The Best Way to Raft the Rio Grande
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Tags: Jamaica Jamaica Inn Ocho Rios Rafting Rio Grande
Imagine being poled romantically in a bamboo raft down a wide, placid river, marveling at technicolor hues of aqua and emerald green, trailing your fingers and wrists in sweet, cool water. Imagine floating by towering stands of bamboo swaying in the gentle breeze, then rounding a curve to a lush jungle of trees dripping with fruit, only to find the next curve revealing a kingdom of vaulting cliffs to cast cooling shadows over your raft. Your guide begins to pole in earnest now as the river narrows and suddenly you are in a bubbling cauldron of rapids, screeching with glee as you speed expertly over shallow beds of rounded boulders, suddenly sideways, but never in danger of tipping over!
We had left our beautiful suite at the Jamaica Inn, a gorgeous boutique hotel in Ocho Rios early in the morning, having heard tales about the romance of rafting on the Rio Grande, the island’s largest river, a practice supposedly first started by mega-film star Errol Flynne, who persuaded the local boatmen to take him and his entourage of famous friends down the river on bright, moon-lit nights for fun. Once used primarily to float bananas downstream to St. Margaret’s Bay where they were offloaded and packed for distribution, this amazing river with twists and turns of breathtaking scenery is now a mainstay of the tourist industry. Our driver, Roger, whom we had hired privately as our guide while in Ocho Rios, was a real treasure and made our visit to Jamaica over-the-top special. Professional, charming and entertaining, we could not have asked for a better introduction to the marvels of the Jamaican landscape and way of life.
At Grants Levels, where the rafts depart from, Roger off-loaded our picnic basket, packed upon request for us by Jamaica Inn especially for our day ahead on the Rio Grande. A chilled bottle of Louis Roederer Champagne was tucked in alongside a variety of elegant finger-sandwiches and salad, with cookies and fruit for dessert. Cool sparkling water had also thoughtfully been included to slake our thirst. As Roger handled buying our tickets, we were impressed to find out that he had already gone one step further, and had hand-picked an excellent guide whom he personally knew would be outstanding. Captain Jimmy’s shy but friendly demeanor touched my heart immediately. Tall and thin, with graying hair and the deep lines of a man who has spent his life in the sun, his eyes were bright, kind and sparkly. A beautiful little boy trailed behind us as we headed to our raft, holding a bouquet of flowers up to me with large, liquid brown eyes. Captain Jimmy gave a quick shake of his head to me, though, which I appreciated. It was clear that he was pretty strict about anyone hassling his clients. We appreciated this.
Our raft looked quite ungainly, but with the assistance of a large, firm hand Captain Jimmy helped me to step sideways onto the floating bamboo so as not to slip. It was clear from the start that this was going to be a very enjoyable 2 ½ hours. Straining to understand his sing-song Jamaican cadence, we found out that this was the first ride for Captain Jimmy’s brand new boat, which he had just completed yesterday. We admired it, which pleased him. As we floated gently, past thickets of sugar cane and miles of ginger-lilies, orchids and allspice, I decided I wanted to jump into the beautiful green water and just be towed along behind the raft in the cooling depths…..but I realized, as we navigated the first tricky curve of rapids, that this would not be a good idea. Captain Jimmy was an excellent raftsman, although we did end up going downstream backwards once when he did not quite negotiate the bottom portion of some bigger rapids correctly and it swung us around. The prospect of getting dunked was actually quite thrilling for me, but it turned out this really doesn’t happen very often due to the immense skill and experience of the rafters. About an hour along the amazing journey, we came across an unusual sight (for us, that is!) A dozen or so cows were in the middle of the river, obviously enjoying the cool water and apparently not interested in getting out of the way of the raft at all. They looked up at us dozily and with a hint of irritation as Captain Jimmy, obviously having encountered this particular form of traffic jam before, wove us in and out and around their large carcasses, careful not to hit any of them or tip us over. We had to chuckle as we watched their inquisitive eyes follow as we floated away. With that adventure behind us, we continued on our way, pausing to jump out for a refreshing dunk whenever the river widened and became calm. An unusual outcropping of rocks had formed along one side of a stunning cliff wall, where the high rocky crevasses were festooned with ferns and thick vegetation and flowering orchids. A natural stone arch had formed out into the water, and Captain Jimmy told us it was customary for good luck and happiness to share a “lover’s kiss” as we passed between the stone “Lover’s Arch”. We were happy to oblige!
The trip took on a dreamlike quality as we carried on. Usually after negotiating rapids we would round a bend in the river to find ourselves floating on spectacularly green water amongst a grand landscape of lush hills clothed in a canopy of gently waving bamboo and rose apple trees. A gentle, warm wind would blow to cool our brows, and every now and then we would come across women and children who stood knee-deep in the river, washing their laundry by hand. Baskets of clothes, threadbare and torn, were being slapped against the rocks, rinsed and then laid flat on riverbank stones to dry. Naked children helped, stopping to plunge giddily into the cooling depths and swim underwater, emerging as shiny and brown as cocoa beans. Every now and then Captain Jimmy would stop the raft alongside people who floated coolers of pop, water and Red Stripe beer, hoping for a little extra money from the tourists as they flashed bright, white smiles and friendly nods.
Further down the river Captain Jimmy navigated us close to a wide, open expanse of gorgeous trees –bright red flowering Jamaican Bottlebrush, (a favorite of hummingbirds), with a backdrop of mustard hued Pouie Trees and Banana Trees. As we unpacked our picnic hamper to toast our beautiful surroundings with some fine Champagne and indulge our growling stomach with the luncheon delights, Captain Jimmy reached up high with his pole. The beautiful tree we had come to rest underneath had sturdy branches reaching out over the boat providing welcome shade. A moment later, I heard a plop, and in my lap had landed a perfect, red Rose Apple. Captain Jimmy washed it for me in the river, knocked it sharply against his bamboo pole, and handed it to us, split precisely down the middle. He told us to throw away the pit and eat all the rest of the apple. Beautifully scented like a delicate perfume, the Rose Apple was a delicious treat unlike anything I have ever had before, or since. To this day whenever I have an apple of any kind, I am brought right back to that moment on the banks of the Rio Grande, enjoying fine champagne and fresh fruit, with Captain Jimmy gently singing the Banana Boat song……daylight come and me wanna go home…….
We finally floated in, a little under three hours from our departure, to Rafter’s Rest. Roger was already waiting there with the car, cool bottled water and moist towels at the ready for his sweaty, appreciative customers. I felt like giving Captain Jimmy a hug for treating us to such a wonderful day, but his shyness was evident and we settled with a friendly handshake and the promise that one day we would come back and hopefully share the experience with him once more.