Toro Toro: Parque Nacional

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.

Camino from Cochabama to Toro Toro

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.

Hostel in Toro Toro

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.

Beautiful Toro Toro

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.

Free-climbing rocks next to a cliff in Toro Toro

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.

Felix the tour guide pauses on a large rock near dusk in Toro Toro

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…

Heading down into the cave

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.

Inside the cave (photo from Kathy)

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.

About to rappel off the rock (photo from Kathy)

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.

Southern Spain or Italy you say? Nope, it’s the pueblo where time stands still: Toro Toro, Bolivia.

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.

Sergio and Alejandro

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.

Dinosaur footprints! Massive!
More dinosaur footprints!

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.

Among the Jakaranda trees at the top of the canyon.

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.

Natural swimming pools

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.

Waterfalls!

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.

Swimming with the Bolivians

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.

Toro Toro!

Straight into Bolivia

Day one Santa Cruz

Hola, Bolivia.  Ah to write and think in English… I can feel my temples relax finally.  I’ve been on a constant high of adrenaline since arriving in Cochabamba on Friday, trying to remember those words I learned in high school and college.  Trying not to sound like a child in Spanish.  

My culture shock here has been “fuerte.”  I spent my first several days in Bolivia in Santa Cruz de la Sierra.  Santa Cruz is not so interesting, so I explored streets and lay at the swimming pool at the hostel, drinking Paceña most of the time.  There I deferred the the anxiety of a new, very different country.  But anxiety hit hard last weekend.  I wrote about it, but I’m not sure if I want to taint my first blog on Bolivia by describing how I cried so much my eyes were swollen for my first day of class.  I’ll just say this: no matter how many places I go, no matter how many times I do it, it still hurts like hell at the beginning. 

On Monday I discovered that being around people doing the same thing is very comforting.  Also, throwing myself into studying is comforting.  I did it so much this week that I totally lost it in my last class today, I just couldn’t think anymore about Ir, Pensar or Querer.  My classes are pretty scattered this week too, which really makes it difficult to feel like you’re progressing.

Cochabamba

School isn’t the most exciting aspect of Cochabamba though.  It is a stunning city.  I flew in Friday from Santa Cruz.  As we approached the airplane dipped over mountains colored red by the evening sun into the brown valley of Cochabamba.  The airport is near the small mountain where the largest statue of Jesus in the world stands, Cristo de Concordia.  It was the first time in 5 days I felt that singular feeling, of seeing a scene so incredible, so new and hopeful, that everything else is worth it.

After some altitude adjusting, Sunday I got to know my host sisters, Daniela and Cecilia (Dani y Cecy) while we walked through Cochabamba during Dia de Pederasta.  Dia de Pederasta happens every 3 months in Bolivia.  On this day no cars are allowed on the road.  It was the perfect way to see the city for the first time.  Everybody was out on the street, riding bikes, rollerskating, eating street food and listening to concerts.  The pollution is so bad in Cochabamba that they really need days like that.  My host sisters are 21 and 23 and are both really sweet girls, who remind me in a way of my friend Triz, a Peruvian girl who was my lifeline to sanity for three months in Nairobi. 

Yo, Dani y Joslyn

I am encultrated here, perhaps more so than ever before.  I live with a local woman, Ana Maria (called Anita by friends) and Cecy and Dani.  They are very warm, welcoming people.  I have spent most nights hanging out with them at the kitchen table, studying and talking, learning about each other’s lives as much as we can with my broken Spanish.  My bedroom is outside of the main house, and has a bathroom connected.  It is simple and good.  I have an electric shower again and this time I know how it works.

Cochabamba is like no place I’ve been.  I find similarities between it and Nairobi, but it is still very different.  Around 2am the first night I flew into Santa Cruz I noticed it immediately, the smell of exhaust and dirt.   It smelled like my memory of Nairobi.  I am getting used to it, but the street I live on is terribly polluted.  I walk on it 20 minutes each way to class everyday and just today I was beginning to worry about its effect on my lungs.

Although, according to our orientation at the language Institute there are plenty of other things to worry about here: common amoebas and diseases, rabid stray dogs (seriously, one on every corner) street kids and purse-snatchers.  Some bastard tried to snatch my purse today, right outside of the Institute.  I was getting something out of my purse on my right side.  He zoomed by fast on his motorcycle on my left side.  He didn’t get it but it scared the hell out of me since my passport was in it today because I had to go to immigration earlier and straighten out my visa.  The asshole just grabbed my stomach thank goodness.  I walked quickly back to my house imagining how many different ways I could beat the hell out of the next person who tried to do it with the solid plastic water bottle and lunch pail Anita gave me.  

Circa de mi barrio

Frankly though, I had no orientation before I went to Nairobi and that was far cry worse than here.  Actually I’m glad I didn’t have an orientation there.  I would have been afraid all the time there, like I sort of am here.  I hate being afraid of the streets.  I always miss Europe for its safety in those situations. 

I have gotten a small dose of Europe this week though.  After class the past few days other people at the Institute and I have been going into the city centre for coffee and drinks to relax.  There are stunning squares here, full of Spanish architecture, palm trees and cafes.  We went to a place called Cafe Paris the other day and just like at Shakespeare and Sons in Prague, an old well-dressed white-bearded man sat reading the newspaper, smoking a cigarette, drinking his red wine.  He was striking—when outside the cafe, Quechua and Aymara women in traditional clothing sell their handicrafts, food and fresh-squeezed orange juice and beggars lie in wait for a few Bolivianos. 

Cochabamba is something else. I will have an easy one home with Anita tonight. I have studied enough today. I need to take care of my blistered, dirty feet and fingernail polish situation.  Something about walking down dirt sidewalks makes me feel badass, but I miss comfortable strolling. 

Dirt sidewalks were not made for strolling.