Dinosaur footprints, caves and a city of rocks. Torotoro is home to the most surreal intergalactic landscapes, and evidence of some of earths 1st giant residents petrified in stone 100’s of millennia ago.
We have spent the last 3 months immersed in history spanning as far back as 20,000 years with ancient cultures in Peru, but where does one go to take it even further? Torotoro is a National Park in central Bolivia famous for its rich prehistoric heritage. Torotoro village is the pueblo neighbouring the park, its economy is largely supported by tourism which is obvious upon visiting the town square, it looks like a compact set from universal studios with a big T-Rex looming in the centre.
To get to Torotoro you must go via Cochabamba, it’s 6 hours on a bus and costs 20 bob ($4AUD), big public buses leave once a day, or you can catch a colectivo (shared taxi van) from the corner of Calle Mairana and Avanida República, which takes 4 hours and costs 35 bob. We decided to take the colectivo option, but even though we were almost the last to buy our tickets we still had to wait an hour for the van to fill up before we could hit the road (and that was after splitting the cost of the last two seats with a couple of British girls who had been waiting two hours more). Once we finally got going the journey took exactly 4 hours including one stop at a filthy hole in the ground toilet.
The road is paved rocks for part of the way and dusty dirt road for the other, so not the most comfortable ride! We were also surprised at how hot it was. Along the way the landscape was dry and arid as the road follows a huge dry riverbed. With a view out the window of obscure rock formations, some looked as though they’d been sliced with a ruler and a craft knife. As the drive went on we passed hills that could’ve been made from pink sherbet, clouds of pink dust puffing into the van and the streets in a small passing village awash with a coat of smokey pink.
We arrived at about 4pm and checked into Como en Casa, a beautiful hospedaje set in a great big pink mansion. The following day we were interested in a day exploring the park, so after finding out that tours start gathering at 7am in the main square we wandered into a little place called Cafe del Pueblo for dinner. The menu was simple but they also had an option to pre order a vegetarian chilli for the following night, which felt like it would be a welcome treat after a day of exploring.
The next morning we arrived at the square at 7.30am as the tourist office was opening, this is where we had to sign the register and pay 30bob for our park entrance ticket. Then it was time to chat to the other tourists and figure out who’s going on what tour to form a group of up to 6 people, making it cheaper for the tour you want. We wanted to take a full-day tour visiting the Ciudad de Itas (city of rocks), the Cavernas and the dinosaur footprints.
On the way we found out the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago by a giant asteroid that smashed into the earth near the Gulf of Mexico. They believe it was 10kms in diameter and that the impact would have had severe weather repercussions with tsunamis, floods, extreme cold, extreme heat, volcanic explosions and poisoning of the atmosphere. Driving through the national park you get a real feel for the extremity of this time by the crazy wrinkled rocks and giant gaping canyons.
To get to Ciudad de Itas it’s a 25km drive down a windy gravel road, it took about half an hour and as you’re driving along it really feels as though this part of the world is still recovering from something huge, even after all these millions of years. This feeling is amplified upon arrival at the Ciudad de Itas, the walk from the road is only 10 minutes but as soon as we passed through the rough entry gate the rock formations struck me as something out of The Flintstones!
The iguana is the 1st interestingly shaped rock we met, and he wasn’t to be the last naturally formed creature in our path. We also came across a couple of tortoises as well as a couple of mammoths, or maybe elephants depending on who you ask.
Our guide only spoke Spanish, it was mostly slow enough for me to understand however I am still a little bit confused about who actually lived in the city of rocks. One part of the tour stops to visit the Plaza de Armas, no city is complete without one after all!
The total tour is about 2 hours and I must point out there are a couple of dodgy bits, including a ladder tied onto a boulder that you have to climb up, so you may have issues if you have an acute phobia of heights. I’m a bit wary but found it fun and interesting.
The second half of our day certainly pushed my boundaries a lot further.
On to the Caverna de Umajalanta, with 4.5kms of chartered caves forged by the Umajalanta river, this is the biggest charted cave in Bolivia! To get there we headed back towards the pueblo for around 20 minutes, had a quick lunch break (given the option of a restaurant we all decided on a picnic as we’d all packed our own lunches), then started on a 1km walk to the ticket office.
The main reason I wanted to visit Torotoro was for its fascinating paleontology significance (nerdy but who doesn’t like dinosaurs?). Luckily on our way to the caves we saw several sets of footprints petrified in action after the rapid drying of an ancient bog caused the footprints to turn to stone! The sign showing the possible owners of the prints depicted three toed bipedal dinosaurs, both round toed herbivores and pointy toed carnivores. It also showed the size of the dinosaurs compared to humans. I believe one set may have actually belonged to the carnivorous velociraptor.
Once at the ticket booth we had to show the ticket we’d bought that morning at the tourist office, in exchange for a neat hard hat complete with little Eveready head light. Feeling super secure, we got the low-down of what to expect (in Spanish of course). There would be approximately 5 metres of tight crawling, as well as another similar section of around 8 meters. Apart from that it would all be pretty open… Hmm. Me and the two lovely girls from the van yesterday, who were also in the group, swapped nervous glances. One of the girls nearly stayed in the car but decided to come and have a look.
Well it gets dark very quickly so I had to turn my brain off and just take it step by step. The tight bits were suuuuper tight, and there were also parts we needed ropes to climb and ropes to abseil down 2 metre drops with. But it was fun!
All in all we were in there for around an hour, and all three of us girls made it all the way! We saw amazing stalagmites and stalactites which would have been almost as old as the dinosaurs, and we saw blind fish swimming deep inside the pools of the cave. It was a great experience! It’s a shame that a lot of the natural beauty has been compromised by tourism, in the early days people were breaking off the stalagmites as souvenirs. On the other hand, I’m pleased tourists still have access because it was a unique experience.
We arrived back in Torotoro pueblo around 4pm and had a beer in the kitsch little dinosaur square in the last of the afternoon sun. By the time dinner rolled around we were famished and demolished our delicious pre-ordered vegetarian chilli! Yum!
For our last day we booked onto a morning tour of the Cañyon de Torotoro with our new friends from the day earlier. The tour cost 150bob including transport for the total tour, so split between 5 was only 30bob each ($6AUD). The drive to the canyon took 15 minutes and on the way we stopped to look at another set of dinosaur footprints. These ones were bigger and made by a herbivorous beast who was probably around 30 metres long. Torotoro is one of the best places in the world for looking at dinosaur footprints, the collection is dated between 140 million and 65 million years old, and it was enchanting to imagine how the landscape might have looked and the intense weather patterns that may have caused the footprints to petrify.
The walk to the edge of the canyon took about 15 minutes through an ancient stone riverbed. Along the way we passed through a perfectly formed natural stone amphitheatre and we saw another formation that looked exactly like a bridge.
Our guide also stopped every now and then to point out medicinal plants and explain their uses (in Spanish). As the riverbed fell into a deep canyon we stopped to appreciate the view from a well constructed lookout platform that kind of hung out over the edge of the canyon. I haven’t been to the Grand Canyon but I imagine this one was equally as impressive! The Colca canyon is technically deeper but the sheer drop of the sides made this view much more impactful.
The walk took us down 800 steps which sounds like more than it is and it only took about 20 minutes to reach the river below. It’s funny, from the top everything feels so dry, I seriously doubted we were going to see a water trickle let alone a waterfall. But there was water running through this riverbed, not a lot but enough to create small pools and cascades.
We climbed over huge rocks and followed the river for about 500 metres before we reached the main event. El Vergel! One of the canyon walls completely covered in green foliage and moss with waterfalls flowing down in-between. The pool here is supposed to be about 5 metres in depth so a great place to go swimming, except that in the morning it’s in the shadow of the canyon walls and without the sun it was much too cold for me to get my legs out!
We appreciated the falls and Steve braved the cold for a bit, then we headed back up stream to one of the sunnier pools. The water was just as cold, and the bottom was a bit muddy, but at least I wasn’t numb in the sun! The walk out wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and our ride was there waiting to pick us up from the top! When we got back to the pueblo we jumped straight in a full colectivo and headed back to Cochabamba. Home in time to have delicious sushi for dinner from a restaurant in Cochabamba called Koi and make apple crumble at our lovely Airbnb apartment.