A high-adventure type of friend told me about the 27 waterfalls of Rio Damajagua. Whenever he describes climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or spending the night alone in the rainforests of Costa Rica, I think he’s talking about activities limited to a person with his stamina. But when he heard I was visiting the Dominican Republic, on our way to the airport he said he’d go back to the DR just to do 27 Charcos again. He made me promise not to leave until I’d experienced the natural water park near Puerto Plata.
An interview with Mary Alisa
By JM Bryce
JM Bryce: So, did you worry about your safety when a sportsman who’s addicted to extreme adventure activities recommended 27 Charcos?
Mary: Definitely. After all, I’m traveling with my mother who’s in her mid-60s. We vacillated a lot.
JM Bryce: What was your tipping point?
Mary: I know this might sound surprising, but I visited the website at www.27charcos.com. It has no hype whatsoever, so I believed what it said. Available in both English and Spanish, it has great photos and answered my questions accurately. I was particularly impressed with the connection between the national park and the surrounding communities. It made me feel like good people were involved.
JM Bryce: Your mother is a senior. Didn’t she worry about sliding down bare rock and jumping off ledges into pools?
Mary: She had just come from white-water rafting on Yaque del Norte and had felt great the whole time. So no, mom didn’t have any worries. I was worrying enough for both of us!
First adventure — driving a car in the DR
The first adventure of the trip was renting a car in Santo Domingo and driving it north on Hwy #1 to Puerto Plata. You have to ignore all the lines on the road and all the rules of the road you ever learned. I started using the horn like never before in my life. Everyone gives off a sense of impatience, but there’s no road rage. Just this understanding about who goes next.
We took your (JM Bryce’s) advice and stayed at Blue Jack Tar resort just east of Puerto Plata. We really enjoyed it. The rooms were clean and beautiful, and so was the beach! After driving for 3½ hours, it felt really good to lounge in the open-air beach cabanas and dunk in the waves of the Atlantic.
The next morning we needed breakfast really early, so we were glad that Green Jack Tar could accommodate us. We’d read that getting to the falls early would keep us out of the bigger packs of tourists who come later on buses from the big resorts. And we knew we had a 45-minute drive ahead of us.
What we didn’t know was that once you leave the paved road, you hit a terrible, rocky, rutted dirt road. The total drive time to 27 Charcos is about 45 minutes, but don’t underestimate the last section that is very hard on car tires. That said, follow the directions on the website and you won’t go wrong.
Preparing our gear
When you drive to a tourist attraction as internationally famous as this one, you feel like it’s going to be huge and impersonal with slick routines and gaudy signs. 27 Charcos wasn’t like that at all. It was small and very personal.
You’re required to have guides with you at all times, which is a really good idea since they are all trained in CPR and very professional about helping the patrons. The guides only go once in a day because there are about 60 of them and they have to rotate. They have their own professional association and have known each other since they were little kids. That kind of camaraderie changes the ambience of a place, and it really appealed to Mom and me.
You need to wear clothes that can get completely wet, and either water shoes or light sneakers. You can hire a photographer to come along very cheaply, but that’s not included in the entrance fee. Be sure to use insect repellant. After you get your gear of a helmet and a life jacket, and stow your clothes in a locker, then comes the big choice. How many waterfalls is it going to be? 7, 12, or 27? We chose 12.
Hiking to the top
Our first task was to walk across the river. The water was only up to our shins right there, but it could go up or down depending on the season of the year. Stumbling on the rocks in the river on the initial approach was probably more troublesome than anything we experienced doing the slides or drops. Then we started the hike up a rocky, uneven dirt path. The foliage and views were beautiful on both sides, but the path wasn’t groomed.
Along the way, we saw a horse with a man beside it. Our guide said, “It’s called the “Dominican ambulance.” In a remote area like that, I guess a horse would be the only way help could come to someone who’d had an accident. A sobering thought!
Then up the stairs, and some were pretty steep. We were offered water and benches from time to time. No one ever rushed us. We came to a fork in the path where we could go to the 7 waterfalls, or on up the hill to the 12 or 27. We climbed to the 12th and it took us less than an hour. At the top, we threw away our water bottles and the guides splashed us in the river to help us get used to the temperature.
The first jump was intense because one guide is up with you and the other one is down in the water. The upward guide threw a pebble into the water and said “Jump right there.” So I did it. And the other guy was totally helpful in getting me where I needed to be. Sometimes I could feel the rush of water pulling me toward a rock face, and each time I could feel the guide pulling me back to a secure footing.
After each waterfall we waited at the pools edge until everyone had done it before we went on to the next. That way we became a cheering squad for one another and everyone tried to help everyone else have success. On the three big jumps, you had the option of bypassing them. But we all encouraged each other to accomplish it and even the most timid managed.
Activity for a senior?
JM Bryce: When I look at some of the drops you did, I wonder if it jarred your mother’s aging bones.
Mary: It could have if she hadn’t followed the guide’s directions. If you keep your arms in tight, hold your nose with one hand, and knife your body straight down into the water, it doesn’t hurt at all. The slides were very smooth. There was enough water so you didn’t ever grind on the rock. But on some of the slides, if you don’t keep your arms crossed or by your sides, you could get scraped.
JM Bryce: Was this activity a good fit for your mother?
Mary: Actually, she was more gutsy than some of the 21-year-olds in the group. The guides were very courtly to help at all times.
JM Bryce: Is there anybody who shouldn’t do it?
Mary: Someone who isn’t comfortable with water shouldn’t try it. Someone with back surgery who mustn’t get jostled or bumped should definitely not consider it either.
Walking up the stairs was probably the hardest part. Sitting down on the slide might be hard if your knees don’t bend easily, but the guides will hold onto you until you can sit. They also hold onto your hands until you’re ready. There’s never any pressure to do anything. They help you do it all.
Water so clear and blue, rocks so beautiful
Being in the water at the bottom of the falls and floating along was so relaxing. My body felt so good. There were no aches or pains afterwards. The best thing about the experience though . . . it was so beautiful. I loved the jumping off. So exhilarating. Water so clear and blue and clean. The rocks so beautiful, sometimes on both sides. Gorgeous water, crystal clear. One thing after another kept us riveted. Plus, each waterfall was a bit different. Nature’s diversity can’t be matched!
Turns out our timing was good. 27 Charcos opens at 8 am, so we left our hotel at 7:45 and arrived at 8:30 mid-week. By 10:30 when we got back down it was already packed. About 50 people all waiting to go. By contrast, we had 5 in our group.
Remember to tip the guides generously. I don’t think they make a lot of money and I wish I’d tipped even more because their help made all the difference to our experience.