Rafting on Jamaica’s Rio Grande

Although Burnett didn’t ferry around Errol Flynn, he has been a raft caption in Jamaica for four decades, and he gives a fascinating tour.

The best (and most tranquil) ride in the Port Antonio area is floating on a long bamboo raft toward the ocean—the antithesis of whitewater rafting.

The Rio Grande, one of Jamaica’s largest rivers, has been used to transport bananas from the interior of the island for a century or more. Rafting for fun, however, was introduced in the 1950s by Hollywood film star Errol Flynn, who lived in Port Antonio.

Two passengers sit on an elevated platform at the rear of the quaint raft while the guide stands at the front and poles you down the river. Though there are a few rapids (they were calm during my trip due to a drought), it’s a sedate trip that lets you sit back, take in the scenery, and soak up the rays. (Bring a hat, sunscreen and drinking water.)

My captain, the charming and ebullient Burnett, has poled rafts for 43 years, and he regaled me with tales of the river and pointed out landmarks and birds (herons, egrets, turkey vultures, sandpipers, snipes).

During my two-hour reverie ($80 per raft), I felt like Cleopatra. The scenery was spectacular, the temperature perfect (I went in the late afternoon, so the day’s heat was over), and the water glorious. Plus, Burnett was doing all the hard work—not me.

Along the way, there were opportunities to stop on a sandbank for swimming, but because the sun was dipping behind the mountains, we drifted on. At hot midday, a swim stop would have been divine.

Raft captains use a pole to push the bamboo raft down the river.

Details:

  • Take a shuttle or taxi upstream from Port Antonio to Rafter’s Rest where you can board a raft. (Wayne Murdock’s Attractions Link transportation service is excellent, and Wayne knows the area like the back of his hand.
  • At Rafter’s Rest, the captains wait in line for a raft fare—not unlike the taxi stand at airports. I tipped handsomely because with the depressed economy, tourism has slowed and many captains get only one or two fares per month.

    Burnett steers the raft through a rock tunnel.

  • Take along a few dollar bills. I encountered a few respectful “in-stream vendors,” boys who wade out to the raft and hand you a flower hoping for a tip. There are also riverside entrepreneurs who sell cold Red Stripe beer and sodas.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Jamaica:

Sand Mining Threatens Jamaica’s Rio Grande

The raft trip down Jamaica’s Rio Grande was truly a delight. The only sounds were birdcalls, the occasional moo from a cow on the banks, water trickling off the guides’ poles, and laughter from the other rafters in the group.

All was quiet—until 5:30 when machine noise shattered the tranquility. As we floated closer, I watched a steam shovel tear out chunks of the riverbank and dump the sand—water and all—into a diesel-fume-spewing truck that drove away when it was full.

Today I wish I had taken a photo, but at the time, the sight was so appalling that I didn’t want to record this environmental travesty: sand mining. Sand is needed for the cement used in building houses, hotels, stores.

And it’s illegal in Jamaica—at least without a license.

Yet here in broad daylight a steam shovel and five dump trucks—and while I can’t be sure, I’d be willing to bet they’re breaking the law. How could they be so brash?

As it turns out, my group was rafting later in the day than most tourists. We were witness to an environmental crime simply because the sand miners did their dirty work after tourist hours. Their pillage of the river probably happens every day, and local officials turn a blind eye.

For the rest of my raft trip, I couldn’t help but shudder to think what would happen to the fragile riparian ecosystems being torn away from the Rio Grande. Soon, the legacy of this beautiful river will be gone—along with its habitat for birds, fish and freshwater shrimp.

Frankly, I hesitate to even mention this eco-horror because it might dissuade visitors from taking the raft trip in the first place—and tourism has already slowed so much lately due to hard economic times worldwide.

This woman, who sells cold beer and soft drinks to rafters, would be economically impacted by environmental degradation of the Rio Grande.

But here’s the reality: Unless people become outraged enough to speak up and urge the Jamaican government to clamp down on illegal sand mining—or any environmental problem—it will continue.

My hope is that eco-travelers will continue to pay to enjoy a lovely raft ride on a beautiful river. Tourism dollars infused into the local economy might encourage Jamaica to protect, not abuse, its natural landscapes.

In addition, visitors to Jamaica should express sadness over environmental degradation that we notice, letting hotel managers, taxi drivers, restaurateurs and others know how disturbing it is to see the island’s beauty damaged.

When those in the tourism industry get feedback from travelers, they have more to back them up if they speak against the mining to authorities. If it impacts the business of tourism, sand mining might receive the attention needed to halt its practice.

This brings up questions for me, and I’d be interested to hear thoughts from readers:

  • What should tourists do to express their concern about environmental destruction they witness in places they visit?
  • Is voicing outrage over such problems when you’re in a different country with a different culture appropriate? Or will overt anger only alienate the locals without creating change?

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Jamaica:

Hopefully, motor-free rafting will continue on a lovely, undamaged river.

Jamaica’s Colorful Roadside Attractions

On a Sunday, Shireen Aga, owner of Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, toured with me around Portland, a parish located on Jamaica’s northeast coast. The area is lush and full of vibrant communities. Take a local taxi and explore the region, which is a little sleepy in terms of tourism—a refreshing change from the towns where cruise ships dock.

Fast food Jamaica style. On a weekday, I’ll bet this vendor sells lots of Jamaica’s famous jerk chicken from this roadside stand.

For reliable, safe transportation, it’s recommended that you use an official JUTA (Jamaica Union of Travelers Association) taxi. They cost more but are more dependable, especially if you’re in a rural area. During my travels around Portland, Shireen and I used Attractions Link, a shuttle service owned by Wayne Murdock, who arranges sightseeing tours and acts as a guide too.

Jamaicans love bright houses—who could help but feel welcomed into this tropical fruit-colored home?

As we drove along the coast and then into the mountainous forests, a rainbow of colors appeared—not the least of which were ladies in brightly colored dresses and elegant hats walking to or from church. (Wish I could have snapped a picture of some of them; these women were joyful to behold!)

Sherene’s Place in Charles Town sells ice cream treats, snacks and the omnipresent Digicel cards. I wished I’d taken a picture of a sign for the cell phone company—they were everywhere, and nearly every shop on the island sells them.

I also enjoyed the architectural color of rural Jamaica—little shops are everywhere—usually in the form of gaily painted shacks. Because it was Sunday, few were open, but I got a kick out of their décor anyway.

This elaborate blue doorway belonged to a vacation house alongside the road.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. I’d love to hear about the most colorful architecture you’ve ever seen in your travels. Feel free to leave a comment below.

Read more about my travels in Jamaica:


A fishing boat takes the day off. Manchioneal fishing village

Winnifred Beach: Where Jamaica’s Locals Go

You can lounge on plenty of beaches in Jamaica, but few are as friendly and full of character as laid-back Winnifred Beach in the Portland Parish between the Blue Lagoon and Boston Bay near the town of Fairy Hill. It’s tended by local vendors who make their living selling food, cool drinks and crafts.

Jamaica’s Winnifred Beach was a film location for “Club Paradise” starring Robin Williams.

Beach vendors aren’t aggressive here—they pretty much let you come to them. And they don’t pressure you to buy anything—but it’s nice to spend some money here because this beach is a community effort.

It can be tricky finding Winnifred Beach: there are no signs for it on the main A-4 road, and the dirt lanes leading to it are full of treacherous potholes. However, local taxi drivers will know how to get there and are probably familiar with every bump along the way.

Charcoal braziers at Cynthia’s restaurant. Fresh-cooked Caribbean spiny lobster was just one menu item.

Once you arrive, the fun begins. Hidden in a deep cove, Winnifred Beach has mild waves, making it an excellent family beach—lots of local kids and parents were playing and relaxing on the Sunday I visited. Trees grow nearly down to the water, so there’s plenty of shade; if you like to snorkel, there’s a reef just off shore.

Meet the Locals

Cynthia Miller and Painter Richard run a fantastic outdoor restaurant (called “Lick ’em Finger) on Winnifred Beach where I feasted on grilled chicken, fried sweet potato, festival bread (just slightly sweet), rice and beans, and salad.

If you can peek into the kitchen, you can watch the Cynthia and Painter (and other cook helpers) tend a number of charcoal braziers—each at a different stage of heat at once. The smoky flavor permeates the meats and side dishes served in the delicious home-cooked meals.

I also struck up a conversation with I-Cliff, a Rastafarian with long dreadlocks who talked about being a vegetarian and living a pure life—including not eating junk food or additives.

I-Cliff, a calabash artist, enjoys a chat in the shade.

I-Cliff makes herbal medicines and claims he’s invented a gizmo to extract juice from sugarcane. I-Cliff carves bamboo and calabash-gourd bowls, selling his handiwork on the beach.

Keep Winnifred Beach Local and Sustainable

There’s a big local effort to preserve this beach from privatization, which would mean that locals and visitors wouldn’t be able to use the beach. It would be a tragedy if this community spot were fenced off or developed for hotel or condo use. The folks here have held concerts to raise money for beach and road improvements and to pay lawyers for a court struggle. Good citizens like restaurateur Cynthia Miller lead the effort.

So, if you’re in Jamaica’s Portland region, visit Winnifred Beach for an authentic Jamaica vibe. Yeah mon!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Jamaica:

Cynthia Miller fries up the some sweet potatoes at her restaurant on Winnifred Beach.