“I’ll tie this around your head,” says Claudia, my guide, producing a grey sweatshirt from her rucksack as we stand on the edge of a canyon precipice, “and then you won’t be able to see how far down it is.” She smiles encouragingly. I’m having a moment of mild vertigo, but I explain to Claudia that I don’t think blindfolding me just before I cross a narrow, washed out mountain pass — at least 650ft above the valley floor — will help.
I live by the coast in the UK, and — along with the absence of falling hazards — there are a number of advantages to the seaside lifestyle. One plus point rarely mentioned, however, is all of that lovely, dense, oxygen-rich air.
Up here, in Peru’s rural Amazonas Region, at 7,500ft above sea level, my chest swells, greedily snatching lungfuls of the thin atmosphere. Nevertheless, I’ve never felt so alive. We’re hiking to Gocta Cataracts, overlooking dense cloud forest, along a track that passes agricultural huts. They’re festooned with billowing, varicoloured washing lines and kaleidoscopic plastic jugs that similarly swing on strings, drying out in the morning sun. Smouldering bonfires perfume the air. The scene is so redolent of sacramental smoke and prayer flags that I can’t tell if my heart pounds to race scarce oxygen around my system, or because I’ve fallen in love with the views.
“We’ve only been walking for 35 minutes,” puffs Claudia. “This section usually takes an hour and half!” This explains our shortness of breath. We’d been hiking at such a fast pace to get ahead of the other travellers. We’d set out a little late, at 8.30am, so the track was already quite busy — especially since some were cheating on horseback. Claudia’s concerned they might scare away the birdlife, like the exquisitely named Andean solitaire, the disk-crested cock-of-the-rock and the flamboyantly feathered marvellous spatuletail hummingbird.
“You need to start hiking at 5am to see them,” Rocio Florez, my host and owner of Gocta Natura Cabins ecolodge, had said the night before over dinner. Rocio speaks excellent English, only breaking into her native tongue to chastise Lucy and Pongo, her mother-and-pup border collies who lavish affection upon visitors. Back at my cabin, I could clearly see the terminus of this morning’s walk — the magnificent, two-drop Gocta Cataracts.
And up close, from the mountainous trail, the view is incredible: two cascades, stacked atop each other, are visible to the whole 200-strong community of Cocachimba, but incredibly — despite being over 2,500ft high — it was a complete secret to the outside world until 2005, when it was ‘discovered’ by German economist and adventurer Stefan Ziemendorff. The following year, after returning to measure the falls, he made an announcement: he’d found the third-tallest waterfall on Earth. That record is up for debate, given the break in the falls, but it’s certainly a world-class spectacle.
Of course, the locals knew about it, but didn’t mention it to anyone due to stories of a curse. The tale goes that a man named Gregorio took off on a surreptitious trip to the foot of Gocta Cataracts, followed by his suspicious wife who found him there in the embrace of a platinum blonde mermaid. When his wife flew into a jealous rage, the mermaid dived into the deep reddish-black waters below, pulling Gregorio with her. He never returned to the surface.
Accordingly, the locals believed that anyone making the steep, serpentine schlep through increasingly dense forest hung with orchids, and dancing with electric-blue butterflies, to those poker-straight white falls — the tresses of which twirl under their own backdraft as they reach that dark mirror below — may similarly fall foul of a siren.
It could be true, I think, looking askance at Claudia as she continues to offer to blindfold me, all the way up here on a vertiginous ledge. That being said, I don’t currently have a better idea for calming my nerves.
Standing in the way of control
I’m disappointed to find the Spanish lexicon is quite limited when it comes to describing sand. I say this because the Inuit have 53 words for snow. The Sami people have around 180, from skálvi, a high, steep snowdrift, to láhttu, a ski track in the snow. And here, in in the vast subtropical desert of Paracas National Reserve, sand is treated in way snow traditionally is — at least when it comes to extreme sports.
Amid the serenity of shifting sandscapes — from golden plains caressed by the wind and serpents’ bellies into a rippling, warped canvas; to polylithic, looming dunes that arch heavenward before plunging into powdery precipices — Frank and Mikey’s bright red, hulking Dodge pickup truck bounces through the desert, blasting Nirvana from its speakers. I’m rattling around in the passenger seat like a pinball between bumpers, trying to photograph the encompassing quietude with my shutter speed cranked up to maximum. The dunes turn a dusky peach in the late afternoon sun, and Kurt Cobain’s freeze-dried vocals solidify in the surrounding stillness.
“Ye-e-e-ah, yeah!” Lithium’s chorus, which wrings four syllables out of the informal affirmative, may originally have represented ironic laughter in the dark, but my joy is certainly genuine: this is pure, adrenalin-filled fun in the sun.
Mikey is twice my age and half my height, and speaks no English whatsoever. That doesn’t stop him cheerfully chatting away to me in machine-gun Spanish as he hauls his mammoth vehicle up and over steep sand cliffs. He churns through the gears, as if one of them will have the power to defy gravity, then hurtles diagonally back down the dune, both of us cackling maniacally as we go.
But my laughter is soon replaced with dumbstruck silence as Mikey stops atop a particularly precipitous sand pile. We’ve arrived.
Frank hops out of the vehicle. In his late 20s, he’s a friendly but sober character — less impressed by Mikey’s handbrake turns than me — dressed in blue chinos and a bright white shirt. It’s an incongruous uniform in which to hurl oneself down a dune, but once he’s finished waxing his homemade sandboard with an altar candle, he straps it to his feet with Velcro and vanishes over the edge. I watch as he skirts diagonally across the face of the mammoth sand dune.
Mikey sets off in his pickup to wait for me at the bottom. It’s now so far away the truck looks like a Matchbox toy; now I think about it, I find it’s offering an unwanted sense of perspective.
I chicken out. Having never so much as been skiing before, I decide to sit on my board and use it as a toboggan: feet in front of me, knees up by my chest and fingers trailing through the sand either side of me as ersatz rudders. It’s an utterly thrilling ride, for which I happily and repeatedly endure the molasses-slow progress of trudging back up the dune, which shifts like quicksilver underfoot.
Eventually, we move on to a two-tiered sand cascade which offers some more manoeuvring options. Maybe I can use the second, gentler slope to practise standing?
“Control,” Frank tells me as a one-word instruction during our five-second, Spanglish sandboarding lesson, while he demonstrates a turn of the knee and a pivot of the hips that I must apparently master in order to become a sort of sabulous Shaun White.
I last about five seconds, then wipe out. Big time. Relying on former skateboarding muscle memory, I overcompensate on the slithering sand and suddenly I’m speeding down the slope backwards. Inevitably, I tumble onto my back and, as momentum swings my feet up into the air, the Velcro on my foot fastenings surrenders to g-force and my board somersaults through the air above my head. I cartwheel below it, my sunglasses spinning off into oblivion for good measure. I come to a stop as my board slams down into the sand beside me. I look up at a concerned Frank.
“Now that,” I tell him, in slow, measured English syllables, “is control.” For the first time, Frank cracks a smile.
Of course, this southwestern part of the country is most famous for the Nazca Lines: huge ancient geoglyphs etched into the desert best viewed from the sky. Local scenic flights once had a reputation as being a little hairy, but nowadays tour groups take off in gleaming planes from the brand new airport. I’m looking for something a little more exhilarating, so I head back to Lima, where I’m promised a trip on a powered paraglider.
It’s crazy to look at: just a propeller attached to a tricycle. There’s tape holding cables to the frame and the carbon fibre propellers have faded from time in the sun. I joke that I’m about to board a flying lawnmower as the crew struggle to get it started, yanking on the cord to get the petrol engine going, then watching it sputter out again. Then they push it out onto an unfinished section of Lima’s seafront promenade and attach a parachute to the metal frame. I can’t believe I’m going paragliding in this contraption.
With no fanfare at all I’m strapped in. There’s about 20ft of gravel runway in front of us — no space for a regular plane to take off at all, but as the engine finally sputters to life, one of the men pushes his weight behind the trike, urging it forwards and runs alongside with his hands on the frame, giving the aircraft a bump-start. Within half a second the parachute has inflated and the motorised lawnmower lurches steeply upwards, taking to the skies with the sudden grace of an inexpertly swatted bluebottle.
My seemingly mute pilot (perhaps deafened by years of having his head inches from a propellor) takes me on a thrilling, scenic tour down the coast, the city of Lima bristling beneath us. On the promenade of the posh district of Miraflores, ant-like people play football while the sea teems with surfers. Up here we’re soaring. Ponderous pelicans skirt the surface of the water with surprising elegance hundreds of feet below, while we pinwheel around like an even more improbable bird.
It seems strange that my trip began with a vertiginous meltdown on a high mountain pass, and now here I am in a glorified birdcage on wheels, dangling under a parachute, being propelled by an oversized desk fan. As we return and approach the landing strip — plied by seafront joggers to one side, and cars on the other — the paraglider slaloms between lampposts before finally bouncing down and coming to a standstill. I let out a whoop of exuberance. It’s been one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life — no blindfolds required.
Adventurers’ guide: Archaeology in action
Old ruins, new tricks
When up in Amazonas, a visit to Kuelap Fortress is compulsory. Plugged as ‘the Machu Picchu of the north’, it’s a sprawling mountaintop archeological site surrounded by an imposing wall. Built in the sixth century, it’s one of the lesser-visited sights in Peru, but predates Machu Picchu by about 900 years.
Keep an eye out for ancient burial sites. Locals I spoke to in Paracas told me they’d discovered mummified human remains when they were exploring in their younger days. And it’s worth looking carefully at the holes in the cliffs as you’re ascending in the Kuelap cable-car — I spotted a human skull in an unmarked cave.
Just off the coast of Paracas, the craggy Ballestas Islands teem with fur seals, starfish, pelicans, Humboldt penguins and plenty more wildlife besides. Jump aboard a speedboat and brave the wind and ocean spray to visit this remarkable ecosystem, taking in the ancient, 600ft Candelabra geoglyph en route.
When to go: The best time to visit Kuelap Fortress and the Gocta Cataracts is during the May to October dry season. Paracas is mostly dry and temperatures peak at around 25C between November and February, while December to April is peak season in Lima.
More info: Gocta Natura Cabins in Chachapoyas offers accommodation, including meals and entrance to Gocta Cataracts with a guide, from US185 (£140) per person per day.
Venturia dune bashing near Paracas from US$149 (£114)
Nazca Lines flights from Pisco or Nazca airports from US$279 (£211).
For more info: peru.travel
Published in the Adventure Travel guide, free with with the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)