South America | Bolivia – The Road(s) to Toro Toro
The city of Cochabamba is surrounded by some of the finest sites and scenery that Bolivia has to offer. With the conditions of the roads and the somewhat lacking infrastucture, getting to these places can be an excercise in patience. Patience and I have a long and unfruitful relationship and we quickly opted to stretch our budget to cover the cost of renting a small jeep.
It had been a few months since I had been behind the wheel and the streets of Cochabamba proved to be a less than optimal place to rediscover the joys of driving. That said the departure went smoothly once I received the horn-blaring lesson that a red light in Bolivia is merely a suggestion and not a command.
Away from the city the countryside opened up in a grand new expression. No longer were our bladders left to the mercy of indifferent bus drivers and no longer was I faced with frustration as we roared past the inevitable ‘kodak moments’ without being able to stop. We were now in complete control of where we went and when we stopped. This new-found freedom was as sweet as the mountain air and we were loving every minute of it.
Our first destination was the ruined Inca city of Incajllata roughly 130 kilometers away. The drive was brilliant; clouds fell over the jagged ranges to our north consuming whole valleys in milky waves, small fields squared themselves to the vertical landscapes alongside adobe houses that joined the Earth as if they had been there since creation. And then another valley, again the unrelentless tide of clouds falling over the fertile soils and what’s that over there ? … another turn and a …hey look out for those donkeys!! Sharp veer to the right under the uninterested stare of the stubborn ass and the ride continued.
This pattern repeated itself over and over; amazed by the scenery, bracing for hidden pot-holes, avoiding donkeys and doing my best to avoid rapid off-road descents down into the valleys, we motored happily along content with the knowledge that every broken track that met the road could be followed to it’s end.
The turn-off to Incajllata led to a well made cobblestone road that commanded a slower pace and more time to daydream into the lives of the campesinos who worked the fields and relaxed under the shade of eucalytus trees. Again humbled by the beautiful simplicity of rural Bolivia we bounced along the cobbled river stones and began our ascent into the seemingly uninhabited hills
It was getting late in the day and our only order of business was to find a quiet place to make our camp for the night. The lack of houses was reassuring as we were not trying to openly advertise our presence. We crossed a rough river and rounded the next turn to find the road blocked by, what seemed to be, every campesino that lived in the area. This was the government-sponsored distribution of flour, salt, and other staple foods and with the upcoming presidential elections it seemed that the powers that be were trying to win a few votes amongst the rural population.
With our hopes of an anonymous arrival shattered we got out of the jeep and this alone set the group off into fits of laughter. Our curious presence provided the locals with thirty minutes of entertainment during which they pointed out a suitable campsite that we were free to use.
Set beside a small stream in the narrow valley it was not the most dramatic campsite but the sky was star-filled and the flowing water held its tune throughout the night ensuring a comfortable sleep.
The next morning we explored the ruined city which was reduced to little more than broken foundations and half-standing walls.The setting was impressive. Perched high on a ridge backing up to a steep mountain wall and surrounded on the remaining three sides by a turbulent river, the city had surely been designed with defense in mind.
In the center of the ruined settlement one massive building was still defying the laws of gravity and the merciless passing of time, though the effects of both were taking their toll. Several theories explain the purpose of the building but, as with most of the poorly understood sites that pepper the globe, they are only patchwork solutions that most conveniently tie together the few fragments that time and thieves have left behind.
With the size of the building and the large plaza that lies before it, it is fair to assume that it had a ceromonial and administrative purpose. The interior walls were lined with trapazoidal niches carved into the stone. Counting the niches several times we came up with a total of 108. This curious number appears in ruined monuments the world over and is said to refer to the gradual effects of planetary precession. How and when the Ancients came upon such knowledge is still beyond the scope of modern researchers but it is a huge question that could possibly have very wide-reaching implications.
For two hours we tried to fill the walls with visions of the life that had once occupied this remote Incan outpost but, with nothing more than our eyes to guide us through the fallen stones, we settled on taking a few photos and continued our drive.
We made it as far as Tarata, a beautiful but run-down colonial village, where we stocked up on vegetables, eggs, wine and water. The day ended 20 kilometers down the road beside a small lake, under a radiant sky, with red wine and pasta.
The road followed the soft contours of the rolling landscapes. Like a gentle roller-coaster-ride we rose and fell amidst the vibrant hues of the mineral-rich soils. Cresting the top of a hill the smooth flows of the Central Highlands came to a dramatic end.
The view down into the canyon below was heartstopping. One thousand meters of vertical stone plummeted down towards the raging river below only to rise with the same urgency to the mountaintops that commanded the far side of the valley. We cautiously followed the road into a series of hairpin turns that slithered dangerously down to a modern bridge that traversed the mighty torrents.
As we wound up the equally life-threatening road on the other side we began to wonder why nothing had been mentioned of this spectacular drive. This could have been taken as a hint but we were pleasantly awe-struck by the view and continued blindly on towards Toro Toro.
The road meandered through villages and wide plains, around mountain tops and waterfalls, finally descending into a small town. This was the end of the road but not the village of Toro Toro. This is where we finally realized what the reader might already have assumed: we had missed a turn and were still more than 5 hours away from our destination. This now explained why we hadn’t read about the spectacular gorge that lies along the road en route to Toro Toro; THERE IS NO SPECTACULAR GORGE EN ROUTE TO TORO TORO!!
Though our detour had eaten into our petrol reserves there was no harm done and we were happy to have “discovered” this dramatic road. We spent two hours returning to the pass above the deep valley but decided against making the treacherous descent in the fading light of the day.
We followed a small mining track to a small summit just above the road. The track was rough and for the first time I engaged the 4-wheel drive to reach ground level enough for us to pitch the tent. After making the 12 point turn necassary to turn the jeep around, the motor cut out and showed no signs of wanting to start again.
With flashlight I exercised my vast ignorance of engines and mechanical devices and we proceeded to cook our dinner with the knowledge that we were now stranded in the middle of nowhere. Needless to say the mood was less than cheerful but we tried to comfort each other by saying that “it could always be worse.”
I hate, with a passion, the accuracy of this statement.
The morning sun cast new light on our problem. A leaky brake cable had short-ciruited the ignition cables that were held together by miles of duct tape. A few unskilled and sticky ventures into the un-chartered realms of Bolivian mechanics proved successful and we set off down the serpentine track hoping that we might now find a turn that would lead us to Toro Toro.