Most people associate Jamaica with reggae music, white sandy beaches, or the fact that it is the home of the fastest man in the world, Usain Bolt. Few people, however, know that in 2015 the Blue and John Crow Mountain National Park in the southeastern region of Jamaica became the first site in the Caribbean to be awarded the UNESCO World Heritage Mixed Site for both natural and cultural riches.
This national park makes a phenomenal vacation destination for travelers, so let’s cover everything you need to know when planning a trip to Jamaica’s Blue and John Crow Mountains.
Why the Blue Mountains Became a UNESCO Site
The Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park covers 4.5% of Jamaica’s land surface and includes Jamaica’s highest point, the Blue Mountain Peak, which is 2,256 meters (7,402 feet). This UNESCO site also contains ten of the island’s 26 watershed units.
A distinctive feature of this area is the Cloud Forest, which is found in only 1.2% of all tropical forests in the Americas, and 2.5% of tropical forests globally.
The area is also a hotspot for biodiversity. The park contains approximately 1,300 species of flowering plants, of which 294 are endemic to Jamaica and 87 of these species are found only within this area. The area also contains over half of Jamaica’s 530 fern species.
The park is also one of the last two habitats of the endangered swallowtail butterfly, the largest butterfly in the western hemisphere, and the habitat for the endangered Jamaican blackbird. There are an additional 200 other species of birds living within the Blue and John Crow Mountain National Park.
The National Park is recognized not only for its natural heritage but also for its cultural heritage. This area provided refuge for the indigenous Taino Indians and the Maroons (escaped slaves) in their bid to escape their Spanish and British captors.
The heavily forested and rugged terrain, with its numerous water sources, was used by the Maroons to sustain themselves and wage guerrilla warfare against the British until signing a peace treaty in 1739 secured their sovereignty.
Their isolation, separated from mainstream Jamaican society, allowed them to exist in a time capsule of pre-colonial African tradition, with their distinct language, cuisine, and philosophies.
Their unique culture can be observed by visitors to their communities in Moore Town, Charles Town, Bowden Pen, and Scotts Hall today.
Things to Do in the Blue Mountains
While most travelers head to Jamaica’s best beaches, there are a number of incredible things to do in the Blue Mountains area that should not be skipped—most of them will take a full day to explore, so use the “where to stay” section to book at least a few nights to maximize your ability to enjoy a vacation in the Blue and John Crow Mountain National Park.
Hike to Blue Mountain Peak
The highest point in Jamaica is Blue Mountain Peak at 2,256m (7,402 feet). It’s best to visit the peak first thing in the morning, before the mist settles in and blocks your view—you will have to spend the night at one of the many great lodges in the area. The seven-mile trek takes around three-to-four hours. so it is best to start around 2:00 am or 3:00 am in the morning, so you will arrive at sunrise. On a clear day, you will be able to see the city of Kingston to the south and the town of Buff Bay to the north. You might even be able to spot the shadowy outline of Cuba, our island neighbor, to the north. If you’re not a confident hiker, use a tour guide for the Peak hike.
Enjoy Bird Watching
The national park not only has one of the largest migratory bird sites in the Caribbean, it’s also the only location where all of Jamaica’s endemic and unique bird species can be observed. Bird watching tours are available in the Hollywell and Mavis Bank regions.
Visit the Maroon Settlements
The Blue Mountains are home to the Maroon communities of Scotts Hall, Moore Town, Charles Town, and Bowden Pen. Both the Charles Town and Moore Town settlements have Maroon museums that contain a variety of artefacts and information about Maroon history and traditions. If you visit Moore Town, you will also have the opportunity to hike to the breath-taking Nanny Falls.
If you decide to visit Bowden Pen settlement in Portland, you can walk along Maroon trails that are over 300 years old. The area is also ideal for spotting the giant swallowtail butterfly and bird-watching.
Holywell Park in the Blue Mountains has a number of biking trails. If you want a more structured experience, you can take a biking tour with the Blue Mountain Bicycle Tours Company. This twelve-mile bike trek takes you along the scenic back roads of the Blue Mountains. The culmination of the trip is a visit to a waterfall in the Silver Hill area.
Go Hiking & Camping
There are two areas where one can go camping. These are the Holywell Park or the Portland Gap recreational areas. You can bring your own tents, or rent one of the area’s rustic cabins.
Hollywell also has a number of hiking trails that range from easy to moderately difficult. If you visit the Mavis Bank area, there are a number of hiking trails; a couple that come to mind are hikes to the Cinchona Botanical Gardens or the Flamstead region.
Take a Coffee Tour
This region is also the home of the famous Blue Mountain coffee. Blue Mountain coffee is not only one of the most expensive coffees in the world, it is also reputed to be one of the best coffees in the world. A number of coffee plantations offer tours, and taking a coffee tour with an experienced guide is a great way to learn about coffee cultivation, and to sample some of this world-famous coffee.
If you’re exploring the Blue Mountain region, the best time to take photographs is in the early morning, when there is no mist or fog in the area.
If you’re traveling from Kingston to Buff Bay, some of the best places to take pictures are at the New Castle Army Camp, or from the Strawberry Hill Hotel. This route provides numerous opportunities to take photographs of the mountain scenery. There is also a beautiful waterfall attraction in the Silver Hill area.
If you plan to stay in Port Antonio and explore the Blue Mountains from there, you will have the best of both worlds. You can explore the coastline as well as the mountains. Port Antonio is a photographers dream: Imagine lush mountains merging into scenic beach coves.
A few other scenic spots include: the cliffs by Great Huts Resort that overlook Boston Bay, the coastline along the Portland Cliff Hanger Bar, rafting through the Rio Grande Valley, Nanny Falls near the Maroon settlement of Moore Town, and Reach Falls. You will also have numerous opportunities to photograph the beautiful mountain scenery when you explore the Blue Mountains National Park.
(Travel photographers looking to hone their skills before the trip should check out the online Travel Photography Academy).
Where to Stay
If you plan to make the Blue Mountain Region your home base, here are a few recommendations:
- Strawberry Hill Hotel: A good option if you want something more upscale with some of the best views in Jamaica.
- Lime Tree Farm: An eco-friendly coffee farm and lodge.
- Whitfield Hall: A great hostel and a good starting point if you plan to hike the Blue Mountains.
If you want to visit Moore Town, you can make Port Antonio your home base. Here are a few places I would recommend:
- Great Huts Resort: A quirky, African-inspired resort overlooking Boston Bay.
- Geejam Hotel or Trident Hotel: Good options if you want something a bit more upscale.
How to Get There
The best airport for arrival is the Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston. The airport is around 45 minutes from Kingston and around 2 ½ hours from Port Antonio.
The other international airport in Jamaica is located in Montego Bay—Sangster International Airport is where most visitors tend to arrive. You will also find that this airport has a larger range of international flights arriving there. If you find your only option is the airport in Montego Bay, you can take the Knutsford Express bus service to Kingston or Port Antonio.
The most scenic route via car is from Kingston to Buff Bay, traveling over the Blue Mountains. Keep in mind though that the road is narrow and winding with steep inclines, so drive slowly and remember to sound your horn when approaching tight corners. If you rent a car Montego Bay or Kingston, remember to drive on the left!
If you plan to make Port Antonio your home base so you can visit Moore Town, the shortest route from Kingston is Junction Road, which takes you over the hills and then along the coast. You can also travel via the Kingston to Buff Bay route but it takes a bit longer.
If you’re planning to climb Blue Mountain Peak, the easiest access point is the Papine to Gordon Town to Mavis Bank route. It is easy enough to drive to Mavis Bank; however, if you plan to venture further, you will need a 4×4 vehicle. The best option is to drive to Mavis Bank and park your car at the police station. The lodge where you plan to stay can organize transportation for the rest of your journey. Some of the roads in this area are not passable by car and you will need a 4×4 vehicle and nerves of steel to traverse them.
By Public Transportation
This region is difficult to traverse via public transportation. Most of the transportation is available early in the morning or late in the evening when residents are going to or coming from work. Your best bet is to hire a driver to provide transportation; if you do, make sure your driver is JUTA certified.
The cost for most of the attractions on this list is approximately US $30. Prices for hotels and meals can vary steeply depending on where you stay. We’ve added a few budget options, so this shouldn’t be a problem. Your main cost will more than likely be transportation, especially if you decide to hire a private driver. Hiring a driver for the day costs approximately US $100.
The best time to visit this area is the months of June and July. Jamaica does not have distinct seasons, instead, it has rainy seasons. The rainy season in Jamaica is the months of May and October. You will also want to avoid visiting the area in prime hurricane season, which is late August to October. Avoid visiting the Blue Mountain Area altogether in heavy rain—it’s prone to landslides.
By Charmaine Hutton
Charmaine loves exploring her home country, Jamaica, and sharing her new finds with others, especially when she finds those hidden gems. You can learn more about Jamaica on her blog at JamaicaTravelSaver.com