Some 130 Km south of Cochabamba, Parque Nacional Toro Toro, protects a remote ans sparsely inhabited stretch of the arid, scrubby landscape that is characteristic of the Eastern foothills and valleys of the Andes. Covering just 164 square kilometers around the village of the same name, Toro Toro is Bolivia’s smallest national park, but what it lacks in size it makes up for with is powerful scenery and varied attractions. The park encompasses a high, hanging valley and deep eroded canyons, ringed by low mountains whose twisted geological formations are strewn with fossils, dinosaur footprints and labyrinthine limestone cave complexes. In addition, the park’s woodland supports considerable wildlife –including flocks of parakeets and the rare and beautiful red-fronted macaw, found only in this particular region of Bolivia – while ancient rock paintings and pre-Inca ruins reveal a long-standing human presence. The main attractions are the limestone caves of Umajallanta, the beautiful, waterfall-filled Toro Toro Canyon, and hiking expeditions to the pre-Inca ruined fortress of Llama Chaqui. Two days are generally enough to see the main attractions though it’s worth taking longer if you want to explore the area more fully.
Though reached from Cochabamba, Parque Nacional Toro Toro actually lies within Northern Potosí department. Before the Spanish conquest this was the core territory of the Charcas Confederation, a powerful collection of different ethnic groups subject to Inca rule. Following the conquest, the different Quechua- and Aymara – speaking groups that made up the confederation retained their distinct identities, each as separate ayllus (extended kinship groups, similar to clans or tribes). The ayllus of Northern Potosí mostly live in the higher-altitude lands to the west of the region, where they grow potatos and raise livestock, but they maintain islands of territory in the dry valleys such as Toro Toro, where they cultivate maize, wheat and other lower altitude crops. This system ensures each group has access to the produce of different altitudes, and represents a distinctly Andean form of organization that has long fascinated anthropologists.
Throughout the colonial era and long after independence, Northern Potosí was the focus of frequent indigenous uprisings. As recently as 1958, during the upheaval following the 1952 revolution, Toro Toro village – which was formed in the late colonial period by mestizo migrants from Cochabamba – was ransacked by armed ayllu member, who seized the lands of the haciendas that had been established on their traditional valley territories.
The administrative centre of the park and the only base from which to explore it is the sleepy village of Toro Toro. Home to just a few hundred people, it stands beside the river of the same name at the top of a broad hanging valley at an altitude of about 2600m and is the place to find food, accommodation, guides and information. Toro Toro’s main annual celebration is the Fiesta de Tata Santiago, held on July 25 each year, when the ayllus descend on the village to drink, dance and stage ritual Tinku flights.
The dinosaur tracks of Cerro Huayllas
The park’s clearest dinosaur tracks are on the lower slopes of Cerro Huayllas, the mountain just east of the village across the Río Toro Toro (generally only a stream in the May –Sept dry season). To reach them , walk back along the road to Cochabamba and cross at the ford, turn right and walk upstream about 100m, then climb about 20m up the rocky slope to your left. The tracks were made by a quadruped herbivore that roamed the region in the Cretaceous era more than sixty million years ago – they comprise a trail of deep circular prints about 50 cm in diameter imprinted in a sloping plane of grey rock and set about 1m apart. A little further upstream there’s another trail of smaller (and much less distinct) prints left by a three-toed carnivore.
Along the Río Toro Toro
Follow the Río Toro Toro downstream from the Cerro Huayllas dinosaur tracks for about twenty minutes and you’ll reach a stretch where the rushing rainy-season waters have carved great stone basins out of the soft bedrock – locals refer to this stretch as Batea Cocha (beating Pool), as they look a bit like basins for pounding laundry. About 7m up the rock face on the left bank, protected by a low adobe wall, is a collection of ancient rock paintings (pinturas rupestres). Mostly abstracts designs painted in red ochre, with several zigzags-including one that looks like a serpent and another that could be the sun or a star-the paintings are all less than 1m long and have been partly defaced, but they provide a focus for what is anyway a pleasant stroll down the river. A little further downstream there’s a pretty waterfall that forms a good swimming hole; beyond that, the river plunges down into the deep Toro Toro Canyon and you can walk no further, though you can access the canyon from further downstream.
Just north of Toro Toro village the Río Toro Toro plunges through the deep Toro Toro Canyon, probably the park’s most beautiful section. Enclosed on either side by sheer, 200m-high cliffs covered with stunted trees and spiky bromeliads, the river creates a series of waterfalls as it tumbles over a jumble of massive boulders, forming pools that are ideal for swimming. The route down to the rock –strewn canyon floor is easy to find without a guide (though you shouldn’t go alone in case you hurt yourself and can’t get back).
To get down into the canyon, follow the road out of town towards Cochabamba for about 200m. Where the road turns sharply to the right, follow the track heading off to the left, and walk for about twenty minutes until you see some well-made stone steps dropping steeply down the side of the canyon to your left. The most picturesque stretch of the canyon is a few hundred meters downstream from where the steps reach the bottom, where a ten-meter-high waterfall known as El Vergel emerges from the side of the canyon on the right in several streams wich cover the rock face in slimy –green water weeds.
Caverna de Umajallanta
The most extensive and easiest to visit of the park’s many limestone cave system is the Caverna de Umajallanta, where nearly 5Km of underground passages have been explored. The Cave makes a great day trip from Toro Toro and is one of the park’s most popular attractions; on no account attempt to visit without a guide as it is easy to get lost once inside. Its entrance is about 8Km northwest of Toro Toro, a walk of ninety minutes to two hours across the rolling landscape with good views of the dramatic geology of the mountain ridges that surround the Toro Toro valley-about halfway you’ll pass a trail of dinosaur footprints. The cave complex was formed by the waters of the Rio Umajallanta, wich disappears below the surface here and re-emerges as a waterfall high above the Toro Toro Canyon, 6Km away to the east. It consists of a series of interconnected limestone caverns of varying sizes, one of which contains a lake fed by the river that is home to some blind white fish.
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