Hike Jamaican History in the Blue Mountains

Go deep in Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park to find the heart of the country’s fight for freedom
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Jamaica blue mountains

Jamaica's Blue Mountains

Sleep should be impossible. A chorus of unfamiliar insects wavers between high, screechy whirs and low, deep buzzes like a broken radio searching for a signal. Crooning frogs insert themselves into the racket as fireflies streak the night skies. But sleep comes easy tonight.

A 10-mile hike past giant fig trees and across gin-clear rivers to this remote hunter’s camp has my eyelids heavy—which is good because tomorrow’s itinerary calls for 3 tough miles to a seldom-visited landmark at the center of Jamaica’s history. Under normal circumstances, 3 miles wouldn’t intimidate. But the Blue Mountains are anything but normal.

Like most foreigners who have heard of the “Blues,” I knew nothing about the place, save that the range produces some excellent coffee. But that was before I hiked here. Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, a collection of steep mountains and tangled jungles, covers 159 square miles in the heart of the island. But unlike in most tropical rainforests, hazards common to the biome—malaria and venomous snakes—don’t exist here. That means worry-free trekking in both rain- and cloud forests and an opportunity to camp among rare species like streamertail hummingbirds and the Jamaican giant swallowtail, the largest butterfly in the Western Hemisphere with its 6-inch wingspan.

We haven’t seen anyone aside from our party of four—the wilderness is as empty as it was in the 18th century. Then, escaped slaves from coastal British plantations, along with a small cadre of the remaining Taíno natives, took the same route we’re on and established an encampment deep in the jungle in an attempt to secure their freedom. They were led by a West African woman, Nanny, who planned raids on the British for supplies to support the settlement. The rough terrain and thick forests that slow my hiking pace to nearly a crawl helped thwart multiple British offensives against the outpost. Eventually, a treaty in 1739 secured the escapees’ freedom. Our goal tomorrow: hike to the abandoned site.

Nanny Town is legendary to most Jamaicans, two of whom lead me and my hiking partner to the famous hideout the next morning. We must scale buttressed tree roots taller than basketball hoops, crawling beneath grabby branches and gripping ferns for balance. It’s easy to see how the terrain protected the place, and we only arrive around lunchtime; it takes us four hours to cover 3 miles. Today, the only testament to Nanny Town’s history is a stone inscribed by the British with the date the resistors abandoned the settlement.

Back at camp, we cool off in the blue-tinted Stony River before enjoying a dinner of wild jerk pork. Our guides, descendants of the fugitives who hid out at Nanny Town, know every peak and valley in the jungle and help us plan an overnight to Portland Gap, a 5,550-foot pass below Blue Mountain Peak, where the British began the campaign that ultimately led to the Nanny Town treaty.

There are talks of developing a long-distance trail that would traverse Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park on abandoned mule tracks once used as trading routes. As the hundredth hummingbird I spot that day whizzes by, I make a promise to myself to hike it.

DO IT Fly into Kingston or Montego Bay and hire a car (or take public
transit) to Windsor. The trek to Nanny Town is 13 miles and takes three to four days there and back. Guide RioGran Health Farm ($180/person) Season Year-round, but rain is lightest from June to September. Contact jamaicaconservation@gmail.com

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