A short trip into the folds of the verdant Cordillera Oriental, which contains Bogotá, is the highest known waterfall in Colombia. However, ask most locals about La Chorrera and they’ll look at you as if you’ve stirred something long forgotten.
Somehow, the 590 meters of roaring water cascading through the jungle cliffs has been erased from the collective memory of the millions of people living a mere hour’s drive away.
It was an early start: bleary eyed and shambling at 6.30 am, I found the streets packed with fresh-faced kids bounding to school. At 6.30 am! Juan, my guide, told me later that some schools start at 4.30 am. This did nothing to put a spring in my step. A few minutes drive from Bogotá’s International Business Center and we’d climbed out of the metropolis.
While the city sprawls to the north, south and west, to the east there are no suburbs to allow a gentle adjustment to the countryside; the change from city to forest is as marked as jumping from a boat into the sea. Atop a green mountain at 3,200 meters above sea level, we looked through the morning mist over to Monserrate and the city spread before us.
We dropped down into the countryside. Only minutes from the bankers in their suits and heels, the horse-riding farmers wear ruanas and rubber boots, with their machetes in elaborately beaded holsters. The Andean range acts like a curtain blinding the urbanities to the rural communities only moments away.
It had been a stormy night and cloud still hung in the hollows and valleys as we threaded east through the wooded hills. Our car swerved between the rocks and boulders that had been brought down the cliffs by last night’s rains, despite their lush vegetation. Descending, we passed the Chingaza paramount and fields of the curiously hairy frailejón plants.
As we drove, my eye was caught by scores of glistening truck bulbs, which had been studiously assembled around a shrine to the patron of truckers: La Virgén del Carmen.
Looking down the precipitous drop to the Río Blanco, which ultimately feeds Venezuela’s spectacular Orinoco, I could understand the desire to bank a little good- will for the afterlife and perhaps even postpone the inevitable. The further we descended the more donkeys, cattle and horses we came across. Around the small brightly-painted houses with their pot plants hanging from the tiled roofs dogs, cats and chickens came to terms with the arrival of a new day.
Away from the impersonality of the city, mustachioed campesinos and elderly women wished us good morning with an inquisitive look and old-fashioned good manners. Beginning to feel hungry, our breakfast options are limited to a local tienda. Past the friendly animals, the shop was a room in an old lady’s breeze block home, stocked with bricks of panela (molasses), eggs, bread, biscuits, Poker beer and not much else.
Fortified on bread rolls, we strode into the jungle with our local guide. She had been delayed meeting us because, as she was putting on her boots to leave, her pig went into labor. As a result, while we snacked, she had been playing midwife as 11 piglets were introduced into the world.
After 20 minutes or so, we came to the first fall, El Chiflón, where the water billowed hypnotically off the plunge pool and onto the moss-covered rocks. Further into the jungle, Juan pointed out the rainforest plants attached to the trees. Crossing over a river, we could see the trees pulled down in the storm. It was disorientating walking through the jungle, with only glimpses of valleys through the cloud and thick overhanging vegetation to provide perspective. As it began to rain, we arrived at a spot where looking up, immeasurable quantities of water were pouring out of the mist.
As the cloud moved, we were given snapshots of the enormity of what was above us. At points there was no more than a ghostly silhouette of more than half a kilometer of the angry water flooding down off the rock walls. Further back, the full majesty of the falls begins to show itself. It’s an awe inspiring sight as three levels of roaring water crash out of the skies. “That’s just three fifths of it,” says Juan, as I crane my neck, slack-jawed.
Making the return trip, we stopped periodically to look back at the changing view. As the clouds moved, they exposed different sections of the waterfall. I kept checking until I had a glimpse of the top levels and watched the river gush out of the heavens.
When we were back in the car, it stuck me that we had seen no one else making the trip to La Chorrera. Despite there being millions of people on the doorstep and thousands of tourists annually coming through the city, hardly anyone comes here.
The area is an easy trip from Bogotá and also buses depart the city’s main terminal to Choachi every hour. Before arriving in Choachi, at the vereda Curí and La Palma, a dirt path takes you between El Amarillo and Alto Grande mountains into this cloud forest. But better organize an excursion with Choachi’s tourism office and enjoy a waterfall that Bogotanos have yet to claim back.