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Beyond the Dinosaur -Torotoro National Park, Bolivia

In the town square of Torotoro, Bolivia, a huge dinosaur statue takes the place of the usual fountain in the center of the plaza. In a Jurassic Park-style local ecotourism promotion effort, Torotoro is branding itself around its national park's most popular highlight: the dinosaur tracks that are cemented into the ground after millennia of sedimentation. Even the buses that head to Torotoro from the closest city of Cochabamba are airbrushed with wild dinosaur graphics. The tracks, however, are just one of the many ecotourism attractions in Torotoro.

Once in the town, you can find a handful of local accommodations and the one tourism office in the center, across from the dinosaur. Here, you can arrange a guide and transportation to enter the national park, which requires that visitors pay an entrance fee and bring local guides with them. The guides, who speak at least two languages including local Quechua, will take to you the caverns, the caves, and the waterfalls that are all within the protected area.

Caverns

At over 4,000 meters of altitude, the Ciudad de Itlas cavernas are literally a high point of a tour through Torotoro National Park. Fantastically contoured rock formations form walls and caverns to walk in, around, on, and under. This is one more of Bolivia's surrealist landscapes that Salvador Dal? would have loved. The bulbous shapes and curves of the terrain make for capricious rock gazing and shape spotting. Do you see a tortoise? Or is it more like the face of a snake?

The guide will explain how previous generations of cattle ranchers used one area, the escondite de vacas (cattle hiding place) to protect their cows from thieves and predators. In another area, the entrance was just big enough to let calves in, but once they grew and fattened, they were conveniently confined in the small grazing space.

Caves

For a true underground cave adventure, another attraction in the park is the Umajalanta cave, one of the longest cave passages in South America. As part of your entrance fee, you are equipped with a helmet and headlamp -- you'll need them both! As you traverse the "seven rooms" of the cave circuit, you will find yourself in some very tight situations and wondering how you'll fit through the tunnels.

Thousands of years of stalagmite and stalactite formations stretch the imagination with resemblance to faces, weeping willows, and Christmas trees. Toward the end of the tour, your guide will stop the group for a moment of complete sensory deprivation. With headlamps turned off, you can spend a moment in the complete silence and darkness that can only be found in the depths of a cave.

Waterfalls

A third highlight of Torotoro National Park is El Vergel waterfalls, set deep in the canyon. The body of water gets its name from the Quechua waca sinqa, which means "cow's nose." Water cascades down from several ponds. Visit the "birthplace of the rainbow," where a curtain of water falls over mossy rocks and and rainbow mists. You can even take a plunge in the clear waters, which aren't too cold thanks to the canyon's microclimate.

For more information about how to make this ecotourism holiday from Cochabamba, contact the Sustainable Bolivia office. Volunteers from this organization often make weekend trips to Torotoro from the city of Cochabamba

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