Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean archipelago are summits of a submarine string of mountains, which in prehistoric times probably formed a land bridge between modern Mexico and Venezuela. Covering 10,982 sq. km (4,240 sq. miles), the island is approximately the size of Connecticut, yet offers a diverse landscape. It is 235km (146 miles) long; its width ranges from 35 to 93km (22-58 miles).

Millions of years ago, volcanoes thrust up from the ocean floor, forming Jamaica's mountains, which reach to 2,220m (7,400 ft.) high (loftier than any along the eastern seaboard of North America). These mountains, located in an east-to-west line in central Jamaica, contain more than 120 rivers and many waterfalls, as well as thermal springs. In the high mountains of the east, the landscape features semitropical rainforest and copses of mist-covered pines. The mountains are bordered on the north and east by a narrow coastal plain fringed with beaches. The flat, arid southern coastline reminds visitors of African savanna or Indian plains, whereas the moist, fertile North Coast slopes steeply from hills down to excellent beaches. Much of Jamaica is underlain by limestone, dotted with dozens of caves that store large reservoirs of naturally filtered drinking water.

Almost everything grows in Jamaica, as proved by colonial British botanists who imported flowers and fruits from Asia, the Pacific, Africa, and Canada. The island contains unique orchids, ferns, bromeliads, and varieties of fruit, like the Bombay mango, that don't flourish elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere. Birds, insects, and other animals are also abundant.

Framing the capital of Kingston, the Blue Mountains dominate the eastern third of the island. This is the country's most panoramic area, and it's split by a network of paths, trails, and bad roads -- a paradise for hikers. From this region comes Blue Mountain coffee, the most expensive in the world. Younger than the Blue Mountains, the John Crow Mountains rise at the northeastern end of the island. Only the most skilled mountain climbers or advanced hikers should attempt this rugged karstic terrain. It rains here almost daily, creating a rainforest effect.

Jamaica's longest river is called Black River, and it's bordered by marshes, swamps, and mangroves where bird and animal life, including reptiles, flourish. Black River, which is also the name of a small port, is in the southwestern section, lying east of Savanna-la-Mar and reached by Route A2.

Flora & Fauna

Almost everything grows in Jamaica. In the heyday of the British Empire, flowering and fruit trees were brought from Asia, the Pacific, and Africa; evergreens from Canada; roses and nasturtiums from England; and breadfruit was shipped in from Tahiti, initially by Captain William Bligh. In return, Jamaica's native pineapple was sent to Hawaii, plus Blue Mountain coffee seedlings that generated ongoing crops now known on the Hawaiian Islands as Kona coffee. Mahogany was shipped to Central America. Several varieties of orchids, bromeliads, and ferns are unique to Jamaica, and certain fruits, like the Bombay mango, fare better here than they do anywhere else in the hemisphere.

Jamaica is a bird-watcher's paradise, with about 200 resident bird species and more endemic species than any other Caribbean island. Of these, 25 species and 21 subspecies are found nowhere else.

The national bird, the Red-Billed Streamertail Hummingbird, affectionately called the Doctor Bird or Swallow-Tail Hummingbird (Trochilus polytmus), lives only in Jamaica. Its image has become a widely utilized national symbol, appearing on bank notes and forming part of the logo of the national airline, Air Jamaica.

Visitors can view two endemic parrots, the Yellow-Billed Parrot and the Black-Billed Parrot. Guided bird-watching tours are available everywhere in Jamaica. At Rocklands Feeding Station, just outside Montego Bay, birds will sometimes perch on your finger to sip a sweet drink. Visitors to Jamaica's north-coast resorts are familiar with a bird known as the kling-kling, the shiny black Antillean grackle that circulates with a dancer's elegance and makes frequent appearances at the breakfast table. For more information on the various bird-watching hotspots in Jamaica, check www.visitjamaica.com or call tel. 800/JAMAICA (526-2422).

Beyond the dazzling assortment of birds, there is a lot more to Jamaica's wildlife. Snakes, lizards, frogs, the coney, iguanas, and the American crocodile were on the island long before the Spaniards arrived.

Lizards are easy to find, as many live around houses and gardens, feeding on insects. The coney (closely related to the rat and resembling a large, brown guinea pig) and the iguana have not survived quite as well as lizards, having fallen prey to the ferocious mongoose, a relative newcomer brought into Jamaica from India to control field rats. The American crocodile (said to be harmless) and the manatee survive in small numbers along the South Coast.

Additionally, there are over a dozen different kinds of small frogs, a hundred different butterflies, and 25 species of harmless bats.

The highest mountains are home to the Pterourus homerus, one of the largest butterflies in the western hemisphere.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.