The first leap from the top of a waterfall was horrifying. I’m not used to jumping off the equivalent of a four-story building into a river where the roaring water is frothing below, and my brain kept trying to stop me. But eventually it got easier—and fun!
Waterfall jumping is an everyman’s thrill. The churning water below softens the impact, so an off-kilter entry won’t create the same jarring smack that a cliff diver experiences. “There’s this feeling that you’re almost one with the waterfall, just like one of the individual drops that eventually find their way to the pool at the bottom and continue their journey with the river,” says Kasey Austin, VP of operations at Austin Adventures, which guides waterfall diving trips to Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon. “The experience is loud and exciting as you jump down and all you can hear is the consistent crash of water pounding into water.” Beginners usually go feet first and work their way up to headfirst dives.
The roots of ‘fall jumping probably go back as far as teenage boys with something to prove. But the first organized tours started appearing in the mid-1990s, like the 27 Falls Tour on the Damajagua River in the Dominican Republic. “We saw how much the locals loved the experience, so it seemed natural that tourists would love it too,” says Michael Scates, owner of Iguana Mama Eco-Tours. There’s gorgeous scenery and natural water slides, but the big draw, he says, is “the adrenalin rush of jumping up to 25 feet into the azure waters.”
But mark 2014 as the year the thrill started getting the competitive treatment. The first ever international (well, three countries participated) waterfall diving competition was held last August in Jajce, Bosnia. As a hybrid between cliff diving and waterfall jumping, 17 competitors dove from a platform between two waterfalls into the churning water below. Dragan Glavaš, one of the organizers, says the event was a huge success, drawing around 7,000 spectators. “We are planning the second one now and will make it an annual event in early August,” he says. “In 2014 all the divers were invited from Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro. Hopefully in the future we will have divers coming from other countries further away.”
As the sport grows, it may be tempting to find a secret spot where you can make a thrilling jump with a few friends—we’ll caution that it’s a bad idea. Kipa Falls on the island of Kaui was a popular local waterfall jumping spot until it was closed in 2011 after a string of deaths. Experienced guides know the risks and are familiar with the seasonal water levels. With a proper tour company that supplies helmets and life jackets, you’ll return with a smile instead of a broken bone. Try these:
Mico River, San Luis Potosi State, Mexico
A series of seven waterfalls in a one-kilometer stretch of the Mico River means that you can leap off, float to the next one, and leap off again. After six times, hopefully you’ve built up the nerve for the 15-meter cascade at the end: a leap that feels worthy of an action movie scene. Operators from neighboring Veracruz started bringing groups here 18 years ago. Now there are multiple tour companies in the closest city, including the one I went out with, Huaxteca Adventures. Owner Ena Buenfil estimates that around 5,000 tourists a year take part and accidents have been rare.
Gravity Falls Waterfall, near Fortuna, Costa Rica
Outfitter: Desafio Adventure Company
Desafio Adventure Company owner Christine Krishnan says “People have already been rappelling down waterfalls and going river rafting, and with waterfall jumping, they’re looking for the next fresh adventure.” A great day trip near Arenal Volcano, thrill seekers hike through the rainforest to reach a continuous series of waterfalls and cliffs. There, the jumps range from 10- to 30-feet-high into the deep canyon pools.
Nauyaca Waterfalls, near Playa Dominical, Costa Rica
Outfitter: Wildland Adventures
Wildland Adventures has a jumping component on its Costa Rica Far-Flung Family Adventure Tour, but with a twist. Guests visit the Nauyaca Waterfalls where three monster cascades ranging in height from 66 feet to 148 feet tumble into a deep natural pool. Instead of jumping from the top though, hikers pull themselves up the falls on fixed ropes and decide how high is high enough for the leap from one of many ledges.
27 Falls of Damajagua, near Cabarete, Dominican Republic
Outfitter: Iguana Mama Eco-Tours
Adventurers interact with waterfalls in many ways on this wet adventure, which includes rappelling, natural slides, and jumping. “This is our best selling tour by far,” says Michael Skates. “There are 10 jumps ranging from 4 to 25 feet, plus a couple of really nice natural watersides.”
Torc Gorge Canyoning, Killarney, Ireland
Outfitter: Outdoors Ireland
Here, hardy types don a double wetsuit and canyon through a deep isolated mountain gorge. After a waterfall rappel into Gollum's Pool, there are rock jumps, rope lowers, and rapid slides. The three waterfall jumps are six or seven feet each. “While beginner friendly, it does require a calm head and sense of adventure,” says owner Nathan Kingerlee.
Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon
Outfitter: Austin Adventures
Part of a four-day hiking trip in the region, you first pass the remote village of Supai, “where the mail still arrives by packhorse,” according to the Austin Adventures website. Then it's two days of activities that center around Havusu Falls (which reach up to 100 feet) and the deep, clear pools below. Kasey Austin says here the trick is to swim behind the falls, climb up a hidden ladder, and then you jump “right out through the center of the waterfall."