No-Snow Zones

Blue Mountain, Jamaica

Can you have your johnny cakes and eat them too? Is it possible to go on a rugged hike, climb a mountain, maybe throw in a rafting trip, and then relax from your labors on a tropical beach? In January? No problem, mon! As they say in the commercials, "Come to Jamaica, and you'll feel all right." (Johnny cakes, by the way, are a local breakfast specialty.)

At 7,402 feet, Blue Mountain is higher than any American peak east of the Mississippi River and one of the highest peaks in the Caribbean. It seems even bigger when you consider that "above sea-level" means just exactly that. Unlike continental mountains, which most often rise above an already elevated plain, this one towers above the aquamarine Caribbean.

Officially opened in 1993, Blue Mountain and John Crow National Park was established to protect this unique tropical cloud forest environment, which teems with extravagant vegetation and hundreds of species of birds, including the improbably plumed Doctor Bird, a large, iridescent, scissor-tailed hummingbird that serves as Jamaica's avian symbol.

There are several routes to the summit. The hike up and down can be made in two or three days. You can cut off some of the mileage by making arrangements to be picked up by local transport, but if you go this route, expect a hair-raising, vertigo-inducing, twisting, turning ride that will make an amusement park pale in comparison.

More typically, hikers climb seven miles the first day, camp or sleep in one of several hostels or lodgings, then hike seven miles to the summit the next day. An alpine start (the guidebooks suggests 2 a.m., but if you're fast on the uphills, 3 or 4 is early enough) will get you to the summit before the daily fog rolls in and shrouds the view. Then, you can head down at an easy pace.

The hike up takes you through small villages. Don't be surprised if locals wearing color-coordinated jogging suits, imported running shoes, and gold chains offer to sell you a black-market sample of the local crop. But don't take the tough-guy act too seriously—the crop in question is the locally-grown, tightly controlled, world-famous (and expensive) Blue Mountain Coffee.

First time visitors will probably feel more comfortable hiring a local guide because the trails are wandering donkey paths that are neither marked nor adequately mapped. If you find your curiosity aroused, there are lots of other good dayhikes in the Blue Mountains to explore. Unless, that is, you hear the beach calling your name.

Snowbird stats: Surprise: Even though it's Jamaica, hypothermia is not out of the question. That's because the Blue Mountains are both wet and high. In the lowlands, you'll be sweating your way through steamy, tropical rainforest. Higher up, the temperatures do the same thing they do on any mountain: They drop. There's actually a frost-bitten forest of dwarf trees on the mountain slopes, and on the mist-shrouded summit, temperatures in the 30s and 40s are typical. You don't need tons of extra clothes, but do take a rain jacket, at least two insulating layers for your trunk, one warm layer for your legs, and warm hats.

Information: Blue Mountain and John Crow National Park (809) 977-8044. The Adventure Guide to Jamaica, 4th edition (Hunter Publishing; (732) 225-1900) contains a detailed section on the Blue Mountains. If you're the laid-back, adventurous type with an island sense of time, you might enjoy Maya Lodge, an alternative tourism business, which offers accommodations and guided rafting and hiking trips. Contact Peter Bentley, SENSE Adventures, Box 216 Kingston 7, (809) 927-2097.

Getting there: The city of Port Antonio on the eastern side of Jamaica's north coast is the best embarkation point for a trip into the Blue Mountains. Your travel agent can arrange ground transportation between the airport in Kingston and Port Antonio, or you can rent a car. If you do, remember to drive on the left. If you intend to tackle Jamaica's rightfully infamous mountain roads, rent a vehicle with four-wheel drive and high clearance, because even the main paved roads will make you feel like you've wandered into a Jeep commercial.


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