Flick through a tourist guide to Jamaica, and Dunn's River Falls are guaranteed to be listed as one of the must-see sights on the island.
What are they?
Dunn’s River Falls are 600ft of cascading water. They are the outlet for Dunn's River which flows into the Caribbean Sea, finally emptying out onto a sandy beach where local families play and the occasional wet-biker shows off to the tourists.
Where are they?
The Falls are situated just west of Ocho Rios, on the A3, in the direction of St Ann's Bay. This is on the North-East coast of the island and the Falls are well signposted and have ample parking facilities. Apparently, the Falls are also accessible on foot via the 'One Love Trail', a path which goes along the seafront west of Ocho Rios town and takes you to the foot of the waterfall. Many hotels and travel companies run organised coach tours to the Falls but local people and independent travellers also visit.
What can I experience?
Well, the sound and beauty of the water tumbling down from above in itself quite is something. Pack your swimsuit, though, as when you’ve entered the area from above and walked down the steps leading to the beach alongside the waterfall, you now get to climb back up the face of the waterfall.
For many, this is the main draw and something one would usually be advised against when visiting such a natural feature: hence, presumably, the Falls' popularity. Individuals climb the waterfall as part of a group with a guide, whose knowledge of every slippery stone and deep pool suddenly becomes very useful as you scramble upwards, often waist-deep in cold, rushing water.
Groups are encouraged to hold hands and form human chains as they climb. This may, at first, seem unhelpful and you may arrive with the notion that you'd quite like to try it for yourself with no-one hanging onto you. A few minutes of trying to get a foothold and pull yourself upwards onto that large, slippery boulder while tonnes of water crash down over you, usually changes your mind. You realise that it's actually quite helpful to have someone hanging onto you as your shoe comes off with the force of the water and you drop into a pebbly pool which isn't quite in the upwards direction you thought you were going in.
The guides know where you should and shouldn't tread and are personable and helpful without turning what is really a natural experience into too much of a contrived, touristy one. They will take pictures of you with your camera and allow plenty of breathing time between climbs. They do have a spot picked out where everyone has to pose for the usual buy-at-the-end photo but even then they're happy to take a duplicate picture with your camera.
Near the top of the climb, there's a natural water-slide into one of the deeper pools, which everyone has the chance to experience. It's short and you don't necessarily become fully submerged, plus you can easily decline and watch the others in your group doing it instead.
At the top, the river levels out and can be seen stretching back into the woods with bright, colourful tropical flowers dotted here and there along the edges and in the overhanging trees. Here, many people sit for a while in the shallow water, reflecting on the hour-long climb, not wishing to end the experience.
The guides expect a tip, as is usual in Jamaica; they wait patiently off to one side and won't heckle or bar the way of those who don't want to contribute.
What else is on-site?
Just before the exit to the car park is a market selling traditional goods aimed at the tourist market. It is here that you may encounter a certain level of hassle from vendors and unfortunately this can let the place down. Visitors have to exit through this market and those who aren't used to ignoring or physically moving out of the way of such traders may feel upset or annoyed. The market is cunningly arranged so that the visitor gets lost within it even though the car park is obviously only a few metres away: there are no helpful signs giving the best route through.
To experience climbing the Falls, it is generally worth running this particular gauntlet. Visitors from certain countries will be used to such heckling, others may expect and enjoy it as part of the overall experience.
There are also toilet facilities and places to buy food.
When should I go?
Most guide books advise visitors to arrive at the Falls as early as possible in the morning or as late as you can before it closes. This will help to avoid the crowds and also the hottest part of the day. Although you are climbing in lovely cool water, the sun can be strong (there is occasional dappled shade) so the heat should be a consideration.
What should I take?
A swimsuit (with a T-shirt over if you like), sun cream and non-slip footwear. Be aware that the force of the water can undo sandals you previously thought might be OK for such a venture! There are stalls at the entrance to the complex which sell rubber swim-shoes at a reasonable price if you forget or haven't anything suitable. You can't really go barefoot. Put your camera in a waterproof case or bag. If arriving by coach, arrange to leave everything else on board, including your towel. There are lockers and changing facilities at the foot of the falls.
Is it worth all the hype?
This is always a subjective question. Some people don't like being among crowds of coach-tour passengers. Others don't care for the shopping village. Ask yourself if you'll be sorry you missed it. Plan the timing of your visit carefully. How many waterfalls have you climbed today?