100 km of Jamaican history and Caribbean beauty
Getting to Ocho Rios, Jamaica, almost always involves a lengthy road trip. Lucky for you.
From Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport – where most Ocho visitors fly into – the journey takes place on Jamaica’s version of the Pacific Coast Highway, the Northern Coastal Highway. It’s a 100-kilometer (62-mile) road trip on the wrong side of the street (thanks England!) that takes about an hour-and-a-half and presents the island nation raw and unfiltered.
Jamaican Life Comes at You Fast
The highway winds through towns, villages, farms, and the Dry Harbour Mountains as they crash down into the various hues of blue that make up the Caribbean Sea in between Cuba and Jamaica.
If you haven’t visited Jamaica, you might be struck by life literally spilling out onto the road as goats, cows, mongooses, horses, and other wildlife often wander roadside with no fencing to stop them meandering along the shoulder.
You’ll likely come a cross a fire or two on the trip as grassfires are common, as are the local propensity to burn trash – when you see smoke at multiple spots on any random mountainside that is likely what is going on.
The twists and turns of the highway cut a swath through as many high-end resorts as indigent communities, though even the squatter homes and shantytowns teem with life and color. It’s a testament to good work of the current government that construction appears booming in what were formerly squatter communities thanks in part to a program that grants ownership of such homes and provides utilities and other services.
History on Display
Most Jamaican historical figures of the past century are tied to the Northern Coastal Highway in one way or another. You’ll drive by William Knibb Memorial High School in Falmouth where history’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, first started sprinting.
Ask your tour operator to point out the village where the King of Calypso, Harry Belafonte grew up, just next to a banana plantation where his mother worked and which served as the inspiration for “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” (Beetlejuice, anyone?).
You’ll see two mega bauxite factories, one still operational with a huge cliffside dome and the other abandoned just outside of Ocho Rios itself. Bauxite is a red clay that is mined to produce aluminum.
James Bond was practically born on the Northern Coastal Highway as creator Ian Fleming lived and wrote 14 spy novels in Oracabessa – just west of Ocho Rios. It’s no surprise then to come across the Ian Fleming International Airport overlooking the highway and sea.
Oh and that famous beach scene between Sean Connery and Ursula Andress in the original James Bond movie Dr. No took place just off the highway at Laughing Waters Falls which empties into the sea.
Beauty Above All
While the history and culture of Jamaica is resplendent along the coastal drive to Ocho Rios, the true star of the journey is the natural beauty on display.
From the clear lapping waters of the Caribbean and often visible reefs to abutting cliffs, endless semi-circle bays with quaint fishing villages and natural beaches that are anything but ordinary.
At Rio Bueno in between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, the highway climbs to a perfect observation height where you can see the river meet the sea as well as a historic man-made bridge. It’s also where Christopher Columbus is believed to have first set foot on the island, and the rest is, well, not a history many locals would like to remember.
Rio Bueno is just one of the countless creeks, streams, rivers, waterfalls and other water features that remind you that paradise always situates itself next to the sea.
If you’re find yourself on the highway at night, make sure to ask when Luminous Lagoon comes into view to see if you can spot the hypnotizing glow of the bioluminescence in the water. Tourists flock to spot it almost as many numbers as dinoflagellates, the microscopic organisms that light up the waters.
If it seems as though every corner ahead leads to another visual treat, it’s because the road to Ocho Rios proves the age-old axiom: Life is as much about the journey, as it is the destination.