Heights and Frights: Facing my Fears at Torotoro Park

It started with the bus ride.

“Oh god,” I breathed in deeply, trying to tear my eyes away from the window and the darkness outside. Despite being half asleep, I was very aware that the undercarriage of our bus was essentially hanging over the edge of the narrow road. I didn’t know what was beyond that edge, but I was willing to hazard a guess that it was a long, steep drop down to nothingness. Most South American mountain roads tend to have those kinds of edges.

I knew I shouldn’t have sat by the window. My imagination was running riot: a slip of the wheels, a sudden tumble, panicked screams, limbs flailing. In the midst of my internal scenario Josh turned up the music, and Muse blared through my headphones, trying their damnedest to stop me over-thinking.

Peace, calm and rock cairns. It doesn’t always help.

I don’t do well with South American bus journeys. I also don’t do well with heights, with the possibility of falling, or with tiny narrow spaces. Since my mum passed away, I’ve developed a fair few fears that the more adventurous styles of travel involve – and Bolivia is the playground for all of these.

So Torotoro National Park, in the east of the country, is a perfect location for me to slowly get myself into a panic attack – but it’s also really cool. Filled with canyons, caves, waterfalls and mountains – not to mention a number of prehistoric dinosaur footprints – I was determined not to let these fears of mine stop me from enjoying myself.

So despite a worried little voice screaming opposition in my head, I willingly stepped forward and paid 750 Bolivianos (about £7.50) to the guys at the Torotoro tourist office, and accepted the prospect of fear.

A day of exploring at Torotoro Park

A group of seven of us were hiring a guide for the day: me, Josh, a girl called Joanne from our Cochabamba hostel, two guys we’d recruited on the terrifying bus journey the night before, and a French couple we’d met moments before in the office.

The trip we were embarking upon was to involve a morning of wandering the Ciudad de Itas and the surrounding landscapes, then an afternoon at Caverna Umajalanta, a cave filled with stalagmites and stalactites, blind fish, underground waterfalls – and a few rather small and narrow spaces that “claustrophobic people may not enjoy”.

That would be me, then.

When the guy in the tourist office said this – casually enough, since he clearly didn’t suffer from the same symptoms – my immediate reaction was to ask if it was possible to wait outside while the others did the cave. But when he explained it was only about eight metres of narrow, squeezable space, I had a rethink. Surely I wasn’t going to bail out of an entire afternoon of experiences, just for the sake of eight metres?

Our ride for the day.

We set off in the back of a truck, bumping through scenery that was only visible once we’d passed it, through the canvas opening flapping in the breeze. We hiked across the surface of ancient rocks, beaten smooth by millions of years of constant exposure to the elements.

We scrambled down those same rocks to a chasm carved out of the stone by centuries of rainfall. The boys practiced their climbing on various rock faces; we snacked on biscuits; got caught in a sudden torrential downpour and hid inside a cave for a while.

Chilling out under impromptu cave waterfalls.

It absolutely felt like dinosaur territory: the land that time forgot. I’d almost forgotten there was going to be a cave, and my accompanying claustrophobia, to contend with later.

But then something totally unexpected happened.

“Hey Flora, how do you reckon your climbing skills are?”

I heard Josh’s voice from the boulder above. I was already struggling to find the right foothold on my current rock – but his words sent chills through me.

Praying he was joking, I eventually got myself to the level he’d been at, and obediently stopped dead in my tracks. Facing me was the meeting point of about three huge boulders, stacked on top of each other, and a blackened tree trunk wedged into the space between them. Clearly, judging by the members of our group already at the top, we were supposed to climb up the thing.

climbing rocks at Torotoro park

I looked up easily enough. GETTING up, though? Totally different story.

The trunk had bites out of it, each big enough to fit a toe. But not much more.

And so I began to panic.

Fears #1 & #2: Heights and falling

I knew Joanne had appeared behind me, but things were starting to get hazy. I could hear the sound of my own breathing above all else; in, out, in, out, getting a little too fast for my liking. My chest was tight. My body lost the ability to keep balanced.

“How… how am I supposed to do this?” I said, piteously, to nobody in particular.

“Just start climbing and don’t think about the height,” Joanne said helpfully.

I breathed in again, tried to keep myself calm, and began stubbing my toes firmly into the black wood. “This tree is totally going to support my weight, definitely, hopefully…please..?”

My legs were starting to shake. I couldn’t decide where looked safest to plant my feet – or, rather, what looked least likely to let me fall. Awful memories of trying to climb high ropes at school and freezing solid on the swaying platform flashed into my mind. Except this time I didn’t have a harness and really could quite easily topple backwards.

Like someone had read my mind, a looped rope appeared in my line of vision. Our guide’s voice came floating down to me. “Toma la cuerda!” he urged. I stumblingly grabbed at the thing, put it over my head – and at the voice’s bequest, obediently got it under my arms.

Security!

I felt infinitely better as I felt a strong tug from the rope. Someone else was in control: I wasn’t going to fall. A last few clambers and I was up, safe, no longer about to career off a rock face. But my knees were shaking interminably, and I had to sit down rather suddenly.

The panic on my face is still pretty evident.

“Did you enjoy that?” Josh asked me, as we started walking back to the truck.

“…No… I’m just happy I got up without falling!”

But one of our group, a Polish guy named Pawell, was busy discussing the height fear thing with the others.

“I used to be the same,” he was saying. “I hated heights. But then I started climbing, and now the fear is still there a little but I love climbing too much.”

Seeds of intrigue began to plant themselves in my head. Maybe learning how to climb would alleviate some of this fear of mine?

But there was no time for rumination. Within minutes, we were back in our cosy cattle truck again, and off to the Uma Jalanta cave – and the site of my third fear of the day.

We’re going caving!

The Caverna de Uma Jalanta, Quechua for ‘water lost in the darkness of the deepest earth’, is one of the longest (4600m) and deepest (164m) caves in Bolivia. It goes about 118m under sea level, and tourist groups usually spend two hours journeying through the cave on a loop.

The place is filled with impossibly slanted rock faces, slippery surfaces, and lots of lovely narrow tunnels. All my favourite things.

Lots of lovely climbing rocks… for some people.

Caving is something I’ve never actively deigned to do, due to my absolute certainty that I’d probably have a panic attack while attempting to wriggle through a hole the size of my hips. But I was committed by this point – so off we went, donning helmets and headlamps as we walked.

The huge opening to the cave, measuring about 20m by 30m, threw up my first hurdles. I had to pick my way gingerly from rock to rock, trying not to fall into the steady river running inside – inside! – the cave: and as the others vaulted effortlessly across those same rocks, I started to feel that familiar sensation of slow panic.

Did I seriously think this was a good idea? I hated stuff like this!

We got further inside the entrance, the natural light starting to dim. Head torches flicked on. The more slippery, steep rocks we had to traverse, the more heightened my panic got. Until eventually:

“…I don’t think I can do this.”

Half a dozen faces, lit from above by six headlamps, looked back at me.

“Stop over-thinking it,” Josh said, clambering down from his current rock to give me a helping hand. “You can definitely do this.”

And in we went. Into the dark.

Fear #3: Claustrophobic in tight, narrow spaces

The very first part of the cave was about 5m wide. You had to shuffle forward in a crouching position, then shimmy straight down a slippery tube by balancing your feet on knobs of dead stalagmite. I didn’t know how narrow things were going to get, but everyone was so high energy at this point that I simply went for it – and surprisingly enough, I really didn’t find it too bad.

Congratulating myself on a job well done – “claustrophobia successfully averted!” – we set out to explore the caves: a vast, spidering network of pathways connecting larger, otherworldly galleries. Our guide pointed out particularly interesting stalactites, shaped like the virgin and child, or like a giant weeping willow tree – and I was loving it.

I thought the first narrow section was the only bit I needed to be scared of.

Oh, how I was wrong.

Hang on – it gets narrower?!

Uma Jalanta actually boasts at least three sections of narrow spaces. The first one? Not that bad. The second and third were slightly more stressful. Not helped by the fact that people ahead of me wanted to take photos of themselves in said tiny spaces, whereas I just wanted to get through the damn things.

But incredibly enough, the preempted fear of entering these spaces was actually worse than being inside them. Once I was doing it, I was too deep in the process to really think about where I was. No consideration about the huge weight of rock bearing down on top of me; the possibilities of getting stuck; nothing.

And with those three narrow spaces out of the way, there was two hours worth of caving to deal with. And guess what?

I actually really enjoyed myself.

I won’t lie – I still had to breath long, slow and deep whenever I thought we were about to hit a particularly narrow spot. There were definite moments where a rock seemed much too steep for me to scale, or much too far away for me to jump to. But because the seven of us were constantly moving, I ultimately didn’t have too much time to over-think. Which was clearly in my best interests.

squeezing through caves in Torotoro park

Look! A face of (almost) complete enjoyment!…

Ultimately, grabbing onto ropes and pulling myself up, searching for footholds and feeling for grips with my fingers, scaling the sides of rocks I never would’ve thought I’d climb: it was damned exhilarating. And by the time we emerged into the sunshine once again, I felt so good about myself.

Maybe I have a future as a climber and a caver after all?

Flora the slightly fearful explorer

I want so much to be that fearless adventurer who thinks nothing of challenging their body to the limit.

Unfortunately, my mind gets in the way: over-thinks the situation, the possible outcome, and says absolutely no way. While there have been times when I’ve successfully disobeyed that voice (two skydives and a stint of paragliding come to mind) it’s a lot harder to ignore my legs shaking like a tambourine.

I still haven’t mastered the art of sitting comfortably above a height like this one,

But my visit to Torotoro at least began the breakdown process of some of these barriers. I faced my fears head on, and nothing bad happened. Hell, I actually managed to enjoy going caving!

So maybe there’s a chance they’ll eventually be broken down completely. Poco a poco. Baby steps.

Disclaimer: being so preemptively scared about caving meant I didn’t take my camera, and so sadly have no photos of the caves themselves. I’m currently awaiting photos from a friend who was there with me, so will add those images to this post when I get my sticky paws on them!

Have you ever confronted a fear while travelling? Has it made you less fearful as a result?

 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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23 Responses to Heights and Frights: Facing my Fears at Torotoro Park

  1. Kiara Gallop January 9, 2014 at 8:33 am #

    I so totally relate to your experiences in this article, as I share exactly the same fears. Basically I’m so scared of just freezing and not being able to move. I’ve done it at the top of a ski slope, when I’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up the top of a very steep red/verging on black run (I’m a blue run skier) with no way back but down. I’ve literally sat down on the snowy mountain, coated with patches of invisible ice, and cried my heart out. No amount of encouragement from my boyfriend at the bottom of the slope, could move me. So he had to climb back up the icy mountain (which apparently is very difficult in ski boots of otherwise) and rescue me. I’ve also loved climbing up to the point when I look down, and then I start to shake and freeze and cry. So I do feel your pain! But you’ve given me that little extra boost of confidence. I too am visiting Bolivia this June and want to be able to embrace everything the country has to offer :-)

    • Flora January 18, 2014 at 11:54 pm #

      Ohh Kiara, that sounds so horrible! I had a similar experience in Lake Tahoe when I hadn’t been skiing for about 8 years but still somehow convinced myself I remembered everything about the sport…until I got off the chairlift, tried to plough and could barely even do that. Sidestepping down the mountain while carrying skis was not the best moment!

      I think South America – and Bolivia particularly – is a really great place to face these kinds of fears though. When so many other travellers are doing them with gusto, it makes you feel like you really have to do the same thing. Fear or no fear, it’s still rather amazing when you look back and think, ‘I was terrified, but I bloody DID that!!’

  2. George January 9, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

    sweaty palms after reading that one.

    I was forced into something similar in Vang Vieng in Loas, but add water to the mix and you are up to your waist in water whilst shimmying through tiny spaces :( But after I overcame the fear I really enjoyed it, also by the end of the day I had a smile from ear to ear and I was extremely proud of myself.

    “Flora the “not so sure about caving” explorer”

    • Flora January 18, 2014 at 11:57 pm #

      Loving the new name! Plus it could be tweaked for a variation of my different fears too :p Your Vang Vieng ordeal sounds horrible – not sure I could stomach underwater versions of caving if I’m honest. But then again, the pride at the end..! Serious congrats for managing it George :)

  3. Katharina @ 100 Miles Highway January 9, 2014 at 9:25 pm #

    While reading your adventure, I revisited my old fear of falling.

    I never considered myself to be someone afraid of heights, but I do not trust my own feet on narrow paths surrounded by really deep gorges. Specially on a windy day. I did make the hike (it took me longer than I had expected)… and it felt amazing afterwards!

    • Flora January 18, 2014 at 11:57 pm #

      Ah yeah, the wind never helps matters.. It’s like I suddenly weigh nothing and could easily get blown off, even though I really don’t think that’s likely!

  4. Spencer January 11, 2014 at 2:47 am #

    The photo of you on that ledge is brilliant! Keep it for sure! It shows how real it all is and how you did so well to overcome your fears! :) Keep it up, one step at a time!

    • Flora January 19, 2014 at 12:00 am #

      Haha I love my post-fear expression if I’m honest! I’ll keep it in, although I do want the other pictures of me actually inside the cave. If only for the proof that I actually went in!

  5. Fenne January 11, 2014 at 9:09 am #

    It looks beautiful there!
    In Iceland I was confronted with being afraid of heights while taking photographs on an edge ( I felt like I was already falling down but according to my friend I wasn’t even close to the edge). It did not made me any less frighten, and at that moment I couldn’t even stand up or sit only laying as flat as possible and crawl into position :-)

    • Flora January 19, 2014 at 12:00 am #

      It really is a stunning place. Which helped the fears a little as I could distract myself – but not much!

  6. Kellie January 13, 2014 at 12:13 am #

    Yep I’m pretty much scared of everything, water and heights are my biggest. Although there was an occasion that I couldn’t move because I thought there was a snake, turned out it was own shadow…. Well done for facing your fears though and even enjoying caving!

    • Flora January 19, 2014 at 12:03 am #

      Aww Kellie! Being freaked out by your own shadow isn’t the best… :p I’m sure you’re better than you think though.

  7. Brenna January 13, 2014 at 1:53 am #

    Wow – good for you for facing all of these fears! I am not particularly scared of heights, but caving does scare me (blame the movie The Descent). I have actually been caving a few times, and, like you, I usually just grit my teeth and get it over with, but I fear I’m getting more and more claustrophobic as I get older.

    • Flora January 19, 2014 at 12:07 am #

      I think I’m spending way too much time over-thinking my various fears… I really need to just DO this stuff and stop worrying about what could go wrong!

  8. Tom @ Waegook Tom January 13, 2014 at 8:18 pm #

    Pretty sure I just had a panic attack while reading this. I share your exact same fears, and I’m not sure quite how I’d have coped. Good on you for tackling your fears and keeping your composure.

    • Flora January 19, 2014 at 12:14 am #

      Not sure how much composure was kept, but I am pretty proud of facing up to the fears!

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  10. gringoinbolivia May 31, 2015 at 9:51 pm #

    Nice write up. I’m hoping to check out Toro Toro myself soon.

    • Flora June 17, 2015 at 10:50 am #

      I hope you enjoy your time at Toro Toro! It’s a really fascinating place.

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