7th May 2014
Easily one of our favourite places in Bolivia so far was Torotoro, a tiny town dropped into the middle of the landscape with what looks like a splash; the mountains on either side push up in big, smooth semi-circular lumps like something liquid frozen in the act of splashing. The landscape was beautiful, the greenery was a welcome refreshment after days in La Paz, and the sleepy, difficult-to-get-to village felt almost untouched, in spite of all the traces of tourism; after all, it’s still a somewhat road-less-travel type of place.
Our first day in the national park was so action packed that I can hardly believe it was just one day. Having met up with lots of like-minded travellers in the village square, we formed a group of six and managed to convince a guide to take us on two of the outlined tour routes offered by the tourist centre.
Starting with the Circuito Ciudad de Itas, we drove up into the hills surrounding Torotoro, where a two hour walk took us around some stunning caverns. The rock formations around the area were incredible: huge caverns lit by gaps in the rocks overhead, letting in patches of sunlight, with massive columns of rock splitting the cathedral-like spaces into rooms and passages. Outside the caverns were symbols painted in red, traces of a pre-Inca, nomadic people in Bolivia. Animals, people, and spirals representing the sun, the symbols depicted a wandering tribe of hunters and farmers, and had been protected from harmful sunlight by trees and the shade of the rocks, so were pretty well preserved.
South Americans seem to love giving rock formations names, and those around Torotoro were no exception. Our guide, Ugenio, pointed out the Watchman, a rock in the distance that looks slightly like a person sitting with their knees drawn up, two elephants, a mammoth, and countless others. But, the Turtle, a huge, humped rock with a smaller, lumpy grey slab at one end, really did look like a turtle! It also provided some fantastic views across the valleys from it’s high back.
Want to know more about travelling in Bolivia? Check out the Bolivia section on my sister site, Backpack South America – and get in touch if you have a question.
After exploring a few more caverns, and squeezing through one un-flatteringly tight gap to reach the far side of the hill, we stopped for lunch in the sunshine on a flat, grey rock slab overlooking the valley.
From here, we bundled back into the van and drove back down towards Torotoro, to where our second tour of the day started: Circuito de Umajalanta. We headed downhill on foot, following a path of once-molten rock which was laced with the dinosaur footprints which make Torotoro famous. Real dinosaur footprints, imprinted into wet mud which has since hardened, with some looking so perfectly clear they might have been fake – in fact we couldn’t avoid a joke or two about locals stamping prints into wet concrete to boost tourism! The large, clear and definitely not-fake prints were a fascinating sight.
A short walk from the prints was the gaping, mouth-like entrance to Umajalanta, a network of dark, muddy caves which was the setting for a seriously fun afternoon. We rented helmets with flashlights for just 7Bs each, dumped our bags in the site office, and headed down to the entrance, scrabbling over big, loose rocks towards the back of the cave mouth.
I’ve mentioned before that I used to go caving on regular school camping trips in Dartmoor, and loved the experience, but I haven’t been since I was about 15 and was thrilled to find myself having just much fun as I did back then. Inside, many of the rocks were covered with slimy wet mud – in the areas that weren’t wet, dry, dusty mud coated everything and turned my knees, clothes and camera bag brown – and I was instantly dirty, scraping my bare knees on rocks as I crawled, jumping from big rocks and making a point of doing everything I could without help. I felt exactly like the almost-forgotten ten year old me, boyish and brave, out getting muddy and testing my strength!
The first part of the descent was simple enough, until we reached an open iron gate behind which was a small chamber and what looked like a dead end; the roof of the ceiling getting much lower towards the back, wedge-shaped. Undeterred, Ugenio led us straight through, crawling almost on our bellies to slide through the mud and out the other side. From there, it was crawling and climbing all the way, lots of jumping, even some small sections abseiling down rocks. Every chamber was filled with incredible stalactites and stalactites, some absolutely enormous, and we followed the teasing sound of an underwater river as we descended. The best part was the Labrynth (also the worst part, depending who you ask): a network of tiny tunnels that we could only just crawl through, one at a time, which was a nerve-racking squeeze but so much fun. At one point, Ugenio told us all to turn off our lights, and we found ourselves faced with a darkness so thick and heavy that I couldn’t see my own hand right in front of my eyes. In this darkness, incredibly, you can still find life; in a crystal-clear underground lake, we watched tiny, white and pale grey blind catfish dart below the surface, blank spaces where their unnecessary eyes had once been, somewhere long ago on the evolutionary chart.
We climbed back up the ‘easier’ way, a long, damp slope which we could crawl up the whole way, holding a rope for support and balance. When we burst into the light, dimming in late afternoon but still dazzling after the darkness, I was in the lead of the group and feeling completely elated. The fond memories of my past love, Dartmoor, and the sensation of being strong, brave and self-reliant for a change, filled me with total joy. The air was heavy with the sweet smell of evening flowers, and the sky was a dusty pink in the distance; we’d lost ourselves to a full and completely wonderful day.
After some negotiation, we paid 510Bs between six of us for both tours, including a guide and driver.
In the village centre, you need to buy a tourist pass for the national park in the tourist office.
You aren’t allowed into any of the sites without a guide, and for most tours you can hire one for about 100Bs (more if driver is needed) for a group of up to six. The price is the same regardless of the size of the group – so try to join up with other tourists in the square for a tour.