This article describes the geology and character of the Dunn’s River Waterfalls, a natural limestone spring and stepped falls, set in a tropical paradise. Here you can find out a little about the history of the area, which includes the site of a major battle, the nearby birthplace of some famous people, and arguably one of the most iconic film locations of all time. There are also plenty of tips and recommendations for travellers hoping to enjoy a day out at the falls, with suggestions about what to take, what to leave behind, facilities on site, and how to get there.
Climb the Dunn’s River Waterfalls
Jamaica has a well-deserved reputation as a warm and friendly place, and a popular tourist destination. Among the top attractions, is to visit, and climb the Dunn’s River waterfalls. In fact, at busy times, it may get quite crowded, although this should not detract much from your enjoyment. The name Jamaica, in fact, comes from the original name the Arawak people gave to the islands, ‘Xayamaca’, which means ‘land of wood and water’, and nowhere is this more perfectly exemplified than at this government-owned park.
About the Falls
The river itself is very short, emerging from a spring and cascading down a series of natural steps, broken here and there by small lagoons until it empties into the sea at a beautiful sandy beach (see ‘local history’ below). The total length is just 180m (600 feet) and the drop is 55m (180 feet) Climbing the falls is not particularly hazardous to anyone of even moderate fitness, although there are steps cut into the side, for those who do not wish to venture into the water. The water is a pleasant temperature, and the forest provides welcome shade from the worst of the sun.
Because of the local geology, the waterfall itself is effectively self-perpetuating. This phenomenon can be seen in many other locations around the world, indeed there are several elsewhere in Jamaica, but very few so impressive, and in such an idyllic setting. The spring is fed by rainwater filtering through the limestone hills, which rise over 500m (1,640 feet) to the south of the park. The water emerges, saturated with dissolved calcium-carbonate, or limestone, which is then deposited out of the water in much the same way that stalactites grow in caves, offsetting any erosion effects by the water. The resulting tufa rock is relatively soft and porous, giving rise to curved steps in a variety of shapes and sizes. This geological phenomenon gives rise to ample superb photo-opportunities, as you climb the waterfalls, providing you have a waterproof camera.
Jamaica had been held by the Spanish since the time of Columbus, but in 1655 the English captured the island with some 7,000 troops, forcing the Spanish governor to flee into the hills and begin a sort of guerrilla campaign with some escaped slaves. The English, however, suffered more from disease and starvation, than from raids; the first two English governors died within a year. By 1657, the Spanish governor, Cristóbal Arnaldo Isasi, persuaded the Spanish to send reinforcements from Cuba. The battle of Ocho Rios, or Las Chorreras, took place close to the Dunn’s River waterfall on the 30th of October 1657. The English force of some 900 men was led by the third governor, General Edward D'Oyley, who defeated Isasi’s smaller force. A year later, Isasi, with more Spanish reinforcements, was defeated again a little further along the coast at Rio Nuevo. This was the last serious attempt by the Spanish to recapture the island, and Spain ceded Jamaica to the English in 1670, ending all claims. A plaque placed by the Jamaican Historical Society commemorates the battle.
The Spanish name for Ocho Rios, ‘Las Chorreras’, means ‘waterfalls’, although this meaning is relatively obscure in modern Spanish. It also translates as ‘frills’; it is possible the meanings are related since the spray from the many steps of the waterfalls does resemble some sort of frilly lace garment.
Nearby St Ann’s Bay is where Christopher Columbus first landed in Jamaica. St Anne’s Bay is also the birthplace of Reggae artist, Burning Spear, and of political activist and black rights campaigner, Marcus Garvey.
The first ever James Bond film, Dr No (1962), was shot partly on location here. In the iconic scene in which Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) first meets Sean Connery (James Bond), you can see the bottom of the falls in the background.
In 1972 the Jamaican government obtained the land from the Belmont estate, and created the Dunn’s River Falls and Park, developing it as a major tourist destination. Citizens of Jamaica get reduced entry with proof of residence.
Climbing the Waterfalls
Those who wish to climb the Dunn’s River waterfall don’t need to be especially fit. The climb is not overly arduous or hazardous. The tufa is a relatively soft rock, with rounded edges, and none of the steps is very high, so there is no problem with fear of heights, and even if you do slip, it is unlikely to result in any serious injury.
The climb is not recommended for those who are pregnant, under three feet tall, or who suffer from various medical conditions listed on a noticeboard. There are stairs alongside the falls, for those who can’t or don’t wish to go in the water. There is no wheelchair access, although disabled visitors can access an area close to the top, should they wish to watch friends or family complete the climb. You are permitted to climb the falls without a guide if you prefer. The guides get everyone in a group to hold hands, which may mean you are holding on to a stranger, but it seems to create camaraderie.
There are several places to stop and take pictures, and the guide will video the climb, although opinions vary as to whether it is worth buying the video. It is a good idea to take either a waterproof camera or a smartphone in a good quality waterproof bag, so you can get your own pictures.
Beach shoes, with flexible gripping rubber soles, and uppers made of ‘wetsuit’ material, are an essential luxury; called ‘water shoes’ locally, they can be bought or hired, for a reasonable cost at the resort, or just outside, but if you have a pair anyway, make sure you bring them. Normal beachwear is ideal for the water, and a wide-brimmed hat and waterproof sun-cream, to keep safe from the sun. There are secure lockers for any loose items or valuables that you don’t want to carry or risk getting wet. A waterproof camera is likely the only other thing you will want to take, ideally on a secure lanyard.
Getting to the Dunn’s River Waterfalls and Park
The park is far out of the way from most resorts. There is a car-park if you have access to a car. Some visitors recommend hiring a minicab driver, or car for the day. There are also various organized trips, and tours to the park, including several which go by sea. Although these may appear to be the more expensive option, they may well be the best overall value for money since they may include entry to the park, and extra activities such as snorkelling, or catering. It’s worth checking exactly what you get for your money before you book. Whichever way you get there, and however you choose to climb the falls, ‘cool runnings’.
One last thing; on finishing the climb, there are several vendors offering souvenirs, and gifts. Depending on your financial situation, this may provide a welcome opportunity for a little retail therapy, or it may feel like running a gauntlet. If the latter, just remember that you don’t have to buy anything. Enjoy the atmosphere, smile and keep moving.