I try to demystify Jamaican off-the-beaten-path places on Adventures from Elle because usually not much useful information is available about these places online or by word of mouth. Island Gully Falls is one such place despite becoming very popular on social media and perhaps more recently popularized as Blue Hole.
A detailed search turned up conflicting prices ranging from free to expensive US$ prices and its location in St. Ann was often quickly corrected by others to St. Mary. Well, Island Gully Falls is a scenic cascading portion of the White River set upstream under tropical rainforest-like canopy and it straddles the parish border of St. Ann and St. Mary. Also, there is a rate of JM$500 for locals but as to the cost they charge foreign tourists I can’t say. It seems to vary depending on whether you find your own transport there or if you come with a tour group. Nonetheless, here’s how my adventure went:
Starting from the heart of Ocho Rios, GPS can guide you very well. The Google Maps marker is actually very accurate so the difficult to find and “secret falls” myths can die. The easiest path takes you down A3, Exchange Road, Lodge Main Road then Thatch Hill Road. The drive winds through green canopy which filters out some of the sunlight to cast a beautiful glow. However, if you’re the driver, mind how you focus on the view. Instead, keep your eyes glued to the road after you reach Exchange for the ubiquitous potholes. You’ll know you’re nearby when you start seeing signs for “Calypso Rafting” and for Wata Land. The overall drive lasted about half an hour. Parking is along the left shoulder of the road and requires skill or guidance which the vendors and tour guides milling about outside will happily provide. I hear route taxis to Blue Hole are available from the Ochi taxi stand and while I’m not sure of the exact price, it shouldn’t exceed JM$200 per person.
Pay at the booth near the gate and you’ll each receive an armband plus be met by a guide. Restrooms and changing rooms are available while refreshments and towels are on sale. The guides are certified lifeguards and wear an identification card on a lanyard around their necks so if you’re approached by a local without this ID, request it and be very cautious if he can’t provide it. Besides this, the guides are very informal with no training whatsoever in hospitality nor knowledge of the place prior to its current use as a tourist attraction. When I visit a place, I expect to hear the words “Welcome to so and so”, “over there used to be. . .” etc. I didn’t have that experience today from my guide Omar. In fact for the male in my group who like myself is a virtual non-swimmer, I found him extremely unhelpful. Only for females was he quick to lend a hand which reminded me of how far we have yet to come as a country in the socialization of males. Maybe that’s why some male visitors will say the experience at Blue Hole wasn’t all that.
Blue Hole in Ocho Rios
That aside, the place is gorgeous! From where we parked, one can hear the faint rush of water which gets louder as you descend the concrete steps below. The blues are spectacular, the greens enthralling as you gaze around the tropical rainforest beauty. You’ll be given a life jacket covered by your admission cost and encouraged to purchase their Jamaican branded water shoes (likely made in China) for JM$1,000 or rent for JM$500. Carry water shoes if you own a pair but alternating between flip-flops and bare feet worked just fine for me.
Your guide will lead you through the various parts of the forest mostly over rock but there was one part where I had to secure my footing on plyboard and pull myself up with rope. I’m not sure why either. I’m guessing that part was deep and the crevice which the board overlaid was too narrow in which to swim. Eventually you’ll reach a part of the water too deep to wade through but if you can’t swim, the guide will happily transport you against the current on your back to the other side with your life jacket keeping you afloat. In fact, the water is very deep in most parts but once you’re careful and check the depth of where you’d like to go with them first, not being able is to swim isn’t a hindrance. . . unless of course you plan to jump.
Jumping is achievable by non-swimmers because of the life jacket and the way the current nudges you over to the shallower end by the rocks. And that I was almost cajoled into doing. There are 3 points at which one can jump but as I reached the first ramp, instinct screamed NO! A million reasons why the current wouldn’t save me wafted into my mind and I decided to err on the side of caution. The jump looked exhilarating and while non-swimmers can do it just fine, I wasn’t about to risk finding out otherwise then wait on my guide or colleagues to attempt resuscitation.
Unfortunately, my pictures won’t do the place justice since the constant spray from the falls and concentration needed to secure one’s footing in parts meant only the guide took photos after advising us to bring only one phone for the entire group. He didn’t take all the photos I asked nor were some of them any good. Therefore, you’ll just have to take my word that they’re at least a dozen waterfalls on the premises & enjoy the few more good photos I have which made the cut:
Be wary of these tour guides and their insistence on tipping by the way! They’re rather clever and will devise the right story to encourage your pockets but hey, Omar had a point. The work they do is dangerous and I’m sure they don’t get any recompense. Therefore, tip as much as you’re able or willing to do based on your experience with that guide. The place was absolutely stunning but fairly crowded and I didn’t think the reception was as warm as it could have been. The tour felt rushed and the place seemed like it was just run by guys who are scanning for as many dollar bills as they can rack up in a day rather than being truly invested in your enjoyment. If you haven’t been as yet, I’d encourage you to go for the views and experience but it wasn’t a top favourite for me. For what it’s worth, I’ll rate the place 4 stars, ☆☆☆☆ because I still had a good time, the surroundings were lovely and I appreciate the current level of infrastructure this gem has reached. However, to be honest, I likely won’t revisit unless I’m taking family or friends who haven’t been there before.
Lastly, I’d included this spot in my 2017 Jamaican bucket list to which I’ve been loosely adhering of late. This is now 8 places down, 9 more to go. Haha… Let’s see where I reach by year-end.
‘Til next time ✌
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