Toro Toro Town
I was in great need of a long weekend in Toro Toro which awaited me at the end of a curvaceous and bumpy six-hour ride from Cochabamba. The town, with its laid-back vibe, is the base for an adjacent national park that promised me a rewarding getaway with spectacular sights. It was my first escape from large Bolivian cities in two months and I was ready for a mini-holiday from my consuming Kiva duties.
There’s not much to Toro Toro town and that’s what makes it such a delight. It’s a traditional quechua-speaking village that hasn’t changed much from its Republican days except for a mild increase in tourism once 60-million-year-old dinosaur footprints were found in the area. And given that it sits in a place of striking natural beauty, it’s a small wonder people started coming here.
There are a handful of basic hostales spread about town that serve meals since there aren’t any restaurants. I was incredibly happy to stay with the warmest and welcoming hostess Lily at Hostal Las Hermanas, a lush paradise of blooming roses, bougainvillea, lime and pomegranate trees, hanging coyate squash (which is cooked and sweetened for tasty desserts), a host of potted flowers and a menagerie of kittens and parrots roaming the grounds.
Needless to say, I loved it all. Friendly locals greeted me in the streets. I decompressed beneath the soaring pine trees in the smallish plaza, perhaps the only one in Latin America that features a dinosaur sculpture in its center, rather than a military hero, president or dictator (or a combination of all three).
There’s not much to see other than observe the authentic daily life in the village. I didn’t mind the trickle of visitors (my arrival increased the tourist population by 50%) – but this will change due to recent improvements in the road.
The most exciting thing to occur during my stay in the village was a freak (and intense) hailstorm that blew in over the mountains leaving a heap of quarter-sized hail in its wake. Fortunately I had just arrived back from a day hike and quickly sought refuge in the (covered) town market. After it passed, small amounts of hail accumulated on the sidewalks which, not surprisingly, the local children promptly used for ammunition as battles ensued.
When I got back to Las Hermanas, Lily was lamenting the damage done to her beautiful gardens which was littered with strewn blossoms and downed leaves. Wide-eyed kittens were ensconced beneath a stone bench and didn’t dare leave until long after the sun reappeared.
As I was chatting with Lily on the terrace we heard a booming thunder in the distance and I immediately suspected another approaching front. But Lily, all the wiser to local phenomena, told me to watch the river a block away. All of a sudden, the current’s trickle was overwhelmed by a roaring surge of chocolaty waters heaving down from the surrounding mountains. I soon joined many interested villagers at the banks. By the next day the river had returned to its placid tempo as chola women washed clothes and children splashed in the tranquil waters.
Dinosaur Tracks, Toro Toro Canyon and El Vergel
Eager to stretch my legs in the national park, I left with the affable guide José who led me past the dinosaur tracks en route to the Toro Toro Canyon. The most spectacular footprints are just outside of Toro Toro village. I marveled at the perfectly preserved sets of biped and quadruped tracks. I could envision the mighty creatures meandering to-and-fro in the valley while munching on brush and grasses.
I wondered aloud how the tracks came to be exposed and ever-the-expert José was quick to explain: dinosaur roamed through the mud in the valley floor caused by the annual rains and their tracks dried during the dry season. With the next season of rains, a new layer of sediment was laid over the dried tracks and buried them. This dry-wet cycle repeated for millennia resulting in preserved tracks many layers deep. When the earth’s tectonic plates started to shift (growing the Andes Mountains in the process) these buried layers were pushed upwards and finally exposed for backpackers like myself to observe with awe.
Toro Toro is an unusual and striking place: footprints and fossils, churned-up earth with angled striations, and an alluring string of white foothills that appear as massive heart-shaped stones dipped in the ground. And all this bumping and grinding also resulted in forceful soil erosion along the Toro Toro River(the likes of which I witnessed after the hailstorm) which culminate in the gorgeous Toro Toro Canyon.
As we descended along the river to the canyon, José pointed out all the indigenous herbs that locals still use for natural remedies such as the chacatea bush and leaves from the boldo tree, which my friend Jakob took as tea the next morning to help his indigestion. We eyed more dinosaur tracks, even the massive footprints of a brontosaurus, a 100-meter titan gifted in bulk but not brains. José explained it took three minutes for a sensation in its tail to travel the length of its nervous-system.
We saw abstract rock paintings (a testament to the area’s long settlement by our antecedents), eye-catching waterfalls and natural bridges (where many Bolivian musical groups film music videos), and we kept watch for the rare loros (red-fronted macaws) that only live in this area. We finally arrived at the breathtaking canyon.
The Cañon Toro Toro is not the largest canyon I’ve seen but it is one of the prettiest. With sheer cliffs carved elegantly in the patterned limestone and dotted with intrepid bromeliads and bushes growing precariously along its vertical walls, it was an awesome sight.
We hiked along the edge taking in the views, finally descending to the sparkling El Vergel cascade, a crystalline oasis of spring-fed waters and lush mosses and plants at the bottom of the canyon. While José napped I relaxed in the refreshing air, cool mists and lilting sounds of the waterfalls. We were the only ones at El Vergel – this is one great joy of going off the beaten path.
The “City of Itas” and the Umajallanta Cave
The next day my housemates from Cochabamba arrived, volunteers from Germany, Belgium and the US. We toured the other parts of the national park together, setting out the next showery morning for the misty heights of the “City of Itas,” a mountain ridge far above Toro Toro village. We left at 5 AM and drove past remote, adobe villages that until four years ago were not connected to the rest of Bolivia by road or power. How their lives must have changed recently!
We hiked through passing light showers along the massive river-carved stones to visit wondrous and labyrinthine rock formations, so named the “City of Itas” since many of the hollowed-out spaces resemble buildings. Fernando, our guide, announced each spacious cavity as if we were touring a European city: here is the Cathedral, over here is the Supreme Court, next up is the Governmental Palace.
In reality, the City of Itas was less a civic space and more a historical gathering place for bandidos. Due to its isolated location rife with convenient hiding places, cattle rustlers often hid stolen livestock amid the caverns. The monumental rocks, entrenched in clouds that morning, evoked the many ghosts that probably roam the desolate area.
Our final stop was the Caverna de Umajallanta, a 5-kilometer cave that features everything you’d expect in a buried fissure: stalactites and stalagmites often in familiar formations (like weeping willows and Christmas trees), total darkness and silence, and bat guano and pools with darting blind fish. For an hour we crawled through tight squeezes and rappelled down steep drops with the expert guidance of our trusty Fernando.
Caving is not my favorite pastime but it always is an interesting experience. Thankfully the tour inside was not too strenuous or claustrophobic and I was glad to finally see the light and the end of the tunnel leading us back to the more familiar world above ground.
My trip to Toro Toro was a splendid break from busy Cochabamba. As I departed in the bouncy bus back to the city, I felt the pangs of wanderlust building inside me. After nearly three months of wonderful work with Kiva, I was nearing the end of my fellowship and already eager to begin the next travel adventures that await me in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.