We had come to Torotoro to see some famous footprints. In fact Bolivia itself is quite famous for these footprints but Torotoro has some extra attractions and these footprints are easy to get to and see. Which was a good excuse to go out and have some fun trying to walk in the footprints of dinosaurs.
Torotoro itself was a sleepy kind of town. Several cafes were marked on the tourist map of the town but only one or two were open. I guess we were there out of season so that may have been why. The steep cobbled streets were a challenge to calves and thighs softened by two years of vehicle travel. We pondered over some of the hikes and tours of the other natural phenomena in the area and opted to stay another night to visit the cavern called Umajalanta, which we later learned means waterfall in the native tongue of Bolivia.
After a blissful night’s sleep at Umajalanta, next morning we returned the 8km back into town to pick up a guide for the cavern tour. He asked us if we could give him a lift to the cavern, but with only two seats inside the cab our options were limited. Still, he preferred the option of sitting top of our tent holding onto his mountain bike that would be his transport back to town than riding the bike both ways – and it would be quicker for us too.
Perhaps if I had known what the cavern experience would be like I might not have taken it. Fortunately my Spanish is not good enough for that to be the case.
From the car park, where we had camped the previous night, it was a one km hike to the entrance to the cavern, so far so good. The guide showed us a map of the cavern, how we would enter and after a short walk turn right before turning left and left again bringing us back in a straight line with the entrance, where the ground would be wetter as we climbed back up through the waterfalls after which the cavern is named. The rest of the cavern was deeper underground and only accessible with specialist breathing equipment.
For the first three or four hundred metres our way was lit by the daylight streaming into the cavern mouth, from where we saw a hawk hunting his prey of live rabbits. Soon though our only light came from the head torches we had been supplied with at the cavern entrance. At one point, while the guide returned to fetch a rope, I took delight in getting Paul to turn off his head torch so we could stand there in the absolute blackness.
Our guide showed us the stalagmite and stalactite formations, including some hollow musical ones, which Paul took delight in playing. And piles of bat droppings from where the bats live underground. We swatted away the mosquitoes that like it down there in the damp and dark. Our guide showed us where early explorers of the cavern had used candles to burn black graffiti on the ceiling, and the reason candles are now banned in the cavern. Generally, everything was very relaxed as we made our way over boulders and rocks, sometimes using a rope to hold on to where the drop was a bit steep. No specially constructed tourist platforms and walkways here. A couple of times we came to a low ceiling and had to crawl through on our haunches – well Paul and the guide did, I found it easier to crawl on my hands and knees, even if I did get covered in wet sand. Until we came to the tunnels.
They didn’t tell me about the tunnels, at least not in English. Now, if there is one thing that is enough to give me the terrors, it’s being stuck in a tunnel only deep enough for me to crawl on my belly. The stuff of nightmares in my book. Only a couple of short tunnels I was told, and space to stand up in between. Through the tunnels the walk back to the surface was an hour, returning the way we had come was an option, but would take a couple of hours and we’d miss climbing out through the waterfalls.
I told Paul he would have to go last, then I’d know there was someone who could pull me back out by my feet if I got stuck. I wriggled into the first tunnel, and realised the terror was worse on the outside before you get in. Bumping my helmeted head on the tunnel roof I wriggled along towards the guide who by now was doing some sort of contortionist act to get himself out of the tunnel and standing up. Doing a handstand might have been easier. Bringing my knees up under my chest and directing my feet into a position that was by now effectively above my head in order to drop them down into the cavity where I was to stand was no easy task, but I got there eventually. Paul followed, and the three of us stood in the tiny space that had been billed as the space between the tunnels, I realised that any more than three of us standing there would be claustrophobic.
Then the guide showed us the next tunnel!! This was definitely worse than the first. Higher but narrower it meant we would have to
hooch through on our sides, not on our bellies. That meant I couldn’t just look at the sand below my face and focus on wriggling: I’d be able to see more. And hooching through on your side is definitely not as easy. “No, no way”, I said. Except now I was in between two tunnels. Going back didn’t just mean a two hour clamber over the rocks we’d already covered but returning through the tunnel we’d just come through. So, I took a deep breath. I’d done it once, I could do it again. With Paul again bringing up the rear, I wriggled into the tunnel. It was harder. Every time I tried to use my booted feet to push myself forward they merely dug little trenches in the sand. I was going nowhere fast. Eventually I found a technique that worked for me: inching myself forward with little movements of my left elbow. What seemed like an eternity later I was much relieved to be out and standing again. Once again though, the fear of entering the tunnel was greater than the actually being inside it. Even so the low roofed sections that followed seemed a breeze to crawl through on my hands and knees.
Now we were heading in the straight line back to the cavern entrance. The rocks here were much steeper and a couple of times Paul gave me a helping hand to get over the larger ones. At one point the guide stopped to show us how to get up a particularly high rock, balancing on our hands and feet. I could get the first stage of the move done but then got stuck, so, much to the guide’s amusement I found my own way up – hands first, bum next, and then onto my feet. Hey, it worked. Of course by now I’m covered in wet sand just about everywhere it can get.
And then the light appeared at the end of the tunnel. Literally. We were back near the surface and the sun was streaming through the exit opening. Our guide made some calling noises to scare out some of the local wildlife for us to see – causing what looked like a giant rabbit to go scuttling across the cavern mouth.
Back at the car we helped our guide pump up the front tyre of his mountain bike and it was time for us to be on the road again ….