Toro Toro, Bolivia
It's 7am, and we're waiting outside the Toro Toro National Park offices in a town of the same name. There are more guides than tourists in line, but given that Toro Toro is five bumpy hours from the nearest transportation hub of Cochabamba, it’s not surprising.
The outside world is just beginning to arrive here. Internet is only accessible through a pay-as-you-go WiFi machine near the town centre — something I’d never seen before and couldn’t figure out how to work. A local with a cell phone gave me a quick tutorial, but our success with the machine was short-lived.
A few young backpackers straggle into the office. Only one, a young Vietnamese-American woman who'd already been on the road for a year, joins us on the seven-kilometre “Fossil” tour we’ve chosen. Prices are by the tour, so the more people the cheaper the price for each person. Guides are mandatory, Indigenous and don’t speak English.
Hiking further into the park it feels like we've stumbled onto the set of Jurassic Park. Dinosaur footprints, large and small suddenly become visible in the grey molten rock. It feels as if one of the giants could come lumbering out at any moment.
Climbing steadily higher our breathing becomes more laboured, our steps slower. Our guide traverses the steep terrain with the ease of a mountain goat. We do not. “Only a little further”, he says in Spanish as we pant below. Reaching the top, our efforts are rewarded with spectacular views of the valley below and a sweet treat. Our guide has stumbled upon an abandoned beehive rich with honey.
Hands sticky from our delicious treat we begin our descent. Looking forward to a shower, we return only to find there is no water. Our hotel owner kindly brings us two pails of water. Bucket shower it is! Accommodation is very basic in Toro Toro. No five star hotels here or even one star ones.
Early next morning we're back in the park office-destination Ciudad de Itas, (Rock City). No one else joins us today, so we hop into a small van settling into the lumpy thread bare seats for the hour drive up into the mountains.
As the rough road climbs steadily up we see an elderly Indigenous woman trudging up
the steep ascent. Waving her arms vigorously, she flags us down for a ride. Not many vehicles ply this road. Giving thanks she squeezes into the back. Dropping her off a short time later, we watch as she begins the very steep descent to her mountain home. It's not an easy life for older people, especially those living in remote areas. Access to medical care is limited and there are no retirement plans to cushion old age.
We're much higher up now and it's cold when we arrive. The gatekeeper, an elderly Indigenous man has built a small wall of stones as protection against the harsh winds. In his hand is a bag of coca leaves that when chewed act as a mild stimulant. Coca leaves are legal in Bolivia, (cocaine is not), and are highly valued in Indigenous culture for their medicinal qualities and their role in both religious ceremonies and social interchange.
The path, initially smooth, leads us to red symbols, thought to be pre-Incan, painted on rock walls. A stone formation, looking remarkably like giant turtles seems to stand guard.
Switching to a dry river bed we face an obstacle course. Thrust by the rushing waters of the monsoon rains, rocks and boulders lie higgly-piggly, erosion sculpting the sandstone, mud stone and gypsum rocks onto surprising, weird shapes. Gigantic boulders teeter precariously on small rocks. Our guide spots fresh puma tracks near a remaining trickle of water.
Coming to a small deep canyon our guide points down, way down—no discernible path, just a jumble of rocks. We're a long ways from help if we break something. Carefully, slowly we make our descent. Breathing a sigh of relief we arrive at the bottom, hoping we're not coming back this way.
We hike through the canyon, squeeze through a crack in the rocks, and are greeted by a fantasia of rock formations. Caves scoured out of the rocks beckon us. Light splatters through ceiling cracks, creating an ethereal world. We stand in awe, savouring the powerful experience.
Clambering over and around a maze of strewn boulders we begin to ascend. Rounding a corner we're confronted with a sheer cliff, a fifteen metre vertical ladder anchored into the rocks. I'm terrified of heights, but it's the only way out. Hanging on for dear life, hands clenched on each rung, I make my way up, making sure not to look down. No mention of this in the tour description!
On solid ground again I'm treated to the dramatic vista of an immense glacier eroded canyon.
Shedding our jackets we make our way back to the van where our driver is waiting patiently. Arriving back in town, we hear a pinging noise. It's my phone! The WiFi machine is finally working!