Torotoro - the hidden dinosaur valley

Day 1 - On the road

"¿Es el Camino para Torotoro?", I asked the old woman, using my broken Spanish. She looked in wonderment at the young gringo in the jeep on an old pebble road in the mountains of Bolivia. "¡Si ,si!", was the only answer before she continued on. Hmm. I didn't quite know whether I should believe her; I wondered if she would know anything about the small village of Torotoro 198 km away in the mountains - in the small town I had just left, it had taken me an hour and several detours before a taxi driver had explained me that this was the right road...

The two pages in the new travel guide about Bolivia had convinced me at first glance that when I would finish my month of Spanish lessons in Santa Cruz - this would be the place to go to: thousands of fossil dinosaur tracks, caves, Inca ruins - and it was quite a challenge to get here, what probably meant that it wasn't discovered by tourists yet.

First, I had spend two days in Cochabamba finding the bus stop, but in vain. Yes, everybody I asked did know the exact spot - and it leaves twice a week, but after asking 5 different people and they had given me information about 5 different places - it turned out that no bus left from any of the places this morning. I decided to rent a jeep. The agency had just showed me two new modern jeeps, when I told him where I was going. "Well, then I would recommend this one", he said and pointed at a very old box-style jeep. "It has much higher wheels", he explained to me - "you know that you will have to cross a big river?". Well, yes.

After lunch, I had passed the last big village, Anzaldo, and was now quite sure that this was the right way - at least there was only one road which followed a river. The landscape was taken right out of a western movie with cacti and special rock formations. The river had dug it's way hundreds of meters down through the mountains. The road was in 2800-3000 m, and several places I was driving on the edges of chasms - but I wasn't particularly nervous about that; I didn't meet a single vehicle during the day, so I felt a bit foolish honking at each turn of the road. Several times I stopped to take Indian women and children with me in the car. The women here are all dressed in technicolor weaved clothes - and they wear the obligatory bowler-style hat and a sack on their back (or one/several children). I couldn't really speak much with them, since I by now was so far out in the mountains that not everybody spoke Spanish here. But it didn't really matter; they looked very thankful and could often say a "Gracias!". Those who speak Spanish always ask where I'm going - followed by: "Solo?" - and look at me with questions written all over the face.

There was a family party in a couple of houses by the road. The confusion was evident when people were running around to hear if anybody was continuing on, now there was a chance of a ride. A man and a wife say a quick goodbye and go with me. They live right next to the ford of Río Caine, which is quite convenient since my new friend is happy to show me where to cross. He explains that I for sure am not to follow the road-tracks, since it leads to a ford for trucks and the bus - my jeep would never make it there. He shows me a place where the river runs in two, is wider and is less deep. I ask a little prayer and add the 4-wheel-drive. Each of the two river legs are about 70 meters wide. What do I do if the car breaks down or is stuck in the middle, I think while grinding my teeth and make a run for it.

Late afternoon. The ascend starts for the pass to the Torotoro valley. If it is a good day, I would say that the road is like a ploughed field of granite with a couple of tracks. I had been driving in first and second gear all day - but now my biggest concern was to reach the village before dusk. I barely make it to the small village of Torotoro in the 20 km long valley when the last rays of the sun disappears. I am relieved, and can now think of all the good things I have experienced during the trip. Of course there are no modern things like electricity and street lights, and my car is the only one in town. The streets are definitely not designed for motorised vehicles.

At the only alojamiento (guest house) in town, I am greeted by the only other tourist in town: the Israeli Ilan. I quickly discover that he is a bit special - he whispers to me that he did try haggling with the landlord, but there is no chance - it costs the outrageous sum of 8 Bolivianos (about a dollar). Ilan is on a tight budget. Ilan is making dinner in the small kitchen shed and he asks if I have a bouillon cube - in which case it would be like a 'chilli pepper on the cake'.

Woollen underwear is a good thing - of course there is no heat in the room - in which case it would be the first place in Bolivia.

Day 2 - Cave adventure

Ilan and I took the jeep east, up in the valley, to search for the Inca ruins. A guide would cost us 30-40 Bolivianos, but Ilan convinced me that we could easily find it by ourselves. The price was very fair though. The path, or what I should call it, hadn't seen a jeep for a long time, if ever, so it would probably have been better to have walked... We ask several times people passing by for the 'llama chaqui' ruins, and even though we try very had to tell about 'old rocks', 'Incas' and 'ruins', they shrug their shoulders and walk on. We discuss what 'a bunch of stones' is called in Spanish or how to explain what a ruin is. In several cases it is because they don't understand Spanish, I think. "If you don't give them anything, a Bolivian will never tell you anything", Ilan instructs me. That is not my experience with Bolivians. They are OK. I have experienced Bolivians to be very helpful. We walk into a small field belonging to a peasant family. He is ploughing his field with a couple of oxen. The wife is peeling potatoes, and in return for our waffles, she boils a couple of corn cobs for us. Well, we don't get many pieces of information from them, but it is quite an experience to try and communicate with them... We think they said that the path right behind their shed wasn't the right one... We reach the eastern end of the valley, and return since there isn't really anything. A woman comes out from a house, running towards us with a small child with a broken leg, and has to go to the doctor in the village. It is my first jobs as a ambulance driver and I feel sorry for the woman who tumbles around the back of the jeep, but it is probably better than a donkey ride.

The mayor had discovered that I had arrived, and I had to sign in. 10 Bolivianos was the price to be visitor in this national park. The mayor and a guide tell that there is no way we can reach the ruins and come back in half a day - 19 km of mountain walking. If we start at sunrise to morrow, maybe, and only with a guide. Ilan think it is a business trick. We hire Alberto as our guide for las Cuevas (the caves) instead. We are going all the way in, and the guide accept to go with us for 25 Bolivianos. Ilan is haggling hard, and we get to go all the way in, past the underground lake. Ilan think we could just go by ourselves - it is a dream of his to bring a long string, and look around a cave by himself. We argued that we had a jeep, so we could save an hour of walking. I don't know if it is really smart taking the jeep; old Alberto kept his face straight, though he had enough to see to, holding on in the back of the jeep, while we were crossing fields and rocks. At one point, we end up in a dried up river bed, and have to make a ramp of big rocks, before we can cross - Ilan is a former soldier of the Israeli army, so he takes the steering wheel and make a run for it over our laboriously make stone ramp and the following rock hillside. I think mostly of how much such a jeep costs in Bolivianos... 5 minutes later we were to leave the jeep anyway, so I wonder a bit what all this labour had been good for. The last half hour of walking is through small wheat and corn fields. The peasants here live by the crop they can cultivate and small flocks of goats and sheep.

My last cave adventure was in some big caves in Brazil with nice paths and fully lit (until they turned off the light! - but that is another story), so I wasn't quite prepared for what was waiting for me. The name of the cave is Umajalanta, and we climb up under a ledge and soon find a locked iron gate. From here, two hours of exciting explorations start - most of the time, I have to hold my torch in my mouth, since it takes both hands to climb around. We use rope to descend a couple of places - Alberto is capable of climbing around with a lit candle to save batteries! Stalactites look down from the ceilings, and we often look into side caves with our light and see beautiful formations. Only our breath can be heard in the silence of the cave. It is right out of my boy dreams of explorations in hidden caves. Alberto finds new cracks in the strangest places. Several times we have to crawl on our knees and sometimes on our bellies to get into new rooms. If you have a tendency for claustrophobia: you don't want to come here. But what an experience! We reach a small river inside the caves, and follow a sandy beach for about 20 minutes. At the furthest point, we rest a while and watch blind catfish. Small white fish without eyes.

Alberto had promised us, that there was a couple of genuine dinosaur footprints right outside the cave, so it was quite exciting to see our first biped footprint - about 25 cm long. It was a bit strange to imagine Jurassic Park take place right here. Maybe a gang of survived velociraptors were hiding right behind the rocks, lurking at us?

Back in Torotoro, Alberto had time to show us a couple of the areas with dinosaur tracks; some of them were right outside the village by the river. Many different tracks seemed to lead up from the river - some looked like tracks from oversized elephants, others could have been from big birds. All tracks were made in soft mud and later solidified into mudstone. Later they were uplifted and tilted by tectonic forces (according to TSK). There was tracks from both biped and quadruped dinosaurs. Even though the valley is a kind of 'park', the rocks out here is a perfect drying ground for laundry, so the villagers don't pay much attention to them.

Ilan admits to Alberto that he was all right, and we would probably not have been able to find our way around the caves without him.

Day 3 - The hunt for the ruins

We got up at sunrise to have an early start for the Inca-ruins called 'llama-foot' ... without a guide. We enter the only side valley on the north east side, and we manage to find a real path after climbing up some unauthorised cliffs. During the morning, we climb up from 3600 m to about 4000 m, and are rewarded with a view over beautiful valleys - it is worth going here, just to witness this, so with or without Inca-ruins, the trek was worthwhile. Unfortunately we don't meet many people who we can ask, so we wander for a long time of the only path we can find. Ilan finds some leaves from a bush which he thinks is good for tea. Later he boil water for the tea, and tells me that "it is quite good for the stomach". He invites me to try it, but after smelling it, I assure him that I won't take his tea away from him - and apart from this, I only drink tea when I'm sick. While he is drinking his tea, he changes his view. It is now quite certain good for 'something'. Fifteen minutes later, he doesn't look quite well, and he admits that it might not quite be the herb he knew about - but it was probably not directly harmful.

I thought I finally had seen the ruins through my binoculars, so we descended 500 m further down through bushes and cow-paths - and a half kilometre is actually quite a lot when it is vertically. It turned out to be scattered rocks... We spend 10 minutes trying to convince ourselves that theoretically it could be here - "Couldn't those rocks not be the remains of a watchtower?" - it wasn't very convincing. At 1:30 PM we turned around, and it was quite strenuous to get back up again, and I admit that at a certain time, we had separated from each other and were a bit lost. We met a guy who told us that the llama chaqui was further up, but we didn't find it. My legs were by now totally ruined and the walk up to the pass took my last reserves - the problem was that we did not have any water left. At 4 PM we finally reached the pass, and I laid down to die. Ilan went ahead to look for water, and I walked in a much slower pace. 15 minutes later he found water, and for once, I didn't care about boiling the water first. Ilan made coffee with his small gas boiler, and as by magic, I was totally well again, and we could almost run down the mountain track to the Torotoro valley. We were down before sunset.

In the alojamiento, there was a family party going on, and I must say that they were partying. Everybody were drunk (even the 90 year old grandma) - except a housekeeper who cooked some food for us. I left Ilan for the socialising. They all wanted to shake hands and give us beer - a very persevering guy was very proud of being able to say: "Do you speak English?", but is was the only words he knew to say in English, except permutations of the words in the same sentence. He asked me, if I could teach him what "Tengo un dolor in mi cabeza" was in English - "I have a headache". Inside there was dancing to music which sounded like a rhythm with hen-clucking added. I think they only had that one tape. But I must say they were hospitable.

Day 4 - Going home

Ilan wanted to come back with me - I think the bus ride had been a bit hard on him. I could see from the guest book that there had been only about 25-30 foreigners during 1997 until May, and a bit more Bolivians. If it had been easier to get to here, it would probably be a big tourist attraction. The mayor had told us that it is the plan to make a better road during the next couple of years, and they hope more tourists will find their way to here.

It went very well driving back. Now I was quite sure about the road. Past Anzaldo, I found a newly paved road, going straight to Torata. Smart. We had 12 school children with us from Anzaldo. They told us that it took them one hour each way, walking to school. After I had dropped them off, we offered a ride for an Indian woman. It turned out that she also had to take 12 bags of potatoes for the market in Cochabamba. You should have seen our party. My friend Ilan showed me the spot where the bus leaves from - I had been close!

To get there:

To get there on your own: Go to Torata (or Cliza) and ask for the way to Anzaldo - people know this town. Continue past Anzaldo 5 km to a plateau; turn left here, and you will meet the river after 33 kilometres; the ascend starts after another 22 kilometres of bad road (should be better now in 2003). On the return trip, I started 7:30 AM, and was in Cochabamba at 4:17 PM.

To go there by bus: I have received this information from Silvi Rojas, 15.06.2003: The bus leaves Cochabamba from the corner of Avenida República and 6 de Agosto. It is the same zone as the busses for Punata and Mizque. The bus leaves thursday at 06:00 in the morning, and passes through Anzaldo and takes 8 hours. The return journey is monday morning and it is important that on the way out, you make arrangements with the driver at what time. Silvi also wrote that the road