Romance and relaxation on the Rio Grande
On my last trip to Jamaica, I did the unthinkable. I abandoned the white-sand beaches and the pulsating Negril nightlife for a few days and headed to Port Antonio to raft on the Rio Grande. The eight-hour ride from Negril to Port Antonio, with many stops along the way, virtually traversed the entire Jamaican north coast, ploughing through seven parishes. My friends and I arrived at a hilltop villa just after 8 p.m. totally exhausted, but anxious for daylight to break to see what treasures would unfold in Port Antonio.
I had rafted on the Rio Grande many years earlier in the '80s and I recall it being a most breathtaking ride. But that was many years ago. Since then, I've done river rides on the Mississippi in the United States, the Essequibo in Guyana, the Orinoco where it forms the border between Venezuela and Columbia, and the mighty Amazon in Brazil. But I wanted to go back to the Rio Grande for this unique Jamaican experience. The last hour and a half of the ride to Port Antonio had been after dark, so we had missed out on all the scenic spots in Portland and I really was determined to make up for the loss. Port Antonio did not disappoint. Daylight broke from behind the shimmering azure sea to reveal a backdrop of spectacular natural beauty, which seemed almost unreal.
The 300 inches of rainfall that Port Antonio gets every year makes the entire area look like a lush tropical jungle. And with about 300 hotel rooms in the area, navigating the area is never a push and shove. I got carried away with exploring the amenities at my Goblin Hill villa - the jaw-dropping vistas, walking trails, swimming pool, tree bar and a bountiful array of exotic tropical flora - that I was late getting to Rafter's Rest at St Margaret's Bay for Rio Grande rafting. But we're in Jamaica, man, so no problem.
I'm excited about the rafting trip. I remember my Portland grandfather telling me frightening stories as a child about the great floods of the area rivers - the Swift River, the Spanish River, and the Buff Bay River, and how people's homes were washed away, swallowed up by the sea. The Rio Grande is the most powerful of them all, so my enthusiasm is also tempered with respect and reverence for this moody river. I tell my friends who are visiting first-time rafters they are in for a treat, and we grab a few towels, bottled water, sun tan lotion and cameras and race through town towards St Margaret's Bay. The three-hour rafting trip actually starts at a riverside village called Berrydale, deep in the Rio Grande valley, but for ease and convenience, we leave our car at Rafter's Rest where the trip ends and a minivan driver takes us to Berrydale. We present our tickets and we get life vests and cushions. In less than a minute, we're on our way downstream for the astonishing and unforgettable eight-mile ride.
We're in good hands. Four of us are on two rafts, and my captain is Walford Wallen, who has 25 years' experience as a river rafting captain. The rafting trip is a relaxing, contemplative and therapeutic journey that glides you through the most divinely beautiful scenery that human eyes will ever behold anywhere in Jamaica. No place else in Jamaica that I've seen has this continuous frame-by-frame slideshow of the prettiest creations of nature. Along the ride, the depth of the river varies from shallow rapids to silent, deep and mysterious parts. The deepest part of the river is reputed to be at Lover's Lane and is said to be about 35 feet. The vegetation along the river bank is thick and verdant with an abundance of gold and green bamboo clusters alongside coconut and breadfruit trees, wild cane, rose apple, flame of the forest, and countless other flora.
To our surprise, we spotted a few wild deer scampering in the bushes, and our captain explained that they may have escaped from a petting zoo during Hurricane Gilbert in the '80s and multiplied. We pass cows and goats grazing, and blue and white herons are making the most of the sunny Sunday evening. There are very few people whom we encounter on this majestic river that is making its way from the Blue Mountain range to the Caribbean Sea. We buy Red Stripe Beer and cold drinks from a lady selling along a clearing, and we stop to chat with a few local guys who are fishing for Sunday dinner. Odain Thomas, 26, is a spear fisherman and he says he's on the river to catch mullet, snook, perch, and grunt.
River rafting on the Rio Grande is seductively romantic, too. Captain Wallen points out that on full-moon nights, many lovers go for a romantic rendezvous on the waters. Couples have got married on the river and done their wedding receptions on the bank.
"Wedding pon di river, reception pon the bank", the captain chants, almost sounding like Elephant Man. And as one meanders downstream this jungle paradise, one can see why Hollywood movie star Errol Flynn brought in hundreds of his celebrity friends to Port Antonio and popularised Rio Grande rafting in the '50s and '60s. All too soon, the three-hour trip ends and we are back at St Margaret's Bay, revived, renewed, elated, and totally blown away by this wonderful river trip.