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.
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After the Falls

It took a German engineer named Stefan Ziemendorff, working on a nearby water project, to realize that the nameless falls might boast world-class specs. He got the Peruvian government to survey it, checked his National Geographic stats and called a press conference. Gocta came in at 2,532 feet, which put it, by Ziemendorff's reckoning, at No. 3 in the world.

Or not. It turns out that waterfall ranking is, well, rancorous. Waterfall people -- who are a lot like train people and lighthouse people -- are burning up the discussion boards, debating Gocta's place on the charts with fierce references to seasonal flow, degree of slope and something called "freeleap." (Partisans of certain Norwegian cascades have bordered on rude.)

All of which makes Peru's bold claim such a brilliant stroke of marketing. Whether or not Gocta deserves the bronze, "third highest" gives it instant Seven Wonders cred. That ensures tourist interest in a spectacular but little-known region that really does have a lot to offer anyone lured in. After all, billboard attractions are often not as fun as the areas that surround them. The Hanging Gardens, for example, may have been a wow, but you know the real treat was knocking about the back roads of Babylon.

"I don't know if it's the third-highest waterfall on Earth, but I know it's a very high waterfall," said Peter Lerche, a German anthropologist who has lived here since 1980. "It gives us a diversity of attractions. We have rivers, lakes, archaeology and now this waterfall."

The Chachapoyas area of northern Peru already attracts two kinds of tourists: birders and a trickle of hard-core archaeology buffs, those who have already seen (or been turned off by) the hugely popular Machu Picchu (so commercial in places you might call it Inca Inc.). That was my toehold in the region. I found a guide company in the region willing to take me to the waterfall and show me around the archaeological highlights during a six-day flying visit. They paired me with another tourist, a California antiques dealer, who was fishing around for a Gocta visit. Add a photographer from Lima and we would make a threesome.

Bone-Rattling Route

We convened in the tiny airport parking lot in Chiclayo, piled into one of the ubiquitous hired white Corollas that rattle around Peru and began to climb the Andes. The highway from the coast was flat and paved, lined with beige villages and the colorful political graffiti of the recent election. In the foothills, the road climbed through an arid, Maui tropicality where cacti grew in the shadow of papaya trees. But six hours on, the pavement ended and the rest of the day was spent lurching on a rope ladder of a road that clung to the cliffs above the frisky Utcubamba River.

Unless you regularly holiday in Bangladesh during the monsoon, these will be the worst roads you've ever seen: pitted, shoulderless one-lane threads draped along the lips of bottomless Andean voids. They are not so bad in the daylight, when the splendid scenery is both compensation and diversion. But when you're trying to sleep (our first sightseeing trip started at 3 a.m.), a radically rough road is a kind of torture. Someday, a bored and sadistic Home Depot clerk is going to put a sleepy frog into an empty paint can and then into one of those mechanical shakers for a few jolly hours. That's a morning drive in northern Peru.

And yet, you get used to it. Mostly because the destinations are more wonderful than the roads are awful. Our base was in the city of Chachapoyas (which is the name of the ancient civilization and the current biggest town). It's a pretty mountaintop berg of about 17,000 people, with numerous Internet cafes, one good steakhouse and a tradition of awful coffee. From there, our first outing was 2 1/2 hours to Kuelap, a walled Chachapoyas city perched grandly on a commanding peak.

At almost 20 acres, Kuelap is actually bigger than Machu Picchu. It's a huge stone battlement with two narrow crevices allowing access to the ruins within. At daybreak, we stood amid the carefully carved stone foundations of ancient Chachapoyas houses (there were more than 400 of them in Kuelap at one time, before the Incas, invading from the south, conquered the region in the late 1400s).

The view is 360 degrees of forever. A morning moon hung over a distant ridge even as dawn fired the tips of surrounding peaks. Soft morning murmurs and a little tin-pot clatter floated up from the dark, misty villages below.

Flocks of parakeets darted from tree to tree, reminders that this starkly beautiful mountainscape is the upper edge of Amazonia. They were only cackling shadows until they flew through columns of sunlight and flashed a sudden brilliant green.

Except for a crew of local restoration workers and a group of six Austrian students, we had this majestic enormity to ourselves. Kuelap, by far the signature tourist attraction in the region, had just over 10,000 visitors last year. Machu Picchu saw more than 410,000.

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