Stephan Lorenz uncovers hidden gems away from Jamaica’s well known and well trodden coastal resorts… “No sorry man”… we don’t want any ganja, cocaine, women, or bracelets. Well ok, let me look at that bracelet. “No, sorry we are poor biologists” was our standard excuse, which would leave the touts confused. My friend Matt and I had been in Jamaica for over a month before we ever made it to the tourist resorts at Negril. While I had no complaints about the beaches, the blue Caribbean playfully lapping along endless stretches of soft yellowed sand, we were getting a bit weary of the constant parade of hagglers during the day and prostitutes at night. And no, a joint does not cost 20 dollars in Jamaica, we knew that. The man gingerly tucked away the little spliff and headed down the beach to see whether someone else would buy.
Not that we were infallible when it came to the locals’ tricks, one finagled a free lunch out of Matt, but being truly underpaid ecologists we couldn’t really afford it. We worked long days for little pay and tried to save every penny to travel throughout Jamaica. This small Caribbean country, famous for Marley, excess ganja, music, and great food, harbors so much more than the well-trodden beaches at Montego Bay or Negril. The next morning we left the crowds and made the short trip to the Royal Palm Reserve, which protects the largest remaining stand of the 100 foot tall endemic trees. Located within the Great Morass, the reserve has a few easy trails and boardwalks, offering a glimpse at what the island may have looked like before European arrival. A note of caution, currently the reserve maybe defunct so plan ahead. When we visited the office was open and the facilities maintained.
We were based in Mandeville in the centre of the country, where affluent Jamaicans built mansions amidst the lush hills, and spent two months exploring the less travelled places on the island. Living at Marshall’s Pen Great House, an old coffee plantation dating back to colonial times, itself worth a visit, we extensively used the crazy network of public transport to get around the island. Schedules for buses or taxis are nonexistent, but anytime lost waiting for the right ride will be compensated by suicidal drivers that rip along the potholed roads at 80 miles an hour or just below. Signs like “The undertaker loves the overtaker!” or “Slow down your family needs you!” scattered along Jamaica’s twisting highways apparently fall on deaf ears.
One afternoon we spread a torn map of Jamaica on the scratched table and after close scrutiny discovered a roadless area on the south coast called Hellshire Hills. The name and apparent lack of human occupation got our interest. Some quick research revealed that the Hellshire Hills encompass acres of arid limestone ridges, caves, and rugged cliffs all carpeted by impenetrable cactus shrub. The relative inaccessibility protects the last population of Jamaican Iguana, at three feet long the largest native land animal in the country. These hills are also home to the strange Jamaican Coney, an endangered mid-sized rodent related to guinea pigs.
We didn’t need to know much more and headed out as soon as possible, squeezing into an overloaded minivan that swayed at top speed towards bustling Spanish Town. A series of taxi rides got us through Portmore to Port Henderson where we spent the late afternoon exploring Fort Clarence Beach, not much more than a trashed track of sand and fishing shacks. Overall the area could be described simply as sketchy so we opted out of camping and after much searching found ourselves in “The Cupid”. A gated concrete block of pink walls, The Cupid was run by an affable woman in an oversized print dress. Realizing we were a bit lost she offered us a small room complete with floor to ceiling mirrors. We paid for twelve hours and settled in. I rolled out a sleeping bag on the floor and Matt slept on the sagging mattress. Fortunately it was Monday, the place deserted, and the night quiet.
Refreshed we loaded our backpacks with water and food and left for Port Henderson and the Hellshire Hills beyond. Our hike began in a developing suburb, homes in various stages of dis-completion stood atop the steep cliffs overlooking azure waters. Eventually we reached a gravel track leading into the arid hills; thorn scrub clung to the steep slopes and ten foot cacti grew along the ridges. Two miles further, past several derelict cars rusting on the roadside and windblown trash clinging to the low shrubs, the real Hellshire Hills began. An intractable landscape of boot-cutting limestone carved by precipitation, deep ravines, and dense thickets. But it wasn’t completely inhospitable; birds thrived, and lizards scurried between cracks.
The only possible route followed the rugged coast. We hiked across razor-sharp ribs of stone, and across dramatic headlands jutting out to meet the waves rolling in from the south, blue crashing on gray, sending spouts of white into the blinding sky. The sun was intense, but we pushed on for several miles. We rounded an especially steep promontory and stumbled upon small crescent of white sand tucked between short cliffs. A small stand of mangroves clung to the shallows. After a refreshing swim, rinsing the dust and sweat from the hike, we lounged in the sun and started our return trip with the cacti throwing long shadows on the darkening rock.
Watching sunburnt vacationers, locals trying to make a buck, hotel security in verbal battles with salesmen breaching the cordoned off sections of safe sand, and looking at the crappy overpriced shack paid for the night, I wished myself back to the unnamed beach on the edge of the Hellshire Hills.
The Hellshire Hills are not the only undeveloped area left in Jamaica. In the eastern part of the country a region of sheer karst mountains, bottomless sinkholes, and pristine wet forest, known as the Cockpit Country, has defied human incursion. It was a retreat for the Maroons, slaves that had escaped Spanish or British rule. In the heart of the region lies an area of wilderness not found anywhere else on the island. It is difficult to access to say the least. Setting out from the last cluster of houses near Sherwood, we hiked six miles along a muddy road to reach Windsor Research Center. Besides camping, Windsor offers the only accommodation in the Cockpit Country, mainly catering to research biologists, they also open their doors to independent travellers.
He told me he was the son of Bob Marley and pulled an orange from a large full sack, offering it to me. He waved away my lack of money, “get me back next time man”, and peeled the orange Jamaican style, carefully cutting the orange layer with a machete, leaving the thick white crust. The orange can then be cut in half and its juice easily squeezed into a thirsty mouth. I thanked him and set off down a narrow trail refreshed. The path snaked through forest of ancient trees full of butterflies and birdsong. Near the crest of a steep rise I found the entrance of a cave, one of hundreds in the area. I squeezed in through the muddy opening and clambered into a large chamber of broken stalactites. Following a large hallway I found a second room and could hear the noisy flapping and whirring of thousands of bats. The temperature rose sharply, the humidity was dense, sweat stung my eyes, and hundreds of tiny gnats buzzed about my head, wings brushed past me. This was the kind of hole that gave the Cockpit Country its name. The heat and humidity inside the sinkholes reminded explorers of the conditions inside cock fighting arenas. Stumbling back into daylight I headed back to the valley and took a swim in the cool river flowing out of the towering escarpments; several locals took their evening baths just downstream.
I did not want to leave Jamaica without climbing its highest mountain: Blue Mountain Peak found within the namesake range. The Blue Mountains offer the best camping opportunities in Jamaica. We took taxis and hitched the rest of the way to Hollywell National Recreation Area near Hardware Gap, only later learning that reservations needed to be made in advance in Kingston. Since we arrived after sunset we just pitched our tent in a flat grassy area and watched the sea of incandescence, twinkling lamps, and moving lights of Kingston several thousand feet below. The next morning we woke to cool wet air and clouds rising from the valleys. Exploring the short hiking trails we found fern laden forest and trees full of bromeliads.
Traveling by public transport on the weekend can be difficult especially in more remote sections of the country. We connected short hops on taxis and minibuses with long walks and eventually hitched a ride with a local coffee grower to Whitefield Hall. The man was trying to get Matt to join his business, but my friend declined. Whitefield Hall lies near the end of a dirt track and offers the closest accommodation to the peak. We camped out in the yard, surrounded by enormous eucalypts, overlooking the slopes cloaked in coffee plantations. Whitefield Hall, a long building of moulding walls and creaky wood, offers several dorm rooms and it is also possible to score a home cooked meal of salt fish, yucca, and ackee.
Heading out before sunrise the following day we tackled the steep trail, leading though coffee and cloud forest, eventually to the bare summit. An open area surrounded by low shrub allowed for quick glimpses of the Caribbean through tumbling clouds. Thousands of feet below lay crowded Kingston and the empty Hellshire Hills just to the west. On the other side of the island similar solitude waited in Cockpit Country and easy hikes under royal palms. Across the large valley to the east we could make out the lower but even more remote peaks of the John Crow Mountains, an adventure that would have to wait. Even after spending two months in the comparatively small country there were still dozens of nooks remaining to be explored. Stephan Lorenz
When to go: Jamaica is a great place to visit year-round. The rainiest months are May, June, September, and October, but overall the climate is tropical and humid. Temperatures are slightly cooler in the mountains and here a jacket will be handy.
How much do things cost? Jamaica is relatively cheap. Food can be bought from street vendors or fast foods, try patties from Tastee, which can easily sustain a two week trip. It’s usually possible to have a full meal for under four dollars. Accommodation is not so affordable and in some areas limited. Camping works well in remote locations and some smaller hotels may allow you to pitch a tent in the yard. Minibuses and taxis only cost a few dollars, except for taxis to remote areas.
What to watch out for: Tourist areas around Negril and Montego Bay have lots of touts. The outskirts of Kingston near the Hellshire Hills can be sketchy and it would be advisable to figure out good accommodation before visiting.