epocs.”

Through his photographs, Enrique has revealed the wealth of paintings contained in the mountains, always committed to the preservation of this prehistoric art and the environment which contains it as cultural heritage.

“I consider myself a messenger of images, I do not interpret, I do not dare to interpret, any theory is valid until proven otherwise. What is the message? It is a first attempt by human beings to transmit ideas, concepts and mythology through images. We do not even know the painters names, when the Spanish arrived here in the XVI century the paintings were already very old and there where no traces of the artists.
So that message is Page 1, Chapter 1 of magic, hunting, religion, and fertility, a very particular mythology. The images were made by primitive men and women without agriculture, ceramics, architecture or domesticated animals. They were semi-nomadic Paleolithic hunters and gatherers”.

Enrique has traveled more than 3,000 miles of very difficult terrain by mule and on foot to photograph the rock art. As a result, he has published two works, “The Cave Paintings of Baja California” in 1979 and “Rock Canvases” in 2010. Other topics on which he has written are the Sea of Cortés, and the scenery and people of the Baja Peninsula.

“The feeling in those places is like being in a sanctuary, a huge botanical garden at the same time open-air museum dedicated to prehistoric art, you are in the front row, in fact, you are on the stage, it is unique, singular. The pictorial manifestations are beautiful, the privilege of contemplation satisfies me.”

Photo By Aleph Alighieri

“The discoveries of rock paintings take time. People who live in the mountains know where they are. I have been taken in hand to 98% of the sites that I have recorded and edited in my books. Sometimes I have found some, a place I especially remember is in the Sierra de San Borja. It was an unexpected place. It was assumed that there where no paintings in that area because of the lack of appropriate shelters. I spotted bedrock catchments that held water. Always where there is water, there are cave paintings.”

Among those who accompanied Enrique during his career are his travel companion Harry Crosby; Don Miguel Leon Portilla, illustrious Mexican historian; and Mr. Eustacio Arce Villavicencio from La Esperanza Ranch near San Ignacio, whom he remembers as an extraordinary man who was his guide and mentor. They have had a great impact on the passion that he still holds.

¨I am not going to complete the project of exploring the cave paintings, there is much more to do. In those early journeys I fell in love with the peninsula, the very heart of the mountainous desert, the oases and undertook to take care of not only the paintings, but the natural environment which contains them. I am very tenacious and have insisted that the main thing is their protection. It is an extremely fragile graphic manifestation. “ “The Sierra de San Francisco has a very good example of a management plan and a strategy for long-term preservation that works very well. The people living there are guardians, guides and they have control of the tours that works great, there are sites where visitors sleep overnight and there are walkways and platforms for the best viewing. There are only two existing access roads and that has helped to monitor the entrance of visitors. The beneficiaries are the locals, they are the first and most effective line of defense, they understand it perfectly. I am happy to see that after 40 years, the second generation has taken the same interest to care for this area where most of the visitors are foreigners.”

“Baja California Sur is a land of privileges. We should all be stewards of it. There are three pilgrimages you can not miss if you want to know the Peninsula: visit the cave paintings, the missions and the gray whale sanctuary”.


Tendencia El Arte de Viajar Atlas. Vol. 25, 2015.

http://bit.ly/TendenciaMagazine_T25ATLAS