So, when the lockdown ends, where will you visit in Peru? Or, in my case, revisit?
I immediately think of two of my favourite haunts: the bewitching oasis town of Huacachina, and the fabled city of Cusco. But it would have to be Gocta—or more precisely, Gocta Falls—if only to renew my acquaintance with a beautiful blonde-haired woman I met whilst swimming in the emerald-green pool at the foot of the waterfall. And please, say nothing to my wife.
Let me explain.
As far as beautiful national destinations go, Gocta Falls is Peru’s new kid on the block. On March 9, 2006, the magnificent falls were ‘discovered’ by a German water engineer with the marvelous name of Stefan Ziemendorff. The visiting engineer was in the area for a project with the Potable Amazon Water Company.
Gocta is an amazing perennial waterfall with two drops located in Chachapoyas Province, approximately 430 miles (700 kilometres) to the northeast of Lima. Part of the attraction of the falls lies in the impressive view from afar—say, from any of the handful of boutique luxury hotels whose rooms have a clear view of the falls—or from the pool at the foot of the cataract where, if you dare, you can swim in the freezing water.
After Stefan came across the falls, he immediately decided to recruit a group of local guides to find a way up to the waterfall. The Gocta Falls are clearly visible from the nearby village of Cocachimba, though two local men, Gregorio and Mendoza, would never make their way up. After you hear the local legends, you will understand why.
Gregorio was a fisherman who had arrived at the foot of the waterfall when he began talking to a beautiful blonde mermaid who lived in the deep pool at its foot. She was accompanied by a giant snake that protected a gold vase she carried. She valued the fisherman’s friendship and told him she would grant him a wish. He asked for only a good catch of fish which he carried home to his wife. As she emptied the catch, the fisherman’s wife found a gold ring at the bottom of the basket. This she hid, not telling her husband what she had found.
The next day, Gregorio returned to the waterfall and was rewarded with another bag of fish. Beneath this catch, Gregorio’s wife found a gold bracelet. Thinking that her husband must have stolen the treasure, his wife decided to follow him on his third visit. As she approached the falls, she saw her husband talking to a beautiful woman with a shimmering gold tail. Upon seeing her, the mermaid dived down into the deep emerald-blue waters, taking Gregorio with her. He was never seen again.
Juan Mendoza, also from Cocachimba, wanted more than friendship however. Having fell madly in love with the mermaid, he dove into the icy water to seduce her. Her response? She turned him into stone. Mendoza’s rock is now a feature of the landscape at the foot of the Falls.
And Stefan Ziemendorff, how did he fare? When my wife and I visited Gocta a couple of years ago (she tolerates my liking for blonde mermaids) our guide to the waterfall was one of the men who had helped the German engineer reach the falls. According to our guide, when the local men were recruited to accompany Stefan, they showed a great reluctance to go with him. With a flash of inspiration, the engineer removed a large bottle of sunscreen from his backpack and assured the men that if they dabbed some of the lotion onto their faces it would protect them from the strange powers of the blonde siren.
After a successful trek, Stefan announced that the total height of the falls was measured at 771 metres (2,530 ft), which would rank Gocta as the third tallest free-leaping waterfall in the world. However, this measurement was apparently based on outdated and incomplete data gleaned from the National Geographical Society, and Ziemendorff’s ranking has since been widely disputed.
Citing various encyclopedias, reference books, and online resources, Gocta Falls is unofficially listed as the world’s fifth tallest waterfall. Part of the problem is that there are two drops of water, which raises the question of whether it is in fact two rather than one continuous fall of water. With that in mind, the World Waterfall Database ranks Gocta as the 17th tallest in overall height. But majestic none the less.
These days, it is quite possible to trek to the top and to the foot of the falls. Be careful if you opt to visit the top, however. In July 2016, a South Korean tourist, Kim Jongyeob, fell 1,600 feet from the top whilst taking a selfie.
While there may be some debate about its ranking in the waterfall league table, what is not in dispute is the existence of my blonde-haired, golden-tailed friend. Stand by the swimming pool of the luxury hotel, with a pisco sour in your hand, and look towards the Falls, and I can assure you that you too will see her beckoning towards you, her enigmatic smile visible in the golden sunset.
David Stephens lives for eight months of the year in Lima, Peru, and the remainder in Brighton, where he works part-time as a university professor. Not wanting to spend his days in Lima tied to the desk, he set up the Lima Writers Group which is now flourishing. His first novel was a campus satire, Purely Academic, published by Arena Books and he is working on a cycle of interlinked stories, Acts of Disappearance, set in Peru and focusing on the missing and the disappeared. It also draws inspiration from South American writers’ use of magical realism.