Chasing waterfalls and such

It’s only falling water…

“Don’t go chasing waterfalls. Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.”

It was poor judgement – opening with a TLC song lyric, and you’re probably wondering whether to keep reading or if your time would be better spent on Facebook, or indeed counting your eyelashes. But stick with me – some waterfalls are more than just falling water, and chasing them is the fun part. Someone should have told TLC.

In a world so explored, mapped, mastered, manipulated, plundered and bent out of shape, a brand spanking new discovery is an ever rarer gift, and in a world so exploited, it’s a comfort, too. It shouts that maybe we, the spoilers and the wasters, don’t know everything, and perhaps there are more hidden secrets out there waiting to be unearthed. It’s even better of course when that discovery is a whopper. At three times the height of the Eiffel tower, Yumbilla Falls in the Amazonas region of Peru is exactly that, yet for decades Yumbilla had been shrouded in foliage and disregard. Only in 2007 when it was officially measured did it claim it’s long overdue limelight – Yumbilla turned out to be 895 metres high and the 5th highest waterfall in the world, and last year it earned itself a trail. There are no official tours from Chachapoyas but I contacted the American who built the trail having decided I wanted a sneak preview.

For Yumbilla though perhaps ‘discovery’ is a bit over zealous and should be prefaced by ‘international’. The locals always knew about Yumbilla. And that a new discovery was made here didn’t really surprise them anyway and why would it? Because in terms of new discoveries, the Amazonas region of Peru has them in spades. Ancient burial sites, fortresses, long isolated tribes, rare bird species, pre-Inca walled cities – the land around Chachapoyas is the secret garden of South America, and it just keeps on kicking up surprises.

Before I took the time to explore the new trail to Yumbilla I booked a tour to Gocta, another lofty cascade at 771 metres and the 15th highest in the world. It wasn’t just the waterfall though I had come to admire, the region also boasts a bizarre bird species that the guides would have you believe is lurking in every cranny. The Andean Cock of the Rock – a species whose vaguely comical name is a good fit for it’s bizarre appearance. Bright, unapologetic orange with a head that looks out of shape, like a deformed parrot, maybe one that had flown hard and headlong into a tree in the night. They sold knitted take-home versions in the shops in Chachapoyas, but I suspected spotting one was not really that likely – it was all more of a selling point for tours, a tourist lure.

On the tour, under a sky which threatened rain, I was joined by a trio of Tazmanian backpackers. With the usual Peruvian welcome party – a scrawny dog nipping at our heels – we all took strides towards the waterfall, aside from a ten year old and a fat lady who were given ponies. As the latter eagerly mounted the animal I feared the result would be four splayed legs – like when big people jump onto horses in cartoons – and a rotund lady rolling around like a tipped insect, crying out for help and unable to get up, thankfully though the animal managed to teeter along, ruefully. Next to the reluctant beast was an elderly man, who I found out later was 89 years old, and who was bounding along as fast as the horse, perhaps making his point. Already the animal looked closer to death than he did.

As we made ground the world around us slowly morphed into a more prehistoric one, moss and cobwebs smothered the rock faces, fern replaced banana, menacing cliffs faces were projected from the undergrowth and then after an hour or so the vista we were bent on seeped in through the green curtain around the path and then surged magnificently towards us. We stopped in our tracks and watched the water in free fall, our eyes staying with it until it was a fine spray, a mist, then nothing at all. Cameras were raised and then lowered with a measure of despondency and admiration – from here Gocta wouldn’t fit into even the widest angled lens, and this was only the bottom section, there was a 230 metre drop which was above the reach of our gaze. In the shadow of the behemoth I ate and I snapped photos and I thought about how measly the stream was at the bottom, embarrassing even, considering the dramatic statement nature had made just above it. And I watched the old man laugh, and heard the pony groan, like a teenager who’s been evicted from bed by his mum before school. And everyone apart from the pony and TLC agreed – it was only falling water, but it was worth the effort.

Gocta Falls
The Andean Cock of the Rock in it’s natural habitat (a souvenir shop)

Due to a corrupted camera memory card I am saving the story of Yumbilla on this blog until I have sorted it out.

Bordering on insanity

The road to Ecuador was another Peruvian Special – an unrelenting slalom which was either a companion to the roiling waters of a mountain river or was incautiously winding up a mountainside and unapologetically destroying my mettle. Now though I am a stronger (possible typo – should read ‘stranger’ ?) cyclist than ever before. I may have been riding for almost three years but you can forget the fitness plateau, Peru doesn’t do flat lines.

As I dropped from the mountains to the jungle Blue Morph butterflies and The Peruvian Giant Centipede made fleeting appearances as the government posters warning of nasty diseases such as Leishmaniasis changed to warnings for different but just as nasty diseases like Dengue Fever. Rice paddies disappeared and the jungle reclaimed my eye line but thicker now, disordered. Wilder.

Drip, drip, drip. I kicked off my sodden sleeping bag roaring expletives, aiming them at the clouds above, and my judgement. Cloud forest it may be, but last night I had been tricked by the soothing, unprepossessing sapphire of the evening sky into believing that it wouldn’t rain, that maybe I’d be OK in just my inner tent. My POROUS inner tent. My POROUS inner tent come paddling pool. Long after I’d pegged in the outer tent the rain continued to beat out a maniacal rhythm on the fabric. Morning came and my vision, bleared by sleep, appraised the quagmire on my doorstep, my campground now reminiscent of a bad year at Glastonbury. The road too had been churned up by the downpour and hacked up by the javelins of water. Mostly I pushed my bike through the viscid gunk as buses skidded and climbed muddy inclines sideways whilst gangs of men pushed from behind. Mud, Lycra and skin had become one, maybe though my suit of filth would come in useful – I had overstayed my Peruvian VISA, I had a sob story ready and all I needed now was a sympathetic border guard. Things though got worse and I went from looking like a soldier fresh from the Somme to some kind of unearthly swamp beast.

This border point was the backdoor into Ecuador and my guess – that it would be more relaxed than the primary routes across – was looking on the mark as I peered into the customs building to find the two customs officials blind drunk and belting out Peruvian classics with the aid of a karaoke machine. The immigration official was absent and ambiguously ‘back later’. When she showed up an hour later I knew immediately I hadn’t got the push-over I was hoping for, I got Bitch From Hell, the kind of ruthlessly efficient and by-the-book obsessive I could have done without. It took me half a day to get my exit stamp and involved paying fines, taxis to town, depositing money into bank accounts, signing 15 forms and getting photocopies. Intermittently she would disappear when I needed her, probably to return to her hobbies of submerging kittens in wet cement or hurling orphans into a threshing machine. Eventually, task completed, she reached for the stamp and grumbled, I think it was something about me disrupting her plans for a mass genocide, and I hotfooted it to the door, the bridge and Ecuador. But I don’t begrudge Peru or her purveyors of red tape for a tedious farewell – the last three and a half months had been a terrific ride, in every sense.

The jungle, I decided, doesn’t hold the romance it promises. The views can be limited, it’s hot and sticky, insects rule – filling your tent, bouncing off your head torch and into simmering pasta. Yes that crunch and explosion of bitter goo was an invertebrate, swallow hard and get used to it. But new countries introduce themselves through the small differences, the minutiae which help mould the taste and texture of the new place and which for me made up for the jungle blues. The tangle of undergrowth in Ecuador looked unmeddled with, a pristine slice of nature. The roads though were much steeper. There were kids with blue eyes (perhaps the missionaries had been doing more than just spreading the word of God). There were concrete volleyball pitches in every village. Troublingly though was the fierce and grave epidemic that had Ecuador firmly in it’s clutches – The Moustache. A gaggle of bristling Soup Strainers were there to greet me as I cycled into my first Ecuadorian village – they were attached to the faces of a troop of men, one of which would certainly have done well with a decent singing voice, undoubtedly opening the door to a career as the world’s best Freddie Mercury impersonator. The men and their quivering lip plumage let me shower and granted me permission to sleep outside the church, as I settled down for the night two motorbikes parked up.

Oli and Mat – A German and an American, adventurers, between the three of us we had been on the road for almost a decade, but then any onlooker could have guessed that. Perhaps from the fist sized rips in each of our clothes. Perhaps from the painted alpaca skull on the front of Mat’s bike or the Skull and Crossbones and words ‘Carpe Diem’ on the body. Perhaps from the repeated use of the phrase “New Day, Same Pants” the next morning. But perhaps not from Oli’s motorbike – a fully loaded 70 cc model he’d, somehow, been riding since Pakistan. Food pooled, we cooked together and talked in lists – the best places we’d slept, the stickiest substance that has leaked inside a pannier, our craziest adventures (Mat’s tale of paddling the Darien Gap by canoe topping that one). And as I stared out over the cloud-filled valley I thought about how a day can back flip and cartwheel and embrace you – this morning I was dirty, late, tired, lonely and pissed off. It’s a tired cliche that nobody wants to hear when they’re down – but things really do always get better. I know I won’t remember that next time.

The Crackpot Magnet

My birthday rolled around as I rolled into Vilcabamba, my third on the road and my thoughts strayed to my previous celebrations – thirty was spent festooned in traditional Arabic dress in Syria when a family invited me in from the desert and threw me an impromptu party. Thirty one was probably as fun but less memorable – Cape Town, Jagerbombs and ‘the caterpillar’ dance are about the only details I can be sure of. Vilcabamba though offered a nice twist, being as it is – one of the downright weirdest towns on earth.

Vilcabamba’s story is a little hazy and uncertain, a bit like it’s latest residents. The valley it lies in gained notoriety, and became known as the Valley of Longevity, once locals were observed to live unusually long lives. By 1973 these oldies made it onto the cover of National Geographic and soon after the scientists arrived, as did the mystics and the hippies, all keen to learn the secret – and you could pick and choose the culprit: mineral rich water, extra strong anti-oxidants, a magic tree, and a host of more exotic theories.

And ever since life in Vilcabamba has been tinged with a likable absurdity. Researchers dug around and found that the old folks tended to exaggerate their ages and that these exaggerations became grander the older the person got – eighty year olds were routinely claiming that it was time to celebrate their 130th birthday, so eager they were for prestige in the community. Now Vilcabamba is a mecca for ageing American hippies who need their pension to stretch a bit further and who believe there really is something special about the environment here. There are a host of other characters as well though – political refugees (in the loosest possible sense), spiritualists, conspiracy theorists, rosy cheeked alcoholics and various crackpots. “Oh Yeah… We get a lot of freaks here” a hostel owner confided to me. Noticeboards around town advertise psychic crystal readings, dowsing seminars, fire guardians as well as the odd house to rent with ‘a healing space’. Around the town square sit artisans, many from Europe, plying their wares and a few stoners selling poems with titles like ‘the unfortunate gooseberry’, no doubt the brain child of a magic mushroom bender in the 70s. And of course there’s the self styled shaman who sells hallucinogens to tourists. Recently the leader of a group arrived here from Britain, and with followers. Their focus is on time travel, alien abductions and mind control and their website reassures those who perhaps judge them a little insane – “We have no intention of ending our own lives”. Meander around the town for an afternoon or evening and its easy to find yourself engaged in an impassioned conversation about a range of fantastical conspiracy theories and doomsday scenarios. Rumour had it some residents had even built a bunker near the town in the hills – the end of the world is on it’s way, apparently.

The town’s eccentrics made it a nice place to chill out for a few days, but better still… I met a girl. According to another cyclist I know, this is akin to getting a really slow puncture. And after some days together I cycled off, she was still in Vilcabamba, but travelling south. I cycled out of town feeling great, feeling invincible even and then very quickly – like I was making a big mistake. She was still there and I was cycling in the wrong direction. I emailed her. She emailed me. There was a festival north of Vilcabamba in Latacunga called Mama Negra. Let’s meet up. I felt invincible again.


Mamacita and Mama Negra 

“What’s going on?!” I yelled over. “No idea!” my mamacita shouted back.

She had been pulled into the multi-hued vein of the procession and was surrounded by men dressed in white robes with striped masks who were tapping her legs with coloured bones and spitting sugar cane spirit into her face. It was a cleansing ritual, I found out later. Just then a tubby man sat astride a horse and thrashing the air with a fist cruised past. His face was painted black, he had fake breasts and he was holding a doll of a black infant in his other hand, savagely beating the air with the child, the crowd were yelling in delight despite the lack of parental concern of the mock parent for the mock child. This was Mama Negra Festival and that was Mama Negra her/him-self.

The origins of Mama Negra festival  have been blurred by the passage of time, in reality its probably an amalgamation of cultural and religious celebrations. From an outsiders perspective it doesn’t immediately sit well. Blacked up faces? Pointy white hoods? Men dressed as black women? But this is a celebration of the cultural diversity that came with Africans arriving on Ecuadorian shores, and of religion too and perhaps transvestism, which also seems to be a common theme.

The Wickerman on LSD is what comes to mind as I watch the procession roll on, everyone in the crowd now inexorably pissed, including the ten year olds, and there’s a vaguely menacing air to the drooling drunks dressed as some kind of clown. The carcasses of large pigs are carried by men, decorated with bottles of booze and dead chickens, and seem to sway to the music which comes courtesy of brass bands comprised of men in dark aviator sunglasses and suits, like Colombian drugs barons. Behind them dancers in more traditional South American dress, firing out dance moves tirelessly as the parade moves on and the town gets drunker.

By nightfall the city of Latacunga has undergone a sinister transformation and the residents are comatose in puddles on the street side or fighting or stumbling and moaning. The less inebriated have taken to setting fire to things. As I left the square to find a toilet two teenagers grabbed my hand, one threw a clumsy punch which I blocked with my left hand. Only a few minutes later, with blood streaming down my arm and a deep laceration to my index finger, did I realise that the kid must have struck out with a knife, and I didn’t even see the weapon. But despite the grim hangover that was the night time antics, the celebration itself was a blinder.

The day after the riot, I mean festival, I said goodbye to my mamacita. I returned to Cuenca and my bike. I pedalled off, and that was that. Onward, but with a slightly heavy heart, to Quito and then Colombia.

I think he’s just trying to read that logo on her top. Yep, that must be it.

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Comments (4)

  • Avatar



    Ugh. Seems my last attempt at a comment was lost. The gist was that I raved about your writing and riding and told you that you're a joy and delight…and to let us know if you need U.S. contacts once here. Also, I swooned over this bit:

    "In a world so explored, mapped, mastered, manipulated, plundered and bent out of shape, a brand spanking new discovery is an ever rarer gift, and in a world so exploited, it's a comfort, too. It shouts that maybe we, the spoilers and the wasters, don't know everything, and perhaps there are more hidden secrets out there waiting to be unearthed. It's even better of course when that discovery is a whopper. At three times the height of the Eiffel tower, Yumbilla Falls in the Amazonas region of Peru is exactly that, yet for decades Yumbilla had been shrouded in foliage and disregard."

    You are such the man.


    • Avatar

      Stephen Fabes


      Thanks Jocelyn! I've only just realised I can reply to individual comments in blogger so thanks for all your comments on cyclingthe6, its nice to get positive feedback. US contacts – absolutely. I'll email you nearer the time. Hope you and your family are well. All the best. Steve


  • Avatar



    Brilliant blog once again Steve. I so enjoy reading about your adventures. I sincerely hope you are going to put all of this into a book one day…it deserves that for sure. You are a brilliant teller of stories and I am always entertained and amused by your travails and adventures….it's like a door opening into another world….which it is of course. Safe/Happy travels, I am looking forward to the next chapter.


    • Avatar

      Stephen Fabes


      Thanks Cindy,

      Writing a book is a scary prospect, but yes, it's on my to-do list!


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