Wednesday, February 18, 2009


The thunder of the cascading water rendered futile the act of giving voice to the question, "Do you think we're going to die here?" But it was this thought that flashed in the eyes of my five fellow volunteers. I know it was there in mine.

Rain had beat against the windows of our $6 hotel rooms all night, turning the earth wedged between the cobblestone streets of the pueblo, the red dirt of the road leading to the cave, and the soft, loose soil that rests atop Torotoro National Park to slush.

We finally arrived, jackets already soaked and shoes caked in mud, at the mouth of Umajalanta. And what we saw convinced us that all the water let loose by the thunderheads during the last 12 hours had ended up here, feeding the subterranean river that cut unperturbed into the pitch-black recesses below.

It was a 4km circuit through the sometimes flooded, sometimes sandy, sometimes skin-tight passages of the cave. As often happens, the obvious risk of the situation enhanced the experience all the more.

Our nimble guide, with 40 years of spelunking under his belt, leaped from one rock face to the next, stringing ropes for us to grasp with white knuckles and illuminating the dark with his kerosene-powered headlamp. Intricately sculpted rock pillars, the squeaks of vampire bats, and 15ft underground waterfalls met us as we slid and squirmed a loop through the hollow earth.

Knees shaking and shoes oozing, we emerged three hours later, chattering wildly about why we were still alive as we made our way back to Torotoro village for overflowing platters of chicken, rice, and potatoes, with Taquiña by the liter, at the dirty little restaurant adjacent to the hotel.

* * *

By next morning the rain had stopped, but thick clouds still hung low over the volcanic peaks, painting slivers of twisted rock on the horizon. Today's journey was decidedly above ground, tracing a flat-rock runoff bed laden with 70-million-year-old fossilized dinosaur tracks to a 400m-high canyon.

Here, Andean Condors and endangered red-fronted macaws soared at eye level above the lush riverine environment far below, and it was hard to believe the dinosaurs had ever left.

Little did we know our path would lead us down all 400 meters and then back up till our shirts and packs were damp with sweat. Our guide, the same from the day before, never panted as he rattled off geologic data and related stories from his sojourns into the 51 caves in the park, etching images in my mind of expansive subterranean lagoons still as glass and massive hallways of stone lit only by the flicker of a candle lamp.

* * *

A weekend in Torotoro is a blessing, but two days was far too little to explore a landscape lost in time.


julie said...

Those photos are pretty incredible-- Bolivia's version of the Grand Canyon! Glad you made it back.

hal said...

Thanks Julie! I didn't even include shots of the largest section, as they didn't do it justice. Considering I went not even knowing there was a canyon there in the first place, I was blown away. Beautiful country.