One of the world's grandest waterfalls is in Peru, and no one knew about it until 2006. (PHOTOS)

Curious and exotic places.
Feb. 14 2011 3:53 PM

A Secret Waterfall

The fourth hidden wonder of South America.

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Click here to launch a slideshow on Gocta Falls.

COCACHIMBA, Peru—In May 2005, a German economist named Stefan Ziemendorff went for a hike in the Utcabamba valley. He'd been working on a wastewater project in the Amazonas province of Northern Peru, and was taking a day off to hunt for one of the region's abundant pre-Incan ruins. When he crossed into a blind ravine, though, he spied something unexpected: a towering, two-tiered cataract in the distance that hadn't appeared on any map. It was already late in the day, so he noted the location and made plans to come back later for a closer look. The following March, Ziemendorff held a press conference to declare that he had returned to the site with measuring equipment and discovered the third-tallest waterfall in the world.

The announcement felt like it belonged to another century. A gentleman explorer sets off on a hike into the hills, and comes back to report that one of the world's greatest natural marvels had been hiding all these years just over the next ridge. This was not Antarctica, nor the darkest reaches of the Congo, nor the inaccessible highlands of Papua New Guinea. This was a mere 26 miles from Chachapoyas, a centuries-old city of 25,000 people. It was almost impossible to believe.

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Like many of geography's most heralded "discoveries," Ziemendorff's merited quotation marks—it wasn't news to everyone. While the waterfall may have been a secret from most of the world, there were about 200 people who not only knew all about the wonder, but lived almost directly beneath it. The residents of the village of Cocachimba referred to the cataract as Gocta, after the cawing sound made by a local species of monkey. Ever since the hamlet's founding in the 1950s, Cocachimbans have awakened each morning to one of the world's most picturesque views—and apparently they never mentioned it to anyone.

When Dylan and I arrived in Cocachimba on a foggy afternoon in November, after a six-hour drive from the nearest airport in Tarapoto, we were astonished to realize not only how tall the waterfall was, but how impressively it dominated the skyline over the village's tin-roofed homes. I had once seen a photo online depicting the town in the foreground, and the falls just behind, as if painted on a backdrop. I assumed it had been Photoshopped. It wasn't.

Though the town was, for many years, truly isolated—the first road in was completed the year after Ziemendorff's announcement, and the first electrical line followed in 2008—it had never been completely disconnected from the outside world. Cocachimbans came and went, and visited other nearby villages. How had word of Gocta failed to escape their lips? The first person we sought out was Edinson Santillán, the 28-year-old president of the town's newly formed Communal Tourism Association. We hoped he could help sort out the mystery of how a 2,531-foot waterfall could have remained "undiscovered" until just six years ago.

"We could see Gocta from town, and we would watch it in the rainy season when it swelled. It was always there. But the population just wasn't interested," Santillán told us, when we sat down with him outside the newly opened, 10-room Gocta Lodge, Cocachimba's first hotel. They knew the falls were majestic, but then, so is the entire lush cloud forest landscape of the Amazonian Andes in which Cocachimba is situated. It just never struck anyone that Gocta was that extraordinary or that enormous compared with anything else that might exist in the world. Even the biggest diamond ring eventually becomes invisible to the person wearing it.

That might explain why none of the locals ever bragged about Gocta to outsiders, but it doesn't explain why it's said that none of them ever made the short hour-and-a-half hike to visit the falls until after Ziemendorff's arrival. According to stories we were told, Cocachimbans didn't even go just to have a look around.

"Before 2005, everyone watched the waterfall, but no one went there," said Santillán. "We were fearful. Our grandparents would say, 'Kids, it's dangerous to go there. You will die, you'll get enchanted, and you will stay there.' "

Santillán recounted a legend that he said had been passed down for generations. Once upon a time, long before the founding of Cocachimba, a man named Gregorio supposedly told his wife that he was taking off for a short trip and would be back in a few days. He made his way to the foot of Gocta, where he had been having an illicit relationship with a beautiful blond mermaid. His wife, who had grown suspicious and trailed him through the forest, saw what was going on and flew into a jealous rage. The frightened mermaid grabbed Gregorio and pulled him with her into the rushing water. He never re-emerged. Locals came to believe that anyone foolhardy enough to hike to the falls was chancing a run-in with dangerous, supernatural forces.

According to Santillán, it took the visits (and safe returns) of dozens of tourists in Ziemendorff's wake before the residents of Cocachimba gave up their fear of Gocta. "Before Stephen, we had never seen a tourist before, nor even had the slightest clue of what tourism is. So we were pretty scared. We were embarrassed to speak to people we didn't know. We wouldn't even say hello. Nothing!" Santillán told us.

But the town has since come around to the benefits and beauty of the natural wonder overhead. "Now we go visit weekly, and each time Gocta gets more beautiful," said Santillán. The money and development that the falls have brought don't hurt either. Three years ago, Santillán was making about $20 a week processing sugarcane by hand. Today, he might make that in a single day leading hikes. About a fifth of Cocachimba's residents now work as guides.

When we set off at dawn the next morning to explore Gocta, the falls were still hidden behind a veil of fog. We first drove to a nearby town called San Pablo, located on the opposite side of the valley, and then slogged up a steep trail for a little more than two hours to get to the base of the upper falls, where we craned our necks to watch the cascade. What started at the top as a thick white rope of water dissipated into a translucent mist about halfway down and landed like freezing rain on the tops of our heads.

After another short hike, we reached a clearing, where we were confronted with the stunning realization that the gigantic waterfall we'd just been standing under represented less than one-third of Gocta's total height. After collecting in a pool, the water plummets a further 1,772 feet, just about the height of the CN Tower, the tallest freestanding structure in North America.

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Among waterfall enthusiasts, the question of whether Gocta deserves its stature as the world's bronze medalist has been the subject of rancorous debate ever since Ziemendorff made his announcement. It all comes down to how you choose to define a waterfall: If there's a break in the drop, as in Gocta, does that count as one waterfall or two? What if the water cascades over the side of an inclined cliff, rather than spilling off vertically, as is the case with several towering falls in Norway? And what if the water slows to only a trickle during the dry season? No matter which criteria you use, everyone agrees that Angel Falls in Venezuela tops the charts. But go a little farther down the list, and the rankings get contentious. Depending on which definition you use, Gocta comes out in either third, fifth, or 16th place.

Quibbles over height aside, enthusiasts concur that in terms of pure, awe-inspiring spectacle, Gocta ranks near the very top. Over the years, several competing systems have emerged to rank the sublimity of the world's waterfalls. In 1993, a geographer named Gregory Plumb published an "objective method" for scoring "the visual magnitude" of a cataract based on factors like its height, width, and slope. Another waterfall aficionado named Richard Beisel created a logarithmic ranking system that relates the volume of water going over a fall to its height. A Web site called the World Waterfall Database scores every big waterfall in the world with a quasi-scientific "Scenic Rating." According to that scale, Yosemite Falls gets a 99, Angel a 97, and Gocta a 96. That makes the Peruvian site the sixth-most magnificent waterfall in the world.

Sitting on a boulder at the bottom of a 2,500-foot-deep bowl carved out by water, it was easy to see how Gocta merited such a ranking. We were exhausted from having hiked another four hours just to get down the wall of the valley from the bottom of the first tier to the bottom of the second. We put on our raincoats and climbed through the cold mist over rocks as slippery as ice, trying to get as close as we could to the torrent. Then we heard a terrifying boom caused by a rock plummeting off the falls above, and stepped back to a safer distance.

When we got back to our room at the Gocta Lodge just before dark, I pulled up a spreadsheet on my laptop that listed the 50 highest waterfalls in the world and their relative positions on the various scales. It turns out there's one that was discovered even more recently than Gocta. In 2007, Peru's National Geographical Institute announced that a 2,937-foot fall—that's more than a football field taller than Gocta—had been found just a few miles away from Cocachimba. We asked one of the locals whether he thought it would be worth making an additional hike the next day to go find it. He told us he'd been there once and seen it himself. It was just a trickle pouring down a valley wall—hardly worth the trip.

Click here to launch a slide show on Gocta Falls.

GoPro provided the travelers with some camera equipment free of charge.

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For more on the world's wondrous, curious, and esoteric places, check out Atlas Obscura.

In addition to being the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura, Joshua Foer is the author of Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, which grew out of a story he wrote for Slate.

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