Falmouth: Decaying Georgian Charm
Market Day -- On Wednesday morning from 8am to noon, Falmouth hosts the biggest flea market in the country, with hundreds of booths linking the marketplace and overflowing into the streets. Take time out to buy a loaf of bammy (cassava bread) and pick up the makings of a picnic.
Interior St. James Parish
Most visitors, including many who have visited Montego Bay multiple times, never leave the coastline. Yet you can take an interesting self-guided driving tour deep into the lush interior of St. James Parish. This tour touches only on destinations nearer to Montego Bay.
At the village of Reading, west of Montego Bay, take Route B8 (it's signposted) into the tropical interior. The elevation rises as you drive along the aptly named Long Hill, which runs parallel to the Great River Valley. From below you can see tropical palms and ferns.
Six kilometers (3 3/4 miles) south of Reading, you come to the village of:
Lethe -- This is a base for rafting the Great River. Before driving from Montego Bay, arrange rafting trips in advance. Mountain Valley Rafting, Lethe Hanover (tel. 876/956-4920), offers excursions on the Great River that depart from the Lethe Estate, 16km (10 miles) south of Montego Bay. Rafts cost US$45 for up to two people. Trips last 45 minutes and operate daily from 8am to 5pm. The rafts are composed of bamboo trunks with a raised dais to sit on. In some cases, a small child can accompany two adults on the same raft, although due caution should be exercised if you choose to do this. Ask about pickup by taxi at the end of the rafting run. For US$65 per person, a half-day experience includes transportation to and from your hotel, an hour's rafting, lunch, a garden tour of the Lethe property, and a taste of Jamaican liqueur.
Also at Lethe you'll find one of the most graceful stone bridges in Jamaica, spanning the Great River and dating from 1828. Who built this bridge of heavy stones? Slave labor, of course. The decaying ruins of a former sugar mill standing forlornly on the riverbank will make you reach for your camera. It's one of the most evocative sights in St. James of a long-gone plantation era.
The Maroon Country
A strange, eerie part of Jamaica lies in the hills southeast of Montego Bay. Few visitors from abroad venture here. The landscape begins 2km (1 1/4 miles) south of Montego Bay along Fairfield Road (which is not in the best of shape).
Back-Roading Southeast Of Montego Bay
If you follow bumpy Fairfield Road, you will eventually reach Maroon Town, lying on the periphery of the rugged and bleak Cockpit Country .
The first hamlet of historical interest is:
Kensington -- A tiny town some 21km (13 miles) south of Mo Bay, Kensington doesn't offer much to see today. But history buffs will be interested to know that in this remote outpost the famous slave uprising of 1831 was launched, bringing on the Christmas Rebellion that eventually led to the emancipation of slaves in the British colonies. A ridge-top plantation was set afire, and the rebellion broke out of control before the slaves were eventually subdued.
The only sign of this rebellion today is a plaque along the road, placed here by the Jamaican National Heritage Trust to commemorate the moment.
Continue 5km (3 miles) southeast to:
Maroon Town -- This town was settled by the remnants of the Trelawny Town Maroons. A Jamaican colonel, John Guthrie, signed a peace treaty here with the Maroons in 1745, though it only lasted until 1795.
The Cockpit Country
The foreboding landscape of the Cockpit Country is one of the most desolate and eerie territories in all the West Indies. For those who'd like to combine some adventure into that holiday by the beach, a tour through this rugged terrain is recommended -- if you're in good shape, that is.
The forest-clad limestone hills of the Cockpit Country are shaped like witches' hats. This is wild "karst" terrain, of the type also found in Puerto Rico. The land is filled with weathered limestone covering 1,295 sq. km (500 sq. miles). Much of the Cockpit Country remains uninhabited and, even today, still hasn't been explored in depth.
Conical hillocks were dissolved by an elaborate drainage system of caves and sinkholes. No other region of the Caribbean has such intriguingly named settlements: Wait-a-Bit, Rest and Be Thankful, and Me No Sen You No Come.
Jamaica at present classifies the Cockpit Country as a National Reserve, although there is a movement afoot to have it declared a national park. Because the Maroons function almost independently of the Jamaican government, they are fiercely opposed to national park status, fearing it would intrude upon their independence.
Warning: Trails here are overgrown, so guides are imperative. No foreigner should attempt this exploration without skilled guidance. Sinkholes appear suddenly and without warning, and hikers who fall into them can be seriously injured or killed. The land is also a mosquito breeding factory. These pests are hungry for blood -- yours -- so be prepared. You should also take plenty of water and adequate provisions.
The company we recommend most for guided tours is Cockpit Country Adventure Tours (tel. 876/610-0818; www.stea.net). Guides are experienced and were trained by the U.S. Peace Corps. The easiest tour is called "Burnt Hill Nature Walk," costing US$55 per person. The second tour, "Rock Spring Cave and River Adventure," is a medium adventure including some visits to caves. The cost here is US$70 per person. The most difficult jaunt is the "Quashie River Sink Cave Exploration," costing US$70 per person, and going into the difficult territory of the Quashie River, as well as the 4km (2 1/2-mile) exploration of Quashie Cave, known for its "cathedral room" and its underground waterfall.
In all cases, it is necessary to hire two guides for each trip, even if only one person goes along. So it's recommended that you go with other people.
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.