Travelers routinely describe the tour of the 27 waterfalls at Damajagua as ‘the coolest thing I did in the DR.’ It's hard to disagree. Guides lead you up, swimming and climbing through the waterfalls. To get down you jump – as much as 8m – into the sparkling pools below.
Today it’s mandatory to wear a helmet and a life jacket, and guides are trained in first aid and CPR. It wasn’t always that way, however. Flashback to 2004. A handful of unofficial guides led tours at the waterfalls. There were no safety measures, no visitors’ center, and the occasional minor injury. Then a young boy drowned.
Peace Corps volunteer Joe Kennedy – grandson of Robert F Kennedy and great-nephew of JFK – had just arrived. And there was nothing there. ‘It felt like you were out in the middle of nowhere having this virgin experience,’ he says. There was no visitors’ center, no restaurant, nothing. ‘There simply wasn’t any money for helmets or life jackets and training.’
Kennedy applied for and received grant money from both USAID (US$50,000) and the UN Development Program (US$30,000). ‘The challenge,’ he says, ‘wasn’t just to increase safety precautions, but also to find sustainable ways to make money from the waterfalls in a way that would benefit the community.’ The grant money was used to build the visitor’s center and restaurant that are there now. With the help of several Puerto Plata area resorts, Kennedy raised upwards of US$10,000 to purchase life jackets and helmets.
The waterfalls today
These days a guide is required, but there’s no minimum group size, so you can go by yourself if you wish. You’ll need around four hours to make it to the 27th waterfall and back. The falls are open from 8:30am to 4pm, but go early, before the crowds arrive, and you might just have the whole place to yourself.
You can go up to the 7th, 12th or 27th waterfall. Most ‘jeep safari’ package tours only go to the 7th waterfall. You should be in good shape and over the age of 12. The entrance fee varies depending on your nationality and how far you go. Foreigners pay RD$460 to the highest waterfall and less to reach the lower ones.
US$1 of every entrance fee goes to a community development fund. Eight people sit on the board, including the Secretary of Environment, to make sure the money gets spent wisely. Considering that an average of 3000 tourists go through the falls every month, the bank account is going well – plans are underway to build a library for the local school, fix a local church and build foot bridges over a nearby river. Other Peace Corps volunteers are continuing the project Kennedy began.
Getting there and away
To get to the falls, go south from Imbert on the highway for 3.3km (and cross two bridges) until you see a sign on your left with pictures of a waterfall. From there it’s about 1km down to the visitor’s center. Alternatively, take a gua-gua from Puerto Plata and ask to get off at the entrance. The big Texaco station at Imbert serves as a crossroad for the entire area. There is a frequent gua-gua service to Santiago (RD$80, 1¼ hours) and Puerto Plata (RD$40, 30 minutes).
Find out more at www.27charcos.com.