Caribbean Travel Info & Hiking Recommendations for Jamaica
The “land of wood and water” is now probably best known for it’s white sand beach resorts, Reggae music & culture, along with Rum and Blue Mountain Coffee… For me though, I think of the 10+ peaks over 3,300 feet (1,000m) tall, and know that Jamaica is a Caribbean island with some great hiking. The island is 146 miles (235 km) long (east to west) and about 51 miles (82 km) wide, with a total land mass of just over 4,000 square miles (10,360km²), Jamaica is roughly 3 times the size of Long Island (NY, USA).
The third largest island in the Caribbean after Cuba and Hispaniola, Jamaica is located south of Cuba’s east end. Jamaica has a number of mountain ranges, with the eastern end of the island being the most elevated, with the Blue Mountain range dominating the landscape. This 28 mile (45km) long range is typically covered in a bluish cloud and mist, resulting in it’s name. The Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, a World Heritage Site, is where the highest points of the island are: Blue Mountain Peak stands 7,402 feet (2,256 m) tall, East Peak at 6,154 feet (1,876m), High Peak at 5,903 feet (1,799m) and Stoddards Peak at 4,943 feet (1,507m). Other mountain ranges of note include Cockpit Country’s Dry Harbour range located in the north-west/central part of the island, and the island’s southern Manchester Plateau.
The Jamaican government recognizes the value of it’s biodiversity and has established over 200 protected areas on the island. Besides Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, which is home to 800 endemic plants, 200 bird species and 500 flowering plant varieties, forest reserves have been established in Cockpit Country, Negril’s Royal Palm Reserve, and Hellshire Hills / Old Harbour Bay to name a few. An additional dozen Reserves are being planned for 2017. There’s also marine parks at most of the major ports, including Montego Bay which covers nearly 6 square miles (about 15.5km²). Jamaica’s tropical climate supports diverse ecosystem environments, including limestone forests, rainforest, grasslands, riparian woodland as well as wetlands. In areas that receive heavy rainfall, one can find stands of bamboo, ferns, ebony, mahogany, and rosewood, while cactus and similar plants are found along the southwest coastal areas.
Birds are abundant in Jamaica, and include the Jamaican Tody as well as the island’s national bird – the Doctor.
The world’s largest centipede, the Amazonian Giant, and Western Hemisphere’s largest butterfly, the Homerus Swallowtail, can both be found in Jamaica. The island is home to a large number of bats, although the only other mammal native to Jamaica is a large rodent called the Hutia (or Coney). Wild boar and Mongoose were introduced to the island hundreds of years ago, and remain common. There are many reptiles that call Jamaica home, the largest of which is the American Crocodile, whose presence is isolated to the Black River and surrounding area. Lizards such as anoles, iguanas and snakes such as racers and the Jamaica Boa Constrictor are also common. That said, none of Jamaica’s snakes are dangerously venomous to humans. Jamaican waters contain kingfish, jack, mackerel, whiting, bonito, and tuna, as well as freshwater gobies, killifish, snook, jewfish, snapper, mountain mullet and the American eel.
Although English is the official language of Jamaica, they also speak Patois (English slang), which sometimes makes it difficult to communicate. The main currency is the Jamaican dollar, although the US dollar is also widely accepted. The Jamaican electrical power system uses 110-120 volt AC power similar to North America, however are typically non-grounded (2 prong outlets), so power adapters are required for grounded (3 prong) devices.
The best time to hike in Jamaica is December through April, with February/March being the best in terms of weather. These months typically have the least amount of rain and the daily average temperatures range comfortably from a low of 72˚ (22˚c) to a high of 84˚ (29˚c) degrees. It’s much hotter and more humid, with much more rain later in the year.
For ‘up-hill’ hiking, there are a number of day-hiking trails on the island. There is a nominal ($20usd per non resident) Park Fee required for trails in Jamaica’s Parks/Forests. That said, local Guides are also recommended for most trails, and they typically charge anywhere from $50usd to over $100usd per person depending on the trail. Guide fees are less (per person) if you’re part of a group. Featured trail for up-hill hiking in Jamaica:
Other potential short up-hill hikes in Blue and John Crow National Park can be found in/around Hollywell Park and include:
- Waterfall Trail
- Easy – Intermediate steep mountain / valley trail with stream and 15 foot (4.5m) high waterfalls
- Trail is just under a mile (1.3km) long (one way) and the hike usually takes 1 to 1.5 hours to complete (return)
- Oatley Mountain Interpretive Trail:
- Easy – Intermediate steep loop gravel trail with panoramic views – 4,595 feet (1,400m) above sea-level
- Trail is just under a mile (1.2km) long and the hike usually takes 1 to 1.5 hours to complete
- Wag Water/Dicks Pond Trail
- Intermediate (short but steep) trail with scenic views from the pond
- Trail is just under ½ mile (630m) in length (one way) and takes about an hour to hike (return)
- Catherine’s Peak
- 4,860 feet (1,500m) summit, accessed via an overgrown concrete track
- Hike takes 30-45 minutes each way to & from the radio tower
Note: Hollywell Park is drivable from Kingston, and offers cabins as well as camp sites
While not as well known as the Blue and John Crow National Park, Cockpit Country in the central / north-western part of the island, probably has the most extensive wilderness left on the island. This jungle landscape is wrinkled and dimpled with hundreds of limestone hills and karst caves, and is home to a couple of hidden trails worth exploring. Find a local guide in Windsor (or Maroon Town / Albert Town) and enjoy:
- The Troy – Windsor Trail
- This 10 mile (16km) trail follows the route of a British military road built in the 1700s and requires 7 – 9 hours one way (Starting at Windsor gives more of an uphill trek)
- The Quick Step Trail
- This 11 mile (18km) trail runs from Windsor to the village of Quick Step, and requires 8 – 10 hours one way
- The Windsor loop (A less strenuous hour long hike)
- This 3 mile (5km) route takes hikers along the Troy Trail to Bamboo Bottom and Guthries before returning to Windsor
There’s also a short 2-3 mile (4km) trail from Montego Bay to Mount Zion (one of many on Jamaica), a small town with a church and rum shop.
There are also a number of other trails local to the eco-lodges that dot the island.
For more information about Hiking as well as Parks and Reserves in Jamaica, check out:
Camping is available in Blue and John Crow Mountain National Park of Jamaica as well as a number of private resorts and eco-lodges. Contact the Jamaican Forestry Department or the Jamaica Alternative Tourism, Camping and Hiking Association (if you can find contact info) for more details/reservations.
Other things to do (besides hiking) in Jamaica:
- Caving – Jamaica is full of caves and caverns. Guided tours are available for spelunking adventures and bat viewing
- Probably the most popular and ‘refined’… Green Grotto Caves is located on Jamaica’s north coast between Falmouth and Ocho Rios. Tours take about an hour, where you’ll experience passageways and chambers close to 130 feet (40m) below the earth’s surface. The feature attraction is the grotto – A huge limestone cave with stalactites, stalagmites, as well as a large subterranean body of water.
- South-east of Montego Bay is an area called Cockpit Country, which contains the highest diversity of plants and animals on the island and is likely the most ‘wild and natural’ place left in Jamaica. Home to hundreds of rivers, streams and caves that provide some of the best spelunking opportunities in the Caribbean. There are hundreds of caves in the area, including Windsor Caves, Smokey Hole Cave which at 630 feet (193m) deep, is the deepest on the island, Rock Spring Cave and the huge Quashie River Sink.
- At the centre of the island you will find Cave Valley… Where the river travels both under and above the ground, appearing and disappearing as it meanders through the valley – Major attractions include the “Noisy Water” River Cave and “Rat Bat Hole”.
- River Rafting, or what I call Jamaican Gondola rides, is a must for new visitors to the island
Probably the most famous rafting tour in Jamaica is on the Martha Brae, a meandering river close to Falmouth. You start at “Rafter’s Village”, six acres of grounds that include manicured lawns, Miss Martha’s Herb Garden, picnic grounds, a full service bar, two souvenir shops, a swimming pool and modern restrooms. A guide will pole you down 3 miles of quiet river on a 30 foot (9m) long bamboo raft.
- Just east of Ocho Rios is the White River Valley where you can enjoy a rafting tour down the White River, as well as birdwatch and hike to waterfalls.
- You can also raft on the Rio Bueno river, located in a mountain valley between Ocho Rios and Falmouth. Tours also include scenic waterfalls, splashing rapids, picturesque river pools, and even a private beach at Bengal Bay.
- Rafting tours are also available just west of Montego Bay on the Great River
- There are a couple of waterfall experiences not yet mentioned in this write-up:
- YS Falls, located in the south-west part of island between Negril and Kingston boasts a spectacular seven-tiered cascading waterfall, wading pools – One with a rope swing, exciting canopy rides, river tube rides, and a zip-line along with spectacular views.
- Mayfield Falls can be found on the west end of the island, between Negril and Montego Bay, nestled in the Dolphin Head Mountains. Take a short hike along a bamboo stairway, across manicured lawns and a wooden bridge to a Rasta village (Reggae Style Mayfield Village). A guide will accompany you along the snaking river so that you can enjoy a number of mineral pools, the waterfalls along as well as taste local foods.
- The most iconic tourist attraction in Jamaica is of course, Dunn’s River Falls (just west of Ocho Rios). Although it’s always crowded with tourists, this is a beautiful area. Join hands with others and walk part-way up the 600 feet (180m) tall gorgeous waterfalls on it’s natural calcium carbonate based steps.
- Another big tourist attraction just west of Ocho Rios is Mystic Mountain. This 700 foot (210m) high peak is not just home to a rich forest ecosystem and spectacular views. Three man-made attractions can be enjoyed: Sky Explorer – A chairlift that takes you above the treetops providing unique views of the tropical jungle canopy; Bobsled Jamaica – A 3,285 foot (1km) long sled ride through the rainforest; and a Zip-line.
- A Luminous Lagoon can be found along the marshland shores of Trelawny / Falmouth. The waters contains microorganisms called dinoflagellates which glow at night when agitated. Tours take you out on the water where you can even swim with your body surrounded by the luminous green glow (although the water is quite shallow).
- If you’ve ever seen the movie “Blue Lagoon” with Brooke Shields, you may want to visit that famous location. It is located just west of Port Antonio. To avoid confusion, please note that the island has other similar waters of interest, including the Irie Blue Hole just south of Ochos Rios as well as the Blue Hole Mineral Spring, just south of Negril.
- Snorkeling & Diving can be enjoyed off the shores of Montego Bay, Negril as well as Ocho Rios.
- Of course you can just enjoy the famous white sand beaches which can be found all around the island.
- Golfing is available at a number of the Island’s major resorts, mostly on the west and north coasts, along with a few clubs near Kingston.
- If you are a Reggae and Bob Marley fan, you can visit Kingston’s Bob Marley Museum and Spanish Town.
- I would be remiss in not mentioning Jamaica’s iconic Rum producing company located near the south coast of the island. The Appleton Rum Estate’s vast acreages houses a small museum, sugar cane fields, and offers rum tours which include a short film, a guided tour of the facilities, as well as product sampling 🙂
Other useful Links to Jamaica Websites include:
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