Catarata Gocta was perhaps the most impressive waterfall in all of Peru. This waterfall was said to be "discovered" by westerners in 2005 when Stefan Ziemendorff (I must've misheard our guide because I thought he said Stefan Millandorf) noticed the waterfall during an archaeological expedition. In the following year, he was part of a follow-up expedition that measured the total height of the waterfall at 771m consisting of an upper leap of 230m and a lower leap of 541m.
We won't get into details about whether this was the 3rd tallest or 5th tallest or 14th tallest waterfall in the world when there's no consensus on a consistent definition of a waterfall. By the way, our guide mentioned that the name of the waterfall was derived from the sound that resident monkeys made. We don't know if that's true, but it was a memorable little tid bit.
Given the obscurity of this waterfall until its accidental find by the Ziemendorff expedition, there was quite a bit of fanfare and publicity involving Gocta. Yet despite such press, our experience with the falls still felt as if the area was far from overrun by mass tourism, especially when compared to Machu Picchu. I'm sure it must've been far more difficult to access it in the past, and the tourism infrastructure (which was still a work in progress during our visit) was definitely welcome in terms of making the falls even more accessible.
We were able to experience this waterfall in two different ways. The first way involved hiking to the base of the upper waterfall. The second way involved hiking to the base of the lower waterfall. We'll describe these excursions separately since each a trek that was best done as a full day excursion.
For the hike to the upper waterfall, we started from the village of San Pablo. I recalled that our driver took an unpaved side road that deviated from the main road south of the town of Pedro Ruiz. That narrow side road went up a few switchbacks and rockslide prone sections before arriving at the town of San Pablo. That was where we met up with our local guide, and he promptly led us on a trail that left town as it turned out to be the same trail that ultimately led to the base of the Upper Gocta Falls.
For the first 2 hours, the trail generally proceeded uphill with a few steeper sections along the way. All this consistent climbing was a bit taxing, but since we were mostly on a wide ledge overlooking Cocachimba and the valley through which Catarata Gocta's stream flowed, we were treated to attractive panoramas. Our guide even pointed out the general area where the Ziemendorff expedition took place and from where he managed to spot this waterfall.
Along this initial couple of hours, we made it to a short detour that climbed steeply up to a cave containing some rock art, which added to the ancient feel of this place. Further along the trail, we were able to look across the valley towards an attractive side waterfall called Catarata de Golondrina.
Probably past the two-hour point of the hike, we went past a local farm. I suspected that the reason why this trail existed in the first place was to access this farm. There was a local dog at this farm that liked to follow us, and it would do so as we proceeded for nearly an hour further. It was during this stretch beyond the farm that we reached an exposed overlook of the entire Catarata Gocta (the photo you see above).
Beyond the overlook (probably another hour later), our hike crossed over part of the Chorro Negro waterfall. The trail continued to proceed through even more dense jungle before it ultimately led us to the bottom of the Upper Catarata Gocta.
During our April 2008 visit, there were lots of ladders that we had to climb on in order to get right up to the base of that upper waterfall. We saw some trail work that was going on so I'd imagine future visitors should have less trouble than we had negotiating this steep part of the hike.
The base of the upper waterfall at the end of the trail was pretty misty and muddy. It didn't yield greatest of photos, but the cool spray was a welcome relief from all the strenuous hiking it took to get here.
Overall, the whole out-and-back hike took us about 7 hours including a few breaks here and there.
For the hike to the lower waterfall, we started from the village of Cocachimba. We reached the turnoff that led to the village after continuing south on the main highway (which ultimately would've led to Chachapoyas) going past the turnoff for San Pablo. The side road that led us to Cocachimba seemed to be much flatter than the road to San Pablo.
Eventually as we got close to the village, we started to be able to see the waterfall in the distance (as pictured above). The vantage from this area provided us with somewhat of a sense of scale as the falls was fronted by the buildings that comprised the village.
Once we were at the village of Cocachimba, there were multilingual signs (though most were still in Spanish) that pointed the way to the trail leading to Catarata Gocta. The trail to the falls immediately left the backside of the village, which itself only consisted of a few homes and a public building here and there.
We actually spent a night here in one of these buildings so we experienced firsthand how there was limited heat (think cold shower) and no electricity.
As for the trail itself, it began immediately with distant views of Catarata Gocta up ahead. Even though it looked so tantalizingly close, it would still require quite a bit of a hike to get there. Moreover, this trail involved lots more undulations as we found ourselves frequently climbing, then descending, then climbing again, especially when we had to get through at least two gullies (one of them crossed the stream containing Salto Golondrina).
During our trip, the swinging bridge over the Golondrina stream wasn't complete so we had to climb down the steep embankment and cross the stream before climbing back up the other side of the embankment.
While the hike was also pretty strenuous and long, we did enjoy the fact that much of the trail harbored rocks containing shell-like fossils. That indicated to us that this area must have been part of an ancient sea possibly millions of years ago. Julie and I were a bit concerned that we were encouraged to take the fossils as souvenirs because we knew that if everyone did that, there wouldn't be any of them left.
In addition to the fossils, we also noticed some old Chachas ruins flanking the trail. These ruins further gave us a sense of the ancient heritage that took place in these mountains. Indeed, this waterfall with its scenery and heritage had all the makings of a world class attraction. Julie and I certainly hope it would remain that way.
Anyhow, at about 3 hours into the hike, we finally reached the base of the waterfall where we were close enough that we could only see the lower waterfall as the upper waterfall was concealed by the tall cliff in front of us. During our visit, this lower waterfall segmented and took on an appearance that reminded me a lot like Shine Falls. The mesmerizing motion of the water almost gave us the illusion like the water was coming down in slow motion given its somewhat wispy nature.
Like the upper waterfall, the overall amount of time we spent on this round trip excursion was also 7 hours.
Not too far south from the Cocachimba turnoff on the main highway is the city of Chachapoyas. The main archaeological attraction nearby here is called Kuelap, which is a fortress atop a mountain
Here's another look at some of the ruins (this one appeared to be reconstructed) found within the fortress of Kuelap
Full context of Catarata Gocta from the upper trail that started from San Pablo
Catarata Gocta as seen from the approach to Cocachimba
A hairpin turn on the unpaved road leading to San Pablo
San Pablo, which was the starting point of the hike to the upper waterfall
Continuing on the upper waterfall trail as it curved and followed a wide ledge
Looking down at Cocachimba from the upper waterfall trail
Looking back towards the mouth of the valley where there was a big scar from an old rock slide. Supposedly someone in those mountains was where Ziemendorff first spotted Catarata Gocta while on an archaeological expedition
On the long trail to the upper waterfall. Gocta could be seen way up in the distance
Looking across the valley towards Catarata Golondrina
Rock art by a small cave
The upper Catarata Gocta in sight
Focused look at Catarata de Golondrina
Crossing a bridge as we were leaving a farm deep into the hike to the Upper Gocta Waterfall
Julie checking out Catarata Gocta from a lookout along the trail
Looking upstream at Chorro Negro as we continued hiking to the Upper Gocta Waterfall
Going up steps as we got closer to the upper waterfall
Climbing up a ladder for a better look at the upper waterfall
The upper waterfall
In order to recharge for the hike to the lower Gocta Waterfall, we spent the night in basic accommodations in Cocachimba
Looking ahead at the climbing trail as it headed towards the waterfall in the distance
Further on the long trail to the lower waterfall
As we continued on the long lower trail, Gocta always appeared to be tantalizingly close
Passing by some old Chachas wall or ruin
The unfinished bridge that was supposed to span the Golondrina Stream
Something that was more noticeable on the lower trail were these signs that had wise sayings on them. This one said "who plants a tree, plants the future"
Although it wasn't active during our visit, it looked like this snack bar was strategically positioned along the trail
Proceeding on a precariously narrow and rockslide-prone part of the trail
The lower tier of Chorro Negro as we were quite far along the lower waterfall trail
Finally, we made it to the lower Catarata Gocta Waterfall
Another sign with a wise saying. This time, it said something like, "Just a drop of water, a simple drop of water, is enough for life to thrive."
On the strenuous trail as we headed back to Cocachimba
The wide open scenery as we headed back to town (and tried to beat the rain that appeared to come in from behind us)
Sign at Cocachimba that said something like, "To our visitor friends, start early, walk slowly, and arrive safely"
After visiting the falls, we went to Kuelap, which was a mountaintop ruin near Chachapoyas
As for accessing the general area, we can't really provide exact directions since we were guided here. However, we can say that it took us about 2 hours to drive from Pomacochas to the village of San Pablo for the Upper Gocta Waterfall. It took us another hour to drive from San Pablo to Cocachimba, where the trail to the base of the Lower Gocta Waterfall started.
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What Other Visitors Have Said
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Impressive due to its height (Gocta) From a distance, Gocta waterfall seemed, well, pretty but quite average. During the nice hike in comfortable warm temperature, the waterfall grew bigger …