Jamaica – Epic Blue Mountain Peak Sunrise Hike

Watching the sun rise from Blue Mountain Peak in Jamaica

One of Jamaica’s many white sand beaches…

While Jamaica is probably best known for it’s reggae music, Rasta culture, white sand beach resorts, and rum… I think of the 10+ peaks over 3,300 feet (1,000m) tall, and know that Jamaica is a Caribbean island worth hiking. When I realized that one of their signature hikes starts in the middle of the night and culminates in watching the sun rise, and I had to make the trip.

The third largest island in the Caribbean after Cuba and Hispaniola, Jamaica is roughly 3 times the size of Long Island (NY, USA). The Blue Mountain range dominates the island’s eastern landscape and is typically covered in a bluish mist and cloud, hence its name. The Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park is a World Heritage Site and is home to 800 endemic plants, 200 bird species as well as 500 flowering plant varieties. This is also where the Blue Mountain Peak, the highest point on the island at 7,402 feet (2,256 m) above sea level, is located.  This is where/what I hiked.

Jamaica’s Blue Mountain Range

I travelled to Jamaica at the end of March, which I believe is the sweet spot (January – April range) for comfortable temperatures and the least amount of rain. My journey started with a 2-hour bus ride from Ocho Rios where I was staying, to the island’s capital of Kingston. The bus ride could not have been more comfortable; however, my transportation experience was about to change dramatically.

A Rasta picked me up from the Bus Terminal in New Kingston for another 2-hour drive to a Rasta lodge somewhere in the Blue Mountains. I use the term “drive” very loosely… This turned out to be a mini adventure on its own. After the first 30 minutes or so we were on the outskirts of town, heading uphill on narrow and winding partially paved roads – Then things got really interesting…

The “road” was just steady enough here to get a picture…

The rest of the journey was on a progressively rougher, gravel / dirt road that included large stretches of cartoonishly bumpy terrain, with huge ruts carved across the road. Our average speed at times couldn’t have been much more then 5 – 10 miles/hour as this rugged jungle track through the forest climbed upwards around the mountains.

Later that evening, after a local meal of red beans & rice, accompanied by local root vegetables, I settled down for a few hours rest/sleep. I woke at 1:30am, got dressed and went outside to meet the rest of the hiking group. There were 7 of us in total, including two Rasta guides.

The Blue Mountain Peak under cloud cover – Taken from the Rasta Lodge
Kingston in the far distance… From the Blue and John Crow Mountains

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve never hiked in the dark before, so this was a new experience for me. In order to catch the sunrise from the peak, we started the up-hill trek around 2 in the morning, so it was fairly cold – Another first for me in the Caribbean. We started the hike on a rough road that led to a couple of properties high in the Mountains. Within a few minutes, we were on ‘Jacobs ladder’, which is a long and lazy switchback dirt road with many ‘washed out’ ruts. It was fairly steep at this point and I heated up quite quickly, so I peeled off my coat and was back to my usual Caribbean hiking attire of shorts and a t-shirt.

It was dark, with our headlamps providing the only light, so I didn’t see much of the trail in advance, rather I just put one foot in front of the other and kept moving forward – Basically focusing the light and my attention on the ground, so as to keep my footing.

We came across some amazing 3-4 foot wide by 3-6 foot deep trench like sections of trail. This made the hike even more dark and eerie (in a good way). We were still ascending, however it wasn’t too steep. We were then surprised when we came across donkeys, who were just standing on the trail in a couple of places – Apparently, they are used to haul bags of cement up to the Portland Gap Ranger station which appeared to be in the process of being rebuilt.

It was a strange experience not knowing where we were on the mountain, however I did notice that the steep Mountain side of the trail was originally on our left, until we passed through Portland Gap, then it was on our right. We must have occasionally crossed a few ridges as there were times when there was no mountain side and there was a refreshing cool breeze.

Once we passed through Portland gap, we were on the final third of the hike to the top. Before we knew it, the temperature suddenly dropped and we were there… At the peak, which is a large flat area with considerable scrub and bushes as well as a small tower. It took us about 3.5 hours, taking only a couple of quick rest stops, to make it to Blue Mountain Peak. According to my GPS readings, we had started off around 4,050 feet (1,235m) above sea level, and had just hiked about 6 miles (9.5km) with a 3,400 feet (1,035m) increase in vertical. We were standing just over 7,450 feet (2,270m) above sea level!

As it was still dark and I couldn’t see much, I put my coat and winter hat on, and had a bite to eat. After a few minutes, my body had cooled down from the hike and the cold really started to set in. I wandered around a bit to stay warm and to have a good look all around. I couldn’t see much, however there were blob like shapes all around us, so I assumed that we were surrounded by some lower mountain tops. Over the next hour or so, a few other small groups of hikers joined us at the peak.

As it became more and more light out, I realized that the shapes all around us, weren’t mountain tops, but were in fact clouds… Wow – We were above the clouds! That was a stunning surprise! As the sun slowly climbed over the horizon, we could start to see the surrounding valleys and distant mountain ranges, as well as Kingston’s twinkling lights below us near the coast. We could also see Port Antonio’s distant lights on the north side of the island. Eventually the red ball of fire that is the sun, became extremely bright and things started to warm up. Absolutely spectacular!

At the Peak – Sunlight filtering over the horizon

 

 

 

The clouds hung motionless as the sun came over the horizon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


After taking countless pictures in all directions from the peak, we headed back down. On the way down the mountain, I realized that the top half of the trail weaves its way through heavy rainforest canopy, although there were occasional breaks, when I could see coffee plantations, several valleys, ridges and mountains, as well as some coastline in the distance. It warmed up on the way down and it was actually a nice change to hike in the Caribbean, in a comfortable temperature and not be soaked with sweat. As the trail was not overly steep, we managed to descend the mountain and make it back to the lodge in 2.5 hours.

A spectacular view from part way down the mountain

 

 

One of the trench-like trail sections – Just wild!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’re part way down, yet still above the clouds…

This was an extremely enjoyable hike at a leisurely incline and pace. Taking in the views of the east end of the island under the new rising sun was a special treat. While there are lots of things to do in Jamaica, I strongly recommend that everyone should do at least one sunrise hike in their lifetime, and this might be one of the best places to do it!

For the complete hiking report as well as much more information on traveling to Jamaica, please reference the following links:

Hiking Report – Jamaica’s Blue Mountain Peak

Jamaica – Travel Info

Martinique – A French Caribbean Island with Great Hiking

Hiking on Martinique + More

As a long-time colony and now an “over-seas region” of France, Martinique is a very unique Caribbean island – The Caribbean and French fusion results in a Euro-style metropolitan flavour to the Caribbean, with it’s restaurants, historical landmarks, art, museums and beautiful botanical gardens.  The island also has one of the best highway and road systems I’ve encountered in the Caribbean.

You don’t see too many of these in the Windward Islands

 

Visiting Fort de France

 

 

 

 

 

With Dominica to the north and St. Lucia to the south, the 3rd largest of the Windward islands, Martinique is pretty much the centre of the West Indies’ Lesser Antilles.

Martinique has one of the largest networks of hiking trails that I’ve encountered in the Caribbean, including a number of “up-hill” hikes.   At the north end of the island there’s about half a dozen mountains above 2,300 feet (700m) tall, including the iconic (semi-active) volcano Mount Pelee whose peak stands 4,583 feet (1,397m) above sea level.  Other major peaks can be found in the Pitons du Carbet or Parc Naturel Régional de la Martinique areas.

The people of Martinique speak French along with Creole Patois.  While it’s good to know some basic French so you can read road signs and restaurant menus, you’ll find a number of hotel staff and store keepers also speak English.  The island’s currency is the Euro and their electrical power system provides 220-240 volt AC with the France style outlet/plug, so adapters/converters and surge suppressors (to handle the occasional dirty power) are required by North Americans.

We visited Martinique at the end of March for one day as part of a cruise and it was a gorgeous 82˚ (28˚c) degrees.  Based on the scarce resources I could find at home before the cruise, I chose to hike Piton Lacroix, as it is fairly tall at 3,870 feet (1,180m), is a relatively short trail (about 4 miles or 6.5km return), and is reasonably close to Fort-de-France, where the ship docks.  That said, it turned out to be a fairly ambitious hike for a number of reasons.

I’ll start by saying that sometimes things just don’t work out as planned… While there are well over 2 dozen marked trails on Martinique, unbeknownst to me at the time, I chose to hike on an unmaintained trail.  Not the best plan – However, it was an adventure, none the less!

Starting from Fort-de-France, we drove north along the west coast of the island, just past the town of Bellfontaine, then headed inland on some small roads that lead to our starting point.  Driving on these narrow, winding roads, we got lost a few times before ending up at the east end of a road called Canton Suisse.  Please note that Piton Lacroix is not shown in the correct location on google maps.

We parked the car on the side of the road near an old farmhouse, and walked up a steep paved road which turned into dirt/grass tracks before ending at a partly plowed farmer’s field.  As we walked, we passed goats and cows wandering around – I don’t think they were used to many visitors.  At the edge of the field, we could see a forested mountain.  From this vantage point, we had beautiful views to the north/west of the island, towards Le Morne Vert and the Caribbean sea.

A view of Morne Vert and the Caribbean Sea
Heading up the road/ trail, we startled a goat

 

 

 

 

 

Did I mention that we were kind of winging-it?  Well, as we were at the forest edge, I assumed that the trail must start here somewhere, however there was no marked trailhead of any sort.  I walked the edge of the field/forest trying to find some hint of a trail.  I never really found anything that looked like an obviously well used trail, however after about 20 minutes of searching, we headed up-hill on a path of some sort.

I found the path through the forest, just over my left shoulder
Heading uphill in the rainforest, on a bit of a path

From the start the going was tough, not just because the trail was barely visible, but because the path was extremely steep and muddy – we were slipping and sliding all over the place.  Eventually the trail was a bit more discernable and level, albeit strewn with fallen trees and rocks.  This was a true rainforest hike, as the forest was very dense and dark in most sections, with the occasional rays of sun peaking  through the canopy.

It’s hot and muddy in here… No bugs though…
I’m up there on the trail… Err path…

 

 

 

 

 

Our pace was fairly slow for a couple of reasons.  One because there were a number of steep and muddy sections, but also because my hiking partner was concerned that we weren’t really on a trail – I have been known to veer off trails, accidently following deer paths, so we were wondering if this trail was taking us where we wanted to go, or were we just getting lost on a wild goat path?  When you lack in confidence, you lack in conviction (and speed).

The Piton peak in the clouds

After about an hour, we eventually made it to some high ground where we could see where we were. As it turned out, we had just hiked to the top of a smaller peak, and were about half way to Piton Lacroix.  We were about 2,526 feet (770m) high at this point and we could see that the trail descended into a gulley and we assumed that it took a seriously steep ascent of Piton Lacroix itself after that.  It was already after noon, and with an estimated 3 more hours to complete the hike, we decided it wasn’t do-able with our time constraints, so we turned back.

We were covered in mud, tired and disappointed that we didn’t reach the peak, however it was an experience to get this far.  We found out later, when I found a proper map of the trails on the island, that while this was an actual trail, it is not maintained and rarely used.

We encountered some colourful plants / flowers on our short hike

 

After getting back to the car, we ventured a little further north before heading back to the coast.  As a result, we stumbled across the town of Le Carbet and found a beautiful quiet beach.  When we were leaving town we also noticed a boutique rum distillery, so we stopped in for a visit.  While most, if not all Caribbean islands have Rum factories, Martinique could be considered the rum capital of the Caribbean with it’s 11 distilleries and even more rum brands.  That said, please note that French “Rhum Agricole” is made from sugar cane juice, not molasses like the rest of the rums of the Caribbean.  Martinique rums taste really different than rum from say Jamaica or Barbados.

A Beach at Le Carbet – We should be able to find a place to sit for a while 🙂

With the benefit of a proper map of all the trails on the island, the next time we go we would likely attempt to hike the following:

  • Montagne Pelee – The island’s highest peak is a semi-active volcano. Departing from ‘Chateaux a Desiles’ in Macouba will take you on a 4-6 hours difficult hike covering 10 miles (16km) return, with a 4,000 feet (1,220m) vertical.
  • Precheur – Grand Riviere is located on the north tip of the island. This is a popular intermediate level hike with a waterfalls and spectacular views of the Caribbean Sea.  It will likely take 6 hours to cover the 12.5 miles (20km) return trail that includes a 2,560 feet (780m) vertical.
  • Circuit de la Caravelle is located on the east point of Presqu’Île de la Caravelle. This intermediate level 5 mile (8km) loop through a Nature Reserve will take you 2-4 hours.
  • Morne Larcher is located on the south-west tip of the island and offers spectacular panoramic views of the island and the Caribbean Sea. This intermediate level trail will take from 1 to 3 hours to hike the 2.5 mile (4km) long (return) trail with a 1,313 feet (400m) vertical.

There are of course other things to do on Martinique besides hiking.  While the northern part of the island is rainforest mountains, making it ideal for eco-tourism and outdoor activities (‘canyoning’ is the big thing these days), the southern part of the island, with it’s palm trees, sand beaches and warm waters, is perfectly suited for beach goers and water sports like kite surfing, jet skiing, or kayaking.  For snorkelers and divers, Martinique has unique man-made attractions under the water with a couple of subterranean sculptures, including the Yemaya – A 40 foot (12m) long siren, paying tribute to the power of the sea and the mythical female creature.

So, as you can see, Martinique is a really unique Caribbean island, great for hiking, sight-seeing and just hanging out.  Personally, I can’t wait to get back there for a longer visit.

For a full review of Martinique and the LaCroix Hike, click these links…

How to celebrate booking a Hiking Trip!

What better way to celebrate booking a trip to Jamaica to hike their epic “Blue Mountain Peak”, than with an authentic Jamaican dinner?

Check out this meal consisting of a Mango/Avocado Salad, Spicy Caribbean rice, Chocolate Jerk Steak, and Maple-Orange Plantain!

The Mountain Hiker - Jamaican Dinner for Blue Mountain Hike

Dee-lish…  Oh yah, and a shot of well aged Jamaican rum to wash it all down 🙂

FYI… My inspiration from Chef Nigel Spence and The Caribbean Journal, where I encountered his recipe for Cacao Nib Jerk Rub for Steak.

Hiking in the Caribbean – Part 4 (St. Kitts)

This is the final blog of this 4 part series about ‘day-hiking’ mountains and volcanoes while vacationing in the sunny Caribbean.

I suspect that most people think of the Caribbean as a place to relax on the beach with a tropical rum punch in hand… and while that’s a great idea, when I think of the Caribbean, I paint a mental picture of hiking through a lush rainforest, heading up-hill of a green mountain or volcano, enjoying the eye-popping views of the Caribbean Sea along the way!

The Caribbean islands, also known as “the West Indies”, are located in the Caribbean Sea / Atlantic ocean, forming a sort of right hand arc between Florida and South America. The largest Caribbean islands are in the north-west, and include Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Puerto Rico. These islands also have the largest mountain ranges and tallest peaks in the Caribbean. That said, I would suggest that some of the best Caribbean Islands for ‘up-hill’ hiking are further south east and include Dominica, Jamaica, Martinique‎, Saint Lucia‎, Guadeloupe‎, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Saint Vincent and Grenada. Active volcanoes still exist on some of these southern Caribbean islands, which always make for a fascinating hiking experience. Based on vertical height ‘above sea level’, the highest 15 mountains in the West Indies are:

Island Rank Height Mountain
Dominican Republic 1 10,164 feet (3,098m) Pico Duarte
2 9,324 feet (2,842m) Loma Alto de la Bandera
5 7,477 feet (2,279m) Loma Gajo en Medio
Haiti 3 8,773 feet (2,674m) Pic la Selle
4 7,700 feet (2,347m) Pic Macaya
Jamaica 6 7,402 feet (2,256m) Blue Mountain Peak
Cuba 7 6,476 feet (1,974m) Pico Turquino
12 4,098 feet (1,249m) Gran Piedra
15 3,740 feet (1,140m) Pico San Juan
Guadeloupe 8 4,813 feet (1,467m) La Grande Soufrière
Dominica 9 4,747 feet (1,447m) Morne Diablotins
Martinique 10 4,577 feet (1,395m) Montagne Pelée
Puerto Rico 11 4,389 feet (1,338m) Cerro de Punta
St. Vincent 13 4,049 feet (1,234m) La Soufrière
St. Kitts 14 3,793 feet (1,156m) Mount Liamuiga

Some great mountainous rainforest hiking is available on all of these islands… Some trails take just a couple of hours to hike, while others require a full day to complete. Weather permitting, most of these hikes allow you stunning views of the island and/or Caribbean sea, and all of the hikes will provide you with a gratifying sense of accomplishment – From a physical ‘I did it’ perspective’. There are also multi-day backpacking trails on the Dominican Republic, Dominica and Martinique. For the full ‘backpacking in tropical nature’ experience, campsites are available in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cuba, Dominica, Puerto Rico, St. Lucia, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Grenada. Each island has designated camping areas, usually in their national parks.

Last week we explored Puerto Rico. This week, as the final installment of this 4 part series, lets enjoy St. Kitts.

The Federation of Saint Christopher and Nevis Islands is a two island nation in the Lesser Antilles covering 101 square miles (262 sq km) in total.

Hiking in the Caribbean - Hike St. Kitts and Nevis
St. kitts – Mount Liamuiga in the clouds

Commonly referred to as “St. Kitts” or “SKN”, the islands are located in the north-eastern Caribbean and are a really good place to hike while on vacation there. The islands are actually the exposed tops of a submerged volcanic mountain range, now covered with rolling green folds of volcanic peaks and lush valleys. Regular ferry service connects the two islands, which are approximately 2 miles (3 km) apart. St. Kitts is only 6 miles (10 km) from its closest neighbour Sint Eustatius to the north-west, and is also not too far from Barbuda and Antigua to the East, as well as Montserrat to the south.

St. Kitts has a number of tourist attractions, the most popular being a very unique Scenic Railway Tour, Brimstone Hill Fortress (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Romney Manor botanical gardens. There’s also excellent Snorkling and Scuba diving at over a dozen official dive sites. There’s also The “Black Rocks” (ancient lava formations) and more than a dozen top notch beaches on the islands to relax on. Hopefully you’ll also see the African Green (Vervet) monkeys on your travels.

The best time to hike in SKN, in terms of weather, is March and April. Combined, Saint Christopher and Nevis have half a dozen mountains / volcanoes above 1,500 feet (500m), the tallest being Mount Liamuiga (formerly Mount Misery), at 3,792 feet (1,156 m) above sea level. There are two main hiking trails, one on each island, along with a number of lesser known trails.

The most common up-hill hike on St. Kitts is the Mount Liamuiga Trail. You’ll need 4 – 6 hours for this 5 mile (8km) round trip hike up and down this volcano. The absolute vertical hiked on this trail is just over 2,380 feet (725m), which is a decent challenge for most as it is mostly on a steady incline, with a few really steep sections. This hike is what you think of when you imagine hiking a volcano on a Caribbean island – Trekking through a rainforest, with the trail getting progressively steeper along the way, with access to an open crater on top that you can look down into. You will really enjoy this hike as you experience comfortable walking sections mixed with strenuous portions of the trail, all with a constantly varying environment, including seeing more exposed tree roots than you’ve ever seen, and of course the unique view of the inside of a volcano waiting for you at the top.

Hiking in the Caribbean - Hike St. Kitts and Nevis
Amazing – Exposed tree roots in areas of this hike
Hiking in the Caribbean - Hike St. Kitts and Nevis
Yes… There’s a trail there somewhere
Hiking in the Caribbean - Hike St. Kitts and Nevis
Looking down at the inside of the volcano

Other potential trails for up-hill hiking on St. Kitts include: Dos D’ane Pond / Verchilds Mountain, which is the second highest peak on St. Kitts and provides a fairly challenging hike with > 2000 feet (600m) vertical elevation gain, that will take you about 4-6 hours round trip; The “Valley of Giants” Rainforest trail, is an easy 2 hour hike which loops along a River Valley with an optional ridge climb; The Challengers Village Bat Cave and Waterfall Hike, whose attractions are self explanatory 🙂 takes about 4 hours in total to complete.

On the island of Nevis, the feature hike is to the centre of the island, Nevis Peak, which is the highest point on the island at 3200 feet (950m) above sea level. This is a fairly difficult / steep trail taking about 4-5 hours round trip, with approximately 2000 feet (600m) vertical gain over a relatively short distance.

When you’re not hiking and/or snorkling… There’s plenty to do on St. Kitts, including a Scenic Railway Tour, and be sure to visit Brimstone Hill Fortress as well as just relaxing on the beach.

Hiking in the Caribbean - Hike St. Kitts and Nevis
Brimstone Fortress – Island Facing side

 

We hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into the Caribbean, with a focus on hiking through the rainforest up a few mountains and volcanoes.

Hiking in the Caribbean – Part 3 (Puerto Rico)

This is Part 3 of a 4 part series about ‘day-hiking’ mountains and volcanoes while vacationing in the sunny Caribbean.

Hike the Caribbean - Hiking in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico’s Castillo de San Felipe del Morro

I suspect that most people think of the Caribbean as a place to relax on the beach with a tropical rum punch in hand… and while that’s a great idea, when I think of the Caribbean, I paint a mental picture of hiking through a lush rainforest, heading up-hill of a green mountain or volcano, enjoying the eye-popping views of the Caribbean Sea along the way!

The Caribbean islands, also known as “the West Indies”, are located in the Caribbean Sea / Atlantic ocean, forming a sort of right hand arc between Florida and South America. The largest Caribbean islands are in the north-west, and include Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Puerto Rico. These islands also have the largest mountain ranges and tallest peaks in the Caribbean. That said, I would suggest that some of the best Caribbean Islands for ‘up-hill’ hiking are further south east and include Dominica, Jamaica, Martinique‎, Saint Lucia‎, Guadeloupe‎, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Saint Vincent and Grenada. Active volcanoes still exist on some of these southern Caribbean islands, which always make for a fascinating hiking experience. Based on vertical height ‘above sea level’, the highest 15 mountains in the West Indies are:

Island Rank Height Mountain
Dominican Republic 1 10,164 feet (3,098m) Pico Duarte
2 9,324 feet (2,842m) Loma Alto de la Bandera
5 7,477 feet (2,279m) Loma Gajo en Medio
Haiti 3 8,773 feet (2,674m) Pic la Selle
4 7,700 feet (2,347m) Pic Macaya
Jamaica 6 7,402 feet (2,256m) Blue Mountain Peak
Cuba 7 6,476 feet (1,974m) Pico Turquino
12 4,098 feet (1,249m) Gran Piedra
15 3,740 feet (1,140m) Pico San Juan
Guadeloupe 8 4,813 feet (1,467m) La Grande Soufrière
Dominica 9 4,747 feet (1,447m) Morne Diablotins
Martinique 10 4,577 feet (1,395m) Montagne Pelée
Puerto Rico 11 4,389 feet (1,338m) Cerro de Punta
St. Vincent 13 4,049 feet (1,234m) La Soufrière
St. Kitts 14 3,793 feet (1,156m) Mount Liamuiga

Some great mountainous rainforest hiking is available on all of these islands… Some trails take just a couple of hours to hike, while others require a full day to complete. Weather permitting, most of these hikes allow you stunning views of the island and/or Caribbean sea, and all of the hikes will provide you with a gratifying sense of accomplishment – From a physical ‘I did it’ perspective’. There are also multi-day backpacking trails on the Dominican Republic, Dominica and Martinique. For the full ‘backpacking in tropical nature’ experience, campsites are available in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cuba, Dominica, Puerto Rico, St. Lucia, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Grenada. Each island has designated camping areas, usually in their national parks.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll provide a small taste of some of these islands, along with a sampling of hikes available to you. Be prepared to work up a sweat, and be rewarded with a number of fun rainforest experiences!

Last week we experienced Dominica. This week, as part 3 of this 4 part series, lets explore Puerto Rico.

Hike the Caribbean - Hiking in Puerto Rico
A view of the north – east side of the island, from the top of El-Yunque

Puerto Rico is a 5,324 sq mile (13,790 sq km) island that divides (the Greater and Lesser islands of) the Antilles.

Hike the Caribbean - Hiking in Puerto Rico
Looking over the south side of the island from Mt. Britton

A popular and comfortable tourist destination for Americans, Puerto Rico is located in the northern part of the Caribbean sea. While small relative to the other islands of the Greater Antilles (like Cuba and Hispaniola), Puerto Rico is massive in size when compared to the islands of the south-eastern Caribbean reviewed earlier in this series. Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic side) is located approximately 60 miles (100km) to the West and the US Virgin Islands are only 15 miles (25km) to the east of the island.

If you’ve ever been there, Puerto Rico is probably most memorable for the town of Old San Juan and its massive 16th-19th century Spanish fortresses, their “coqui” frogs that can be heard all night long, as well as being the birthplace of the Pina-Colada. The island has plenty of fun attractions, including fascinating and unique Bioluminescent Bays and Subterranean Cave Parks, as well as a number of Nature Reserves and places for Scuba Diving, not to mention Rum Tours. While most vacationers enjoy the beaches and nightlife of Puerto Rico, the island’s remote forests and mountains, a refuge for a variety of wildlife, are just waiting to be explored.

Hike the Caribbean - Hiking in Puerto Rico
Hiking the El-Yunque and Mt. Britton Trail in Puerto Rico

 

 

 

 

 

 

The best time to hike in Puerto Rico, in terms of the weather, can be anytime between December and April, with March typically being the driest month. The Cordillera Central mountain range, runs the length (east – west) of the southern half of the island and contains dozens of volcanic mountain peaks. The island has 21 State Forests (Bosque Estatal), including the El Yunque National Forest, the only sub-tropical rainforest in the United States. El Bosque Estatal de Toro Negro has a number of peaks higher than 3,300 feet (1000m), including Puerto Rico’s highest, Cerro de Punta at 4,390 feet (1,338m) above sea level. El Bosque Estatal de Monte Guilarte is also home to a number of peaks above 3,300 feet (1000 meters), with Monte Guilarte standing at 3,934 feet (1,199m) being one of the highest peaks in Puerto Rico. While there are amazing mountains in Puerto Rico begging to be hiked, very few of them have well documented trails, and some even have highways crossing their peaks. For example, the “Panoramic Route” highway goes across the top of El Bosque Estatal de Maricao, where there’s even a nice campground nestled in the mountaintops. That said…

The best maintained hiking trails are in the 28,000 acre El Yunque National Forest. There are a few mountain ranges in the park, with the most noticeable peaks being: Pico El Yunque at 3,461 feet (1,055m) and Monte Britton at 3,012 feet (918m) in the north part of the park; El Toro at 3,474 feet (1,059m) in the south-western part of the park; Pico del Este at 3,409 feet (1,039m) and Pico del Oeste at 3,340 feet (1,018m) in the south-eastern part of the park; and El Cacique at 3,327 feet (1,014m) in the centre of the park. Probably the most popular trail in Puerto Rico combines Pico El-Yunque and Mt. Britton to make for a very enjoyable intermediate type of hike. This 3 mile (5 km) round trip hike will take you a leisurely 2.5 – 4 hours to complete. The actual vertical hiked is probably less than 1,500 feet (450m), although you’ll find the views of the island from both peaks are pretty amazing. The mix in trail type and flora will provide you with a nice variety, and you may get lucky and experience walking through a cloud as you near Pico El Yunque. While the best advertised and maintained park on the island, it is usually far from crowded.

Hike the Caribbean - Hiking in Puerto Rico
One of the many small waterfalls on the El-Yunque trail

 

 

Hike the Caribbean - Hiking in Puerto Rico
The trail is a little “rocky-awkward” in spots

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hike the Caribbean - Hiking in Puerto Rico
A max-zoom of a peak of Los Picachos – From the Old Tower (El-Yunque)
Hike the Caribbean - Hiking in Puerto Rico
A breath-taking view of the north east corner of Puerto Rico

 

 

 

 

 

Hike the Caribbean - Hiking in Puerto Rico
On top of the world (El-Yunque) – With Luquillo and the Atlantic in the background

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other recommended and somewhat challenging trails for up-hill hiking in Puerto Rico’s El-Yunque Forest include the El Toro Trail (officially no longer maintained) which is a 4.4 mile (7km) round trip hike with an elevation change of 1,400 feet (427m) taking you to the tallest peak in the park; Perhaps even better is the Tradewinds Trail, which hikes 7.5 miles (12km) round trip, with an elevation change of over 1,800 feet (550m), to El Toro from the east; La Coca Trail is a 3.4 mile (5.5km) round trip hike that is a little hilly and crosses a number of rivers.

There are trails in El Bosque Estatal de Monte Guilarte, one of the more popular being a short and steep hike to Punta (Monte) Guilarte, where the views of the southern coast of the island are spectacular. There is also a campground, with campsites and cabins available in this park.

While you can access Puerto Rico’s tallest peak Cerro de Punta, with a short walk off a main highway in El Bosque Estatal de Toro Negro, you can actually hike to it from an old coffee plantation “Inn”, just north-east of the mountain. This (likely unmaintained) trail appears to be about 4-5 miles (7-8km) long round trip, with a vertical change in elevation of approximately 2,300 feet (700m). From the concrete monument marking the highest point on the island, you will get a 360 degree view of the entire island, it’s mountains, the Caribbean sea and Atlantic ocean, as well as San Juan – 75 miles (120km) to the north. There are also a number of short trails from a campground within the park, one of which leads to an observation tower 3,500 feet (1070m) above sea level providing you with another fantastic 360 view of the island. Other trails go to one of the many waterfalls in the area, the most popular being the 200 feet (60m) tall ‘Dona Juana’, which is near a popular natural swimming hole.

Hike the Caribbean - Hiking in Puerto Rico

So… If you’ve walked around Old San Juan and it’s amazing fortresses, and find the time to get away from the beach and Pina Coladas (actually, Mojitos are now more popular on the island), you should try to experience Puerto Rico’s rainforest trails. If you still have time and energy after your hikes, remember there’s still Bioluminescent Bays and Subterranean Cave Parks to explore!

Next week, as the final part of this 4 part series, we’ll discover St. Kitts.

Hiking in the Caribbean – Part 2 (Dominica)

This is Part 2 of a 4 part series about ‘day-hiking’ mountains and volcanoes while vacationing in the sunny Caribbean.

Vacationing in the Caribbean - Puerto Rico
Soaking up the sun on Puerto Rico

I suspect that most people think of the Caribbean as a place to relax on the beach with a tropical rum punch in hand… and while that’s a great idea, when I think of the Caribbean, I paint a mental picture of hiking through a lush rainforest, heading up-hill of a green mountain or volcano, enjoying the eye-popping views of the Caribbean Sea along the way!

The Caribbean islands, also known as “the West Indies”, are located in the Caribbean Sea / Atlantic ocean, forming a sort of right hand arc between Florida and South America. The largest Caribbean islands are in the north-west, and include Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Puerto Rico. These islands also have the largest mountain ranges and tallest peaks in the Caribbean. That said, I would suggest that some of the best Caribbean Islands for ‘up-hill’ hiking are further south east and include Dominica, Jamaica, Martinique‎, Saint Lucia‎, Guadeloupe‎, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Saint Vincent and Grenada. Active volcanoes still exist on some of these southern Caribbean islands, which always make for a fascinating hiking experience. Based on vertical height ‘above sea level’, the highest 15 mountains in the West Indies are:

Island Rank Height Mountain
Dominican Republic 1 10,164 feet (3,098m) Pico Duarte
2 9,324 feet (2,842m) Loma Alto de la Bandera
5 7,477 feet (2,279m) Loma Gajo en Medio
Haiti 3 8,773 feet (2,674m) Pic la Selle
4 7,700 feet (2,347m) Pic Macaya
Jamaica 6 7,402 feet (2,256m) Blue Mountain Peak
Cuba 7 6,476 feet (1,974m) Pico Turquino
12 4,098 feet (1,249m) Gran Piedra
15 3,740 feet (1,140m) Pico San Juan
Guadeloupe 8 4,813 feet (1,467m) La Grande Soufrière
Dominica 9 4,747 feet (1,447m) Morne Diablotins
Martinique 10 4,577 feet (1,395m) Montagne Pelée
Puerto Rico 11 4,389 feet (1,338m) Cerro de Punta
St. Vincent 13 4,049 feet (1,234m) La Soufrière
St. Kitts 14 3,793 feet (1,156m) Mount Liamuiga

Some great mountainous rainforest hiking is available on all of these islands…  Some trails take just a couple of hours to hike, while others require a full day to complete. Weather permitting, most of these hikes allow you stunning views of the island and/or Caribbean sea, and all of the hikes will provide you with a gratifying sense of accomplishment – From a physical ‘I did it’ perspective’. There are also multi-day backpacking trails on the Dominican Republic, Dominica and Martinique. For the full ‘backpacking in tropical nature’ experience, campsites are available in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cuba, Dominica, Puerto Rico, St. Lucia, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Grenada. Each island has designated camping areas, usually in their national parks.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll provide a small taste of some of these islands, along with a sampling of hikes available to you. Be prepared to work up a sweat, and be rewarded with a number of fun rainforest experiences!

Last week we explored St. Lucia.  This week, as part 2 of this 4 part series, lets experience “the nature isle of the Caribbean”, Dominica.

Hiking Dominica - Scott's Head
A view of Dominica’s south-west coast and gorgeous blue waters of the Caribbean Sea

Dominica, not to be confused with the much larger and more populated Dominican Republic, is a 290 square mile (750 sq km) island in the south east Caribbean, specifically the Lesser Antilles’ Windward islands.

Hiking Dominica - Hike the Caribbean
The rugged mountains of Dominica – Approaching the island’s capital, Roseau
Hiking the Caribbean - Hike Dominica - Morne Anglais
A view of Roseau from part way up Morne Anglais

While not too well known or overly popular, the Commonwealth of Dominica is an amazing island for hiking enthusiasts.  The island is covered with lush green mountains, and streams and rivers, many of which have plunging waterfalls.  Located in the south-eastern Caribbean, between Guadeloupe to the north, and Martinique to the south, Dominica can be enjoyed by divers as well as jungle rainforest seeking hikers.  There are a number of scuba-dive sites just off shore, as well as an area for snorkeling in shallow waters.  One area for snorkelers even has warm bubbling water, caused by volcanic vents on the ocean floor.   For the history buff, there’s impressive Fort Shirley, part of the Cabrits National Park.

Perhaps the best time to hike, for relatively cooler and dryer weather, is January through to April.  Dominica has close to a dozen mountains above 1,500 feet (500m), the tallest being Morne Diablotins, at 4,747 feet (1,447 m) above sea level.  There are literally dozens of day-hiking trails on the island, as well as the Caribbean’s longest continuous trail for multi-day backpackers.  Nominal user fees are required for almost all of the trails in Dominica, and local Guides are also recommended, as the trail heads are hard to find, and the trails themselves can become overgrown – A machete wielding guide can be very useful.

Hike Dominica - Hiking in the Caribbean
In the heart of the Dominica rainforest – Morne Trois Pitons National Park
Hike the Caribbean - Dominica hiking
Hiking Dominica – Morne Anglais was muddy fun!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the more popular, yet still fairly un-crowded, hikes in Dominica has to be Boiling Lake.  This is a long and fairly difficult 6-8 hour round trip hike over 8 miles (13km) of extremely varied and challenging terrain.  The highest point on this hike is around 3,100 feet (950 meters), however the actual vertical hiked is probably over 5,000 feet (1500m) as the trail travels up and down a few mountain ridges, gorges and valleys along the way.  And yes…  This trail takes you to a lake, the second-largest thermally active hot spring in the world, which ‘is’ literally boiling… That’s no good for swimming 🙂 however it is a once in a lifetime sight to behold. This epic hike is filled with awe inspiring rugged and natural beauty.   The trail has a number of stops with spectacular and varied views of the island as well as the Caribbean sea…  While most of the trail is through lush rainforest, there are river crossings and bizarre sections of barren, rocky, mineral springs and mud pools.

Hiking Dominica - Hike the Caribbean
and we’re off… one of the many ‘staircases’ on Dominica Boiling Lake trail
Hike Dominica - Boiling Lake Trail - Hiking the Caribbean
About half way along the trail… The Caribbean Sea way in the background!
Hike the Caribbean - Dominica Boiling Lake hike
How many more mountains / ridges are we crossing before we get there?

 

 

 

 

Hike Dominica - Hiking the Caribbean - Boiling Lake
Taking a break… smoldering steam venting from the earth in the background
Hike Dominica - Hiking the Caribbean
Who needs a spa? Warm grey mud bubbles from the ground!
Hiking Dominica - Hiked the Caribbean
Dominica’s Boiling Lake – You know it’s hot when the steam can be seen in the hot Caribbean air

A much tamer, but still interesting and enjoyable hike is the Middleham Falls trail.  You won’t need a guide for this well maintained and marked trail.  Contrary to the optimistic sign at the entrance, it will likely take you 2 – 3 hours for this 4 mile (6km) round trip hike that takes you over a ridge/mountain to, you guessed it, a beautiful 200+ foot (60+ meters) tall waterfall.  You can enjoy the rainbow view of the falls from a distance, or you can venture down into the pool itself for a swim in the mist.  You should enjoy this hike at a pleasant and relaxing pace as you absorb the vibe of the island.  While one of the more popular waterfalls on the island, it is still fairly quiet as only those who don’t mind hiking for a couple of hours, will make the trip.  There’s some nice views of the surrounding rainforest valleys and mountains, and of course the amazing waterfalls are an accurate representation of what this island is all about.

Hike Dominica Middleham falls - Hiking the Caribbean
What a nice trail / walk through the rainforest – On the way to Middleham Falls
Hike Dominica - Middleham Falls - Hiking the Caribbean
Dominica’s Middleham Falls – Another gorgeous day in paradise

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For other challenging up-hill hikes, there is Morne Diablotin, the highest point on the island.  You’ll likely need a good 6-8 hours to return from this hike, as you cover an absolute vertical of 2800 feet (850m) through a remote and dense rainforest.  Considered by many, the most challenging hike on the island, the Morne Trois Pitons Trail is long and hilly, making the 2,300 feet (700m) absolute vertical seem much higher.  You’ll need a full day (6-8 hours) to conquer this Rainforest/Cloudforest trail.

There are dozens of other hiking trails on Dominica, a couple others of note includes: Victoria Falls, where you’ll hike for a couple of hours round trip, crossing back and forth as well as through a river… Ending in a large pool below a spectacular 165 feet tall waterfall; and there’s also Morne aux Diables, which is an intermediate type hike, requiring 4-6 hours of hiking through a diverse mix of mountainous and volcanic terrain.

Hike Dominica - Hiking in the Caribbean - Victoria Falls
Dominica – Off we go to Victoria Falls
Hiking Dominica's Victoria Falls trail - Hike the Caribbean
Dominica – Hiking up-river to the beautiful Victoria Falls!
Hiking Dominica / Hike the Caribbean - Victoria Falls
Feeling the powerful spray in the pool at the bottom of Victoria Falls

If you’re looking for a truly immersive tropical rainforest experience, you can backpack sections of, or the entire Waitukubuli National Trail – 115 miles (184 km) of snaking trails from one end of Dominica to the other!

Regardless if you travel to Dominica for the diving or the hiking, you’ll be left in awe with the natural beauty of this island!

Next week, as part 3 of this 4 part series, we’ll explore Puerto Rico.

Hiking in the Caribbean – Part 1 (St. Lucia)

This is Part 1 of a 4 part series about ‘day-hiking’ mountains and volcanoes while vacationing in the sunny Caribbean.

Vacationing in the Caribbean - Puerto Rico
Soaking up the sun on Puerto Rico

I suspect that most people think of the Caribbean as a place to relax on the beach with a tropical rum punch in hand, and while that’s a great idea… When I think of the Caribbean, I paint a mental picture of hiking through a lush rainforest, heading up-hill to a green mountain or volcano, enjoying the eye-popping views of the Caribbean Sea along the way!

The Caribbean islands, also known as “the West Indies”, are located in the Caribbean Sea / Atlantic ocean, forming a sort of right hand arc between Florida and South America. The largest Caribbean islands are in the north-west, and include Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Puerto Rico. These islands also have the largest mountain ranges and tallest peaks in the Caribbean. That said, I would suggest that some of the best Caribbean Islands for ‘up-hill’ hiking are further south east and include Dominica, Jamaica, Martinique‎, Saint Lucia‎, Guadeloupe‎, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Saint Vincent and Grenada. Active volcanoes still exist today on some of these southern Caribbean islands, which always make for a fascinating hiking experience. Based on vertical height above sea level, here are the highest 15 mountains in the West Indies:

Island Rank Height Mountain
Dominican Republic 1 10,164 feet (3,098m) Pico Duarte
2 9,324 feet (2,842m) Loma Alto de la Bandera
5 7,477 feet (2,279m) Loma Gajo en Medio
Haiti 3 8,773 feet (2,674m) Pic la Selle
4 7,700 feet (2,347m) Pic Macaya
Jamaica 6 7,402 feet (2,256m) Blue Mountain Peak
Cuba 7 6,476 feet (1,974m) Pico Turquino
12 4,098 feet (1,249m) Gran Piedra
15 3,740 feet (1,140m) Pico San Juan
Guadeloupe 8 4,813 feet (1,467m) La Grande Soufrière
Dominica 9 4,747 feet (1,447m) Morne Diablotins
Martinique 10 4,577 feet (1,395m) Montagne Pelée
Puerto Rico 11 4,389 feet (1,338m) Cerro de Punta
St. Vincent 13 4,049 feet (1,234m) La Soufrière
St. Kitts 14 3,793 feet (1,156m) Mount Liamuiga

Some great mountainous rainforest hiking is available on all of these islands, with some trails taking just a couple of hours, while others require a full day. Weather permitting, most of these hikes allow you stunning views of the island and/or Caribbean sea, and all of the hikes will provide you with a gratifying sense of accomplishment. There are also multi-day backpacking trails on the Dominican Republic, Dominica and Martinique. For the full ‘backpacking in tropical nature’ experience, campsites are available in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cuba, Dominica, Puerto Rico, St. Lucia, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Grenada. Each island has designated camping areas, usually in their national parks.
Over the next 4 weeks, we’ll provide a small taste of some of these islands, along with a sampling of hikes available to you. Be prepared to work up a sweat and be rewarded with a number of fun rainforest experiences!

For today’s Part 1 of Hiking in the Caribbean, let’s explore St. Lucia.

St. Lucia is a A 238 square mile (616 sq km) island in the Lesser Antilles’ Windward islands.

Hiking in the Caribbean - St. Lucia
The Iconic Piton of St. Lucia

 

 

 

 

 

A popular Caribbean island getaway with many tourist attractions, St. Lucia is an excellent island to do some day hiking while on vacation. Located in the south-eastern Caribbean, the island is just south of Martinique and west of Barbados. Perhaps the best known attractions include: Fort Rodney and Signal Peak in Pigeon Island National Park; Reduit Beach at Rodney Bay; Diamond Falls / Botanical Gardens; along with the Tet Paul Nature trail. There are also a few waterfalls and hot springs to visit during your stay as well as a few places to indulge in locally made chocolate!

Perhaps the best time to hike, for relatively cooler and dryer weather, is February, March or April. St. Lucia has about half a dozen mountains above 1,500 feet (500m), the tallest being Mount Gimie at just over 3,000 feet (950m) above sea level. The Pitons, the icon of St. Lucia, stand just over 2,500 feet (780m) tall. There are a number of good trails on the island, including some interesting and challenging up-hill day hikes. Officially, a St. Lucia Forestry Department day-pass, along with a local guide, is required to hike on the island.

Hiking Mount Gimie will take about 5-7 hours, as the trail is approximately 5-6 miles (8-10km) long, round trip. For those looking for a remote and challenging rainforest hike on St. Lucia, this is the one to do. While the trail meanders up and down across a mountain ridge and valley, the absolute vertical from start to finish is about 1,970 feet (600m). You’ll experience a range of trail conditions on this hike, including a couple of amazingly steep sections, where you will need to climb natural ladders of tree roots. You’ll see amazing plant life in this moist rainforest, and you’ll even be able to go for a dip at the bottom of a waterfall. Of course, the views of the island at various stops along the trail are spectacular, including a very unique perspective of the Pitons from the island’s interior.

Hiking the Caribbean - St. Lucia Mount Gimie
Part way to St. Lucia’s Mount Gimie (The peak in the background on the far left)
Hiking the Caribbean - St. Lucia Mount Gimie
Up we go – St. Lucia’s Mount Gimie
Hiking the Caribbean - St. Lucia Mount Gimie
A view from the misty top of St. Lucia’s Mount Gimie

 

 

 

 

 

 

The popular Gros Piton hike can take anywhere from 3 – 6 hours, depending on where you start and on your physical conditioning. While this trail is under 3 miles (4.4km) round trip, it is all uphill (on the way up that is ;), with some pretty steep sections. As expected, the views from the top, of the western and south part of the island, are sensational. While this is a somewhat short hike, in order to really enjoy it, you’ll require decent leg strength and excellent cardio. An “adventurous” trip to St. Lucia is incomplete without hiking the iconic Piton. FYI – The Petit Piton can also be hiked, however it is extremely steep and potentially dangerous in some areas.

Hiking in the Caribbean - St. Lucia Gros Piton
Hiking St. Lucia’s Gros Piton from the beach…
Hiking in the Caribbean - St. Lucia's Gros Piton
Catching our breath, while hiking up St. Lucia’s Gros Piton

 

Hiking in the Caribbean - St. Lucia Gros Piton
A view of St. Vincent, from St. Lucia’s Gros Piton

 

 

 

 

 

Other decent hikes on St. Lucia include Enbas Saut Falls, Barre Isle Ridge (Mount La Combe), the Des Cartiers Rainforest trail, and the Edmund Forest Reserve. Shorter, easier hikes include the Jacquot Trail, the Millet Trail (Bird Sanctuary) as well as the Forestierre Trail.

So in summary, you can choose to relax at the beach or a luxurious chocolate hotel, go for a leisurely stroll on Pigeon Island National Park or the Tet Paul Nature trail… Alternatively you can go for a heart pumping adventurous up-hill hike through the rainforest… Whatever you choose to do, you’re sure to have a memorable holiday in St. Lucia!

Next week, as part 2 of this 4 part series, we’ll experience “the nature isle of the Caribbean”, Dominica.