Torotoro National Park, Bolivia

Torotoro National Park, Bolivia
2 march 2015

We wake up to a quiet morning in Torotoro, the tiny village that’s grown up in an ancient valley full of dinosaur bones and old mysterious caverns.

This day our hired guide takes us out a long Torotoro street paved with pebbles, toward the national park. A herd of sheep passes us, driven by a woman in traditional dress, and we stop by a riverbank where our guide points out nondescript-looking depressions in the stone. They are the tracks of dinosaurs, apparently – apatosaurus and velociraptor – though I still can’t figure out how you tell the tracks apart from random holes in the stone.

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Our Spanish-speaking guide’s name is Macedonio (many times this week Roman and I forget his name and say “I know it’s almost the name of a country…”). He walks quickly over the tumbled stones of a dry riverbed where he tells us he’s been running since he was right. We hike along the boulders to a small natural bridge, and further on to a huge canyon where we see red-fronted macaws circling the thermals in pairs.

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Macedonio hops confidently down steep steps that lead to the bottom of the canyon. He doesn’t look back or walk at our slower pace. This begins to bother me after a while, as I step carefully and slowly to keep from slipping down the steep incline. I think I recognize his attitude from the days when I first began hiking. When you’re in shape the temptation is to show off. For a wilderness guide, this temptation is both stupid and dangerous (I believe), since it doesn’t matter how in shape you are if someone in your group isn’t able to keep up – and furthermore it sets a terrible example for people who aren’t familiar with the terrain or acclimatized to the altitude. I try to stay patient with him and focus on enjoying the scenery.

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At the bottom of the canyon we begin to follow a creek (Macedonio jumps over slick boulders and disappears around blind curves, leaving us to guess at the best route across the stream). I forgive him a little when we come to a wide, brown pool where the stream pans out and mixes with water spilling down the canyon wall in a series of cascades tens of meters high. We change into bathing suits and swim in the cold pool and laugh as we shiver under the cold spray of the waterfall.

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Later as I’m lying in the sun after lunch, the stream starts to rise rapidly. “It’s raining hard in the valley,” Macedonio tells us. In a few minutes it’s gone from a stream to a torrent and the water is at least a meter higher than when we came into the canyon. For some reason Macedonio is ecstatic about this really quite dangerous situation. Roman and I shake our heads and wait an hour for the water to go down while Macedonio walks around giggling and taking photos. We navigate out the canyon over high water (sometimes through it, holding hands to keep from falling). Macedonio decides to climb a random boulder, about 5 meters high, while we wait for another group to pass. Later we drip up the steep steps we came down earlier and Macedonio lags behind us, exhausted from climbing, stopping to splash water on his face and rest.

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In the afternoon we meet him for a visit to a tiny, shabby building displaying fossils and bones they’ve found near torotoro. It’s an interesting exhibit but Macedonio rushes us through it. On the roof of the building he talks to us about the land his family owns, the area surrounding the building where they’ve found fossils and turtle skeletons. We walk through a corner of a fenced-off acre of red dirt and he shows us how to see where the white half-moon skeletons of turtles lie buried in the brown hills.

Macedonio leaves us for the day a few hours before sunset. I want to explore the town so we walk up smooth, worn pebble streets towards the hills. Old ladies walking past with their long braids swaying and old men sitting in benches in the shade of mud walls greet us with buenas tardes as we walk past. It’s only a few blocks of white-painted adobe buildings with their red-tiled roofs, and then the houses are concrete or brick again and in a couple more blocks there aren’t blocks anymore and the countryside opens up into rolling fields.

But we’re not going to the rolling fields, we’re exploring town, and our exploration takes us to a little cafe run by a talkative old Bolivian man with a Swiss espresso machine (Roman is excited about this). The man calls me muñeca (doll) like it’s 1950 and brings me an aperitif of gin and sweet grapefruit soda.

We’re tired from the hike and the simple, delicious dinner we eat in the restaurant of the hotel where we stay. I go to bed early.

3 march 2015
We’re up early for breakfast and our meeting with Macedonio. He takes us out of town in a sturdy white jeep, up green hills laced with granite shelves tilted into a bowl. Torotoro huddles at the base of one of these shelves.

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The red road flattens out at the top of the ridge with deep valleys opening out on either side. To the south I can see a pale road tracing the contours of deep, green hills and leading away into the mountains. Soon we turn west and enter a kind of promenade of boulders bigger than houses. Macedonio stops at one of these to show us a protected space where pre-inca indigenous people likely took shelter. There are faint red paintings on the walls – just lines – of mountains, people, rivers.

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Further along the boulder field we take another rapid walk, Macdonio skipping along the path. He’s so far ahead that we don’t see him half the time and have to guess at his route. Once I sink to my shins in mud, not having seen him flit over a subtle stone pathway through the bog.

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Macedonio’s carelessness is irritating me and making it hard for me to appreciate our next stop, a complex of giant stones worn into weird shapes by erosion. They call this the little city – there are rocks that look like cathedrals, palaces, an open square of grass like a central plaza. It’s a little strange to be taken on a tour of something that has only imaginary significance. The ancient people didn’t actually use this network of stones like a city, and neither are they geologically significant. I wish we had been allowed to explore the rocks on our own and create our own story.

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At lunch I rinse the mud off my chucks. We take the jeep back down into the valley and along a little dirt path to the entrance to a cave that Torotoro is famous for. It’s a wide, tall mouth full of large broken stones in a huge arch set into a stony hill. In the far corner the cave narrows and becomes tinier and soon we’re crouching and squatting and shuffling along on our hands and knees and squeezing through a tunnel into a stone chamber under the earth. After a few meters we can stand up again. In the beams of our headlamps we can see elegant, strange stalactites in improbable formations that look like trees or blood vessels or somebody’s brain. I’ve never been in a proper cave before and I find it fascinating. Sometimes we can walk, sometimes Macedonio has us slide down smooth rock slopes, holding on to anchored ropes for support, sometimes we have to squeeze through more tunnels. Halfway through the cave we switch off our headlamps and sit in silence and darkness under the earth for a minute, listening to the distant rush of an underground river.

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Up and out the exit to the cave and Macedonio is practically running. We squeeze through tunnels barely big enough to fit through, climb up and down ropes, and slide down rock chutes at a breakneck pace. Later Macedonio tells us he decided to rush us through the cave because he was afraid of a flash flood that would swell the underground river where we follow its course; but in the cave he says nothing about this (perhaps wisely).

In the afternoon after Macedonio leaves us for the day, Roman and I walk the course of the river that flows through Torotoro, building stone cairns and skipping rocks in the river. We climb a hill overlooking the tiny colonial town to watch the sun set.

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I sleep early again. I’m exhausted from keeping up with Macedonio today. Our tour is technically over, and tomorrow we take buses from Torotoro all the way out to Cochabamba and up to La Paz.

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Saturday morning in Buenos Aires

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I could have taken the Subte over to San Martin plaza and the little park with its enormous sprawling tree, limbs so huge and meandering that they built iron crutches into the plaza to hold the splayed branches up – and just through the park across busy Avenida del Libertador you have that huge tower that’s a replica of the one in piazza San Marco in Venice (many things in Buenos Aires are a replica of something in Europe) – – I could have taken the Subte, but the weather was fine, clean-feeling air and bright sun and jewel blue sky, warm and breezy, so I walked down to Florida street to change money on the “blue” market (the street empty so early in the morning, and me getting a terrible rate of only 12 pesos to the dollar this time) and from there along San Martin street all the way to the park.

The beautiful fractal-pattern trees with their bare earth-colored trunks and vibrant purple flowers frame a plaza of Buenos Aires’ ubiquitous cool white tiles gridded into perfect squares. When the tiles break from impact or age or tree roots thrusting up under the sidewalk, they subdivide into smaller and smaller squares. The trees in this plaza (called jacaranda, I learn later on a tour) are lovely and give good shade to the soft, broad-leaved, slightly squeaky grass. After a few false starts in mosquito-ridden patches of grass near the center of the park, I find an old tree on the edge whose broad roots bend gently into a natural seat. Two huge roots extend like arms into the grass, forming a hollow where I stash my purse and shoes and stand with my feet in the cold grass and start my first sun salutation.

Traditional ashtanga sun salutations timed to my breath, with some warrior poses thrown in between downward dogs to help me warm up. I need to stretch my legs after all the walking yesterday – downward dog for my hamstrings and hips, and I wriggle luxuriously to loosen my IT bands and ankles; warrior one for energy; warrior two for stability; and I’m feeling brave and unselfconscious in this park so I go for warrior three, balancing for about five breaths and using the San Marco tower as my focal point. Afterwards – pigeon poses, which are fun to do while watching actual pigeons poke around the grass, and cowface pose, which I love for its ridiculous name and deep hip stretch.

I won’t pretend it’s not awkward to go to a park where no one else is doing anything remotely like yoga, alone in tight leggings and a travel-stained top, and contort your body into strange awkward positions and try to look like a wise guru and hope no one else in the park is watching when it’s time to stick your butt in the air for downward dog. I usually feel exposed, especially if there are men watching. (There are almost always men watching. I’m a woman out alone and not wearing a nun’s habit. I try to avoid eye contact so I don’t have to see their lewd grins or hear their oh-so-original comments about flexibility). On the other hand, I’m also probably making it more awkward than it needs to be – I could pay for a class in a studio or convince someone from the hostel to come to the park with me.

Today I don’t feel so self conscious or exposed and I make some mental notes on this park, planning to come back. Not a lot of people like yoga, and the number of people who like yoga and also stay in hostels and also don’t care how many creepy park dudes watch them try to balance on one foot or stick their butts in the air in a park is even smaller, but I’m putting this one on the shortlist of places to do yoga anyway and promise myself to invite someone next time. At the end of my asanas I sit and mediate a little in the fresh grass (purse in my lap, just in case). The light has shifted and now it’s hot. Warm air stirs in the plaza, a guy throws tennis balls for his dogs to chase (a really fat golden lab and a sleeker black mutt), and I see two friends meet and surreptitiously light a joint to share. Yoga is over and I’m awake and hungry new, so I take the Subte back toward San Telmo with a few other early morning porteños still waking up this Saturday.

Travel Update : Great Basin National Park

I will always remember Great Basin National Park fondly, because it was the first night that I actually slept well in my little tent! Earplugs are the answer, my friends.

While visiting the park, I also summited Wheeler Peak, a hike that begins at about 10,00 feet and climbs to above 13,000 feet over the course of four miles. It’s not the most challenging hike I’ve ever done, but definitely the highest in altitude. I had the voice of my good friend and hiking buddy P—— in my head reminding me to slow down, not to rush and risk injuring or sickening myself all alone in the wilderness. This is a lesson that has taken me a long time to learn. I’m competitive, with others and with myself, and I definitely have a selfish side that wants an excuse to feel superior.  It’s gotten me into trouble on hikes before, when I’ve worn myself out to the point of illness.  On this hike I think I did well at maintaining a healthy pace up the mountain, stopping frequently to rest and acclimate to the altitude.

Looking down the trail - note the two hikers in the lower left

Looking north along the Wheeler summit trail – note the two hikers in the lower left for scale

Panorama from the top of the mountain

Panorama from the top of the mountain

The summit was great – not as windy as Mount Rose, where I’ve sometimes been so uncomfortable I couldn’t enjoy the top of the hike for long.  In the photo above you can see Mount Moriah and a large wildfire burning on the north side.  The center of the photo faces due south toward the wilderness encompassed by Great Basin park, which includes some spectacular valleys and forested areas.

My contribution to the summit record

My contribution to the summit record book

The record book at the summit was the funniest I’ve seen! A few people logged just their names and the date, but more wrote a story or shared information about themselves (“Age 11” “This is our anniversary and it’s the highest we’ve ever been together!” “On our way to Yellowstone” etc).  A lot of it was clearly made up, which made it even funnier.

Excerpt from the summit record book

Excerpt from the summit record book

Looking over a dangerous ledge

Looking over a dangerous ledge

Of all the dangerous ledges I have unwisely dangled my feet over, this one was definitely the scariest.  That’s about 1,000 feet of empty space under my chucks.

Looking south

Looking south

A full night’s rest and a sizeable mountain to climb were a nice welcome back to Nevada.