The valley floor catches the cascade from Lower Gocta, a two-tiered waterfall that begins in Cocachimba.
The valley floor catches the cascade from Lower Gocta, a two-tiered waterfall that begins in Cocachimba.
For The Washington Post
Correction to This Article
An Oct. 15 Travel article incorrectly described the Gocta waterfall in Peru as being 25 stories tall. At more than 2,500 feet, Gocta would be about 250 stories tall.

After the Falls

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 15, 2006

Here I am in remotest northern Peru, hard on the trail of the world's third-largest anticlimax.

This is a story of waterfalls and expectations, and you can count me a waterfall skeptic. I know they are picturesque. I know they are soothing, in that stock greeting-card way of rainbows and unicorns. I know they figure largely in the preflight videos they show on planes to take the edge off your airport rage.

But actual waterfalls? They're seldom worth the walk. Somebody always insists on taking the two-mile side trail to see the local waterfall. And so you go. And there's a waterfall, dribbling (picturesquely) down the rocks. And then you hike back.

In my experience, waterfall = anticlimax.

But the press release that crossed my desk last spring was darned near irresistible: "World's Third Highest Waterfall Discovered in Peru." Howzat? Discovered? The Age of Discovery was ages ago. The biggest things they discover these days are new species of beetle and, every now and then, a forgotten cable network. But the major landforms were all mapped out long ago. A 25-story waterfall that instantly climbs up on the podium with Venezuela's Angel Falls and South Africa's Tugela Falls? How did that avoid the unblinking eye of satellite cartographers?

Who cares? If it was that big and that remote, I just wanted to get there before they bulldozed a road, built the hotels and generally tarted up the place.

And so in September, I set off on the most harrowing waterfall side trip of all: an overnight flight from Washington to Lima, a dawn hop to the northern coastal city of Chiclayo and a 12-hour drive over dicey mountain roads to Peru's impossibly secluded upper Amazon basin. This high, dry tropical Shangri-La was the domain of the Chachapoyas, a mysterious Andean race that predated the Incas. The new waterfall, dubbed Gocta after an ancient Chachapoyan village, is deep in one of the many blind valleys they inhabited between 800 and 1400 AD. You can still see their carved tombs, some with intact mummies, in the surrounding cliff walls.

According to the press release, the government of Peru was hard on the case, promising safe tourist access and basic accommodations, hopefully starting in 2007 (don't count on it). In the meantime, getting to Gocta requires bone-jarring days on the terrifying roads and hours on steep and dubious valley trails. All to see a waterfall.

This had better be good.

A Wonder Revealed

So how do you discover a waterfall? The local people knew about it, of course. It just wasn't a big deal to them.

Luis Chuquimes is an elder in the tiny village of San Pablo, a few hours' hike from the falls. Tourists were unknown in San Pablo before word spread about Gocta last spring. Now Chuquimes's little cantina serves as an unofficial visitors center. According to the wrinkled sign-in book on his bar, more than 70 people had made the trip by the time I got there at the end of the dry season. On the other side of the valley, another village has logged just over 1,000 Gocta tourists. It's mostly Peruvians coming so far, eager to make the acquaintance of a new national icon. A couple of Israelis and Germans have been. No Americans have signed in yet. (Now that boggles the mind).

"We knew it was there," Chuquimes said as he busily delivered bottles of beer and Inca Kola to a group of Gocta-bound students from Chiclayo, a day's drive away. "But we didn't know it was one of the tallest in the world."

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