Road Trip Through the Heart of Jamaica's Backcountry

Jamaica's beaches are absolutely stunning and the all-inclusive resorts provide a pampering vacation of non-stop pool activities, beach time and buffets, but to truly experience Jamaica and Jamaican culture we need to go beyond the beach and resort towns and into the back country.

Jamaica is blessed with mountains, rivers and tropical lush vegetation and we decided to embark on a journey across the island back up the coast to where our hotel was.

On the beach we met several vendors selling hats, suntan lotion, jewellery and other trinkets, but one man, James approached us as we waded in the aquamarine water with nothing in his hands to sell.

"He mon, what's happening?" he started. And in my mind I thought, another vendor reading to sell me some necklace or hand bracelet I don't really want.

"You want to go for a ride to see the real Jamaica?"

OK, this got my attention. Something new. Something adventurous. The man with nothing to sell owns a 1992 Toyota Corolla that is "totally safe." He is also offering to be a tour guide to wherever we want to go and I explain to him that I want to see some off-the-beaten path destinations - waterfalls, hikes, cities, towns etc.

We talk about his new venture and agree to start out journey the next day. On the roadtrip is my wife and two young sons and early the next morning James arrives in his Toyota. He explains that he wiped down the interior but the exterior needs a wash. Jamaicans are very proud of their automobiles and there are many car wash stations about.

First he takes us to a small river nearby called Rio Bueno. It is a fast moving river that flows out into the Caribbean. Here, we discuss river tubing and how much fun it would be to toss in a tube and go for a ride. James is very excited about one day operating his own tourism company and as he explains his plans he unzips his pants and pulls out his penis and urinates beside the river. Public urination is a crime in Jamaica, or at least, looked down upon, but James says that the practise is commonplace because where we are going - no one has a bathroom or even an outhouse. We are going into the hills where very few, if any, outsiders go.

We drive, first, however, to a James' friend's house who greets us and allows us to see his beach front property. The house was a time-capsule - built in the 1960s with furniture and decorations from that era. His friend, Rossman, offered up some rum and smokes and said we are welcome to stay with him anytime. As it turns out, he is the caretaker and gardener of the property. James and Rossman have an idea. They can rent out the property on the beachfront wile the homeowner is away. No mention, however, if the homeowner is in on the bed and breakfast idea.

We soon find our way to a winding road heading south into the mountains. On the right side, James points out a police station.

"These police mon, they do nuttin'," he says laughing. "Look, they have a police station at a motel. In the back, they have a pool. And the criminals made them a bar and they drink. Who is goin' to fight crime when you have a pool and a bar."

Alright. We are headed into the back country of Jamaica, with rumours of drug cartels and gangs and police who are on vacation at the swim-up bar.

The road goes from paved to gravel very quickly. The road conditions also deteriorate to the point of no return. James says his Toyota is built for it and puts the accelerator down driving feverishly up the mountain road at a pace set by World Rally Car Champions.

The mountain vistas and the green, lush forests are inviting. We pass by a few houses and beside a river where women are washing clothes. In a matter of minutes we went from modern amenities and civilization to back in time a few hundred years.

"Everyone here lives off the land or works in the resorts," James says. "They are very poor. If they work in the resort, they are lucky, but you need education and a way to get to the resort. It is very difficult."

We pass by a few more free-standing homes built of scrap wood and metal. It looks very dire.

And then, suddenly, we hear a pop and a hiss. I indicate to James that it sounded like the tire was going flat. We had hit many rocks and potholes at an extreme speed but James was not deterred.

"No worries," he says as he drives on the flat right into a small town. He pulls over to an apocalyptic-looking tire shop. The front tire is near flat. Words are exchanged and a deal made for a new tire - or should I say used tire, or more correctly - an inflated, bald tire.

Now the towns folk were looking at us as James said just to wait in the car. It was unnerving, really, to see people just stop and stare. What did they want? Were we about to get robbed?

James said the people in this part of Jamaica rarely, if ever, see white people and they are mesmerized by our different colored skin and are more perplexed as to what we are doing out here in the middle of Jamaica. With the new, barely usable tire we are off. It seems like the new tire has made the Toyota swerve to the left if unchecked.

"No worries," says James.

We soon come down a mountain and into a long stretch of old plantation land where Sugar Cane dominates the fields. In the distance we see a lot of smoke as they are burning the crops.

I hear a warning chime from the Toyota and look over at the dash for information. The check engine light has gone off but then dims. From all the rattling on the gravel roads it is near impossible to tell if the engine is suffering or that the wire is faulty. But then I notice the gas gauge. It is sitting on empty. I mention it to James but he shrugs. He doesn't even have to say anything. I am worried.

We pass by a gas station but James says he wants to show us a Rum distillery and so we pass by and onto another very bad road. The car jerks up and down so much the wheel wells are getting bashed by the pothole depths. The distillery has a distinctive smell and the product rum. There is a small bottling plant beside it which looks very busy.

Soon we find ourselves back onto a mountainous road. We pass a truck that is about 30 feet high, stacked with wood. On top of the loose pile sits a bunch of young men smiling and waving.

The car sputters finally. No gas.

"No worries," James says as he opens the trunk and pulls out a gas can and walks down the road. He apparently wants to catch a lift and bring back gas but there we are on the side of the road, alone.

All we can hear is the sounds of the wind in the trees whispering some lost Reggae sound and a bird or three singing along. Time seems to stand still as there is nothing else but the land and the creatures inhabiting Jamaica.

Soon James arrives with a tank of gas. He hitched a ride from another motorist and was happy he did not have to walk the 40 miles to the gas station. And off we go. But this time James fills up his tank at a little one pump petrol station. The fill costs him nearly $80, because of the price of gasoline on the island. About a months wages for most.

He takes us to YS Falls, a less popular and scenic waterfall in the southern part of Jamaica. Here we swim, dive and use a swing rope to cool off in the beautiful, fresh mountain water. We order jerk chicken and potatoes at the local food stand. They also provide us with free beer - Red Stripe! There was one local boy swimming with us and that is all and soon we were ready for our next stop.

But James was not there. We waited and then he returned saying he wanted to wash the car again to make sure it looked good. With a clean and polished exterior we were off.

My youngest son started developing nausea. No doubt from the bumpy, fast-paced ride we were on through the mountain roads. We pulled over and James said he would get him medicine. James walked up to a house in the middle of a green field, knocked on the door and spoke to the woman who answered. He came trotting back a few minutes later with a newspaper.

"Put this on his chest and he will be fine," James instructed. "It has the medicine on it."

So we did as instructed and within minutes my son's nauseousness went away. I asked what was on the newspaper and he explained it was a herb from the woman's garden.

"We need to make our own medicines because it is too much to buy," James says.

Our next stop was the resort town of Negril to catch the sunset. He drove us right up to Rick's Cafe, a small restaurant situated on the western cliffs of Negril. A doorman led us into the top tier balcony and here we ordered food - more jerk chicken, fries, hamburgers, and drinks. The sun started setting and a fantastic Reggae band performed on stage. James indicated we should come down to see the cliff divers. Here, young men climbing high on tiny little trees and then dove down into the abyss between rocks and cliff faces. It was highly dangerous and astounding. They worked on tips. About $20 a day.

"Crazy boys," James said. "They need to get a Toyota."

After a fantastic dinner, entertainment and watching the sun go down in a fantastic array it was off to Montego Bay through a wild street party and back to our resort.

The interior of Jamaica is rarely visited and this gave us a first hand glimpse into the real Jamaica - a hardworking, ambitious and friendly people with a great attitude:

"No worries."

So venture out! See the real Jamaica, even if it is for one day! Adventure surely awaits!

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