Depending on who you ask, Gocta Falls is either the world’s third highest waterfall or its sixteenth. The claim to being the third tallest comes from an expedition launched as recently as 2006, by a German named Stefan Ziemendorff and a group of regrettably unnamed Peruvians.
Ziemendorff measured the cataract at 771 meters (2,530 ft), but his methods remain unclear. The waterfall consists of two separate stages, broken by a small lake on a wide ledge, into which the upper section’s water falls, before spilling over into the fall of the lower section. Many people would and have decided to consider this set-up as two separate waterfalls, with the longest drop measuring a mere 540 meters. None of them live in the village at the trailhead to Gocta.
The village, called Cocachimba, consists of maybe a few hundred people. It revolves around a large field, used for soccer, markets and festivals. The tourism office, Cocachimba’s largest municipal building, occupies one side of the field and its lone attendant allowed us to camp alongside.
We parked on the grass, stretched out our awning and toasted a rainy sunset with a bottle of cheap wine.
The trailhead to Gocta Falls begins right at the tourist office, allowing us easy access and an early start. The humidity made for a steamy hike, but the trail is short, only five kilometers (3.2 miles) to the falls, with little change in elevation.
Not even a full minute into the hike, a dog had joined our party. This is normal. Neutering, a clear affront to machisto sentiment, rarely happens south of the US-Mexico border, resulting in a countryside teeming with strays looking for a sense of belonging. This particular cock-eyed dog was not stray, but saw in us a chance to share in our lunches and came anyway.
Small plots of coffee, cane and assorted vegetables yielded to jungle which quickly deposited us before the thundering falls. Even as only the 16th tallest cataract, the sound was deafening from hundreds of meters away. The force of the wind generated by the falling water was obvious from an even greater distance.
A guided group of tourists came walking back from an attempt to approach the falls. They were covered in this plastic bag ponchos of pastel colors and stumbled along the trail, completely drenched but laughing. You can’t get all the way to the lake, they warned us, which we naturally accepted as a challenge.
We had come prepared with rain jackets and pants and a GoPro. Covered head to foot in GoreTex, we approached the base of the falls. The tourists turned out to be right, less because of the wet conditions than because of the driving wind. Gusts buffeted us with gale forces, driving us a step back for every two we took forward. The closer we got, the more inverted that ratio became. Finally, we had to face reality.
We’re not going to make it, said Jordan. I agreed and we stumbled back, arriving at the same point we had crossed paths with the other tourists and in the same state: wet and laughing.
On the way back, we stopped for a mid-trail beer at a farmhouse that advertised camping. An argentine backpacker was just putting away his tent as we sat down. The owner brought us our beers and sat down to chat with us. Their conversation was enlightening.
We are good people here, said the old lady. Things here are calm, people look after each other and even after strangers.
We love to let people camp here, added the old man. We don’t even have to travel, the world comes to us!
And why wouldn’t they come, asked the woman. It is beautiful here. Not too hot, nor too cold. It only rains enough for our crops and no more.
God is punishing them, said the old woman, eyes hard and jaw set. The people of the coast don’t believe in god anymore and so he will drown them all. But here, we are good people…