An Amazonian Adventure
21-April 2008 to 27-April 2008:
...back into the familiar toilet I was hovered over and before I could do any more thinking, I threw up into the toilet bowl. The barf was a nasty blend of papaya from breakfast as well as stomach acid and bile I'm sure. It tasted nasty and all subsequent burps thereafter had a twinge of toxicity. I tried not to think about the fact that some of the toilet liquid splashed back up into my face. But at least I immediately felt better...
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Day 1: SOUTHEAST ASIA IN PERÚ
Our flight from Lima to Tarapoto was supposed to be at 8:20pm. After sitting in the Lima International Airport for nearly five hours, we got a bit twitchy and anxious when we didn't learn which gate we were supposed to wait in until about 7:50pm. It was only at that time did we realize that the flight would probably be delayed.
And pretty much as we had feared, we didn't board the plane until about 8:45pm and the flight didn't leave the airport until around 9pm. The flight to Tarapoto was supposed to be 65 minutes, and we pretty much landed shortly after 10pm.
Since dinner was supposed to be included as part of our tour, I wasn't sure how this was going to happen. We knew Tarapoto was on the doorstep of the Amazon Rainforest so we assumed that everything would be closed by now.
As I waited to collect both of our checked luggages, Julie was looking for our name placards. Things had gone smooth when we got to Lima and then Cusco. However, we worried that things out here would be more ad hoc as they see far fewer tourists.
However, she didn't find our placards, but she did see some guy representing Río Shilcayo Hotel, which was where were going to stay this night. Unfortunately, our names weren't on his placard. Julie talked to the guy to explain our situation. When I collected our luggage, we ended up following the Río Shilcayo guy towards his car.
That was when some other Peruvian guy came up to us and asked if we were "Xieu." With a little bit of relief, it seemed we were now with our tour guide for this part of the trip.
We ended up going into another mini-van while our guide José went in a different car. But before leaving the airport, José warned us that the road to the waterfall near town (called Ahuashiyacu) was closed, and asked if we were ok visiting the indigenous town in Lamas. Not expecting this setback, we looked in our Lonely Planet guide for alternative waterfalls (i.e. Tununtunumba), but they ended up being too far away. Disappointed after settling on the Lamas decision, we followed each other to the Río Shilcayo Hotel.
Julie and I were surprised at how big the town of Tarapoto was. However, unlike the cities and towns we had been used to seeing, this place had more of a southeast Asian feel to it.
After all, it was still warm and humid (by now it was almost 10:30pm) and there were hordes of these motorized scooters pulling rickshaws, which we were told were called "motorcars." It seemed hard to believe as we both expected some word in spanish, but eventually the words "motocars" or "mototaxis" settled into acceptance. The jungle vegetation and the beat up buildings (further reinforcing our 3rd world observations) also seemed like a scene out of Vietnam or Thailand or some other part of rural southeast Asia.
After roughly 15 minutes of weaving through the narrow streets and hectic jostling for space and advancement with the motocars and other larger vehicles, we finally reached the fairly upscale (compared to the rest of the buildings in town) hotel.
José discussed with us that he'll let us put our stuff back in our hotel room before taking us out to dinner. I guess the food wouldn't be at the hotel as we had expected. Plus, I guess we wouldn't be dealing with vouchers for this part of the trip.
Like I had suspected, pretty ad hoc.
Anyhow, it was after 11pm and both José and the driver Asunción (or Asho for short) took us to downtown Tarapoto. There at the main square in town, we ate at some local dive called Dona Zully's. Asho stayed in the car. It was a bit strange getting stares from local patrons as I guess tourists don't seem to come here often.
That was where we got to know José better (who was also fighting off a sore throat). We also had ourselves some Tacacho, which was the Peruvian version of jerky, as well as some delicious deer meat. At the end of the rather large meal, the owner of the hotel came out and insisted that we have some local version of their Pisco sour (except it had a different name, which escapes me right now). The golden colored drink went down smooth and actually tasted pretty good.
During this time, we were also introduced to another group of people who were sitting on a different table. One guy was a jolly guy who we actually recognized on the airplane to Tarapoto. José explained to us that he was a comedian personality in Peru.
Then, we were introduced to another well-dressed guy who was actually the owner of the hotel we were staying in tomorrow (i.e. Puerto Pumas in Pomacochas).
Talk about a small world!
Finally, it was 12:30pm and José paid for the dinner. Asho was waiting outside and took us back to the hotel. That was when José mentioned that we were going to check out and leave for a long day of driving tomorrow morning at 7:30am.
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Day 2: MAL DE ESTÓMAGO
We awoke at about 6am and it was difficult to get up. However, something didn't feel quite right as I headed straight for the bathroom and fought a bout of diarrhea. I didn't think anything of it at the time and I thought maybe it was a consequence of some constipation in the earlier part of this trip.
After a rather fresh tropical breakfast of pineapple, papaya, plantains, bread, and some strange pink sausages, we joined up with José and Asho.
First up, they made a break for the Ahuashiyacu Waterfall. Having fun taking photos of motocars in broad daylight, we drove through Tarapoto and ended up along some well-paved road leaving the east side of town.
Then, we went on some road that ultimately would lead to Yurimaguas. After a few minutes along the road, we were ultimately stopped by a sign watched over by a guard in uniform.
José got out of the car and tried to negotiate with the guard.
After a few minutes of dialog, José got back to the car and I could tell he was unsuccessful.
So off we went towards the indigenous town of Lamas, clearly disappointed that the very reason of going to Tarapoto in the first place was all for naught.
After perhaps an hour or so of driving, we went up some winding road branching off the main highway. Before long, we were in the rather rustic town, but José was looking for someone and apparently he/she was hard to find.
So Julie and I spent some time taking photographs in the town square.
After driving around for a few minutes and watching José ask locals about something, they finally went down some steep unpaved road towards a truly indigenous-looking section of town. This must be Lamas.
At that point, we got out of the car and listened to an indigenous person talk to us with José translating. It was a bit difficult to follow the spanish from the local. Maria in Cusco warned me that the spanish there is much clearer than elsewhere, and I was beginning to understand what she was talking about.
During that time, my stomach was not feeling very well and I had this in-between urge to go number 2 but also felt that nothing solid was in there. Uh oh.
So I tried to keep my bladder and stomach in check the whole time we were being talked to within the indigenous complex. After several minutes of dialog and showing us posters, we all got in the car and went to the mirador overlooking Lamas.
When we got out of the car, I started feeling nauseous and my stomach didn't feel like it could hold on much longer.
So while Julie, the native lady, and José were out checking out the mirador, I headed right for the bathroom of the local restaurant. I didn't worry about the fact that the toilet didn't have a toilet seat and it was probably pretty unsanitary by western standards, but I had to do what I had to do and release.
After the stored liquids were released out the other end, I rejoined Julie and company, but not long after taking a few photos at the mirador, my nausea had gotten worse.
Immediately, I headed back to the bathroom and the people in the restaurant probably started to suspect something wasn't right with me.
In any case, back into the familiar toilet I was hovered over and before I could do any more thinking, I threw up into the toilet bowl. The barf was a nasty blend of papaya from breakfast as well as stomach acid and bile I'm sure. It tasted nasty and all subsequent burps thereafter had a twinge of toxicity. I tried not to think about the fact that some of the toilet liquid splashed back up into my face. But at least I immediately felt better.
After wiping my face and parts of my shirt, I headed back outside. After the usual inquiries about whether I was ok or not, we left the mirador and returned to the awaiting Asho in his car.
From there, we dropped off the indigenous lady in the town center and then continued our drive towards Pomacochas, which was probably another 4 hours or so away.
Knowing there was a long drive coming up, I decided to try to sleep off any bouts of discomfort. My stomach was already building up more liquids and I was sure another bout of diarrhea was coming. But I tried to make sure I could hold off until our next stop.
By ???pm, we were in the town of Moyobamba. We made a brief stop there so Asho could fill up on some gas as well as purchase some Electro Lights to help with my dehydration from all the diarrhea.
After another hour, we were in the town of Rioja. It was there that Asho dropped us off to eat at some local dive while he drove off to see his sister.
After doing my business in the bathroom over there (at least I didn't hurl), Julie forced me onto the BRAT diet (i.e. bread, rice, apples, and tomatoes - though the latter two meant dealing with Peruvian water from the jungle).
This was the first restaurant in Peru that had the familiar green sauce we were so accustomed to like El Riccoto and El Pollo Inka, but it was too bad I was on that BRAT diet so all I could have was soup and I couldn't even eat the hen that was in it. The roasted hen (Aji de Gallina) that José got also looked very good.
After our late 2pm lunch, Asho picked us up again and then came the long haul to Pomacochas.
Driving through what seemed like a blur of mountain roads, coffee and rice plantations, and Amazonian Rivers eventually joining at sea level to the Amazon River in the jungle down below, I spent most of the time sleeping.
The few times I did wake up were when some police were doing checkpoints for what José called "bad people" as well as another stop where there were tiny monkeys on trees next to the road.
We also had a brief discussion about the Sendero Luminoso (the "Shining Path" which were cocaine traffickers that used to be prevalent in Tarapoto and other Amazonian surroundings). I guess those were the "bad people" that José might have been referring to.
Finally at around 5pm under a mix of rain and overcast skies, we were at the town of Pomacochas. We could see the lake in the distance as well as more run down buildings common in a lot of these small villages we had passed through along the way.
Considering the building quality of most of the village, the Puerto Pumas Hotel was rather posh though humble by Western Standards. Still, we couldn't have come any sooner as I made another break for the toilet.
By about 7pm, Julie and I rejoined José and Asho and we walked in the rain to a local restaurant just down the street. Trying to ignore the barking dogs, we were having a bit of fun talking mostly spanish to José while José was practicing his english to us. Asho didn't speak english, but his spanish quips were quite comical.
In the restaurant, I was still on the BRAT diet. It was painful because everyone else had fried trout (truchas fritas), which looked delicious. All I could have was kingfish soup, which José said what sounded like "pejerey".
After thinking about this, I realized that the Chachas way of saying kingfish in spanish was really a shortened version of "pez de rey." I think what Maria told me in Cusco in terms of a foreigner understanding the local spanish was probably spot on by now.
The waitress seemed particularly perky and smiling alot. A pair of small dogs in the restaurant provided some entertainment. A television was on showing some telenovela (spanish soap opera).
The rain intensified as we left the restaurant and returned to the hotel. By then, I returned to the toilet to do more diarrhea before showering and tending to our dental hygene. The sink water had a tinge of yellow, which after my stomach ailment (or mal del estómago), made me extra cautious about swallowing any of the water.
In any case, we survived the night, but Julie took most of the hot water. I had to deal with a mostly cold shower before we both went to bed. My sleep was a bit uncomfortable thanks to my continued mal del estómago.
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Day 3: THE ANGRY CHINATA
It was about 6am when we awoke. After an uncomfortable night of rest caught between wanting to throw up and not being able to, I paid a midnight and early morning visit to the toilet to let go of more diarrhea.
At least in contrast to yesterday evening, we awoke to sunny weather with a few patches of small clouds. Pomacochas Lake had a whole different look on this day and I guess the sun brought a different kind of energy on this day.
After a 7:30am breakfast of pretty much bread (toasted hamburger buns) and scrambled eggs with mate de coca for drinks, it was about 8am when we got into Asho's car with José and headed over to Yumbilla Falls. José told us this was going to be about a five-hour return hike so it wasn't going to be an easy day, but then again, this is the first bit of serious exercise we're about to get on this trip.
At 8am, we left the hotel, picked up some Electro Light in town, and then headed along a twisting series of mountain roads as it descended towards the town of Pedro Ruiz. Within the shadows of distant hills, we could see the top part of the waterfall called La Catarata de Chinata. José mentioned it was 580m tall, which puts it about the same height as Sutherland Falls
in New Zealand.
We got to Pedro Ruiz some time around 9am where we spent some time waiting for a boxed lunch to be complete and ready to go. While we were waiting (it took a while), we noticed there were actually tourists, which were the first ones we've seen since we've entered the Amazonas region of Perú.
After what seemed like forever, we left Pedro Ruiz back the way we came where there was an unsigned dirt road leading sharply uphill towards the tiny village of Cuispes. Asho stopped the car at the Cuispes town center where we exited the car, registered with the municipality, took a few partial photos of Chinata, all the while waiting for the local guide to come by.
Finally by 10am, we followed the local guide (named Olmedo) who was a short native guy wearing rain boots. I guess he knew we were in for some muddy conditions.
As we walked uphill along some stone walkway between some village homes, there was a scary moment where a dog came out and rush out to Olmedo. It really looked like he was going to get attacked until an angry owner yelled at the dog and the dog backed off. Kinda scary.
Not long thereafter, the trail quickly degenerated into a muddy mess as it left town and climbed uphill. Olmedo explained that it had rained here pretty heavily last night. And boy if we were to endure 2.5 hours of these conditions, it was going to be a long, soggy, and hot day.
But from looking at the clouds, Olmedo predicted that it would rain this afternoon despite the currently sunny conditions.
Initially, we skirted the edge of someone's pasture. All throughout this section, it was pretty muddy, and it became apparent why Olmedo was wearing rain boots.
Eventually, the path went beyond the pastures and into more wild scenery. We could see more trees and mountains dominating the landscape with fewer buildings the further we went.
Soon, the terrain widen up as we could see pretty far up ahead as we were pretty much surrounded by mountains and low-lying shrubs. I lost track of how far we had walked at this point, but we were still anxious to see what Yumbilla looked like in person.
And so we plodded along (Julie was wishing she put on the newly bought gaiters from REI) until at about 11:30am, we finally got to a part on the trail where we got pretty decent views of the goal for today - La Catarata de Yumbilla.
José said this waterfall was 890m tall, which would make it one of the tallest in the world. However, you could only see about 600m of its numerous drops. Plus, its volume looked rather thin. Clearly this was a case of a waterfall that may be tall, but not very impressive.
After taking the obligatory photos of the falls, we were given the option of proceeding towards the base of Yumbilla or heading back to town. Considering how unimpressive the falls were, we opted to return to town. I made my own intentions known that I wanted to get to the top of the hill to see Chinata.
And so we sloshed our way back to Cuispes. Towards town, it almost looked as if we were walking through someone's fields which were a slight improvement over the muddy mess we had gone through earlier this morning.
By 1pm, we got back to Cuispes. Julie decided to return to the town square and wait us out. She didn't want to endure any more of the muddiness on the way to Chinata.
As José, Olmedo, and I continued onwards, it started to rain as Olmedo predicted. Since José didn't have his gear, we had to wait for someone to supply some sort of plastic so José would stay relatively dry.
The trail to the mirador for Chinata was even muddier and more treacherous than that for Yumbilla. The increasing rain didn't help. The trail was also steeper and more overgrown in places. The rain poncho I was using tended to get in the way. In one particular hairy stretch of sloped slippery rock, I fell and bruised my elbow.
After a grueling 45 minutes, we finally made it to the mirador. Unfortunately, the bottom part of the falls were blocked by clouds. Apparently, we missed the good part by just a few minutes because the clouds were now rising and obscuring our view of the falls.
Just great! All that effort for a blocked view of Chinata.
At least the rain subsided somewhat so I removed my rain poncho revealing my damp clothes from humidity and heat as my poncho wasn't very breathable.
So there we stood on the mirador for over an hour watching the clouds just hovering over most of Chinata.
Despite our efforts of blowing from the mirador and telling the clouds in spanish to "¡Vete!" ("Leave!"), the familiar mantra was "No se mueve" (it's not moving).
During our long wait, an old native woman made her way to the mirador barefoot! It didn't seem like much to her nor her donkey, which just goes to show you how comfortable the Chachas people (heck, most Peruvians for that matter) are with mountains.
Suddenly, Olmedo mentioned to José that Chinata suddenly grew. When José relayed it to me, we could at least hear Chinata thunder even though we must've been nearly a kilometer away or more from our viewpoint. We could also see the tiny cascades below the vertical falls grow.
I don't think I've ever seen a flash flood growing a waterfall live before. That was kinda cool. It was too bad we couldn't capture too much of it on the camera because those damned clouds refused to reveal the upper two tiers.
Finally at 3pm after waiting an hour and the rain starting to fall again, we gave up and headed back. After slipping and sliding our way back downhill, we made it back to the village at 3:30pm.
Julie was pleased to see us. I guess she was having too much fun (or were the mischievous local boys having too much fun?) back at the village square. Of course when we turned around to see what was left of Chinata, to our horror, the top of the falls could be seen!!!
It was that kind of day I guess. Chinata refused to show itself until we left. Asho said in Spanish that Chinata was angry with us for visiting Yumbilla first.
Oh well, we left around 4pm. During that time, Julie showed me a calendar with photos of Yumbilla from the base. Those calendar photos really made me regret my decision not to go all the way to the bottom. In any case, que será será (whatever will be will be).
That's life and waterfall hunting isn't always successful as Nature is unpredictable and we play by her rules.
Sympathetic to my disappointment, José had Asho pull over where we could get a view of the swollen Chinata. I managed to get a few partial views of Chinata with my new telephoto lens, but man it was a hassle to switch out the lenses and the views weren't all that great from the distance we were at.
At around 5pm, we were back at the hotel.
During the drive, José mentioned that climate change was affecting the local weather here in Perú. He said he used to be able to predict which months would reliably have rain, but after this latest January had no rain (it's one of the more rainier months), he couldn't make any more guarantees of conditions.
After showering and spending heaps of time trying to clean up the mud off our boots, pants, and ponchos, we walked with Asho and José back to that restaurant we ate at yesterday.
I still wasn't fully recovered from my stomach ailment so I was still relegated to my BRAT diet. However, I couldn't help myself and had to eat some of that fresh kingfish in the soup.
That waitress seemed to have a real bounce in her step and really smiled a lot. Julie made José blush when she thought the waitress was flirting.
After dinner, the stars were out this night. That must be a good sign for Gocta tomorrow as we didn't want to come all the way here to be disappointed with Gocta as well!
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Day 4: GOCTA, AT LAST!
It was another partially cloudy morning though it was considerably more cloudier than yesterday morning. This made me worry about Gocta getting clouded over. But in any case, we got up at our usual time of 6am and left Pomacochas at 7:30am this time.
Sensing that the usual pattern was good weather in the morning and rain in the afternoon, we made sure to get as early of a start as possible on this day.
Along the familiar winding road back down to Pedro Ruiz, José got Asho to stop the car at a few pullouts where we could get cleaner looks at Catarata Chinata. With the telephoto lens, I managed to get the best photos of the waterfall that I could. I'd have to settle for this since the closer viewpoint yielded a disappointing experience with los nubes (clouds).
After getting another boxed lunch in Pedro Ruiz, we continued south then took another unsealed road up a hill towards the town of San Pablo. During the drive up, we learned that apparently, José's father came from this town so I guess he had some kind of connection to this place.
The unpaved road was a little bumpy but Asho made it seem like it was a piece of cake. The road was narrow and dust was flying everywhere. There were plenty of switchbacks along the way, and there were a couple of spots where I was able to take some photos from within the car.
By 9:15am, we were in the town square of the humble village. Once again, we registered ourselves with the officials and waited for the local guide for today - Lucho, a tall indigenous guy with a collared shirt and rubber rain boots.
It was still pretty hot this morning, but by 9:30am, we were off.
Initially we had to walk through the village itself. It didn't seem like this was a typical way to visit Catarata Gocta given the lack of signage, and so clearly a guide would be needed if any visitor was desiring to visit Gocta without knowing the lay of the land nor those who might not welcome trespassers.
It wasn't long before the village was behind us and the trail immediately started to descend downhill before going on a relentless uphill climb that never seemed to end.
It was during this time that I realized the camera would continuously give me an Error-99 whenever the zoom was on less than 35mm at anything less than f/5.6 aperture. It took a while to even figure out that was the new operating region, and I kept thinking to myself what else could go wrong on this trip?
José thought it could be from my little fall on the way to Chinata yesterday. Yeah, that could be, but earlier in this trip this zoom lens was already exhibiting signs of getting stuck when I switched from wide angle to normal zoom (24mm seemed to be the threshold of getting stuck). Julie and I both started to wonder whether dunking the camera in water in a near flash flood in Maui over a year ago might have been the beginning of the end.
Anyways onward we continued as the trail continued to climb rather relentlessly. By now, we were pretty much used to the altitude (at least that what we thought) so we weren't experiencing headaches or anything of the sort. Of course, we were also at around 6000ft and not 10,000ft like in Cusco.
At about 10:45am, Lucho showed us some rock art paintings up a steep spur trail. The steepness of the steps didn't help my knees. Still, the rock art was interesting and added a bit of variety to this hike.
As we continued to hike along a wide ledge, we could see Cocachimba (our place to stay this night) across the valley as well as the road that went to it.
Continuing a few paces further, we finally started to see Catarata Gocta up in the distance between some foliage. It looked oh so tantalizingly close, but we knew that we still had quite a ways to hike. And so we trudged on.
Further along the trail, we could see a lacy cascade called Golondrina as well as a teaser glimpse of the top of La Catarata Gocta. That spurred us on some more; after all, this was the main attraction we were after in Northern Perú. Eventually, the scenery shifted from exposed ledges to a pleasantly shaded and cool forest.
Next, we reached a farm where there was a small footbridge marking its end at the far end of town. The farms in mountainous terrain like this was a stark contrast to the flatter industrialized farming we were used to back at home in Central Valley or perhaps in even the Plains States. But up here, it seemed like no land goes to waste, and the mountain people certainly seemed to know how to scrape out a living and thrive in these parts with terraces, and even plots of land like this finding use for someone.
By about 11:30am, after a short downhill spur and Lucho using his machete to cut Julie and I a hiking stick, we finally reached a mirador to see the two tiers of Catarata Gocta in all its glory.
The view up here was precarious as it's easy to get closer to the ledge to get a more straight look.
"771m," José said. I was more apt to believe this figure because Stefan Ziemendorf and fellow German engineers actually came out here and measured the falls with their tools. Not much later, National Geographic came out here to verify the results. They deemed this one to be the third highest in the world.
Of course, this is a very disputable claim since Yumbilla in a neighboring valley is said to be 890m. But regardless of height semantics, Gocta was clearly the more impressive one. I tend to think of this height versus beauty debate in much the same light that New Zealand's Sutherland Falls
competes with the allegedly taller Browne Falls
Another cool thing about this waterfall was the story of how it allegedly got its name. Unlike Yumbilla and Chinata, which the locals didn't seem to know where the name came from, we were told that Gocta (neither a Spanish nor Quechua word) owes its name to monkeys resident in the area. Locals said monkeys in the area tended to make a sound with a glottal Goct (like the Scottish loch), and eventually the name Gocta came out of that!
So I guess this impressive waterfall is forever linked with native monkeys here! Heh!
After chilling up here for nearly an hour, we headed back up to the main trail by 12:30pm. From there, we continued onwards to the base of the 230m Upper Gocta Waterfall.
The trail continued to climb uphill from here.
Passing by more jungle scenery plus a footbridge with a view of the upper Chorro Negro (Black Falls), the trail then continued on before it started to get to the final section, which seemed to have quite a few locals doing trail work.
It was unusual to see other people on a trail that was otherwise pretty empty except for us. But since these people were locals doing trail work on the final section, it was much appreciated.
By the way, that final section started with some stairs that continued the steep climb up to the base of the Upper Gocta Waterfall. Apparently, the town of San Pablo was eventually gearing itself up for an alternate way to experience the waterfall instead of just from Cocachimba (which we were about to do tomorrow).
Once we got up to the top of the stairs, we could see the uppermost tier of Gocta quite vividly (albeit a little obstructed). That just kept us going for just a bit more as we knew the end of the trail was near.
It wasn't long before we reached perhaps the most vertical part of the trail. This section consisted of a ladder. And it was certainly one place where we really had to concentrate and make sure we didn't fall because falling here would probably be fatal.
Once we made it up to the top of the ladder, we were finally in front of the long upper tier of Gocta. It was about 1:15pm when we made it here.
Now that we had worked so hard and basked in our accomplishment, of course we took the obligatory photos here as well as trying to keep the camera lens dry while getting sprayed on when the mist was blown in our direction.
While we were admiring the waterfall, it was interesting to see how the shape of the waterfall kept changing depending on the direction of the wind. We always suspected that waterfalls tend to generate their own weather, and here we were getting another demonstration of it.
Eventually, the wind would calm down and then we could see the waterfall assume its more classical plunging rectangular shape. And with that, we started to make our way back down.
By 1:45pm, we left the falls and precariously made our way back down the ladder then the stairs.
José repeatedly told the locals in Spanish that they were doing great work on the trail. He was in a position to appreciate their work because the last time he was here (around a couple years ago), the trail was much muddier and these ladders and stairs didn't exist.
Going back was much easier as the trail was pretty much all downhill on the way back with a few minor uphill stretches.
By 4:30pm after a few light showers, we finally returned to San Pablo. The entire hike ended up taking about 7 hours, but we were quite relieved that we had finally seen La Catarata Gocta, known only to the western world in 2006 when Ziemendorf first laid eyes on it after checking out the sarcophagi at Karajía.
Asho was having fun as he blasted music into the walky talky, which Lucho was carrying most of the time as the authorities wanted to test it out in case of emergency in a future excursion.
I think by now, Julie and I were getting used to the idea that José liked to call Asho "Bubú". It was a strange coincidence since "Bubu" was a nickname Julie and I like to use on each other.
And so Asho drove us back down to the main highway then the unpaved road leading to the village of Cocachimba. The strange thing about this turnoff was that it actually had a sign of Gocta! I think that was the first time we had seen a signpost highlighting a waterfall attraction up to this point.
As the road got closer to Cocachimba, we could see both tiers of Gocta towering over the casas (houses) from the village. Asho stopped the car a couple of times so we could take these photos. Julie began to wonder whether the difficult hike to the upper mirador of Gocta was even worth the effort if we could just go to Cocachimba for a view of both tiers. The locals walking around the area probably thought we were loco (crazy).
Once we got into town, José knew Julie preferred to stay in a room than in a tent. So he talked to a villager who offered a very rustic room with dusty concrete flooring, two beds, old wool sheets, and no electricity. A pair of candles did all the lighting.
To shower, we had to settle for a very cold shower.
José and Asho slept in the campsite right across the main road from us.
Dinner was in the adjacent building where a hazel-eyed lady cooked for us as we dined under romantic candlelight. Again, no electricity in town except for the street lights, which were hydroelectrically powered from miles away.
The dinner was pretty much french fries (papas fritas) and tacachos preceded by native soup.
After getting settled in our humbled rooms, we slept in our sleeping bag liners and tried to sleep through the roosters and the dogs making noise outside. Of course the hard bed didn't help matters too much either...
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Day 5: CAUGHT IN A PUBLIC WORKS PROJECT
At 6am, both Julie and I woke up mercifully thanks to the rooster doing its thing. With the uneasy sleep from last night (part of me wanted to sleep under candlelight, but I knew that was a big fire risk as well as smoke-inhalation health risk), I decided to rewear the pants from yesterday as well as the shirt I used for Chinata a couple of days ago. Sure they stunk, but I knew we'd be returning to a room with a hot shower (keeping fingers crossed) tonight.
Anyhow after a quick breakfast, we met with our local guide Telésforo and started hiking just before 8:30am to a bright clear morning sky.
It definitely felt like this trail to Gocta was more developed than the one we took yesterday. We saw more signs here, but we would find out soon enough that it didn't necessarily mean the trail was any easier than yesterday's.
The hike started with Telésforo providing some interesting tidbits. For example, he was the original guide that took Stefan Ziemendorf to Gocta back in March 11, 2006. Ziemendorf, who now lives in Chiclayo, also happened to marry the niece of Telésforo. What's more, José learned that Telésforo is his uncle as he's related to his father from San Pablo.
Boy, you talk about a small world, and our guide seemed to be at the center of it all!
In June 2006, National Geographic came to film the falls and confirm the claims and measurements made by Ziemendorf and his team.
The measurements that they came up with of 230m for the upper leap and 541m for the lower leap might be suspect since there was some elevation loss between the two tiers. But then again, maybe they counted those cascades as part of the upper drop or lower drop. Nobody really talks about these things, but without doing so, it really was just a bunch of hand waving.
So who knows if the height measurements were accurate or believable or not?
Strangely enough, the San Pablo trail we took yesterday was actually older. The trail we're taking today didn't even exist until Ziemendorf. The older trail was there for some farmers to tend to their land not too far from the upper falls. But clearly the locals knew of the falls and had stories about them, but it wasn't really a big deal to them... until now (as tourism could be a means to lift the community out of their perpectual poverty)!
Telésforo told us that Gocta actually flowed better when Ziemendorf saw it. Today, it was more or less average flow despite the downpour and flash flood of Chinata a couple of days ago. I guess it just goes to show you how localized the weather is in the Northern Highlands as apparently Gocta didn't get any of the rain we had experienced back then.
We'd eventually get to a point on the trail where it looked like there were some ruins besides the trail. If the ruins were authentic (we had no reason to believe they weren't), then that would suggest that there must have been a bit of history with this waterfall and the Chachas people who have been here for centuries. It all kind of added to the allure of doing the hike we were on as the pleasant surprises just kept adding up!
Next, we made a brief rest as we rounded a bend as the sun continued to beat its heat down on us. By this point, we were already pretty comfortable with our filth (something you have to accept when doing muggy rainforest-type hikes for long distances), and we were kind of in a rhythm.
Continuing on, we had to descend a long series of switchbacks. Most of it was in shadow for the time being, but we knew that this was going to be a pretty brutal stretch when we return.
By 9:45am, we made it to a ravine without a bridge over the Golondrina Stream. Actually, the bridge was in the process of being renovated and the water from the stream seeped beneath the loose boulders stream about the wash.
We had to take a steep detour to get through this section, but negotiated it without too much of a problem.
We wondered when this bridge would be complete. We certainly could've used it given that we were starting to get pretty tired at this point.
From here, the trail continued to undulate up and down passing by the rincón perdido (lost corner), which featured a shelter and some machine to make a powerful concentrated form of sugar.
We also passed by a little snack bar where the locals plan to build a backpackers site. Certainly the tourism infrastructure isn't all there (this Cocachimba trail was completed in 6 months not that long ago), but I'm sure the trail will be a bit easier when the work is expected to be done by around May or June of this year.
The trail at this point was hugging a ledge overlooking the stream with views of Gocta all along the way. Passing by a landslide area, we also noticed several fossils of sea shelled organisms strewn throughout the ground. We were saddened when José mentioned that many locals would take these fossils as there was no means of enforcement and policy to keep the sites pristine here.
That's too bad.
As we got closer to the falls, the upper falls started to hide behind the lip of the lower falls. We also looked to our left across the ravine to see the lower plunge of the wispy Chorro Negro (Black Falls), which we saw the upper part of it yesterday.
By 11:30am, we were at the Lower Mirador where we could only see the lower falls as the upper falls was hidden from view behind the lip of the lower falls.
Down here, we took some photos and had ourselves a little snack. Seeing Gocta from this perspective certainly made up for our disappointment with Chinata a couple of days before. In fact, Telésforo had a good laugh at our expense when José talked to him what happened (when clouds refused to move until we left over an hour later).
After 12pm, it was time to pry ourselves out of this area and head back. The sunny morning gave way to overcast skies in the typical pattern of fine in the morning and rainy in the arvo.
We knew there was some extensive uphill hiking as well as a handful of up-and-down sections making for a rather nasty return hike.
Nonetheless, the brief rain kind of helped cool things off a bit. However, after getting past the yet-to-be-finished bridge over Golondrina, then came the long uphill climb.
As we got closer to the end of the climb (after what seemed like over an hour later or so), we took a brief break (giving mosquitoes a chance to get their blood from us) listening to a pair of stories pertaining to La Catarata Gocta.
One regarded a guy receiving joyas (jewels) from a mermaid at the pool at the base of Gocta, another story was about some girl with needles in her privates, and the last one was about Telésforo's uncle being possessed by some demon or resident bad spirit whose body now resides somewhere in an inaccessible part on the far side of Upper Gocta.
With all these legends and pleasant frontal views of all of Gocta along this trail, when José asked us which one was better, it was easily the Cocachimba trail that yielded the better experience. However, the San Pablo trail had its own different charm and different perspective. And make no mistake about it, you will work for your experience regardless of which trail you take.
Mercifully by 3pm, we were back at Cocachimba. We saw a pair of German backpackers who spoke excellent spanish going the other way to the falls. They were in the midst of a 6 or 8 month trip on a shoestring, and apparently they walked from the main highway to Cocachimba and then continued to the falls. Considering how we suffered through this hike, I had to give them props for being such strong hikers.
In hindsight, Julie and I couldn't believe how Gocta was not a world class hike yet. After all, it had it all - a giant waterfall, fossils, ruins, birds, mammals, and flora. I'm sure this will change in the future as more people learn about this place and provide something other than the Gringo Trail in Southern Perú, which some 90% or so of foreigners to the country visit without seeing the other parts.
We had a hearty late afternoon lunch consisting of hen soup and roasted hen over rice with fries (they're quite big on potatoes in this country).
When lunch was done, we learned that we had to wait for a bit because of another road construction effort that closed it until 7pm. Julie spent that time reading Lonely Planet while I took this opportunity to practice my spanish with José.
We left Cocachimba some time after 5pm and reached a long queue of cars at around 5:30pm. We still had to wait 90 minutes before we could finally get to the town of Chachapoyas tonight.
Mercifully at 7pm, we were able to proceed. The road construction was actually quite extensive (about 20km long) and it took over 45 minutes to get through the rough bi-directional mostly 1.5-lane road. Again, this was all in an effort to improve access to Chachapoyas and the archaeological sites relatively nearby. It also became apparent why they close the road for work instead of just letting one lane pass through (like they usually do in the States).
It also dawned on me that this was also probably what happened with the road to Yurimaguas, which kept us from seeing the Ahuashiyacu waterfall. Realizing that we were caught in a massive public works project, I guess we took comfort in the fact that our experience was sacrificed for the greater good of the country.
Finally at around 9pm we made it to the bustling town of Chachapoyas and our hotel. Sympathetic to both Asho and José to spend time with their families in town, we got some take out pizza and chilled out in our room to CNN and NBA playoff basketball on the tellie.
With most of the difficult walking out of the way on this trip, we looked forward to a more relaxed trip going forward. However, as the night wore on, I would eventually come down with a sore throat, which I reckon probably came from José.
Seems like I just can't catch a break on this trip!
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Day 6: "CHINITAS"
After sleeping in on this day, we caught up with José and Asho at 8:30am. Leaving the Gran Vilaya, we headed over to Kuélap, which we knew was something José and much of the Peruanos in this part of the country were proud of. It was sort of their answer to the well-marketed and well-visted Machu Picchu.
We certainly noticed more tourists in both Chachapoyas and the rather long 2.5-hour drive up to Kuélap.
Even though Kuélap wasn't far from Chachapoyas (Chachas for short) on the map, it took forever to get there. I guess that's the nature of the sinuous mountain roads here.
At a particular stop well before Nueva Tingo, we were at a pullout with a view across a valley of some ruins against the mountain with notches. It was here that my camera zoom lens now refused to zoom past 24mm. How annoying!
I guess this lens pretty much run its life on this trip. The silver lining is that it mind as well better happen now rather than the longer Australia/Africa trip coming in a little over a week.
At 11am, we arrived at the car park for Kuélap. From there, we took a 20-minute uphill hike (we're now around 10,000ft again) to the south wall. At the wall, we could see a few stilts adjacent to some walls as José was quick to point out there was some restoration
efforts going on and not reconstruction
, which occurred at Machu Picchu.
I guess the difference is that restoration is about keeping true to maintaining the way the ruins were as they were found while trying to protect them against the elements.
Reconstruction on the other hand relies on archaeologist theories wrapped around limited facts which can be controversially subject to fantasies and historical inaccuracies, especially when you have tourism money at stake.
José's private tour took us around the east wall past the first entrance and towards the second entrance. From there, we ascended the more overgrown 2nd east entrance into the middle level.
Even though we had been acclimated more or less to the altitudes in Peru, each flight of stairs still took a bit out of us so we naturally took our time.
There were interesting views of the scenery to be had up here, but we continued up another level to the upper pueblo where there was a military tower as well as a few other preserved structures.
After doing a tour up here, we went back down to the middle level and checked out some of the decorated circular dwellings as well as some of the most-preserved walls in the site.
Somewhere in the middle of the tour, José was busting up laughing as he noticed some lady well behind us who tried to get close to a llama and ended up getting spit on by it!
I didn't see the act, but I could see the lady frantically wiping her face.
After that bit of comedy, we continued our private tour and eventually got to a point where we could see a reconstructed house with straw conical roof (this was the only reconstructed part of Kuélap). Apparently, that's keeping them from being considered for UNESCO World Heritage even though Machu Picchu got such treatment despite extensive reconstructions...
Since Kuélap sits on top of a mountain, we also managed to get pleasant panoramas even though the rain was starting to come down by now. All in all, we thought Kuélap held its own in terms of photogenic beauty, but it lacked the drama and awe of Machu Picchu. Still, it was nice to be away from the mad crush of crowds and we hope for the sake of the Chachas people that this attraction gets more notoriety in the future.
After 2pm, our tour ended and we walked downhill back to Asho.
Then, we took the slow drive back to Chachapoyas, arriving at around 5:30pm. This let José and Asho spend time with their families again. In the mean time, Julie and I walked briefly around the main square of Chachapoyas having ourselves some Amazonian food (e.g. tomalitos and juanes) at a local bakery while taking photos of the main square.
It seemed like everywhere we went, the locals would stare at us. We also heard the word "chinitas" quite a bit as it probably translates to "little chinese people" though the use of the feminine ending probably meant it wasn't exactly a flattering term for us.
I guess this feeling of always being stared at kind of abridged our intention of photographing more of Chachapoyas Square. Instead, we went into the very quite Chacha restauant.
With my stomach feeling better, I felt like confident I could finally try the fried trout I missed out on at Pomacochas. Julie got another dose of tacachos, though I could tell she was probably sick of it by now.
We were back at the hotel before 8pm where we tended to our hygiene and slept at 9pm in anticipation for our early morning start tomorrow at 5am. That would give us a better chance at getting through 20km stretch of road construction on the way back to Pedro Ruiz before they closed it for the day at 6am.
With a flight from Chiclayo to Lima and then from Lima to LAX on the line, we weren't about to take chances cutting it close...
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Day 7: THE LONG ROAD TO CHICLAYO
With our early bedtime last time, we woke up at 4am pretty well rested. There wouldn't be much hiking today, but we knew getting from Chachapoyas to Chiclayo would be an arduously long drive so an early start was mandatory.
At 5am, Asho picked us up and then on the far side of the main square, José made his way to Asho's car. Soon afterwards, Asho topped off on what looked like an already filled tank of gas.
From there, we wasted no time getting out of Chachapoyas and past the construction zone. By after 6am, we were back in Pedro Ruiz. This time however, we hung a left at the T-intersection of the main highways and went on a road we hadn't been on before.
Passing by a military base, we could see La Catarata Chinata revealing itself behind the base. Julie thought this might have been the best view yet of the falls (though who knew what we would've seen from the Chinata Mirador by Cuispes?).
Shortly after passing by a toll road out of Pedro Ruiz, Asho pulled over before a surprise waterfall we didn't expect to see. This one was called Corontachaca. It was quite tall and had a pretty lacy structure to it.
Given the low light, I was able to take a long exposure photo of the falls despite the forced high aperture.
José went on to tell me this waterfall was 90m (around 270ft or so) tall. But having seen many waterfalls before, I doubted his claim as this one seemed more like 90ft tall. I don't know of this made up for missing out on Tarapoto's Ahuashiyacu Waterfall, which is reputed to be 50m tall, but heck, we'll take this one.
With a couple more hours of driving through dramatic mountain scenery, we started to notice it started raining.
In one particular washout, José pointed out that a bus got stuck here and the swollen wash sent the bus all the way to the river killing some 30 people or so.
Another landslide that happened about a month ago looked like the whole mountain went down. Except with this one, it actually blocked the river and diverted the water into a neighboring village which was consequently destroyed. This disaster managed to destroy the road and choke off access to Chiclayo for about 15 days.
Little did we know these weather-related slides were a sign of things to come...
By about 8:30am, the rain was coming down hard. Lots of areas had rocks falling onto the road. Asho consistently drove on the oncoming traffic side of the road.
We crossed three major washouts as the rain was coming down hard. Especially on the second crossing, we beared in mind the tragedy of the bus caught in the flood. With the water raging, I didn't think we'd make it past this crossing.
Still, this didn't deter Asho and despite me blurting out, "No Way!" to an undeterred José and Asho, we managed to make it. Whew!
About 9:30am, it seemed like the worst of the menacing rains were over. About half an hour later, we all took a break in the calm weather at a humble roadside restaurant where we had Lomo Saltados.
At 10:30am, we left the resturant and continued on our way to Chiclayo. As we ascended up to a mountain pass deep in the Andes, it looked like there was some commotion around an overturned truck where it appeared someone died. Lots of locals were on the scene, but the sight of this tragedy really hit home just how dangerous these mountain roads really were.
We thought the worst of the weather and obstacles was over with at this pass, but actually the drama continueda little while longer before we felt that the weather finally started to let up.
The weather remained relatively benign on this side, but we witnessed plenty of parts where the road was taken away by a raging river as well as other rockslides that went onto the road. José and Asho both said most of this damage came from a freak storm about a month ago. Fortunately for us, most of these problem spots had detours.
Still, it was hard not to ignore the fact that anything could happen to conspire to prevent us from going home. With our luck on this trip, who knew?
Nonetheless, it seemed all the damage we've witnessed mostly came from that storm a month ago. I recalled from the lady who's living in Cusco told us on the Machu Picchu train that she and her brother-in-law had some pretty harrowing experiences just a few weeks ago in Northern Perú related to torrential rains. Could this be the same storm?
It was mind boggling to think about how Peruvians living here and depending on this road had to deal with such fury from Mother Nature.
The next 3 hours or so was a blur. Both Julie and I slept and before we knew it, we were in Lambayeque at around 2pm.
There, we checked out the museum of Sipán, which was loaded with artifacts of precious metals, pottery, and other excavations. Even though we weren't all that into archaeology, the Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones aspect of these excavations made Sipán rather interesting.
Still, we only had time to check out perhaps half of the exhibits as we still had lunch to go and a plane to catch at around 6:45pm.
At 3:15pm, we were at a rather busy restaurant called El Pacífico. With my stomach intact again, I seized this opportunity to try some local ceviche. Asho and José did the same. I ate this stuff despite my cold getting worse. Julie had some kind of "lobster soup" (sudado de langostino). Pretty fresh and good.
At 4:15pm, Asho weaved through the rather busy and stressful city streets of Chiclayo and headed for the airport. By 4:45pm, we arrived at the rather small airport.
We bid each other a fond farewell (with firm handshakes and embraces). After spending nearly a week together, it certainly felt like we were saying good-bye to friends.
Going forward, José was going to guide a Russian tour starting tomorrow morning. Asho was driving back to Chachapoyas alone. We were worried about how much rest and awareness he'll be having considering it's nearly 8 hours or so to get home.
And by 6:45pm, our flight to Lima took off and ultimately arrived at Lima about an hour later. Plenty of time to wait for our midnight departure, where we'd catch a red-eye back to LAX. Upon arrival, I was going straight to work, while Julie would take our stuff home and try to get some rest...
Have a waterfall travel story you'd like to share?
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