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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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?