The Land Before Time

Last weekend the 6000 meter peak I had climbed on Friday morning had the last laugh, laying me up in bed for most of the day on Saturday after I celebrated my victory to excess on Friday night. On Sunday morning I woke up and packed my bags, eager to escape from La Paz after an astounding three weekends in the city. After breakfast I was on my way, joined by Stefje and Florian, a German traveler I had met in the refugio at Huyana Potosi. The three of us lugged our bags to the bus terminal and arrived at 10:28AM, just in time for the employees of three different bus companies to swarm down onto us like bees on honey, physically grabbing me and competing on price to get us on their respective 10:30 bus to Cochabamba. We picked one (the cheapest) and set off, almost pulling away sans Florian when he hopped off to grab snacks at a quick pit stop on the outskirts of town. As the bus pulled away I ran down to the entrance to yell for him to come back and he sprinted on as it was rolling off. The ride was surprisingly comfortable, even as we passed through undeveloped stretches populated only by tiny towns just a few blocks long.

By 1pm we stopped for a lunch break and quickly introduced ourselves to one of the most disgusting bathrooms my nose has ever smelled, then ordered food from a highly suspect restaurant. As the journey continued onward the afternoon heat and lack of ventilation took its toll, turning the bus into a sweaty, smelly sauna. For the last few hours the temperature steadily rose and the oxygen level steadily dropped, but the locals didn’t seem to notice and didn’t even open their windows as Florian slowly suffocated. The roads also took a scary turn, as the area approaching Cochabamba consisted of hairpin turns around steep ledges completely absent of any guard rails. By the time we pulled into the packed bus terminal, all three of us sucked in huge breaths of fresh air, pleasantly surprised by the warm weather after dropping over 1000 meters in elevation during the course of the ride.

We hadn’t done much (read: any) research on accommodation in Cochabamba, but Florian saw online that morning that the highest rated option was North of the city center. At the bus station we asked for directions and were told to head towards Tiquipaya, but whether that was a street, a plaza, or a neighborhood we had no clue. More than half an hour later our driver unceremoniously dumped us in Tiquipaya square, far outside of the city center and with the hostel nowhere in sight. I shamelessly approached a man walking by and explained our predicament; he turned out to be the ultimate good samaritan and used his phone to call us a local taxi who would hopefully be more knowledgeable about the surroundings. Although at this point we had low expectations of ever finding the place, 20 minutes later we pulled up to an unmarked door and miraculously found we had arrived in paradise. 

Inside we were greeted by the hospitality of Tara and Mitch, 2 volunteers who don’t do much of anything besides set up the continental breakfast in the morning, lounge around during the day, and drink rum all night. We caught them right at the beginning of the evening phase and they were sober enough to show us around the beautiful hostel grounds. Inside was a relaxing common area featuring a pool table, a projector TV, and a paneled glass wall looking out over the lawn. Outside we were pleased to find a beautiful green space, including lounge chairs, a treehouse, and a children’s play set.

We found there were only four other guests, so the seven of us enjoyed ourselves by playing pool and listening to music on the hostel’s surround sound speaker system. After the urban setting of La Paz, the constant raging party at the Wild Rover, and the long day on a bus the entire setting was a perfect antidote to all of our tiresome traveling woes. 

On Monday we woke up and enjoyed the hostel’s free breakfast to the fullest, lounging in the morning heat after a few weeks at chilly higher altitudes. I even took advantage of the hostel’s open outdoors area to go for a run and lift weights in the sketchy outdoor gym, constituting my first real workout in months. By the time noon rolled around all the inhabitants were ready for some real food, so a group of four shuttled off to one of the nearby bus stations to begin the long expedition into town.

First we walked down the rocky roads in the hostel’s area, basking in the sunshine and observing all the ostentatious new houses otherwise surrounded by abject poverty. Second, we stood in the burning sun for 20 minutes, waiting for a bus that I was sure would never come to such a nondescript intersection. Third, we heard from a local driver that bus service was suspended today and started walking to catch a cab into town. Fourth and finally, just as we were approaching the main road a bus appeared out of nowhere and we hopped on. For the next 40 minutes we were jostled along bumpy roads, gripping the seats ferociously as the bus wound through tiny hamlets, picking people up until the point where it was difficult to weasel our way off to disembark. 

Once on the streets of Cochabamba, the hunt for empanadas was on. Quickly we found a few street carts and indulged ourselves, but we were also greeted by an unexpected sight: we landed right in the middle of a parade! Just as I finished my second empanada the square we were in exploded with sound, as a band right next to us heralded the start of a massive march. It turns out Monday was the anniversary of Cochabambian independence, and what followed for the next few hours was a show of local pride nothing short of magnificent. The parade consisted of hundreds of people and thousands of spectators, with everyone marching in their respective groups: teachers, lawyers, doctors, and the army were all represented. 

As the march snaked towards its culmination near Plaza Colon, we walked side by side and then diverted from the main action when it got too crowded, instead getting pointed towards a delectable fruit stand by an adorable drummer boy. The streets that day were a veritable hub of activity, as the plazas lined with vendors and the main drag of town consisted of more delicious street food than we could eat our way through. The proceedings were punctuated by an impressive fighter jet flyover just as were walking by the VIP section, the pilots doing barrel rolls right over our heads. 

As the parade started to wrap up we decided to excuse ourselves from the main action and instead walked through the outskirts of town towards the city’s cable car. Built into a hillside adorned at the top by a massive statue of Christ, for us the teleferico was a complete revelation: we had no idea how incredibly large Cochabamba was! On the way up a local informed us over a million people reside in the city, and from our new vantage point at the top we could see it all: a 360 degree view of endless urban development lay before us. At the top we were greeted by the overwhelming image of Christ. At 33.4 meters, it’s actually the largest in South America, rising just a few centimeters above its more famous cousin in Rio de Janeiro. 


On the long ride back to the hostel we asked our cab driver to pull over at a spot for some good street food and he exceeded expectations, promptly pulling into an amazing outdoor food court packed with local teenagers. The menus didn’t vary at all between the proprietors, as everyone served anticuchos (grilled steak hearts), salchipapas (sliced hot dog on a bed of french fries smothered in Mayo), and other Bolivian favorites. But our choice that evening, at the recommendation of the cab driver, was trancapecho, a hamburger topped with all of South American’s carbohydrate specials: rice, potatoes, and french fries. Healthy? Nope. Delicious? Absolutely! 

On Tuesday Stefje and I decided to push on towards the destination of Torotoro National Park, so after a long night of sleep I arose and took my time basking in the amazing environment at the hostel one last time. The beautiful outdoor space seemed to entice everyone staying there to linger at least one day longer, and by the time we packed up our bags I was sufficiently jealous of the volunteers who would be “working” there for the next two weeks. 

That afternoon we grabbed a quick bite, wandering around for 30 minutes before finally finding the only open restaurant in the area, then set off for the bus station. The owner of the hostel told us he had reserved bus tickets and all we had to do was show up at an intersection to claim them and we’d be on our way, but let’s be honest: traveling in Bolivia is never that simple. 

We showed up at the intersection and started asking around, but got different answers and only had a few minutes until our scheduled 6pm departure time. Curiously, neither of the two ATMs nearby worked with any of our bank cards, leaving us dangerously low on cash on our way to a town without any kind of banking services. 

Finally, we seemed to be on the right trail as a lady driving by heard us ask about Torotoro and told us the bus was right around the next corner. She followed us in her car to the supposed destination, but it turned she was just setting a smoke screen, blocking us from seeing the other bus company with her car and directing us to the place where she worked! Once at the bus station I sprinted off to find a working ATM while Stefje tried to claim our reserved tickets, but both of our endeavors were fruitless. When I tried to ask a local about a bank that has worked with my debit card before, he guffawed and told me I’d have to go to the other side of town “where the rich people live,” rubbing his fingers together in the international sign for money. 

Meanwhile, Stefje found out that our reservation either hadn’t gone through or was with a different bus, as our names weren’t on the list. However, the same lady who steered us wrong to begin with kindly informed us that we could sit on our bags in the aisle for the six hour dirt road journey. Wonderful! We discussed our options and eventually decided to purchase tickets for the following day, taking our time to spend another day in Cochabamba and find a working ATM before heading off the grid.

We walked back through an exceptionally questionable part of town with all of our luggage, staying on high alert yet simultaneously delighted to find ourselves in one of the largest outdoor markets I had ever seen. Immediately, trying to hail a cab was out of the question. As pedestrians, we were moving faster than the busses overflowing with people, and the streets were clogged with vendors, sometimes four across from side to side. On display was everything you could possibly want to buy: belts, underwear, shampoo, and electronic accessories to name a few. Curiously the most prolific stands were those selling DVDs, each one equipped with an HDTV broadcasting WWE. As we progressed towards the city center we were accompanied by the cheers of wrestling fans, as groups of spectators congregated around the TVs to watch the live action go down. 

Wednesday Stefje and I decided to enjoy our extra day in Cochabamba by checking out a few of the Lonely Planet’s top choices around town. We started off by heading to the best coffee bar in town, where we were surrounded by old men yelling at each other yet wholly appreciated the freshly roasted coffee beans and strong espresso. For lunch we moved on to a vegetarian buffet and although finding the hole in the wall restaurant was challenging and the ambiance was suspect, the food was anything but. For just 20 Bolivianos we treated ourselves to an all you can eat affair, featuring heavy doses of broccoli, eggplant, and baked lentil pie, all curiously served on a prison-style aluminum tray. 

After gorging on greens we proceeded towards the Plaza Colon for a digestion session, basking in the  sunshine and observing the Cochabambians enjoy the afternoon.

Our last stop on the guidebook tour was supposed to be at the Palacio Portales, a mansion just outside of town created by a Bolivian who became one of the richest men in the world after becoming the world's first tin baron, but sadly we arrived to find that the palace was unexplainably taking a holiday that day. Officially discombobulated by all the holidays and bus snafus, I felt despondent by the failure, but it was nothing a quick nap couldn’t solve. 

That evening we walked back through the enormous market on our way to catch the bus, which turned in to a ridiculous endeavor in its own right. Almost instantaneously upon boarding we were greeted by horrendous smells of the locals, packed in to the gills and each one carrying a massive carry-on bundle. About 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time we started to lurch away, but just as I got my hopes up the bus switched gears into reverse and backed up to pick up 20 bags of concrete. Stefje hopped off to make sure our bags stayed on board and was appalled to see our bags get strewn onto the side of the road, then stuffed back into the hold, as it took two men to forcibly jam the door shut with all the extra concrete. Finally we started to pull away, but this time we moved just half a block in the right direction before stopping to pick up an assortment of massive metal poles, each one getting hauled on top of the bus and tied to the roof precariously. By 7pm we were finally off and by 1am we arrived in Torotoro, eager to get a few hours of sleep before attacking the day ahead. 

On Thursday we rose early and headed over to the tourist office to purchase our tickets for Parque Nacional Torotoro, the main and only draw in town. The tiny little plaza was occupied by tourists and guides all getting ready for day trips into the park. We booked a walking trip and were matched up with a guide, Jose. Just a few steps outside of town we were greeted by the sight the area is most well known for, dinosaur footprints more than 65 million years old. At some point the land mass that consists of present day Bolivia was home to many different species of dinosaurs, including massive sauropods and vicious carnivorous raptors. A few of these creatures walked through some mud near present day Torotoro and the earth eventually froze and turned to rock, leaving their foot steps petrified in stone over tens of millions of years. 

Along the path the rest of the day we encountered more signs of prehistoric life, including some footprints more than a meter long. We also got treated to the stunning terrain of the Torotoro area, which has long been a haven for geologists eager to learn about our Earth’s past. After another hour of hiking we turned a corner and found ourselves facing a 300 meter long vertical wall, signaling our arrival at the area’s gorgeous canyon. It was the perfect spot to enjoy lunch and take in the fresh air and incredible views, keeping our eyes peeled for vultures and condors gliding through the wind. 

Beyond the lookout area lies a staircase that descends into the depths of the canyon, and we took a winding switchback staircase down to the floor, where we encountered the beautiful El Vergel waterfall. Ringed with plants and adorned by moss growing on the rocks, the crystal clear water supplies the river below and creates some pristine natural swimming pools. We took a quick dip in the icy waters but mostly just spent the next hour lounging on the rocks in the sun, soaking in as much warmth as we could. 

On the way back into town we were greeted by breathtaking views of the surrounding mountain range that runs horizontal to the town’s valley, a series of hills and valleys containing massive deposits of calcium.

That night in Torotoro we quickly recognized that nothing much happens in the town, as there were only a few restaurants and shops open for business and most of the residents just seemed to be perpetually perched on the sidewalk, talking to each other and watching life slowly move by. We eventually found a restaurant that seemed halfway decent and I delighted in ordering Pique Macho, one of the local specialties: sliced steak, hot dog, peppers, and onions, served on a bed of french fries. 

Friday morning we reported back to the tourism office early in the morning to see if anyone else was interested in splitting the cost of transportation to visit two of the parks other sights which were accessible only by Jeep. Luckily we found a Swiss couple with the same intention and set off, but not before getting introduced to a Bolivian version of cornhole that the guides play with surprisingly fierce competition. For half an hour that morning I tried to throw coins into a tiny hole not much larger than a quarter, which proved incredibly difficult. 

In the late morning we arrived at Cuidad de Itas, a composition of rock formations that held special significance to Shamans and religious masters in pre-Incan times. Long ago Bolivia was almost entirely submerged in water, and the erosion of this sea created beautiful caverns, each one with rays of morning light shining through onto our faces. 

Eventually we climbed to the top of one of the rock perches and laid down in the sunlight, enjoying another great lunchtime view. For the afternoon’s activity we headed to the largest and deepest cave in Bolivia, Umajalanta. Meaning “lost water” in the native Aymara language, Umajalanta is so large that it hasn’t yet been fully explored, and scientists aren’t even sure where the water that enters its massive caverns eventually comes out. On the way over we sported helmets and headlamps, unsure as to what exactly we were getting ourselves into. 

Once in the cave we started to descend rapidly, rappelling down ropes set up for intrepid travelers, crawling through tiny spaces and scraping our backs when we didn’t crouch down low enough. Sadly the cave was discovered before the creation of Torotoro National Park and locals made sport of knocking down a large portion of the beautiful stalagmites and stalactites, which can take millions of years to re-form. 

Just as we thought the cave descended into a pure wall and the tour would have to turn back, our guide led us through a tiny crawl space off to the left and through no small effort we squeezed our way through. On the other side, we were greeted by the sound of running water. There in the total and absolute darkness we had come across a waterfall, its runoff creating a tiny indoor lake. When I shined my light on the water’s surface I was shocked to find it inhabited by tiny fish, not perturbed by the lack of light or oxygen in their quest for survival. By the time we lifted ourselves up out of the depths and back towards the entrance, the tiny bit of blue sky poking through the entrance was too much light to handle and we had to keep our eyes focused on the ground to avoid being blinded. 

The following morning we caught the 6AM bus back to Cochabamba, but what followed was surely the worst bus ride experience of my entire trip. Before even leaving Torotoro the bus was already completely full and people started standing in the aisles, but then as we wound through the area we picked up more and more passengers, until even the locals behind me started yelling “No hay espacio” (There’s no space!). Although I thought it would be smart to book seats towards the front, curiously all the standing passengers congregated towards the front, severely encroaching on our personal space by leaning into the seats and sitting on the arm rests.

By the time we were an hour out of town the aisle was populated by almost 30 people, each one bringing their own pungent, putrid stench into the cramped space. Many of the women were also wearing traditional Bolivian atire, which features intricately embroidered yet stifling hot blouses, wide brim hats, and massive woolen dresses that makes their entire bottom half poof out. Stefje and I had to alternate between the window and aisle seats for the entire trip, taking turns either sticking our head out of the tiny crack in the window to get some fresh air or using our elbows to fight off people leaning into our faces. 

At 8:30AM, the real adventure began. POP! Went the back tire, and slowly everything in life ground to a halt. For the next half hour we were immobile on the side of the road as a small army of Bolivian men stepped outside to watch the driver change the tire, commenting and complaining the whole time. We drove slowly for the next hour, until we reached a small town (a collection of 10 houses) where we could fill the flat tire with air. 

Just before 10AM a line of personal depravity was crossed. A group of teenage boys were denied entry onto the bus, but were so anxious to get to town that they were willing to hop into the cargo hold below the bus. Sitting on top of the bags stored beneath, I’m not sure how they got oxygen but miraculously they survived.

As the noon sun was beginning to bear down the bus stopped again, this time changing the flat tire for a new one, but not before we wasted half an hour in the midday heat waiting for the mechanic to get started. 8 hours after departure our trip which should have taken four hours finally ended, but I was so put off by the entire experience that it took another half hour before I was able to form any words. 

Stefje and I hauled our bags to the bus station that afternoon and found out that due to an election the following day we’d have to board a bus within the next two hours if we wanted to get out of Cochabamba before Monday. Not able to deal with another bad bus experience, we sprang for first class seats and by 5pm had hit the road again in the direction of Santa Cruz. At 2AM, after 20 hours of non-stop travel we finally arrived in a new city and found a hostel where we could pass out for a few hours. At that point I officially said farewell to a harrowing week of travel and embarked on the next leg of my journey.