Whether or not to visit Torotoro National Park was probably our toughest ‘where to go’ decision yet, but in the end we decided that there are only a few places in the world where you can see dinosaur footprints, so we sucked it up and paid for a private tour as the only practical way we could visit the Park. The Park is actually in Potosi department but it can only be accessed via Cochambamba. It is the region’s most remote settlement and is literally in the middle of a vast landscape.
Our English speaking guide, Ali (who really had an interpreter role and was a woman who usually works in the tour office and had never been to Toro Toro before) and our driver were early to pick us up – almost unheard of in South America! Our luxury transport was a run of the mill car (see pic) which only just made the rough journey there and back, as really the road is a 4×4/tough bus route, although we did manage to do the journey in 4 1/2 hours compared with the 6-8 hours that it takes the twice weekly bus.
A good part of the road is cobblestones and surprisingly for this day and age they’re in the process of cobblestoning the rest. However after an hour or so, driving on cobblestones becomes mildly tortuous and the sections of the road yet to be surfaced provided slight relief. Luckily the scenery got better the closer we got to the park, although Marie decided that sleep was the best escape and somehow managed to sleep through the bumps for half an hour until just before we arrived in Torotoro, waking up in time for the best scenery surrounding the town (they call it a town but is so small that really its a village) where the plates of the earth have been pushed upwards to form mountains.
All of the animals that we passed, llamas, goats, sheep, pigs, donkeys, cows were spray painted with bits of pink (the best we saw were a herd of sheep sprayed completely pink with bright yellow heads), apparently the locals do this for the recent San Juan festival.
After we arrived at lunchtime we were shown our hostel, which was a rustic but charming place with a lovely owner called Lilly who fed us extremely well with enough food. You can clearly see how the earth’s plates have been pushed up to form mountains. After lunch we met our park guide Luis (you can’t enter the park without one of the Park’s guides), a fearless 18 year old who had been working as a guide since he was 13 and could jump around rocks like a mountain goat.
The first place he took us to were the main sets of dinosaur prints (from the cretaceous period 80 million years ago) just outside the village. They were only fenced off a couple of months ago to protect them, so unless you’ve paid for a guide you can’t get close to them anymore. You’re not actually supposed to walk in them anymore either but the guides will turn a blind eye while you hop in for a quick photo. They were really cool and Luis drew us a picture of the dinosaur that made them. Next we saw lots of raptor footprints that were about handsize. You can see very clearly where the layers of earth on top of the prints has come away to reveal them. Next we left the fenced off area and crossed the road to check out a large set of prints by the river which were made by a big 4 legged dinosaur.
It was hot (24 degrees), so we were quite glad to head back to the village to check out the stone museum which one man has developed after he collected so many different stones in the area. It was like what Marie’s mother’s house would be like if she was allowed to collect so many stones. Emma loved it and enjoyed the owner’s quirks like plastic dinosaurs hidden here and there. We then headed up the village to the obligatory artisans store where they obviously hoped that we would buy something. Usually we don’t but in the instance Marie bought 2 bracelets just to give a little to the community. By this time it had cooled down so Luis took us on a cross country hike a couple of kms outside town to look at some early man nomadic rock paintings that depicted a map. They weren’t great but the mini-canyon they were in was really nice and to get to them we had to clamber down big rocks and scrabble around. As we headed back to the hostel it had turned into a beautiful evening and it went dark just as we got back to the village.
We met Luis again at 8:30 the next morning to head to the main canyon in the area called The Vergel, which was created by an earthquake that ripped the earth open.
Since Luis and Ali had been keen the night before for our driver Don Juan to give us a lift 2km out of town (as far as the car could go) we agreed and with hindsight were quite glad to have had a lift out of the village. At the park entrance where Don Juan dropped us off we risked rabies to stroke a small cute stray dog that lives there and as we set off on our cross country hike the dog followed behind.
Luis took us first to a dry riverbed which feeds into the canyon, where we saw more dino footprints and a small natural stone bridge (Ali was very excited by the bridge but we weren’t really impressed) we declined the opportunity to walk across it – too far away from good medical care.
Eventually after another couple of kilometres we came to one of the canyon’s viewpoints and we followed the rim of the canyon a little way before reaching the path down. As we started to descend Luis pointed out a ‘condor’ gliding in the canyon. A few minutes later we could see a large bird shadow on the canyon wall opposite and then the bird swooped down past us only 20m away and we got an amazingly clear view – it wasn’t no condor! Haven’t been able to find out what it was but it had the clearest white across the middle on top of its wings, in a kind of stepped shape. Update – having been to Colca Canyon in Peru we now know that it WAS a condor as some do have white on their wings.
As we got to the bottom of the canyon – with the dog still in tow – we were praying that we were going back up via a different route. The scale of the canyon was huge, the photos don’t really show its size because half the time you couldn’t get it all in the shot or you could but the light was bright on one side and dark on the other so the contrast mucked a lot of the photos up. We spend a good 2 hours scrambling, climbing and sliding down rocks on the canyon floor and admired a couple of waterfalls on the way. When we came to our stopping point a mini-landslide landed just next to Ali so we took shelter under the rocks. Luis said that it would have been either a goat or a puma on the edge of the canyon. The dog was still with us, Luis had to rescue her a couple of times when she was too scared to slide down the rocks to follow us but once we hit the canyon floor and she was still in tow we all knew that she was going to come with us for the whole trip and that she’d die down there if we didn’t make sure that she got out with us. Marie fed her some sweets when we stopped as she was painfully skinny and Ali decided that we had to name her – we called her ‘Chips’.
When it was time to turn back our fears we confirmed, there was only one route down and out of the canyon so it was back the way we came. Surprisingly we quickly bounced through and over the rocks that we’d earlier carefully eased ourselves down. When Chips couldn’t follow us she’d check out alternative routes and if there wasn’t one we’d hear her crying her eyes out and one of us, usually Luis, would go back and help her out. In no time at all we were facing the start of the steps out – over 250m of close to vertical steps in the midday sun at high altitude, nice! Surprisingly we only had about 3 rest stops, that’s the advantage of going almost vertical, you gain height quickly. As we reached the top 3 vultures swooped over us riding the currents not more than 30 meters away. The couple of kilometres hike back to the Park entrance was bliss, midday sun or not, as it was almost flat. Poor Don Juan was patiently sitting in the car waiting for us as Ali had told him to be there an hour earlier than we made it back.
We said our farewells to Chips, tried to give her some water and hoped that she lives a long life before heading back to the hostel for another huge lunch and beginning the long journey back to Cochabamba.
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