July 17, 2014 | By Béatrice Bernard-Poulin |
Just thinking about the Blue Mountains has us dreaming of lush rainforests, beautiful flowers, and of course, delicious coffee. If you are planning a trip to Jamaica, this region should absolutely find itself on your itinerary. To put it simply, the Blue Mountains are as stunning as you would expect them to be – and maybe more.
Christopher Columbus is said to have remarked, upon his first trip to Jamaica: “It is the fairest island eyes have beheld; mountainous and the land seems to touch the sky." Not surprising, as The Blue Mountains are some of the highest mountains in the Caribbean, with the Peak reaching in at 2,256 metres, or 7,402 feet. The view from this high peak is absolutely breathtaking – and the mountains are often described as a “Garden of Eden” because of fantastic flora and fauna you can admire there.
Visiting the Blue Mountains
The Blue Mountains are located between Kingston and Port Antonio, dominating the eastern end of the island of Jamaica. It is possible to visit the area by yourself, but for a worry-free activity, a day trip to the Blue Mountains can easily be arranged through the travel desk of your hotel.
To reach the Blue Mountains by car from Kingston, you have two options: the first being via the main road through Irish Town, the other via Guava Ridge. These roads converge at the town of Section and the trip will take about an hour. It is also possible to reach the Blue Mountains by bus, with most buses departing from Papine, though public transport’s reliability is not guaranteed.
If you wish to stay in the Blue Mountains, Strawberry Hill is perched on a stand-alone mountaintop, 3,000 feet up in the Blue Mountains. The view from the infinity pool alone is worth the stay. It is the perfect place to kick back, relax, and enjoy Jamaica’s lush plant life.
Blue & John Crow Mountains National Park
The Blue & John Crow Mountains National Park was established in 1992 and now conserves about 78,000 hectares, or 200,000 acres of Jamaica’s last remaining rainforest, representing 4.4% of Jamaica’s land surface. The park includes three separate ranges, from west to east: Port Royal Mountains, the Blue Mountains and John Crow Mountains, with the Rio Grande Valley separating the Blue and John Crow mountains to the North. Fees apply to visit.
The Blue Mountains Peak is just 16 kilometres from the sea, meaning the area has one of the steepest gradients in the world. This makes for quite the drop in temperature, from an average of around 27°C at sea level, to just 5°C at the Peak. This difference in temperature, combined with high rainfall, feeds the lush vegetation. The Eastern face of the mountain range receives more than 765 centimetres of rain each year, providing water for almost half of Jamaica’s population.
Hiking to the Peak of the Blue Mountains
There are two ways to hike to the Peak of the Blue Mountains: in the dark, with a flashlight, to reach the summit in time for sunrise, or during daytime.
If you choose the early morning option, it is important to know that Portland Gap is the last rest and overnight stop before the Peak. From there, the Blue Mountain Peak Trail is a 5.6 kilometre hike, taking approximately 2 to 3 hours. The walk is an experience in itself, as you may need to start walking before 5 a.m. to reach the summit in time for sunrise.
The sunrise is the real spectacle, and on a clear day, you will be able to admire both the north and south coasts of the island, easily justifying the very early morning wake-up call. You may even be able to make out the shadowy outline of Cuba! Regardless of the time of the year you visit, weather conditions can of course never be guaranteed, meaning that the sunrise, and view, may be obscured by clouds or the mist that gives the mountains their bluish hues – and their name.
If you walk during the daytime, you will notice that the path to the Peak is surrounded by beautiful scenery, so plan more time to stop and admire the view. If you like bird watching, Jamaica’s National Bird, the Doctor Bird, the Jamaican Tody (Robin Red Breast) and the Mountain Witch are just a few of the species you will get to see and hear on your journey. Most travellers choose Penlyne Castle as the start of the 12.5 km hike to the Peak, which is accessible by bus or car. If you wish to start your hike after Hagley Gap, you will need to have access to a 4WD.
The trail is easy to follow with signs every step of the way. The difficulty level of the path varies by area – some parts are flat while others are gravel and may be more difficult to walk, especially if wet. Jacob’s Ladder is known to be particularly narrow and steep.
For safety reasons, it is best to hike in the Blue Mountains during the dry season, which begins in December and ends in April. The steep slopes of the mountains and its many rivers may create floods and landslides during heavy rains. Join a guided tour or verify the weather conditions before setting off. Do not forget to register at the Ranger Station in Portland Gap.
You will not find many food options in the Blue Mountains, especially once you start hiking. It’s therefore best to always carry water (tap water is safe to drink in Jamaica) and food with you at all times.
The Blue Mountains’ natural beauty: finding plants and birds
Even if your fitness level (or interest!) doesn’t allow for a climb to the Blue Mountain Peak, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the area’s natural beauty. Hardwar Gap, one of the park’s recreation areas, and the Rio Grande Valley are prime locations to admire much of the island’s fauna. Just outside of the Blue & John Crow Mountains National Park, Ecclesdown Road, in Portland Parish, is also a great place to visit.
More than 800 species of endemic plants and 500 species of flowering plants, 200 species of resident and migrant birds and the world’s second largest butterfly, the Homerus swallowtail (Papilio homerus) can all be found in the National Park.
Amongst the most impressive plant species you will get to see in the park are Lobster Claws, Orchids, Torch Lilies and Ackee – the fruit with the texture of scrambled eggs that is part of Jamaica’s national dish. The area is also optimal for bird watching: do not miss the red-haired Jamaican Woodpecker, the black Smooth-billed Ani and the rare White-eyed Thrush.
Occasionally, the Natural History Society of Jamaica organizes field trips to the Blue and John Crow Mountains with special emphasis on their fauna and flora.
While Kingston is a great base for visiting the Blue Mountains, most visitors prefer to use Port Antonio as a base when visiting the Rio Grande Valley. There are many short walks starting in the small towns along the Port Antonio-Bowden road. Ginger House is not to be missed, featuring a waterfall and mineral spring (bring your bathing suit!).
Other short walk options are the 3-kilometre Oatley Mountain Trail, in very lush and impressive forests, with lookout points to enjoy panoramic views, and the 2-kilometre Cascade Water Trail, where you can swim to cool off. Both trails are situated in the park’s Holywell Recreation Area and come highly recommended.
Learning more about Blue Mountain Coffee
Blue Mountain Coffee is famous worldwide for its smooth, mild and bitter-free taste. The coffee has been produced in the Blue Mountains since 1728, when the Governor, Sir Nicholas Lawes, brought the first coffee seedlings from Hispaniola (the island where Haiti and the Dominican Republic are situated). The slopes of the Blue Mountain were cleared, creating coffee plantations that helped Jamaica become the leading coffee producer in the world by the 19th century. However, this domination was short-lived as the industry fell into decline after Emancipation, when Jamaica could no longer compete with slave-owning countries like Brazil and Cuba. Blue Mountain Coffee is still appreciated worldwide today. In fact, more than 80% of the production is exported to Japan.
Today, although some coffee estates remain, most of the beans are grown on small plots by local farmers on the Kingston-Buff Bay Road, near Section.
What makes Blue Mountain Coffee so special?
The climate in the Blue Mountains is cool and misty, with high rainfall, while the soil is rich and offers excellent drainage. These make for ideal conditions to produce the world-famous coffee.
Blue Mountain Coffee is a globally protected certification mark, meaning that only coffee certified by the Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica can be labelled as such. There are different classifications of Blue Mountain coffee.
Only coffee grown at elevations between 3,000 and 5,500 feet (915-1,700 metres) can be called Blue Mountain Coffee. Jamaican High Mountain is the term used for coffee grown at elevations between 1,500 and 3,000 feet (460-910 metres) and Jamaica Supreme or Jamaica Low Mountain is coffee grown below 1,500 feet (460 metres).
Visiting the Blue Mountains coffee plantations
If you like coffee, a visit to a coffee plantation is a great experience to learn more about the beans, the harvesting, and the process to turn the beans into the famous coffee.
You can visit the Mavis Bank Coffee Factory, where Jablum coffee is produced. Victor C. Munn, an English planter and processor established the factory in 1923 on just five acres (2 hectares). Today, approximately 1.4 million pounds of green beans from over 6,000 farmers are processed here annually. Enquire about the tour at your Kingston-area hotel. On a tour of the factory, you will get to see the coffee beans drying (in season) and being processed. This is also a great place to purchase roasted coffee beans. Space in your luggage permitting, bring back as much coffee as you would like – there is no specific limit to how much coffee you can bring back to Canada, as long as you do not exceed the duty free limits (up to $750 for a trip of 7 days or more).
North of Newcastle, you can take a one-hour tour of Craighton Estate Great House and coffee plantation, where you can learn about coffee cultivation. From the over 200-year old estate’s gazebo, sitting in 2,600 feet above sea level, you will be able to admire the views over the mountains and the villages below.
The Blue Mountains offer something for everyone. From quaint villages to challenging hikes to rewarding vistas to great coffee tastings, you are sure to find something you enjoy in the region. And in true Jamaican fashion, there will be plenty of friendly locals to make the visit even more memorable. Happy travels!