Well well well, if it isn’t more of my favourite parish in the whole of Jamaica! Portland is an ecotourist’s haven with idyllic beaches, cool forests, relaxing rafting on the Rio Grande, nature resorts, sanctuaries and close to a dozen majestic waterfalls, both named and unnamed. The elysian Reach Falls in Manchioneal is a series of delightful cascades along the Driver’s River. It was first discovered centuries ago by runaway slaves from plantations in the neighbouring parish of St. Thomas who sought refuge in the John Crow Mountains. The property has over 23 species of ferns, many beautiful tropical flowers and is home to a variety of birds including Jamaica’s endemic black- and yellow-billed parrots. Reach Falls was made popular by the movies ‘Cocktails’ (starring Tom Cruise) and the remake of ‘Lord of the Flies’, but perhaps more recently by the INSIDER viral video of a section dubbed the Rabbit Hole. With that said, let’s talk about:
Reach Falls is best approached via the parish of St. Thomas if you’re travelling from Kingston, and you’ll reach the left turn-off to the waterfall from the main road after about two hours of driving. It’s impossible to miss the correct turn because there’s a sign and several men next to it trying to solicit customers to experience the “locals’ side” of the waterfall. Several years ago the Urban Development Corporation (UDC), a government organization, acquired and commercialized Reach Falls, the same company which operates the Green Grotto Caves and Dunn’s River Falls in St. Ann at a world-class and award-winning standard. However, UDC wasn’t able to claim the entire property since it would interfere with the livelihood of the Manchioneal residents who depend on the river for water and also traverse it to and from their farming plots. Thus, a large portion of the river and falls are still controlled by the residents, and they’ll be ready to try and win over visitors. Don’t be daunted by this, however. I was told by friends that this side of the river has the better experience, and especially given that I reached too close to closing time on my way back from Boston Beach, I didn’t have much of a choice anyway. I’ll get into more of that shortly, as well as why I personally recommend the local experience over the commercialized part (but both are great!).
The commercialized part costs JM$500 and $250 for locals, and US$10 and $5 for foreigners, adult and child prices respectively. The local side is more variable in price, as you’ll have to negotiate well to get a fair price. We paid $500 each, but also ended up adding a tip as our guide was very committed to ensuring my partner and I got the best experience of the river despite arriving near to closing time. It’s a judgement call I’m glad we made as we actually ended up experiencing the entire river and having it to ourselves.
They’re open Wednesdays to Sundays from 8:30am till 4:30pm, but the last tickets are officially sold at 3:30pm since after that it’s not believed you’ll have enough time to fully enjoy the property so they don’t want to take your money which is fair, right? You may be a bit confused since I keep referring to the commercialized vs. the locals’ side but don’t worry, I got you! Let me quickly break down the difference in experience at each side so you can make an informed choice.
Choosing Which Experience to Get
- Commercialized (UDC operated): Pros: certified guides and a lifeguard available, access to the main fall pictured above, restrooms, changing rooms, no need to negotiate as standard prices are set, less hiking/exertion involved, first aid station, access to souvenir shop. Cons: often crowded (tourists come by the bus-load), no other waterfall to see besides the main one pictured above.
- Less commercialized (locals’ side): Pros: Access to the more beautiful & secluded lower pools, underwater caves and cascades, no crowds. Cons: Variable access to the main fall pictured above, A LOT of upstream hiking so more exertion involved (a whole workout, which is a pro for some), some of the stones are very slippery so you have to be careful, no amenities (e.g. restrooms or changing rooms), and there’s a need to negotiate for a fair price. The local guides can swim very well but are not necessarily trained or certified lifeguards.
With that said, the choice is yours. My main reason for choosing the local side was that we arrived about 3:30pm and our guide Chris promised to take us around for the same price as the regular admission (well initially he tried asking for more but that’s another story). That being said, I do recommend it. The locals’ side has many more waterfalls which deliver invigorating massages, it was even more beautiful and no crowd? My kind of place.
Like I’d mentioned earlier, Reach Falls was destination #2 on my roadtrip that day. With how beautiful Boston Beach was, my trip could’ve ended there and I would’ve been happy but wow, Reach Falls?!!! Beauty is an understatement. I’ve been to so many rivers and waterfalls now that you’d think I wouldn’t be this awed every time, but no no. I’m always amazed by the beautiful ferns, the robust bamboo plants, the colourful heliconias and other flowers about, the tall tall trees with their twisting roots looking to either trip you up or provide footholds, the mosses and lichens, the fish flitting about in the clear unspoilt water, the occasional winged creature and the canopy filtering out the sunlight to cast a cool viridescent glow over everything. Everything was in harmony and I felt as though I was disrupting this delicate perfectly balanced ecosystem every time I disturbed tadpoles or heard leaves crunching underfoot. Nonetheless, my heart was full.
I saw so many cascades along that long, wet slippery hike that I forgot to count. I also got massaged by a few and I even managed to go through a cave and stand behind the main waterfall. Not even my boyfriend’s phone battery dying dampened the experience by an ounce. In order to use our hands for support, Chris carried the only phone we took from the car and used the 3% battery to get a few pictures of us and the scenery. How lucky am I to live in a such a beautiful country!
It doesn’t take much to make me happy– just bring me to a waterfall! Every single local waterfall I’ve ever visited is beautiful, so what sets each one apart for me or makes it more memorable is the hospitality I receive. The helpfulness of my guide Chris brings Reach Falls right up there among my favourites, so it’s an experience I give five stars ☆☆☆☆☆ and would fully recommend. In fact, that’s perhaps why I wasn’t in the least impressed by Island Gully Falls in 2017, recently made popular by the name Blue Hole (unpopular opinion but I doubt I’d ever return even though the place was beautiful). I rather visit places where the guides genuinely want you to have a great time and are warm, welcoming, happy to see visitors and don’t constantly nag for tips or hurry you along to try and secure new visitors for more money. Hats off to UDC and the Manchioneal residents who manage to peacefully coexist and earn from Reach Falls.
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‘Til next time, ✌🏽.