Picture a crystal blue waterfall in the middle of the jungle. Sunlight filters through the tropical fern leaves and you hear the crash of pounding water and the chirping and calling of forest birds all around you. Tourists climb the falls and slide down the slippery rocks into the cool, turquoise water below. People yell happily as they swing from a rope or jump off a diving platform, enjoying this secret paradise. This is the Blue Hole in Ocho Rios, Jamaica.
The Blue Hole is one of the top destinations in Jamaica. I think it's been renamed--rebranded--the Island Gully Falls they now call them. But in 2016, it was the Blue Hole, or Irie Blue Hole, depending on who you spoke to. It was truly a hidden gem. I think it has since been taken over by massive tour groups.
Locating this secret swimming hole and waterfall was an adventure in itself. It was our first experience in Jamaica. Looking back, it is one of my most memorable experiences. It helped me grow and learn when traveling. It brought me out of my comfort zone. It does what so much of travel does to us explorers: it made me see the world differently.
You see, most people who visit these falls come with a tour group from a cruise ship or resort. But my group was NOT part of a tour or resort. We decided to explore Jamaica on our own. And this meant navigating our way through the jungle to locate this hidden gem with the help of some local "guides" who wouldn't leave our side, whether we wanted them to or not...
OK, hold on, let me start from the beginning... If you're planning on visiting the Blue Hole via car/by foot, sans tour group, you MUST read ahead before going!
Locating this secret swimming hole and waterfall was an adventure in itself. It was our first experience in Jamaica. Looking back, it is one of my most memorable experiences.
OK, so first, after putting in "Blue Hole" in your google maps, it will take you to a winding, bumpy, back road filled with pot-holes and missing chunks of pavement. You'll drive up a hill see a small sign that reads "Irie Blue Hole --->". Continue to follow the signs. When getting close to the Blue Hole, you'll see a line of locals sitting on the guardrail waiting to greet you.
One local will wave to you and point down the road, instructing you that the Blue Hole is just up ahead. He will begin to run alongside your car and meet you at the informal "entrance", which is a narrow groups of steps leading into the woods. So, there's nothing uncomfortable about seven half-dressed men following your car in the woods, right? Well, you've made it this far. No choice but to park your car and hope all the parts are still there when you return.
The entrance to the Blue Hole is a pathetic looking wooden shack and a small clearing which opens up to a flat area with some large rocks and a running river. You can hear the cascading of water somewhere in the distance. The "ticket booth" calls for a $10 per person entrance fee. I wasn't too sure about the Blue Hole. Up to this point I hadn't seen any pictures, and didn't know if it was going to be worth the $40 for our group. I negotiated the price down to $20 for the four of us. What were we getting ourselves into?
So, there's nothing uncomfortable about seven half-dressed men following your car in the woods, right?
We proceeded to pay our entrance fee and walk down the steps to cross the river. Two men who were following us back on the road were now following us into the park and began explaining to our group that the real Blue Hole, the waterfall and cliff jumping action, was just up ahead. "About 5 minute walk, mon," he said cheerfully.
At this point I began to feel worried. It was nice that these two gentlemen we giving us advice on how to get to the Blue Hole, but didn't they have better things to do? Then I realized they must be looking for a tip of some kind. Why else would they be following us? I nudged Jet to give the guy a tip and thank him so we could be on our way. Really, I didn't feel comfortable with them following us, even with his cheerful attitude. Him and his buddy should just leave us alone! But he continued to follow us. And now we were headed straight into the woods.
At this point I began to feel worried. It was nice that these two gentlemen we giving us advice on how to get to the Blue Hole, but didn't they have better things to do?
We didn't know how to get to the Blue Hole. Luckily, our "guides" would show us. It didn't click until later that they really were guides and they really were just earning a tip to take visitors to the Blue Hole. At the time it felt super sketchy! I really didn't feel safe at all! After only 8 minutes of hiking which felt more like 20, through thick jungle and through a field with an abandoned school house, we began to hear people laughing. I felt myself breathe for the first time in the last 10 minutes: people! I don't know what I was thinking--maybe that we weren't really headed for the Blue Hole? But once we arrived and I saw the beautiful waterfall and all the cheerful, laughing families swimming and diving into the falls, I began to feel better.
And the waterfall and swimming hole was absolutely stunning!
But once we arrived and I saw the beautiful waterfall and all the cheerful, laughing families swimming and diving into the falls, I began to feel better.
Still, the two men were within breathing distance of the four of us. Now that we were here and no longer needed a "guide", I asked the gentlemen to please leave us alone. I was done with them. He seemed confused by my resolve: he explained that all visitors have guides at the Blue Hole. I yelled, "No thank you," and handed him a $20 and stomped off.
Well, the two gentlemen didn't leave us alone the whole time we were there. They followed us around the swimming hole. They followed us up the side of the falls and to the diving platform. They showed us around the top of the falls where there were small swimming pools and cliffs to jump off of. My group tried to console me, that these guys weren't trying to take advantage of us, and to let it be and just let them follow us.
And so I began to look around and noticed that every group of tourists had their own Jamaican guide with them.
After an hour or so of swimming, jumping, and exploring, my obstinacy slowly dissolved. Maybe I had been to harsh on these guys?
On one hand, I shouldn't have let my fear take over. There's a line between being careful and being rude. I do regret being so forward to the two gentlemen who were, looking back, just there to earn some money as locals showing tourists the falls. This wasn't run by any corporation--just some locals proud of their hometown.
But then again, was I being dramatic? I mean, a girl can never be too careful, and it's not like there's an official Blue Hole tour guide group with official shirts and I.D. badges and everything. That's how it would be if there were waterfalls to explore in the U.S.!
But, as it was pointed out to me, were weren't in the U.S. As strange and as uncomfortable as it made me, it was the Jamaican way. This was a small slice of land that has value, and the locals were able to make use of this hidden gem. All proceeds to the park, I learned later, go towards the local school. The men that were there to guide us were there for our own safety.
I consider this one of my many learning opportunities when traveling. My group seemed to take each step before us, however carefully, in stride. I was a little pigheaded and hasty. I'm working on that.
In hindsight though, I don't think I have any regrets. I was just trying to be careful. And overall, in the end, we had an amazing time and it was an incredible experience. It just helps to know before you go, sometimes, so that you know the difference between being careful and being rude.
If you do find yourself in Jamaica's northern area, definitely make time to see this hidden treasure. And don't be nervous when the friendly locals show you the way!