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.
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.' "