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You’ve no doubt heard how popular this attraction is. Well, you’ve come to the right place to learn about how to avoid the the crowds at Dunn’s River Falls.
Dunn’s River Falls is a Jamaica national treasure, and holds a significant place in the country’s history. It is believed to be the site of a 1657 battle between the Spanish and the English for possession of Jamaica.
The falls, a naturally occurring phenomenon, are 180 feet high and 600 feet long, leading out to the Caribbean Sea. The rock formations beneath the cascading water, are continuously reshaped and renewed from the deposits of travertine rocks along the river.
The smooth rock is the result of deposits over time, formed from the calcium carbonate from the river flowing over the falls. Small dome shaped indents, seen while climbing the falls, are the result of thermal spring activity found in the areas limestone caves. This, in combination with the attraction’s proximity to the sea, make it a distinctive one of a kind experience in the Caribbean.
All this natural beauty comes at a price though. The attraction has become a major tourist destination, being a short drive from Ocho Rios, Jamaica’s fastest growing resort town, and popular cruise ship port of call.
Visiting the falls without crowds may sound unlikely, but it is possible. Use these 10 tips for how to avoid crowds at Dunn’s River Falls and climb it like a local.
1. Go early
Dunn River Falls is open 8:30am – 4:00pm, and as early as 7am when cruise ships are in port. Plan to arrive 15 minutes before opening, on a non-cruise ship day, so you can be the first person to buy a ticket. Non-resident adult tickets are $25 US.
Once through the gate, change into your suit in their change rooms, and bag your belongings in a waterproof bag on your back, and hightail it down the steps towards the ocean. Wave to the guides and smile, but don’t engage them. Your goal is to be the first person hiking up the falls, without anyone else in sight.
2. Go when there are no cruise ships in port
It’s pretty much impossible to avoid crowds when a cruise ship is in town, so it’s best to avoid those days all together. If you have no choice, get there early, but remember that the gates open at 7am on cruise ship days!
Dunn River Falls is one of the most popular day trips for visitors in Jamaica. Tours are organized from local resorts and as day trips from cruise ships in port. Avoiding cruise ship days dramatically reduces the number of organized groups arriving at the falls.
While group tours from the resorts, or private groups (usually via driver or taxi) still arrive on non-cruise ship days, they generally arrive in the morning within an hour of opening. From experience, few are there when the ticket sales gate opens. The closest cruise ship port is Ocho Rios, literally 10 minutes from the falls. Link here for the port schedule: https://cruisedig.com/ports/ocho-rios-jamaica Some cruise ship tour groups also arrive from the port in Montego Bay. While it’s several hours away, be sure to monitor that port as well when planning how to avoid the the crowds at Dunn’s River Falls.
3. Rent a car/go solo
The best way to ensure arriving early and away from other groups, is to not be part of one yourself! Arriving independently, either by rental car, or solo by taxi is recommended.
Driving in Jamaica is not for the faint of heart of course, since cars are right hand drive on the left side of the road, the opposite of North America. This is likely the reason so few tourist rent cars, but it also puts them at the mercy of tour companies and cab drivers on the make for a good buck.
A car rental can not only be extremely cost effective, but also liberating if you’re planning to tour for the balance of the day. Avis is the only rental outfit in Ocho Rios, and they will happily pick you up and drop you off at your resort close by in their shuttle van. Search for cars here. A rental vehicle also offers the option of leaving items in your vehicle, rather than paying to rent a locker at the falls.
Know your comfort level
If you do hire a private taxi out of Ocho Rios, be sure to set a price up front, and make sure they deliver you early – before the ticket gate opens. Don’t worry about paying a driver to wait for you, there are always taxis on the make looking to bring people back to Ocho Rios. But do know that your ability to negotiate a price for the return will be compromised by the fact that you have little other choice to get back to town.
You will definitely pay a premium to have a driver wait. Guide books suggest a fare of $10 each way is reasonable for the five minute taxi ride from Ocho Rios. But they also warn that hard bargaining drivers will start much higher. For all these reasons, consider renting a car ($50 US), spending the balance of the day touring, and experience the freedom of seeing Jamaica on your own terms.
4. Skip hiring a guide to avoid the crowds at Dunn’s River Falls
Tour guides are great for assuring everyone’s safety and well-being, but they are not necessary. If you are reasonably fit and mindful of picking a safe route up the rocks, there is no reason to not do the climb on your own – especially if it allows you the first climb of the day before booked tours arrive.
The key is to climb areas where the water is less forceful, generally to the sides, wear water shoes with good grip, and maintain a third point of contact with one hand if you are at all unsteady.
Guides of course can motivate you if you’re at all anxious, make a group climb fun, and be on hand to take photos. But they also come at a price – not only expecting a generous tip at the top, but also ensuring your pace is that of the slowest group member. Plus it pretty much guarantees that every photo you capture will be heavily crowded.
For a pure falls experience, and a shot at capturing the moment as a solitary experience, go early and skip the guide.
5. Save time, don’t rent a locker & wear a waterproof pack
As noted above, lockers can be rented for $10 US to store your clothes while hiking the falls. Although they have padlocks and promise security, I wouldn’t be leaving any real valuables in them.
If you bring a waterproof backpack, or have a large Ziplock waterproof bag within your pack for clothes, wallet and guidebook, you will be fine. Noted later in this list is a waterproof cell phone camera pouch, an absolute necessity unless you’re going to store your phone in the waterproof backpack.
Another benefit of not renting a locker is speed. You miss having to cue and pay for the service, and because you appear to be on your own self-guided mission, the guides are likely to not hassle you for business while waiting to form a large group. They just assume you are a local.
6. Bring your own water shoes
It’s important to wear water shoes for safety and grip on the smooth rocks. You can of course rent or buy water shoes, but if you arrive already equipped, not only have you saved money, you have saved time. Remember the goal is to be the first at the bottom of the falls by the ocean.
Water shoes are absolutely necessary for safety. Not only do they ensure better grip, they also protect your feet. There are areas where you will be stepping into free-flowing water and unable to see the bottom. Foot protection will prevent unnecessary injury.
Of course, water shoes can be rented for $10 US at the falls, but I’ve seen online reviews where people complain that the grip was worn down on their rented footwear. You can also buy water shoes there, but you’ll be paying a premium and likely joining a cue for the privilege.
Check out this video giving you some great visuals of what to expect with not another person in sight, as well as a summary at the end of 10 tips for how to avoid the the crowds at Dunn’s River Falls.
7. Bring a waterproof camera holder on a neck leash
If you plan to take photos with your cell phone (and who wouldn’t!) you will need to protect it from the water. It is virtually impossible to hold a camera with one hand while climbing. You will need both hands free. Waterproof cell phone holders on a neck leash are ideal. Cinched up towards your neck, the waterproof pouch will spare you a full immersion, when you are in water past your waste in some pools.
Of course, waterproof cell phone pouches are also sold at the falls, but if your goal is to save money, skip the cue, and get to the bottom of the falls quickly for your assent, this is just one more item to bring with you ahead of time.
8. Slip off your resort wrist band
All-inclusive resorts in Jamaica, like Moon Palace, have guests wear a wrist band for identification, gated resort access, and use of amenities while on property. But they also serve another rather menacing purpose when beyond the resort community – they identify you to locals as an easy target to be taken advantage of.
I learned this lesson courtesy of a couple cab drivers waiting for their clients, while sitting in the parking lot sun pavilion. I had slipped off my resort band and put it in my bag to walk through Ocho Rios to the car rental office. They spoke to me like a local, and assumed I was a long term stay, sharing how they knew immediately to not hustle me because of it. The absence of a wrist band was no doubt how I was able to walk on by the guides and locker rental folks without issue as well.
A word of caution
Having suggested you slip off the resort band, just be sure to put it in a safe place. Resorts will charge you a hefty fine of $350 for losing the band. And in my experience, most do not want you to wear it loosely for that reason. Just make up a story about not being able to sleep with it on, and they will click it in place at a removable size.
Not having the resort wrist band will make your life infinitely easier if you plan to tour on your own beyond the gate. Resorts will often create fear around leaving the gated community, but that is where the real Jamaica can be found. With well-informed safety precautions and respect for local customs, touring can be done safely. Use Lonely Planet Jamaica, or Moon Jamaica Guide as references.
Are you really a free spirit?
The reason why some resorts caution guests about security, goes beyond their concern for your personal safety. Their desire to patronize a curated network of drivers and tour operators offering mutual financial benefit is also at play.
Just know, if you’re a free spirit, you will find removing the wrist band empowering when venturing beyond the resort. Plus you’ll be left alone if you want to climb the falls solo!
9. Start from the bottom & remember it’s not a race
It goes without saying that it is easier to climb up the falls than to climb down it. But it’s worth noting that you should start at the bottom, since there are access points mid-way. These of course can be lovely ways to return to pooled areas once your initial climb is complete.
There’s no need to make the climb a sprint, but you don’t want to doddle for crowds either if you’ve managed to secure the pole position for an authentic early morning climb. You do want to watch your step, and stop occasionally to rest though.
It’s also really fun to enjoy the small pools along the way. But if the goal is to take in the entire experience knowing how to avoid the the crowds at Dunn’s River Falls, I would suggest steadily continuing to the top if you were the first person at the bottom. You can always circle back and have some dwell time in the pools later. It’s yet another benefit of doing the falls solo without a tour group.
The gate ticket allows you to spend the entire day if you want to, and you can certainly do the falls more than once if that is of interest.
10. Climb to the very top, then return down the stairs to the ocean
Assuming you’ve done everything suggested here, there is a good chance you will have climbed up Dunn River Falls with few or no other people around. Congratulations!
Now it’s time to truly appreciate the uniqueness of your experience, having learned how to avoid the the crowds at Dunn’s River Falls. I’d suggest walking back down the steps to the base of the falls by the ocean where you first started. Tuck you backpack by the beach, and just float in the warm salt water, watching the crowds arrive.
Soon you’ll be treated to multiple groups, all lead by enthusiastic (sometimes overly so) guides, pumping up their groups, and leading a slow hand-held procession up the rocks. There will also be swarms of people arriving by boat, often let off on shore by day-trip small boat operators.
Nobody that day will have secured the experience that you just had.
A few more things to know before you go
It is possible to climb the falls in as little as 35 minutes, but there’s no need to make it a race. As a reasonably fit and agile adventurer, I did it in 45 minutes, with numerous stops for photos along the way. If however you are doing the climb with a group, you should allow up to 1 hour 30 minutes, since the group rate will be much slower.
If the beauty of Dunn’s River Falls seems a tad bit familiar, it was featured in the first James Bond film “Dr. No” in 1962 as well as the 1988 Tom Cruise film “Cocktail.” And of course, the falls also appears on Jamaica’s $100 note – making it a very affordable souvenir at $0.65 US!
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