A family of travelers made the best of a cancelled trip to Machu Picchu during their Peru vacation, and headed for the delightful secrets of Gocta Waterfalls and Kuelap ruins in the Chachapoyas region of the country.
How a cancelled trip to Machu Picchu turned into an adventure
When travel advisor Kelly Chrystal and her siblings planned a trip to Peru, they never expected to end up on an adventure to one of the world’s tallest waterfalls, as well as some secret ruins. Kelly and travel companions had planned – of course – to visit Machu Picchu, but severe flooding had led to the famous site being suddenly closed.
Deciding to make the best of the situation, Kelly took action and led her family on a “play-it-by-ear” adventure to a less-famous, but equally spectacular destination: the Kuelap ruins and the Gocta Falls, both in the Chachapoyas region of Peru.
Kelly says: “I had heard about the ruins of Kuelap, and how relatively ‘untouched’ and ‘unvisited’ they were compared to Machu Picchu, and was interested in going. When I found out that one of the world’s tallest waterfalls was also located in the Chachapoyas area which had only been “discovered” by an outsider in 2005, it kind of sealed the deal.”
Situated amidst the Andean cloud forests of north-central Peru, Kuelap is an enormous archaeological complex constructed by the Chachapoyas civilization between 1000 and 1400 A.D. It covers 450 hectares and consists of more than 500 circular houses and other buildings surrounded by finely-worked stone walls, some of which rise to 30 meters high. Seen from above, the city has the shape of a bird’s wing. Three very long and narrow entrances provide access into the city and allow passage for only one person at a time.
The arrival of Spanish colonizers in the 16th century forced native inhabitants to abandon the city, and it remained forgotten for centuries, until its rediscovery in the mid-1800s. For its spectacular size, ingenious design, and unparalleled state of preservation, Kuelap is beginning to rival Machu Picchu as a must-see destination for travelers to Peru.
Comparing Kuelap with Peru’s most famous destination, Kelly says: “I had been to Machu Picchu previously, and I can say that my experience at Kuelap was more impressive because of the lack of visitors. There were some other tourists here and there, but walking up to the towering walls and looking out over the valley, we felt like the only people around.”
Kelly and her group found their four-day trip at the Kuelap ruins and the nearby Gocta Falls completely worth the adventurous journey to reach them. The crew was particularly awestruck by the 771-meter (2,350-foot) waterfall. The Catarata del Gocta, to give it its official Spanish name, is allegedly the third tallest waterfall in the world, although this remains in global dispute. Kelly says: “Despite this impressive claim to fame, we were practically the only people there. I find this incredible.” The existence of the waterfall was only made known to the public in 2005 when a German visited with some Peruvians and then persuaded the government to officially measure it; before this, only locals knew of it.
Kelly gives a tip for those inspired to travel to Chachapoyas: “The reputable Casa Andina hotel chain has recently opened a hotel in Chachapoyas. Located just 2 hours from Kuelap, it has quickly become a top Chachapoyas hotel and, in the next few years, is sure to make travel to the archaeological site even more attractive.”
How to get to Kuelap and Gocta Falls
Both Gocta and Kuelap can be visited on day trips with tours or car hire from the city of Chachapoyas. Flights depart from Lima to Chiclayo (flight time of 1.25hrs) with LATAM and other national airlines. From Chiclayo, take an overnight bus to Chachapoyas with a company such as Movil Bus (2 daily departures; journey time of 11 hours).
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Anabel has been exploring the length and width of South America since 2010. Ditching preconceptions, settling into the local pace, and embracing the unexpected are the tenets of her philosophy of travel – and life.