Day Twenty-Two started as early as Hump Day. I like that the tours in Toro Toro start at 07h30; it fits better with my internal clock. Cecile, Hughe and I paired up with another French couple to make a fivesome for the Ciudad y Caverna tour. Even so, it was a pricier tour at 119BOB per person, however, given the expertise our guide Humberto showed at the theatrical end of our tour, it was worth every penny. Speaking of which, Humberto was the guide we had the day before as well. I strongly recommend him due to his friendly, laid back nature, as well as his extreme skill at spelunking and helping people scramble up nearly vertical canyon walls. There is only one guide office in Toro Toro, and I would just ask if he’s available. This tour included the offer of lunch at the very fancy-looking, very empty-looking hotel between the Ciudad and the Caverna. It was 12BOB and was fantastic. But, I digress.
First stop: Ciudad de Itas. Well, second stop, actually. On the way to the summit of a minor mountain to visit the ancient, natural, city of the Itas, we stopped to admire the view of the mountains surrounding the townsite of Toro Toro in the morning sun. (While we were admiring the view Humberto industriously advised the nearby hotel of our intended presence for lunch – (looks like Bumbleberry’s isn’t completely out to lunch on that front.) ha. Get it? Out to lunch?
Anyway, after appropriate admiration of the panorama, Humberto responsibly navigated the many blind, one lane, no-shoulder turns; never forgetting to honk aggressively as we approached each one, while his energetic techno pop performed substitute duty for those of us missing our daily dose of el cafe.
Ciudad: don’t visit it for the city, (for me, that part was underwhelming at best), but do visit it for the breathtaking views of the surrounding cordillera. You are high, and you have a clear view and the path they take you on could kill you.
Caverna: I admit, after the massive slog up the canyon the day before, and the not-insignificant efforts of the morning, followed by the delicioso lunch, we all considered begging off the second half of our tour and going on a hammock-hunt instead. But we stuck with our plan, donned helmets and head lamps and headed into the black unknown.
At first the cave is awesome because of the size of the entrance, and then it is awesome because of the beauty of the stalactites and stalagmites, (awesomeness partially mitigated by the vandalism: apparently teenagers come in and knock off the tips of the cones, Humberto said this was a historical activity, but some of the breaks looked awfully sharp). We scrambled and rope climbed and slid and crawled through a number of galleries, until the entrance to the descent to the subterranean river and series of lakes. Just as we were about to file into the body-width horizontal crevasse Humberto holds up his hand for silence. I hear some faint bass sounds, but really nothing identifiable; three minutes later a half-soaked, genuinely excited/scared looking Bolivian man came crawling out of the crack. An animated discussion ensued, ending with Humberto looking genuinely surprised. He advised us that the river has filled the cave below due to the rain outside! He muttered something that made me believe that this was not a common result of a rain, and indeed he had commented earlier in the day that he was taking us to the Ciudad first because he believed it would rain in the afternoon. Anyway, we turned around and headed out the way we came. We paused a few times to turn off all our lights, experience utter darkness and listen to the water, which got louder and louder the closer to the cave mouth we got. We were soon to find out why.
The rain run off from the bone dry surrounding mountains had engorged the tiny stream flowing into the cave, (then dipping below the galleries we had just been crawling through), into a rushing mass of water, completely covering the route out. We were trapped!
I think Humberto had suspected something like this was happening after our last black out, as he mumbled something that the more Spanish-ly inclined of the group thought sounded like we should wait an hour and then all the water would be gone and we could safely visit the underground river and lakes. After seeing the torrent filling the mouth of the cave, I think he was wondering if we would have to wait an hour just to get out.
And maybe we would have waited, if it had just been the four of us. There were, however, forty or so high school students in the cave as well. When they came to the narrow viewpoint to see the barrier to our egress, I could hear tones from some of the girls that resembled panic. Humberto started to explore alternative routes out. Watching him was simultaneously awesome and worrisome. Usually when you watch someone display such skill at an extreme sport, their survival is not so crucial to your own. Anyway, eventually he came back, and conversation ensued between him and the two or three other guides hovering near their groups. I watched as an old gristled looking guide make some suggestions, and Humberto decisively shake his head, and say something that I feel sure meant that idea was too dangerous.
In a few minutes Humberto was off, quickly returning with rope, with which he created a way for us significantly less talented and experienced spelunkers to exit the cave. The four guides created a sort of chain, helping each person through a portion of the path, showing us where to put feet, hands, aiding in balance and pointing out unsteady rocks. Humberto manned the beginning of the route, unquestionably the most dangerous with each person firmly grasping the thinnish rope, leaning back, balancing on a 2cm ridge over a four meter drop into rushing water and side stepping a metre and a half until throwing themselves onto a flat platform.
I tried to thank him, and congratulate him as profusely as possible when he eventually returned to our group after helping the rest of the people out of the cave. Another member of the group got a bit further in Spanish, and as Humberto helped him try to find the words, they agreed that, “Caverno este Humberto’s casa.”