Gocta Lodge Adventures – Kuelap, Revash, Mummies and More
Stepping out onto the balcony of our room here at Gocta Lodge, it’s hard to believe this view isn’t on the cover of every travel magazine on the planet. We came to Chachapoyas to explore Peru’s rising star Kuelap, which many are calling the Machu Picchu of the north. Yet, the view from our hotel room may eclipse that rising star.
We look out over a jungle-filled canyon framing the spectacular two-tier Gocta Waterfall, which has only recently been named one of the highest in the world. A flock of several dozen parrots swoops by above our heads. Hummingbirds dart from flower to flower below.
The scene is our introduction to the incredibly rich Chachapoyas region, an area overwhelmed with natural, historical and cultural attractions. The isolated highland capital of Peru’s Amazonas state and its surrounding treasures are just starting to pop up on the tourist radar. But if the Peruvian government has its way, that’s all about to change.
The Gocta Waterfall
So, how did one of the world’s highest waterfalls go unnoticed until the 21st century? Shockingly, until the German-led Ziemendorff expedition in 2005, nobody had taken the time to measure the stunning beast. (Now, that’s really off the beaten track!)
There is still a great deal of debate as to just how high the waterfall actually is and how it should be ranked on the list of the world’s highest falls. Various sources list it as the third, the fifth and the sixteenth highest in the world.
The infighting and measurement debate continues as everyone battles for their place on the list, but in reality, the ranking is irrelevant. Gocta is huge, spectacular, and surrounded by a unique cloud forest environment which contrasts sharply with the dry, cactus-covered mountains of the surrounding valleys.
Thomas and I decided to explore that jungle by independently hiking the trail that leads to the base of the falls. Normally, it’s a five-to-six-hour journey round trip, but we took far longer because we spent so much time birdwatching and enjoying the views. We also scored a MAJOR victory on this day hike.
Cock-of-the-rocks and birdwatching
For months, we have been trying to spot the elusive Andean cock-of-the-rock, the national bird of Peru and a major birdwatching favorite. Despite the bright neon-orange plumage on their amorphous heads, they are not easy to find. We tried and tried in several spots in the cloud forests near the Sacred Valley, but no success. So imagine our shock when a curious flurry of feathers and strange calls alerted us to six male cock-of-the-rocks in the trees just below our path to Gocta Falls.
Bizarrely, all birdwatching rules were off on this trip. We spotted the birds at the peak of the afternoon heat on our way back from the waterfall. When we got to Gocta Lodge and recalled our victory, managers Ivan and Aina told us that the birds are almost never spotted after late morning. Insane luck, but great birding is par for the course in the surrounding region.
Apparently, birders in the know have been keeping the region to themselves. It’s prime twitching territory and Gocta Lodge is also just a little over an hour from the best place to see the extremely rare marvelous spatuletail hummingbird. Birding trips can also be organized through the lodge. Unfortunately, there was so much to do in the area that Thomas and I just didn’t have enough time to make it out there.
Our time was reserved for Kuelap, king of the northern monuments. Kuelap may not be a household name… yet, but the Peruvian government somewhat controversially hopes to make it the jewel in their crown of northern attractions.
For now, the wonderfully isolated site remains the domain of those who love remoteness and treacherous mountain roads. Gocta Lodge provided us with a car and our very safe driver Miguel to work our way up those thrilling roads as well as a guide who had been leading tours at Kuelap since the late ’70s.
Situated on a stunning mountain ridge above the Utcubamba Valley at over 3,000 meters (9,800 ft), the ancient fortified city was once the capital of the Chachapoyas culture. It’s a magnificent site ringed with monumental stone walls which rise to a height of 19 m (62 ft). When I described it to my dad, I told him Kuelap is where the villagers must have lived in the original 1933 King Kong movie.
Visitors enter and exit the site through narrow vaulted gates which prove the Chachapoyas culture had a serious sense for the dramatic. The southern gate is particularly impressive; archaeologists theorize it basically represents a giant multistory vulva. Within the massive walls, a path winds its way through over 400 cylindrical stone huts which were originally capped with conical thatched roofs. Some of these stone huts are decorated with beautiful abstract friezes. One has been reconstructed to help visitors visualize what the fortified city once looked like.
There are several distinct features within Kuelap. Along the northern side of the site, there’s a separate elevated compound within its own massive walls. It’s possible that this was a royal enclosure of some kind. On the eastern platform, don’t miss El Tintero, a huge inverted conical structure which is thought to have been the base for a religious or ritual building. Despite what guides or online sources say, I don’t think much is really factually known about the Chachapoyas culture. It’s mostly guesswork at this stage.
There’s something particularly magical about Kuelap; something hard to pin down and hard to show in photos. Is it the isolated mountaintop location? The narrow dirt road that winds for hours up to the site? The hulking ancient walls which tap into some stone-age fantasy? As we wound our way along the narrow path through the ruins under a canopy of moss, air plants, and bright red bromeliads, it felt like we were characters in some 19th-century lost world novel. Jules Verne would have felt right at home.
There’s also something surreal about the color of Kuelap in the high-altitude sun. When Thomas and I first came up over the ridge and saw the ruins up close for the first time, we both let out a child-like, “Woooooow!!!” Is there a mineral in the stone or does the moss reflect light in a certain way? The stone city almost seemed to be glowing. A few of my pictures reflect this odd light a bit, almost like they had been colorized in the 1950s. Strangely, when the skies cloud up, the effect seems to vanish.
With all these questions about what makes the site so special, one thing is painfully clear: Mass tourism will kill the magic of Kuelap. Even now, plans are underway to construct a cable car to cut travel time up the mountain and bring in thousands of tourists a day. The citadel-city is simply too small and fragile to handle that level of tourist development. Crowds will overwhelm the narrow gates and paths. This should be clear to tourism officials – let’s hope somebody sees the glowing Kuelap light before it’s too late.
In reality, there is no need to overwhelm Kuelap to bring in tourist dollars. The area around Chachapoyas is filled with exciting sites and natural attractions, many of which haven’t been developed at all. As we drove through the narrow stone gorges on our way to Revash, it really struck me how extraordinary the landscape was. The strips of cloud forest along the rivers overlapped with barren slopes covered in cactus creating odd scenes where the towering cactuses were covered with layers of moss, vines and bromeliads. So unique.
And there are signs of ancient cultures everywhere. Our driver stopped along the road to point out a giant chunk of stone carved with the image of a huge lizard (or was it a velociraptor?). It looked like a ritual altar used for sacrifices, but what was it? And who carved it? The entire drive, we spotted cave tombs in the cliffs. I wondered how many of them contained bone bundles or mummies. But those crude cave tombs were nothing compared to the painted adobe cliff tombs of Revash.
Revash is one of the sites that old-time travelers used to take for granted, but are virtually unheard of in the 21st century. Remote, spectacular and very photogenic, the site has no ticket booths or fences to kill the mood. Visitors simply choose a footpath and start winding their way up the mountain.
The site bears a slight resemblance to the Anasazi cliff dwellings in the U.S., but on a smaller scale. Perhaps, since it’s a burial site, a better comparison might be the Dogon cliff tombs in Mali. Unlike those other sites, Revash is painted red and white and decorated with mystical abstract images.
We were very surprised that the steep path led right up into the ruins themselves providing for a close-up view of the tombs and the paintings. At one point, the buildings would have been filled with mummies and bone bundles, but all that has been removed. The remoteness, lack of commercialization and serenity of our time at Revash made this one of our favorite experiences in Peru. (I should point out that we visited the site independently by taxi rather than with an organized group.)
I suppose as Chachapoyas grows in popularity and more people visit Revash, visiting conditions will change. Surely, a ticket booth, guards, and fences will pop up any day now. But until then, enjoy the rare thrill of a truly authentic, old world travel experience. And even if it does change, I suspect there are dozens of other isolated ruins in the area just waiting to be discovered by curious travelers.
One such site that we do know of is the cliff tombs at the Laguna de los Condores, which is only accessible by multi-day trek through the cloud forest. Normally, we would be hitting the trail, but it’s late in the season and the rains have already kicked in, so we’ll have to save that for a future trip.
To help overcome our pain from missing the trek, we decided to visit the Leymebamba Museum, which houses the massive collection of over 200 mummies and bone bundles recovered from the tombs in Laguna de Los Condores. Most of the recovered mummies and bundles are still encased in their original shroud bags complete with simple, painted faces.
The museum also contains a collection of related artifacts including quipus and reconstructed examples of the Karajia sarcophagi. The sarcophagi were kind of a bonus because we didn’t make it out to the Karajia cliff tombs. If it sounds like we underestimated how much time we needed in Chachapoyas, that’s because we did. We were also somewhat pleasantly distracted while we were in the area. By what, you ask?
Our lovely distraction was the incredible Gocta Lodge, which I would say was a real find in Peru. Located an hour outside Chachapoyas in tiny Cocachimba, it’s exactly the kind of place we love: it’s comfortable, surrounded by stunning scenery, and run by professionals who manage to strike that rare balance between casual comfort, good food and great service. Spanish managers Ivan and Aina went out of their way to make our stay a super experience. We also really enjoyed just hanging out with them and hearing about their time in Peru.
And, of course, there’s that world-class view of Gocta Falls. This is without question one of the most dramatic hotel views we’ve had in the country – or any country for that matter. We actually just sat in the garden staring at it, hung out in the infinity pool staring at it, and sipped drinks on the outdoor terrace staring at it.
Isn’t it great when you can just sit somewhere and you feel like you’re having an epic experience? We definitely found Gocta Lodge to be a major Peru highlight. We also really needed that rare sense of tranquility. Ahhh, glorious silence and calm – for long-term travel bloggers that’s the greatest treasure there is.
To be honest, we could have spent weeks in the lodge relaxing and exploring the riches of the mountain regions of Amazonas. Unfortunately, we had pre-booked bus tickets to Chiclayo and my six-month visa is ticking down, so we were experiencing a bit of time pressure, which, if you regularly follow our blog, you’ll know that we are totally unaccustomed to. Poor us. 😉
One more awesome find…
By total chance, we stumbled upon El Batán del Tayta while we were exploring Chachapoyas town. This funky little restaurant has a seriously cool fusion version of Peruvian Amazon cuisine with dashes of Asian and Mexican. Foodies, don’t miss this! It sounds strange, but the food was so unique and impressive that we both actually started laughing aloud due to sheer astonishment that someone was making this food in backwater Chachapoyas.
We started with an amazing appetizer of wontons filled with pork confit topped with sour cherry treacle. Yum. I had an amazing dish with a mashed mix of green and ripe plantains topped with dried pork. Thomas had dried pork and a local sausage topped with tree tomato sauce. Total food awesomeness.
In reality, we shouldn’t be surprised by El Batán del Tayta’s menu. Many of our favorite restaurants have been in unexpected towns like Nazca, Puerto Maldonado, and now here. Perhaps, that element of surprise adds to the flavor. In reality, that element of surprise extends to everything in the region: the landscape, the ancient monuments, the people, the culture. We have been so impressed that we are already talking about a return trip.
Selfishly, we find ourselves hoping that the government plans to develop the area fall through. The government says the new cable car to Kuelap should be completed in three years. They also hope to have a new airport by that time to bring large numbers of tourists into the north. Locals assure us that three years actually means five years in Peru. So that gives visitors another five years to experience this version of the Chachapoyas region before the massive influx begins. In other words, get here as soon as possible.
Tips on getting here and around
Until the new airport is constructed, getting to Chachapoyas, Gocta and Kuelap will remain a time-consuming process. Many people arrive by overnight bus from Trujillo or Chiclayo on the coast. Another option is to fly into Tarapoto and the take a six-hour bus to Chachapoyas.
Most people visit Kuelap, Gocta, Revash, and Karajia on organized tours. If you are staying at Gocta Lodge, you can conveniently organize tours/drivers from the hotel. If you are based in Chachapoyas, there are several operators around the main square. Local transportation is an option, but many spots are far and schedules are unpredictable. If there are two or more people, hiring a taxi for the day is also a good option.
If you would like to find out more about Gocta Lodge, about their rooms, tours or complete packages, visit them at www.goctalodge.com.
Changes since our visit
We wrote this post shortly after our visit in 2014. Since then, the new cable car to Kuelap has, unfortunately, been constructed. That will change the wonderful sense of remoteness and isolation that once made Kuelap so magical. We have not been able to determine what changes have been made at Revash, so if you have been there recently, please tell us about your experience in the comment section below.