Peru: Hiking to Gocta Falls

Gocta Falls, Peru. photo by Peter Sacco.
Gocta Falls, Peru. photo by Peter Sacco.

A Trek to Gocta Falls in Northern Peru

By Peter Sacco

Maybe it was the unusual ‘family vacations’ that got to me when I was a kid. Those not-so-rare occasions when my dad would stuff our old Plymouth Voyager with camping gear and oversized backpacks, and we would drive off in search of a forlorn piece of wilderness. Isle Royal National Park, the Adirondacks, if it was within a days drive it was fair game. What followed was the heat of a campfire, the splash of small-mouth bass, freeze-dried meals, mosquito bites, and a sore back.

So maybe it wasn’t complete coincidence when I found myself peering across a deep valley at a distinct white line creasing down a distant cliff face. I was 19 years old, wore a dirty red REI backpack, and was looking for something. Seclusion, confidence, serenity, a connection to the past; I may never know.

I spat dust out of my mouth and clutched my grumbling stomach. My newfound friends had stopped too, a Japanese wayfarer who went by Kuny, and Kerri and Crystal, two intrepid Canadians. Kuny told me that if he stopped traveling and went back to Japan his girlfriend would force him to marry her. Kerri and Crystal were like me; searching, though I understood the ambiguity of their quest.

Reaping the reward of the five-hour hike. Photos by Peter Sacco.
Reaping the reward of the five-hour hike. Photos by Peter Sacco.

The night before had been characterized by bad chicken and worse coffee, and Kuny and I were feeling the affects. A sleepless night on a crusty hostel cot followed by a foodless morning, and we were ill prepared for the rugged 22-kilometer hike to Gocta Falls.

So the four of us stood upon the crest of an arid dirt ridge, each of us deep in thought, each wondering how we were going to reach the distant streak of white. The straps on my backpack dug into my shoulders. We had been walking all morning, mostly uphill, and we still had a long way to go.

There was an easier way, but we were young and strong and running out of money, so we had scoffed at the tour vans that had driven by earlier that morning. Besides, who wants to spend 60 soles (roughly $22) on a guide and van? Shouldn’t real travelers embrace the adventure of the road? I have never been so disheartened when hitchhiking failed.

Off the Beaten Path

Peru is a sanctuary for adventurers. Destinations such as Machu Pichu, Cuzco, and the Nazca Lines have drawn travelers for decades, but now these iconic sites are overcrowded and overpriced. For those of us who want to escape the throngs of tourists and relentless taxi drivers, it is time to think outside the Gringo Trail.

The Northern half of Peru offers travelers an authentic cultural experience unpolluted by extensive tourism, along with dozens of spectacular ruins and natural wonders. Defined by 3 distinct climates and terrains, Northern Peru exhibits the parched Pacific Coast, the rugged Andean slopes, and the languid Amazon Basin.

Gocta Falls straddles the void between the towering Andes Mountains and lush Amazon rainforest, and offers one of the most worlds most sublime spectacles. Though the climate is tropical and the jungle dense, the cataracts are still 2,000 meters above sea level. The rainforest is winning the territorial battle in the countryside, and dense cloud forests blanket the Andean foothills. However, go much farther East and you’ll be hard pressed to find anything taller than the surrounding Platonia trees.

Plummeting for a lengthy 771 meters, Gocta’s rank amongst the world’s loftiest waterfalls is in constant contention; the falls have been ranked everywhere from third to fifteenth highest in the world. Lonely Planet cites Gocta as the third highest waterfall on earth, and since it is by your Lonely Planet Guide that you will likely eat, sleep and breathe, we will endorse their estimation.

How to get there

Gocta Falls from a distance. Notice the tiny ant-sized people in the lower right side. photo by Peter Sacco.
Gocta Falls from a distance. Notice the tiny ant-sized people in the lower right side. photo by Peter Sacco.

The trek to Gocta Falls doesn’t need to be defined by sunburns and puffy blisters. Like most other tourist destinations throughout Peru, this cascade is promoted by local communities and tour-operators, which lead a steady stream of guided excursions to the falls.

Gocta Falls is surrounded by vast stretches of undeveloped and unmarked cloud forest in nearly all directions. However making the trip without a guide is a viable option for strong hikers as the path to the cataracts is fairly well maintained. For those who prefer a narrative of the surrounding verdant and diverse ecosystem, signing on with a tour is a good idea.

Tours depart largely from Chachapoyas, the nearest city, and offer transportation to the town of Gotca and a guide for the trek to the falls. Most day tours will cost you around 50 or 60 soles (abound $20). If you are physically unable to make the trek on foot, your passage will likely be arranged via horseback.

Having signed on with a tour, the drive from Chachapoyas to the breezy outpost of Gocta is quick, though a bit bumpy, and you will be deposited in the humble village center. Located on a plateau overlooking the valley, you’ll be hard pressed to find much more than a small convenience store and a pair of restaurants. Otherwise futile, these scantly stocked vendors will provide you with a well-deserved beer upon returning from the falls. There is a nominal entrance fee to embark on the trail, but you can rest assured that the people in this frontier community have more need for those 5 soles than you.

And then there was tranquility…

The path to the falls is largely vertical, though it doesn’t seem to discriminate between up and down. It leads across deep gorges and gushing rivers, often times on rickety rope and timber bridges. It won’t take long for the sights, smells and sounds of the surrounding jungle to close in around you. Coarse vines suspend rotting logs overhead, springs gurgle from moss-shrouded rocks, and streams habitually empty into the trail to form long muddy tracts.

Spray of the falls, notice the tiny people in the right corner.
Spray of the falls, notice the tiny people in the right corner.

The rhythmic hum of life is periodically broken by the scream of howler monkeys or the raucous squawk of the scarlet macaw. The butterflies that drift lazily overhead are painted electrifying blues, pinks and reds. You can almost feel the pulse of the jungle, the melodic inhale exhale of the forest; all around life thrives vibrantly.

And then, just as you decide the winding jungle trail is destined for oblivion, you will hear it. Like the distant grumbling of a thunderstorm, a dull roar reverberating powerfully from the trees and gorges, hinting towards something far greater than yourself. Suddenly the jungle gives way, and you find yourself face to face with the breathtaking prestige of Gocta Falls.

If you brought a camera put it to use now; the falls are so big that if you venture any closer it is near impossible to capture the entirety of their grandeur.

The mermaid in the pool below

Gocta Falls went undiscovered by the Peruvian government and tourists alike until 2005, when German explorer and waterfall enthusiast Stefan Ziemendorff revealed them to the world. Upon exposure, the Peruvian government wasted little time in advertising the falls to the international community. However Gocta’s late arrival on the scene begs for explanation; how could so marvelous a phenomenon have gone unnoticed for so long?

Many locals believe that a mermaid lives in this pool, and will curse on the local people for revealing the falls' location.
Many locals believe that a mermaid lives in this pool, and will curse on the local people for revealing the falls’ location.

The answers to Gocta’s secretive past lie in local myth and folklore. If provoked, locals will tell you of a blonde-haired mermaid who guards a lost treasure in the misty pool at the base of the falls. Many even report to have seen the mermaid’s long blonde hair flowing down the falls themselves. According to local lore, the mermaid placed a curse upon the native people for revealing her waterfall to the outside world.

Believe in mermaids or not, the pool beneath the falls is deep, frigid and brackish in color. To reach the pool you will need to literally crawl across the sharp rust colored rocks that line its edge; the wind generated from the falls will knock you over if you try to walk upright. Upon reaching the basin, driving sheets or water, gale-force winds and the thunderous crash or water on rock will prevail over your senses.

If you’re feeling adventurous, jump into the murky pool below and swim to the other side where the basin empties into a steep ravine. Or, clamber down to one of the many boulder islands that segment the river and attempt to capture the paramount aura of Gocta Falls with pen and paper.

Most of us spend our lives in pursuit of rare moments that make us feel immortal, or perhaps just remind us that we are alive. We describe these peculiar instances as spiritual, sublime, or surreal, and they remind us how small, insignificant, and ultimately human we really are. Giving witness to the awesome power of Gocta Falls inspires such emotions, and will leave you instilled with a lively zest for months to come.

Peter Sacco is a former editorial assistant at GoNOMAD. He now lives in South America.

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