The Road to Gocta

The Peruvian highlands, where one-lane gravel roads scarring the mountainsides are the only form of transportation infrastructure.

The Peruvian highlands, where one-lane gravel roads scarring the mountainsides are the only form of transportation infrastructure.

“Pedro Ruiz?” The voice punctured the stillness as it reached our half-sleeping ears. Light suddenly flooded the bus’s darkened compartment.

I nudged my husband. “Joe, we’re here.” He checked his watch – 11:45pm, an hour earlier than we anticipated arriving. Scooping up our belongings, we disembarked, barely reaching the curb before the bus revved its engine and sped away. It felt like an unceremonious dumping of unwanted baggage.

Weeks of research and planning had led us to this point, catching the night bus from the high jungle of Tarapoto, Peru, jumping off early in Pedro Ruiz to hail a cab to the small town of Cocachimba, where a comfortable bed in a lodge overlooking Gocta Falls awaited us. My preceding month in Peru made me decline prearranged transportation, anticipating a buzzing swarm of taxi drivers outside the bus station, shouting fares and competing for the gringos’ money. Finding a ride to the lodge would be easy.

But when the roar of the bus’s engine faded into the distance, an eerie quiet settled on us. There were no taxis, no people, no city square with open businesses to point us the way. Everything was dark, deserted. I took a deep breath.

“Okay, let’s see what our options are.” I had no map, no functioning telephone, and no idea whom I’d call, anyway. Would a taxi be along soon? Was there a hotel nearby? Could we sleep on the bus station steps until the town awoke in the morning? Panic crept into my heart, its rapid thumping audible in the nighttime silence.

A few blocks away, three women emerged from a door beneath a neon sign, allowing a burst of light and loud music to escape. “Maybe we can go ask at that bar, or use their phone,” I suggested. A man passed by across the street, throwing a curious glance our direction. We followed him to the bar, and upon reaching the door, he turned.

“Are you looking for something?” he asked. Our light hair and freckles and overstuffed packs made it clear we weren’t just stopping in for a quick drink. I told him our end goal, asking where we might find a taxi to take us there.

“To Gocta Falls, at this hour? That’s impossible! There aren’t any.” Were it my first day in Peru, I might have thanked him and walked away crestfallen, resigned to missing our first night in the lodge. But I knew better.

“There aren’t any? Are you sure? We already booked our room for the night.”

“Well, it might be possible, but it’s really expensive.” Ah, there it was. I assured him that we could afford the fare. “I’ll take you to the cruz,” he said, “where the mototaxis wait.”

We walked to a darkened intersection where the silhouette of a dirt-bike-drawn carriage greeted us.   The man explained our predicament to the driver, who blinked the sleep from his eyes before asking, “How much?” His Spanish was mushy, as if he was talking around a huge bite of food.

“Seventy soles?” I suggested. He nodded, and we climbed aboard, ready for a smooth ride up to a good night’s sleep.

Of the varying states of disrepair that characterize Peruvian mototaxis, this particular steed provided decent protection from the high country wind, but its motor protested with each rev of the engine and a thick fog of exhaust hung over us as we wound upward through the mountains. We left the pavement for a narrow gravel road, and I kept stealing glances at my husband, wondering if he found this to be a great adventure or some horrific nightmare.

This is pretty close to what we looked like . . . except at night.

This is pretty close to what we looked like . . . except at night.  For a close-up view of mototaxi travel in Peru, click here.  Make sure you scroll down for the video.

With each passing minute and each steeper curve, the mototaxi’s engine whined and clanked and sputtered. I noted every lighted building we passed, potential shelter in case we never reached our destination. Eventually, the engine emitted one final protest before grinding to a stop, and our driver mumbled something about having to relieve himself. Is he really peeing, or just trying to figure out what to do with two gringos in his broken-down mototaxi, stranded in the wilderness? He returned, a cell phone to his ear, asking the other end for directions. We’re not even going the right way.

The driver coaxed the reluctant engine back to life, and up we drove, the chill of the night air cutting through our clothes. First running speed, then walking, then barely crawling as the road’s gradient increased and the evidence of civilization grew more and more sparse. Shouldn’t we be there by now?

As I searched desperately for road signs, for any clue that we were, in fact, headed for Cocachimba, the engine died. “El motor está calentado,” the driver explained, as if we needed more than the sickening exhaust and faintly smoking engine to tell us that.

Eternity passed as we sat waiting. I wondered how many miles lay between us and Cocachimba, and in which direction. Just as I began a mental inventory of our gear in preparation for a roadside overnight, our driver turned the key and the poor, overworked mototaxi rumbled to life. He opened the throttle, and . . . nothing. The load was too heavy to climb the hill.

Joe and I got out, and the mototaxi crept forward. We trotted alongside the limping vehicle, and for a moment, I wondered if the driver would flee with our belongings, leaving us in his dust; but even if this road led anywhere besides the wilderness, the mototaxi was in no shape to outrun us, anyway.  And so we jogged uphill, two tourists on foot keeping pace with a mototaxi as it weaved through the Peruvian highlands in the middle of the night.

At a flat section, Joe and I clambered back in and I gnawed at my fingernails, certain we were putting miles of rough road between us and our destination. My head swiveled, scanning for road signs, until finally, “Bienvenidos a Cocachimba” shined like an angel in the night.

“If I had known how far it was, I wouldn’t have come,” our driver said. The two-hour, vibrating journey through the mountains had left my ears buzzing; he would return to town by the same rattling road.

I handed him extra fare, grateful that he hadn’t ditched us by the side of the road, and listened as his mototaxi sputtered through town and out of our lives.

In our room at last, we peeled off our carbon-monoxide-soaked clothing and collapsed into bed. It was 3am. A few hours later, the sun glowed golden through the curtains. I rose and flung them aside.

“Wow,” Joe breathed. In front of us, scarcely three miles away, the spectacular Gocta Falls glistened in the morning sun, cascading for 2,500 feet before erupting into a cloud of violent spray at its base. This was why we came, this view of the majestic falls, uncharted by the Peruvian government until 2005. And as the events of the previous night came flooding back, the deserted town, the overheated mototaxi, the moments spent wondering if I could fashion a makeshift sleeping bag out of my long underwear, I knew that without them, this view, this great reward, could not taste so sweet.

The view.

The view.

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