Walking in Dinosaur Footprints, Torotoro

We know what you’re thinking. We had the same thought. When we read about Torotoro we assumed we would see a vague image of what could have possibly been a dinosaur footprint. What we saw though were undisputable, millions of years old dinosaur footprints.

High in the mountains above Cochabamba, is a fascinating national park with a surreal landscape. From dramatic canyons and caves to dinosaur footprints and turtle fossils, Torotoro National Park is a must see. The bizarre landscape we see today was formed by eons of wind and glacier erosion.

There are a few different tours offered in the park, and the only way to visit any site in the park is with a guided tour. We did three tours: El Vegel, The Cave Tour which includes Ciudad de Itas & Cueva Unijalanta, and The Turtle Graveyard. Dinosaur footprints can be seen on many of the tours.

El Vegel & Torotoro Canyon Mirador

To reach the canyon lookout we hiked along a dry creek bed. At one point we even had to scale down a dry waterfall. Looking back up the muli-layered rock made us realize that it must be amazing during rainy season when it is a waterfall.

The dry creek bed led us to the Torotoro Canyon lookout where the view of the canyon will take your breath away. Tall, vertical canyon walls zigzag their way into the distance. One wall overlaps the next making the narrow canyon appear as if it is enclosed within itself. Unfortunately, the sky was overcast so our pictures don’t capture its true colours.

The canyon walls seem to go down forever to reach the river far below. Nestled in these walls are bird nests of the endangered red-fronted macaws. We heard and saw a few flying to and from the canyon walls.

From another mirador further up the trail, the canyon revealed to us an even more stunning side.

There are over 900 steps to reach the canyon floor, 300 meters below.  Once at the bottom a short trail climbs between boulders and over large rocks as it follows the small river.

The walk brought us to the pretty El Vegel Waterfall. The falls are spread over a cliff face which is covered in vegetation. Water looks as if it is seeping from the canyon wall as it falls into a small pond below. Even near the end of dry season there was still enough water to make it a nice spot. During rainy season the water falls all the way from the canyon top. It would be an amazing sight but unfortunately during this time there is too much water in the river so you can’t walk on the canyon floor to see it.

Ciudad de Itas (City of Rocks)

This 4 kilometer walking tour takes you through the otherworldly landscape that make up much of the park. It begins by walking through desert-like terrain filled with cacti and small bushes growing between large karst boulders and cliffs. Hiding on top of some rocks were cute vizachas.

There are several viewpoints along the trail that allow you to see the amazing karst landscapes of Torotoro.

As we continued walking the ground changed. Instead of walking on a dirt trail surrounded by rocks we were moving across a large flat rock. In the middle of it we found a large cleft in the rock. Bordered by sheer cliffs the canyon, although small, is stunning.

It didn’t seem like there would be a passage down when all of a sudden our guide disappeared over the canyon wall. He called for us to follow him down a natural staircase of boulders and broken stones.

On the canyon floor we walked through tight passages to find colourful caves. One cave is called the Cathedral. It has a small entrance but opens up into a large cathedral-like room with tall walls. Precariously covering its top is a large stone nicknamed ‘The Inca’. Our guide said it will likely crack and collapse in the next 80 years.

Cueva Umajalanta (Cave of Lost Water)

We donned helmets and headlamps and entered the small entrance to Cueva Umajalanta. It was quite an adventure to make our way through the cave. First we crossed over large boulders at the cave’s entrance. Inside the cave we had to crawl on all fours between, under and through small squeeze passages and tunnels. At one point the only way to fit through was to lie on the ground sideways and squirm your way along the sandy bottom. It was so narrow, we even had to pass the camera through separately. This is not a cave for claustrophobics.

There was a lot of climbing and rappelling with ropes and scrambling using your hands and feet. Some of the descents were so steep and slippery that we slid down on our feet or even our butts. There were places where we walked along narrow ridges with no protection from the steep drop offs. In the dark this became even more precarious.

These narrow passages lead to large cathedrals with tall stalagmites, stalactites and columns in many different shapes. The stalactites in Casa de Conceirto formed long rows that looked like a large pipe organ.

If we haven’t scared you with our description of the cave tour, then this is the tour for you. It was confined and dirty, but a lot of fun.

Dinosaur Footprints

During both tours, Cueva Unijalanta and El Vegel we stopped to see dinosaur footprints. Having read about them prior to the tour, we were very skeptical. We assumed that we would see random imprints that are difficult to make out. Boy were we wrong. First we saw a large, deep imprint in the shape of a massive bird foot. Carnivorous raptor-style dinosaurs were known to live in this area in the Cretaceous Period.

A little further on we were completely surprised when not only was there one lone footprint, but a long series of steps. We felt as if we could actually see this large raptor running along the ground. The footprints have been covered in sand so they are easier to see.

At another site we saw footprints of large herbivore dinosaurs. They were made by quadrupeds walking on what is now a hill, but at the time was flat. As you can see in animals today, some quadrupeds walk so that front and back feet on one side move at the same time. Others walk so that the back foot comes up to the front as they walk. We could actually see this in the different dinosaur footprints. Compare pictures 2 and 3 to see the different style of walking.

One set of prints were clearly those of a parent walking side by side with their baby. It was almost overwhelming to see these footprints from 80 – 140 million years ago.

There are a few theories on why there are so many footprints in this area, but the most common is that the ground was very muddy and dried quickly leaving the impressions. And then the ground was covered by a different soil, leaving the footprints buried. It was only in the last 50 years that erosion exposed these footprints. In total they have found over 3,500 footprints in Torotoro. Researchers suspect many more will become visible in the coming years.

Cemetario des Tortugas (Turtle Graveyard)

Once again we had low expectations for the turtle graveyard. We expected a couple of small, barely distinguishable turtle fossils in the ground. It’s no exaggeration to say we were pleasantly surprised. Appearing to be rising out of the ground were dozens if not hundreds of turtle fossils. From a distance they looked to be live, white turtles, lying on the ground. There were large adults, small babies; all sizes of marine turtle fossils could be seen in the bright red earth.

Millions of years ago this area was covered by the sea. Now due to ground erosion, the fossils are being exposed. In addition to turtles we saw two prehistoric crocodile fossils. The fossils in this area are from the Paleozoic period, 500 million years ago. It was absolutely mind boggling to see this in person.

How to get to Torotoro

Even though it’s in Potosi Department, the only way to reach Torotoro is from the city of Cochabamba, 130 km away. Buses leave from the Central Bus Terminal, but they take up to 6 hours. We took a mini-bus from Av. Republica. They leave when they are full and take only 3-4 hours. On the drive to Torotoro our mini-bus made several stops in small towns along the way to pick up passengers in our already full bus. At one town a lady got on with her 3-day old baby goat! Something we will never experience back home in Canada.

Where to stay and eat

The small town of Torotoro is the only way to access the national park. In the fall of 2022 there were only a few hostels and hotels in operation. We stayed in Samarikuna Torotoro Hotel. It is a very nice hotel with spacious rooms, hot water and a lovely breakfast.

Not far from the National Park office is the main market and a few basic restaurants. We had surprisingly good pizza at the only pizza place in town.

Organizing a Tour

The National Park office is located in Torotoro town. You need to purchase a park pass which is valid for 4 days (100 Bolivianos per person). The only way to enter the park is with a guide. Their office is next door to the park office. All tours have a set fee which can be shared by up to 6 people. There are half and full day tours. The best way to find a group is to arrive at the guides’ office between 7 and 7:30 am. You can usually find others interested in the same tour.

Coming Next – Sucre, Bolivia’s Prettiest City

For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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