Two weeks ago I had “Cochabamba Day” off from school. I found out last minute about a trip from a few folks at the Institute–to Toro Toro, a national park in Potosi. I heard there were dinosaur footprints and caves and lots of Bolivian nature. That was pretty much the extent of my information. The tour was organized by a Bolivian man who owns a hostel in Toro Toro. It was the best way to go about visiting Toro Toro, because I sure would have second guessed myself if I knew what was coming.
Day 1: After a beautiful and treacherous 5-hour drive along a narrow winding road over cliffs, we made it to Toro Toro, an incredibly cute little village with Spanish style roofs.
The first hike we went on in Toro Toro was in a beautiful national park which hosted small caves, cave paintings, caverns and huge rock formations. The hike was incredible and we saw different scenery at very turn. It was a fairly easy walk for an hour or so, until the real excitement came when we neared the edge of a large cavern.
A huge rock rose up to our left, and our guide Felix excitedly told us in Spanish that we were going to climb it. “But don’t worry, we’ve prepared something for you!” he said. Ropes? We guessed. Or perhaps a ladder of some kind? We would have to climb straight up next to a cliff, after all.
But to our surprise and terror, their preparation instead was a small log propped straight up. This was used a foot-hold as we free-climbed the rocks with the helpful hand of our 5′ extremely athletic Bolivian guide. As we hugged the side of the cliff trying not to look down, the reality hit that there was no other option to return, and well, it seemed like all of the Bolivians were doing fine… so after a helpful hand from Diego, who propped himself half-way up the rock and some Spanish instructions yelled from Felix, I shimmied my way to the top, where Kathy, Bill and I took a celebratory photo.
That beautiful walk ended with just enough light to see the ground, but not enough for the 1-hour bus ride again over treacherous roads to be in the light.
Day 2: We awoke refreshed–likely due to fear and adrenaline, the following day. Saturday was caving day. We had heard vague stories of the cave from others, which mostly entailed wearing clothes that you could get dirty, and to not bring anything with you. I’ve never really been Spelunking (and always picture Calvin and Hobbes when saying the word) and never had a huge desire to do it, but you know, when in Bolivia…
I wish I had a photo of this cave, it was absolutely stunning. We walked down into a cavern and suddenly the mouth opened wide as if we were looking at a National Geographic cover. It was so beautiful, so unbelievable to stand before.
Our group was decked out in hard-hats with lights, which I had no idea would be so absolutely necessary. As we entered we climbed around huge boulders, following Felix and another guide who wore typical Quechua sandals made of old tires, into the abyss. It was relatively painless until we came to a section of the cave that was so small we had to crab-walk and then slide down a slippery rock to get through. This was the beginning of an adrenaline-charged adventure which included rappelling down several extremely slippery rocks into the dark, army-crawling on our sides through insanely tight spaces and frankly, using every possible position our bodies could be put in to make it through the rocks.
The cave was one hell of a good time. Since I had nothing to compare it to, I didn’t realize that most caves like that have many more safety precautions, like lights and platforms, set up. It was certainly dangerous and absolutely would never be a tour in the States without many consent forms signed. But everybody just took it in stride. The Bolivians were unphased, and a couple from the tour from Israel/Australia spoke about how these types of experiences are actually safer because your body is working so hard to keep you safe. There is no safety net, so you have to take care of yourself. It was a stunning test of strength and willpower, and I’m very glad I had such an experience.
That being said, I don’t plan on ever doing it again.
At the hostel we lazed around that afternoon, walked around the sweet village and at night, played cards with Bolivians and drank local booze until far too late.
Alejandro and Sergio, the adorable children of Marco played with us too, kicking a soccer ball around the lobby and asking us cute things in Spanish. I met some Norwegians who live in La Paz, and played a funny Spanglish drinking game with the Bolivians. We slept soundly that night.
Day 3: The swimming caverns and waterfalls! Bur first, dinosaur footprints! There are TONS of dinosaur footprints outside of Toro Toro. Tons. They are right next to the village, totally uncovered, just hanging out there for the public to see. It was incredible. We saw omnivores, herbivores, pteradyctl’s and lord knows what else (Bill maybe you can help me out on the names…) along a stretch of probably 300 meters.
After seeing the footprints, we hit the hills again, taking a long walk through flat rock formations until we reached the cavern of Toro Toro, which I imagine looks a bit like the Grand Canyon. There are over 700 stone steps built into the canyon. They are extremely steep and have no hand-rail, and at points I felt as if I was walking into an abyss, and had to yet again let the adrenaline take hold of my fear that I would soon die a very bloody death among rocks in Bolivia.
Finally, we reached the heart of the canyon, my legs stopped shaking, and we made our way through the boulders to the waterfalls and natural swimming holes.
Oh, the piscinas. They were so lovely. Getting there consisted in another free-climb down, but oh it was worth it. It is hard to believe sometimes that places like that exist. The waterfalls were basically waterslides, and the pools were deep and perfect to hang around in.
It was a lovely afternoon of playing like little children among the natural beauty. The way back up was interesting, at one point I had to again free-climb a boulder and had one foot in the hands of a Bolivian, one hand coming from above from a Norwegian, another hand vaguely on a rock and the other foot searching for something flat. But 700+ steps back up the only memories were of those natural pools and waterfalls.
Despite all of the near-death experiences, the weekend of Toro Toro has been by far the best part of Bolivia, and may very well be the real jewel of these four months here: Weekends trips to the Amazon, to national parks and Jesuit Missions, and clubbing with priests and Bolivians.
Suspending fear and rappelling through the abyss.