Hiking Jamaica’s Rasta Highlands

Camping at Four Feet, deep in the jungle.
Camping at Four Feet, deep in the jungle. Photos by Johnny O'Brien and Jason Fine


by Jason Fine

At sunrise we turn off the main highway, leaving the rocky, emerald coastline and winding through overgrown forests of cacao and sugarcane. For the past week, my buddy Johnny and I have kicked around the deserted beaches and rum shacks of Jamaica’s remote northeast coast, far from the land of reggae cruises and honeymoon resorts, so we are not strangers to the island’s small towns and hidden charms. But we’re also unprepared for this. It’s as if we’ve suddenly entered another Jamaica — someplace wilder, mystical, haunted. Trade winds snap at the bamboo and coconut palms. Two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old stone churches crumble into the hillsides. As we approach the shabby hot-springs mecca of Bath Fountain, a shirtless Rasta on horseback rides slowly down the center of the road, as if time still moves at an ancient, unmotorized pace.

Up ahead, the gnarled, near-vertical peaks of the Blue Mountains rise out of the morning mist, majestic but also menacing. “Up here is hills and jungles and rivers — natural life,” says Eddie, a friend of Johnny’s who runs a coconut stand down the coast in Port Antonio and who offered to guide us on a trek where few nonlocals go. “The place wi goin’ a different kinda place, mon.”

The plan was to hike for two days over the John Crow and Blue mountains, which form a jagged spine across the eastern part of the island, retracing trails first carved by slaves who escaped from Spanish plantations in the 1600s. Johnny, a sailing captain and Steinway piano technician, had wanted to explore these jungles since he was a kid, when his Portuguese grandfather, who grew up in Jamaica, regaled him with tales of the island’s rugged backcountry. “Those stories stuck in my mind,” says Johnny. “And I knew those mountains really hadn’t changed at all.”

Eddie grew up in Beacon Hill in the parish of St. Thomas and first crossed these mountains in a basket on top of a donkey as a toddler. He’s 43 but looks 25, rock-hard, wearing a sleeveless red jersey and rubber rain boots, with a spliff almost always dangling from his broad, easy smile.

For the journey, Eddie recruited his brother-in-law, Ainsley, 60, a village elder who’s drinking a Guinness when we arrive at 7 AM, and Ainsley’s son, Ronald, 32, blasting dancehall reggae from his phone and chewing on sugarcane. (These two guys also look far younger than their years, and Ainsley claims it’s rare for anyone in Beacon Hill to die before the age of 90. The oldest woman in town, who’d operated a cigarette stand, passed away recently at 116.)

(“Wi strugglin’, but wi not sufferin’,” says Eddie, who runs a coconut stand in Port Antonio.)

We meet in the center of Beacon Hill, a dirt-road farm village of brightly painted shacks perched at the edge of the jungle, to collect supplies: two dozen green coconuts, cracked open and emptied into four thermoses, chunks of pumpkin, yams, salted fish, avocados, pint bottles of rum, and a large quantity of ganja, all of which we stuff into three backpacks and two rice sacks, which Ronald and Ainsley strap to their backs with bungee cords.

“Wile food, wile mountains, wile life,” proclaims Ainsley with a toothless smile. “Wi di wile bunch!”

These trails were used commercially until the 1960s to haul bananas to the coast for export (the local Gros Michel variety was once the most expensive in the world) and as a trade route for locals carrying goods back and forth to market in Port Antonio before decent roads and cheap cars came to the island in the Eighties. Now, despite a government effort to promote a section of the trail known as the Cunha Cunha Pass as a tourist destination, the only people up here seem to be pot farmers (who hide their crops in the banana plantations) and mountain men like Eddie and his crew.

Preparing for the trip, Johnny and I couldn’t find a trail map, so we didn’t know exactly where we were going or how far. When I pressed Eddie for details, he shrugged and said, “Nice walk, mon.” This was Eddie’s way. Despite having a naturalist’s knowledge of these mountains, he is impossible to pin down on details like distance or the time it takes to get anywhere. “These guys don’t think like that,” says Johnny, who has lived in Jamaica off and on for 30 years. “They aren’t on a schedule. They don’t think about time that way. It’s a way of life for a lot of Jamaicans who live in the country — they’re deeply connected to the Earth.”

In town, Eddie points to a spot on a map more than 10 miles northeast of where we’re standing. “That where wi camp tonight,” he says. Then he looks up at the mountains and points out the place, a plateau between two peaks. The only problem, judging from the position of the sun, is that Eddie is pointing west — a totally different direction. Johnny and I must look confused, because Ainsley chimes in to reassure us. “Nuh worries, mon,” he says. “Wi almos’ know every nook and cranny of the mountains.” Then Eddie lights another spliff and straps on his pack. “Let’s walk,” he says.

The trailhead is unmarked, just a clearing of grass and dried bamboo. The path starts gently but after a couple of miles climbs and twists under a thick canopy of bamboo and cedar trees, with sudden drop-offs and stretches of muddy single-file track carved at the edge of treacherous hundred-foot ravines. Eddie, expertly wielding a machete (which these guys call a “cutlass”), carves footholds into the dirt to keep us from slipping; several times he anchors the cutlass in front of my boot just in time to keep me from sliding down an embankment or into a fast-moving stream.

By noon the heat is wet and intense. Mosquitoes swarm, attacking my neck and arms despite layers of deet. (At the time, late last November, Jamaica was in the midst of a mass outbreak of the mosquito-borne Chikungunya disease, which made Johnny and me nervous but didn’t seem to worry the guys in the slightest.) The trail is overgrown, almost impassable in places. Even where rangers have cut back the bamboo, they’ve done a careless job, leaving an obstacle course of knife-sharp, calf-high stumps. Thick, sticky vines swing from the trees, slicing at my neck and tangling around my feet. The foliage gets so dense in places that whenever I find myself in the lead, I lose the trail after only a few yards.

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None of this seems to bother Eddie or Ronald or even Ainsley, who moves like a jackrabbit, nimble in his unlaced boots and dressed in an outfit that is more Eighties hip-hop than hiking gear: long yellow-mesh shirt like a see-through minidress, under jeans and a red letterman’s jacket with a cocked Yankees cap.

Ainsley, like Eddie, wields his cutlass with precise, effortless strikes, clearing the trail while puffing on a spliff and talking nonstop in a thick, husky patois that often breaks into laughter. I can make out little of what he says, so mostly I laugh along and mumble “ya mon” when it seems appropriate. After a while I realize that it doesn’t really matter to Ainsley whether I respond or not; talking is just a way of keeping rhythm on the trail.

We stop for lunch at an aqua-blue stream, near a hillside of enormous, Jurassic Park–like tree ferns that have been trampled by wild boar. Eddie wanders into the forest and returns with clumps of wild ginger, cacao root, and medicinal plants, including one called “standing buddy,” which he says “give you energy — good for your sex organ.” (According to these guys, just about every medicinal herb has a similar purpose — a jungle full of Viagra.) Eddie explains that many edible plants grow underground, which allows the food supply to survive hurricanes. “The land protect us,” he says.

By 3 PM we reach Four Feet — a grassy crossroads with trails leading in several directions. It’s an unspectacular campsite, with no breeze or views, so Eddie pushes us farther, up a steep, rocky ridge in search of a better spot, closer to water. A quarter-mile along, we emerge into a clearing where we’re astonished to find the first sign of civilization all day — a large, thatched-roof lean-to, possibly built by rangers, with wooden sleeping platforms and a fire pit. After 12 grueling miles on the trail, the dirt-floor structure might as well be a suite at the Four Seasons.

Soon a campfire is blazing, joints are flowing, and synthy, X-rated reggae blares from Ronald’s phone. Cooking on an open fire with food we’ve carried or foraged, Ronald is an inspired backwoods chef, preparing a hearty pot of coconut and pumpkin soup, which we wash down with rum.

As night falls we listen to parrots and tree frogs, and the sky lights up with fireflies, called “peenywallies.” Ainsley tells stories about when these trails were crowded with United Fruit Company trucks and locals traveling back and forth to Port Antonio. After the banana industry moved to Central America, jobs dried up, and these days many people in towns like Beacon Hill subsist by tending small farms. “No retirement, no pensions, it’s just survivin’ in the ole way,” he says.

(Breakfast time! Ronald and Eddie return to camp after foraging in the jungle for bananas, mangoes, coconuts and filling up jugs with water.)

Ainsley has nine kids, including Ronald, and 22 grandchildren, most of whom remain in Beacon Hill. “Wi live simple. It’s clean, wid a breeze from di ocean, nuh car accidents or violence, not a lot a disease — yuh don’t hear of cancer where wi live.”

“Our people, wi strugglin’,” adds Eddie, “but wi not sufferin’.”

Ainsley stays up most of the night, tending the fire. When I wake, at the first blue light of sunrise, he is crouched at the edge of the forest, slicing at the trees with his cutlass like a jungle ninja. I pull on my pants and ask what he’s up to. “Exercise, mon!” he says, laughing.

During the night, Ronald and Johnny got attacked by biting red ants and had to move their sleeping bags outside. I was woken at one point by a many-legged insect crawling across my forehead, which I realized was a centipede after I’d brushed it off with my boot. I mention this to Ainsley, and he asks if the bug was red or black.

“Black.”

“Ya, mon!” he says, excitedly. “A real 40 legs! It can kill a donkey, mon! You lucky to be alive.”

Eddie and Ronald take off into the jungle and return hoisting a giant bunch of 40 or 50 bananas, wild yam, mangoes, and more ginger. Ronald sets about making rundown, the classic Jamaican breakfast of cooked-down coconut milk with garlic, onion, thyme, and salted fish. Except for the pot, all the cooking implements are improvised: leaves woven into a strainer; the lid of a tin can poked full of holes to create a grater; bowls made from bamboo. “No money to buy tings,” Eddie says, “so wi got to be creative with what wi have.”

From Four Feet, the main trail leads along the six-mile Cunha Cunha Pass, which is accessible from Port Antonio on the coast. This section is reasonably maintained, with spectacular vistas and streams spanned by wooden bridges. It’s possible to hire guides to lead hikes here, and there’s a funky eco-lodge at the headwaters of the spectacular Rio Grande.

As we leave camp, Eddie says that we will reach Millbank, our end point, in two hours. Three hours into the hike, he says it’s “up ahead”; two hours after that we cross the Matty River, where we stop to swim and clean our muddy clothes. The rain starts after we cross the river, and it’s still another hour before we approach the flat farmlands of Millbank. An older woman tending a garden watches us warily.

“Where yuh come from?” she asks. Eddie explains that we’ve hiked over the mountain from St. Thomas.

“My daddy used to do that,” she says, then adds disapprovingly, “Why yuh do that?”

“Nature walk,” says Eddie with a smile.

We drag into town wet and exhausted with one thing in mind: beer. Millbank’s only bar is a tiny, unfinished concrete structure, which, like a lot of buildings in Jamaica, is somehow being built and falling down at the same time. We order five Red Stripes, four of which the proprietor delivers warm because, he says, he hadn’t been expecting customers.

“I’ve been dreaming of this trip forever,” says Johnny, worn out but exultant. “It reminds me of my grandfather and how much he loved this island. These mountains are so old and mystical — you can really feel that being there.”

“The mountain replenish you and keep you strong,” says Ainsley. He raises his bottle in a toast. “Wi all be men of the mountains now.”

To Do This Trip: 
Stay in Port Antonio, where two deluxe hotels, Geejam and the Trident, make a great base for mountain adventures. The Ambassabeth Eco Lodge, at the Cunha Cunha Pass Trail, has budget cabins in a rustic setting. Find a guide with the Trident and Geejam, who can arrange hikes or overnights. Our guide, Eddie Moore, can be reached at 876-320-9131. Or find him at his coconut stand, a half-mile south of the Trident Castle on the main road heading east from Port Antonio. Learn more at the Jamaica Tour Society, run by Lynda Lee Burks, can arrange mountain trips and other travel services.