Our bus from Santa Cruz to Cochabamba was running late. The classic gamut of a late start and numerous inexplicable stops in random places. There’s one micro a day from Cochabamba to Parque Nacional Torotoro, it’s at 6am. At 5:20 we’re still across the city in the bus waiting to arrive, but somehow these scenarios feel destined to pan out. A tough debate on price with a sheisty taxi driver and we’re at the stop minutes before leaving. After boarding I awkwardly have to demand a stop at some cash machines as we have no money. My cards don’t want to work (this happens about half the time) but on about the third try in the fourth machine we have success and off we go for a pretty uncomfortable, bumpy five-hour drive on a packed bus to the middle of nowhere.
The village reminds me a little of lovely, slow pace Samaipata although it’s smaller, quieter and more remote. There is a small selection of tourist restaurants, hostels (promising free WiFi! ha) and cheap local eats. Crucially, Torotoro probably has the best village square in South America, judge for yourselves…
It was immaculately maintained and we liked the sprinklers made out of 2L Coke bottles with little holes punched in them, did the trick beautifully.
You may ask, “So Jon, why the dinosaurs?”. Well, Torotoro is literally Jurassic Park. I mean we actually saw Indominus Rex and the Goldblum: the whole prehistoric shabang. The wind blows an epic John Williams soundtrack and there are legit Parasaurolophus running round up in hyah’. I saw a guy getting torn apart by biologically inaccurate representations of Velociraptors one evening. It was wild. Besides the wholesale slaughter of puny humans, the area is also famed for its abundance of fossilised footprints and, er, fossilised other fossils.
We stayed at the most charming little hostel called ‘Las Hermanas’ (a little way off the plaza on the road towards the dino footprints). It was run by the world’s oldest couple, Hernan and Justina. They had all the traits of the super-elderly; bottomless generosity, rambling incoherency, almost total deafness and that pottering shuffle. They fit the prehistoric vibe perfectly. Hernan was always immaculately put together in a classic, Cuban green suit with a flat cap, however he’d managed to shave off the right half of his moustache, the pencil thin left barely hanging on and being an irresistible point of focus. On arrival he picked us some mystery fruit from the garden, it started off sweet and lovely, but he neglected to tell us not to eat the seeds which were foul beyond reason and required minutes of tongue scraping and much water to be rid of. The next morning at breakfast it took us about five minutes of standing directly in front of him and saying his name loudly before he became aware of our presence. Justina was a little more with it, but each conversation tended to be us saying one thing, her hearing another and then a roundabout journey to a mutual understanding. Lovely couple but they had the most sinister brood of cats I’ve ever encountered. There’s about five of them and when trying to pass three would block your way in front and glare with murderous intent, one would appear behind to block the escape and the last would be hidden somewhere in the vicinity ready to leap out in ambush if by some miracle I managed to get away from the others. The rest is all a blur but we somehow survived. Related aside: Kim did some research and apparently the collective noun for a group of feral cats is a “destruction” because obviously. Beyond that the bathrooms could be described as charmless at best, deadly at worst. I’d give it four stars.
The surrounding Parque Nacional Torotoro has the best setup for tours I’ve found in all of Peru and Bolivia. There is one government office that runs it rather than a myriad of operators with uncertain credentials. Unlike anywhere else I’ve been the guides seemed to be trained and regulated, many being palaeontology students from Bolivian universities (a perfect placement for them), experienced locals or cherry-picked guides from other parks. They were all knowledgeable, friendly and responsive with good English (This makes a huge difference, particularly with the palaeontological sites and complex geology here which requires a fair explanation to fully appreciate). They open the office in the morning and just after lunch (tours start around 7am and 1pm if I recall); they check who’s there and what tour they want, divide the cost between the numbers, assign a guide and you’re off with a very un-Bolivian efficiency. I really appreciated the system here and wish more places would adopt it. There are about a half-dozen tour options here including two popular ones that everyone does. We did three…
Dinosaur Footprints and El Vergel
We took our first tour the afternoon just after we arrived. About eight of us are guided around the fenced off site of dino prints just outside the village. Like the Cretacico park in Sucre there are hundreds of dino prints, however it’s easier to wander around them by virtue of them not being, well, vertical and 200ft above you. It’s very cool. There are Ankylosaurus type things and the big bad Carnotaurus (with the ridiculous tiny arms) and many are very clear. The prints were made by the beasties when they trotted through mudstone, which then hardened, preserving them, and have now been pushed uphill by tectonic action.
Across the road we join a couple of burros in contemplating two lines of massive Sauropod prints by the stream, a mummy and baby. One of the coolest sets is of the Pterodactyls, you can see the footprints, handprints and the marks from their elbows all lining up together and they are BIG. It’s as evocative as muddy imprints, millions of years old, can get.
After this we carry on down a scenic, dried up river bed (looked like a good picnic spot) past various natural rock bridges and hanging gardens to get to the canyon.
It is quite an impressive canyon indeed, about 300m down, a down we must walk on a long steep staircase that tests all of our enthusiasm. Once at the bottom we follow the river bed, scrambling over boulders as we go until we reach ‘El Vergel’, a postcard perfect set of waterfalls coming down the canyon walls through rich foliage.
We were told the microclimate here would mean warm water for swimming so we got the cossies on and had a crack. It was of course freezing, I mean teeth chattering body trembling cold. I coerced Kim into climbing through the cascades with me and having a cold shower cos nothing says fun like profound discomfort! Oh how we laughed! The others didn’t brave it, so we had the falls to ourselves and we took the opportunity to have a good ol’ play. Kim aimed to perfect her ‘Last of the Mohicans’ waterfall leap, although this was a challenge given our violent trembling and the fact that we basically had to chameleon around on all fours to prevent slipping. We don’t have pictures so you can assume she managed it and looked very cool. We had another good scramble about on our return before the walk back up which was a good test of the legs. Kim and I just about passed. From there it’s a straight shot back to the village while enjoying the sunset.
Ciudad de Itas and Cueva Humajalanta
This is the one all-day outing in the park. A fair drive up through the crazy hills that flank Torotoro valley brings us to the city of the rocks. Ancient rock paintings prove its enduring suitability as an abode and the views are great, the caves grandiose and impressive and the little canyon in the middle a delight. It’s a real playground and Kim and I embrace that aspect as best we can considering we are in a group of humans who might judge our silliness.
Part two of the day is an exploration of one of Bolivia largest caves and what an introduction to the fine art of spelunking it is! You slide, scramble, climb and crawl through hundreds of metres of this subterranean world. As it’s Bolivia it also requires some health and safety defying, slippery abseiling and rock climbing. Oh how I love it here. Plentiful stalactites (I get told off for touching one which can apparently stop them growing), an underground river and huge halls are among the highlights. It is a home for vampire bats, who are more elusive than their guano, and blind cave fish. We find a few and Kim names one Chalky. I miss Chalky. At points it really is a squeeze, even more of a struggle as a tall person, but our awkward shimmying and fear of getting stuck is a right ol’ giggle anyways. There is a definite waist limit to get through and Kim and I muse on the awkward task the guides must face of telling people they’re too fat to make it. Hopefully with a little more tact than that. At one point our guide gets us to turn our headtorches off to make total darkness and uses the invisibility to sneak up on one of the girls to give her a fright. There ain’t no bants like Bolivian cave bants!
????? (can’t remember the name of this place)
Our final hike was just Kim and I along with another good guide (Anyone who can casually pull off a cowboy hat is a cool guy). We head out west from the village into the great, fin shaped hills that rise in awesome waves on either side of the valley. It’s great getting a closer look and seeing the different strata of rock; white and red each many millions of years apart in age and forming wonderful stripes of bold colour.
The path passes an unassuming, dried stream bed which is absolutely brimming with 400million+ year old marine fossils. This area, like the Salar de Uyuni, was once on the sea floor. Trilobites, shells, corals and a myriad of miniature mystery creatures are embedded in the rocks and we are free to take our time inspecting them closely. It is quite fascinating. Despite being firmly told not too, I slyly rescue/ steal a tiny and attractive little ammonite style shell under the logic that it would probably just have been washed away to obscurity in the next rains without my intervention. Just don’t tell the fuzz.
Afterwards we ask if we can detour up the top of the hill which was very well worth doing. The terrain here is utterly unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else; the valley looks like a thirty-mile-tall giant flopped down in a muddy bathtub and the waves splashing out froze into these mesmerising formations. Being on one is the best way to appreciate the mad shapes.
There are several other hikes in descending order of interest but I’m sure worthwhile if they have even half the attraction of the walks we took. The park has had me constantly spellbound with its beauty and complex natural history. Such a wonderful, unique place and still in that quiet, in between phase where it has some travellers’ facilities but is well off the main gringo rut.
If somehow all this hasn’t sold you on it then there’s still one more attraction…