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Jamaica: The inside story

Venture inland to find the real Jamaica: meet the 'children of Nanny', descended from runaway slaves; sip the sumptuous coffee of the famous Blue Mountains; or ride with a rasta through the karst hills of Cockpit Country

Published 26 Jun 2017, 09:00 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 15:39 BST
On the road to Pantrepant

On the road to Pantrepant

Photograph by Brie Williams, Island Outpost Images

"She was the queen. She was the mother. She was the priestess. She was the teacher." Colonel Wallace Sterling has slipped into a soliloquy, eulogising Nanny — a warrior woman who knew every fold of these mountains, and how to remain camouflaged within them. She was a shape-shifter; a soldier whose weapon was the land. She'd slide behind a curtain of falls, withdraw into caves and disappear within the creeping, chokingly dense forests that nosedive down the John Crow Mountains and crash into the rushing Rio Grande. "That's why we say we are Grande Nanny yoyo — we are all children of Grande Nanny." 

Vanishing into his house, the colonel leaves me outside, where the sun bakes a sweet sedation into the landscape. A kitten is lazily tracing infinity symbols between my legs when the colonel emerges with a Ghanaian kufi cap, beat-up Nike trainers and a machete. It's time to find Nanny. I follow him along an asphalt road that fades into a forested footpath, where the swelling greenery is so rampant epiphytes even sprout from overhead electrical wires.

"As a colonel, you're the person that's in charge," he says with a one-tooth smile. For 21 years, the colonel has been the leader of semi-autonomous Moore Town — a community descended from the fearsome Windward Maroons, a group of West Africans who escaped slavery in the 17th century and fled to Jamaica's mountainous interior. "Look around," he urges. "All of this is surrounded by mountains, right? You can get ready protection for the community."

Under the leadership of Nanny, the Windward Maroons fought a guerrilla war against the advancing British colonists, who wanted to establish sugar plantations in the east. Skilled at surviving in the mountains, the Maroons used the terrain to their advantage. To illustrate this point, the colonel picks up a matted vine. "We call the cacoon the warrior bush. Why? Because when the slaves were fighting the colonial masters, they used the cacoon as camouflage." 

The skirmishes ceased in 1739 and a peace treaty was signed, giving the Maroons sovereignty over their tangle of territory. And what a bountiful territory it is. We clamber over scree and stones, cross streams swimming with janga (crayfish), and walk along faint paths overrun by giant ferns. Bulbous breadfruits hang from a tree that's being suffocated by a strangler fig, its tendrils coiled around the trunk like a boa constrictor. Men hauling sacks of dasheen (an edible root) scamper nimbly down the mountain from a farm in the hills. "Wagwan?" asks the colonel in patois; the men's mumbled replies disappear with them down the hill.

As we climb, a valley opens up below us, flanking the Rio Grande. "We want to use this part to recreate a Maroon village — what a typical village would've looked like 200 to 300 years ago," the colonel tells me, adding that he hopes heritage tourism will bolster the economic wellbeing of the community — and help to preserve it. He has plans to build 10 thatched huts, a herb garden and an entertainment area within the next year, pending government funding. "This is a way of proliferating our culture, practices, customs and beliefs," he adds.

We climb a muddy path fringed by palm trees; beneath one, the colonel finds a bamboo stick and uses it to poke at a family of coconuts. One plummets to the ground, and he thwacks at it with his machete — ting, ting, ting — before handing it to me. As I sip the sweet juice, he gives me a lesson in holistic medicine. Flame of the forest, a tree with reddish-orange flowers, can be used as an eyewash; a herb called fresh cut will stop bleeding; while leaves from the dog blood bush can be used to treat menstrual cramps. "A lot of Jamaicans use home remedies," the colonel explains as he splits open the hard shell of an almond and offers me the nut inside.

And then, finally, I hear her — Nanny's call is loud, resounding and wild. We stumble down a steep flight of steps that appear abruptly in the bush and emerge onto a precipice with views across jungly peaks. Already in my bathing suit, I slip off my shorts and into a cool pool filled with mossy limestone boulders. The colonel jumps in after me and, like his ancestors might have, disappears beneath of the roaring, gushing torrent that bears the legendary warrior's name — Nanny Falls.

From the source

The next day, I explore more of Jamaica's interior, driving west towards the port town of Ocho Rios and climbing a thumbnail-thin road that meanders its way through steep hills. In the heights of Saint Ann Parish, I find a chalkboard scrawled with a menu of yam croquettes in chimichurri sauce, beetroot carpaccio and vegan chocolate cake with passionfruit butter. The meal I'll be tucking into soon sounds like it could be served at a Michelin-starred restaurant, but instead I'm at Stush in the Bush: a 2,000ft-high farm-to-table — and mostly vegan — restaurant set within a 15-acre organic farm in Free Hill.

Co-owner Chris Binns tells me the farm — and most of the land around us — has been in his family for generations. "Free Hill is a village where people who either escaped or left the island's plantations went to settle, and my mother's ancestors were among the earliest settlers," he explains, adding that he's still related to almost everyone in the area. "When I was going to school you tried not to look at any girls in your class because if you fell in love with them, shortly along down the road you bring them home to momma and momma say, 'Oh no — you can't marry this girl!'" he laughs.

Momma needn't have worried — Chris ended up marrying a Bajan who grew up in Brooklyn. Lisa is the stush (patois for 'style') to his bush ('farmer'). "We decided to put our two energies together," Chris says. "So she's a fashionista — very sexy. All the decor and stuff is her, whereas sourcing the wood and growing the food is kinda my angle, so that's why we get the Stush in the Bush." 

Before we eat, I join my small group — mostly locals plus an Irish family living in Kingston — for a tour of the farm with Chris and his dog, Stout. It turns out to be my second class on herbal medicine: I learn that thyme is good when you're sick, pimento is great for an upset stomach, bird pepper (a type of cayenne) can be taken for high blood pressure, and noni fruit — even though "it kinda tastes like rotten socks and three-day-old dishwater" — is ideal for purging the system of toxins.

Chris picks a glossy green leaf from a tree and waves it at us. "We can't talk about food in Jamaica without talking about this beautiful herb here," he says. "Pimento!" a local interrupts. "Ya mon," Chris replies. "Pimento is one of the few plants in Jamaica that's actually from Jamaica. It's a key ingredient in anything when you talk about jerk. When you cook in Jamaica, you always combine these three ingredients: pimento, English thyme and scallion."

Bellies rumbling, we finish the tour and squeeze around a long wooden table in a bungalow overlooking rampant green hills that fold towards Jamaica's north coast. I munch spiced vegan cornbread mini muffins and douse my salad of watermelon, feta and lettuce in a homemade mango, lime and ginger dressing. "The whole idea is to keep it as farm-to-table as possible," Chris explains. "So your greens have just been harvested within the hour."

I seek my afternoon caffeine fix across the island with one of Jamaica's famous exports — Blue Mountain coffee. The drive takes me through cobalt-coloured peaks whose terroir imparts the arabica beans with a mild sweetness. Locals loll outside cliffside huts, drowsily cooking jerk pork in old oil drums or sitting next to piles of produce. "Any coffee?" one man asks. "Bananas?" a portly woman offers from her shop teetering on a bluff. 

When I arrive at Old Tavern Coffee Estate, I've climbed a nauseating 4,000ft via a pothole-pocked road twisted like a strand of spaghetti across the mountains. Owners David and Chrissy Twyman show me out to their terrace, which juts out over their 100-acre plantation. At this altitude, unrelenting cloud cover causes the coffee beans to ripen gradually, producing a concentrated flavour. Chrissy emerges from the house with a tray of banana bread and freshly brewed medium roast. As she pours me a cup — its mild, nutty aroma comforting in the chilly mountain air — sweet smoke pours out of their roastery and drifts down the foggy hills.

"Everything is steep. There's nowhere that's gentle," says David, as silhouettes of coffee bushes disappear in a billowy mist that slides across the damp slopes. "The soils are not good soils because they're heavily eroded, heavily weathered — it's not fertile, and so it's difficult farming up here. But it's the place where you get the most amazing coffee."

The Land of Look Behind

A few days later, I find myself staring into an inky darkness. Punctuated with fang-sharp stalactites, the cave mouth spits out a chilly wind with a putrid pong. I'm standing next to Dango, a rasta with a shaggy beard and dreads bulging from an oversized beanie. "People have gotten sick even at the mouth!" alerts Marina Delfos, my guide for the day and founder of Falmouth Heritage Walks, as she approaches. Heeding her warning, I retreat gingerly over honeycombed limestone pierced by wayward strangler fig roots.

But Dango has stayed put. "There's thousands, man," he shouts back. "If you go in the cave and look at the bat, you wouldn't believe — unbelievable! Bat all over." Windsor Great Cave houses the largest bat population on the island, and Franklyn 'Dango' Taylor is no stranger to speleology — as cave warden, he's been leading tours here for over 40 years. A seasoned spelunker, he's even been seven miles inside, he boasts. "Seven miles inside there Dango?!" Marina exclaims. "Ya mon. It's a big world!" he answers enthusiastically.

And it's one that must be left to my imagination. Venture too far inside, Marina tells me, and I could develop histoplasmosis — a potentially fatal lung infection caused by the fungal spores in bat guano. Having grown up nearby, Dango is immune, he says with a cheeky smile, gushing that guano is an ideal fertiliser for ganja. 

We retrace our steps from the cave back towards Dango's hut at the entrance to the footpath. Pitched against lush greenery, it's splashed with the colours of the Rastafari flag, and scrawled with proclamations: 'Call Dango', 'One Love', 'Jah Love is Like A Burning Fire'. 

"Small up yourself," Marina commands as she squeezes alongside me in the car to give Dango room. His house is on the way to our next port of call: Pantrepant — a 2,500-acre estate belonging to Island Records founder-turned-hotelier Chris Blackwell that recently began offering farm-to-table lunches and overnight stays.

The ride takes us across Cockpit Country, in Trelawny Parish — a largely uninhabited, undulating landscape of conical karst hillocks, up to 500ft tall, bulging all around me like blown-up bubble wrap. The hills are famed for their biodiversity, says Marina, pointing at one through the window: "You might find something that lives there that doesn't live on the other one."

There's a soporific vibe here — ladies lounge in colourful dresses on verandahs, men play dominoes by the roadside and dogs soak up the sun by unfinished concrete houses. "This is where Usain Bolt grew up," Marina tells me. "You can't get more interior than this." We pull up just past the Olympic sprinter's parents' house, no less, to drop Dango off. I ask him if he's ever met the athlete. "Ya mon!" he affirms. "I have two daughters with Usain Bolt's father's sister." Dango grabs his bag and lopes uphill towards his house — a concrete pile painted yellow, green and red.

Cockpit Country was once known as the Land of Look Behind due to the bloody skirmishes that occurred here in the 18th century between the British and the Maroons, but it seems an incongruous name now. Overwhelmingly green forests of palm, guango and breadfruit trees are scattered amid cheerily painted houses: blue and pink; yellow and orange; purple and green. 

It's at Pantrepant where the landscape really rouses — beyond the Brahman cattle and citrus groves, the Cockpit hills are covered in forests, while a hazy sunset casts an otherworldly light; it's as though I'm looking at an Impressionist painting. "This is virtually untouched, it's hardly changed at all," Marina says of the estate, alluding to its origins as an 18th-century sugar plantation.

We pull up near a Georgian farmhouse daubed pink and green, and head off on foot towards Chris Blackwell's private swimming hole. "Trust me — when you see it, there's nothing like it," promises Marina. Rows of pink ginger and guango trees bursting with bromeliads shepherd us over a wooden planked bridge. Beyond a thatched gazebo, a blue oasis glints in the hot sun; it's so idyllic it might almost be a mirage. Fed by the Martha Brae River, the natural pond is dotted with limestone boulders and teased by bowing tree branches. I crouch down at the pool's edge and take a sip through cupped fingers — filtered by mile upon mile of mineral-rich rocks, it tastes sweet.

Marina beckons me to follow her uphill, tracing a meandering trail scattered with abandoned snail shells and the purple leaves of the wandering jew plant. Ducking beneath a rugged rocky outcrop, she points to a large stalagmite, into which a gaping mouth and wide eyes have been hewn — an expression perpetually frozen into a Scream mask. Marina explains that the petroglyph was carved by the indigenous Taíno — an Arawak people — around AD 800-1450. Over 23 Taíno sites have been discovered in Trelawny Parish alone, a landscape of sinkholes, caves and forests that sustained the Taíno until the Spanish wiped most of them out in the early 16th century.

As Marina and I stroll back down towards the gurgling Martha Brae, she looks out at the horizon, where a flock of white egrets sail across a flawless blue sky. "This is the real Jamaica," she muses. She's right — the interior is what makes the island so special; what sets it apart from most of its Caribbean cousins. Go into the bush, and find sanctuary in Jamaica's heartlands. In fact, here, she's much like Nanny: a queen, a mother, a priestess, a teacher.


Getting there & around
Virgin Atlantic flies from Gatwick to Montego Bay, as does Thomson, which also flies from Birmingham and Manchester. British Airways flies from Gatwick to Kingston. 
Average flight time: 9h 30m.
Amstar DMC Jamaica has a wide range of tours and activities across the island with private and customised options.
Licensed taxis (with red plates) are also plentiful.

When to go
Jamaica is hot and humid year-round, with high season from December-April. Rainy seasons are May and October-November, while the hurricane season lasts from early June to late November. 

Where to sleep
Meliá Braco Village
Zoëtry Montego Bay Jamaica

More info
The Rough Guide to Jamaica. RRP: £10.48.

How to do it
The Holiday Place has six-night tour across Jamaica from £3,599 per person. Includes flights, transfers, accommodation and numerous excursions, including Pantrepant, Cockpit Country, Stush in the Bush, Moore Town and the Old Tavern Coffee Estate.

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Published in the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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