No fantasy: The beach paradise Jamaica has real mountains. On their slopes Bob Marley's son grows the world's best coffee and in their forests lies the origin of Rastafarian culture. Martin Foszczynski set out on the Blue Mountain Peak Trail to watch the sun rise from the Caribbean's highest point.
Before every hairpin bend Robert presses the horn twice. I doubt whether this will do any good, but it probably won't do any harm either. Gordon Town Road, a steep gravel ribbon of gullies and potholes, bumps our jeep through and us with it. Suddenly the smell of scorched cables or burnt oil. Robert does not get out of the calm. He gently turns the scuffed steering wheel, turns off the engine and unbuckles his seatbelt to look under the hood. Only now does he slip – almost reluctantly – back into his shoes, which until now had been lying undressed next to the gas pedal.
Robert – guide from Sun Venture Tours in Kingston – is the face I've been missing for the past few days. To my emails he answered sometimes earlier, sometimes later – in any case always very briefly. "No problem," was the often succinct reply. Actually, I was expecting an uptight Rasta man, but what I got was a tall black man who – as he tells us – grew up in a time when people with his skin color had hardly any chance of getting a real job in Jamaica. About his composure, which annoyed me a bit while writing, I am now – in the middle of the breakneck route up to our Blue Mountain accommodation – very happy. Actually, it was already me at the beginning of the mountain road, where two cops stopped us with machine guns at the ready. Allegedly only to check whether we were wearing our seatbelts, but that didn't quite convince me.
At the foot of the mountains, the suburbs of Kingston, where a relatively wealthy middle class lives in pastel-colored cottages, abruptly merge into scattered shacks. "These are squats," Robert explained to us, squatters living in a lawless vacuum. And thus continue a long tradition. Because the Blue Mountains, according to Robert, have always been a retreat for dropouts who bucked the system. First the "Maroons", slaves originating from West Africa who fled the plantations in colonized Jamaica. Today, Rastafarians who find cheap accommodation in the mountains and prefer reggae and joints to everyday life in Kingston. The one below is "Babylon", but they align themselves with their spiritual roots in Africa under the protection of the blue mountains.
Another dimension of steep
The burnt smell is slowly fading away – we are moving on. Steepness really has a new dimension here. Even more obvious than the respect-inspiring scree ramps and serpentines, over which we drag ourselves in a balancing act, are the cannibalized car wrecks at the roadside and the simple gravestones in the middle of the gardens of some houses. What doesn't have to go down to the city, just stays up there.
We stop briefly in Mavis Bank, one of the highest settlements in the Blue Mountains. It is known for its coffee factory, where most of the coffee beans from the surrounding plantations are brought to be quality checked and dried. Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee is world famous and one of the most expensive coffees in the world. In Japan, up to 200 dollars per kilogram are paid for this coffee, which ripens for a long time due to the high precipitation climate. I ask Robert about a rumor that has been bothering me for some time now. Allegedly a son of Bob Marley grows coffee here as well. The story is true – but which of the rungs of the immortal reggae legend it is, he is not able to say: "There are quite a few of them," he smiles.
Finally we arrive at our night camp. Whitfield Hall, a dignified plantation estate, dates back to the 18th century. Century. We are not surprised that today there are two stoned and very friendly Rastas. We immediately feel comfortable in this perfect idyll between dense green and mighty pine trees. It's wonderfully quiet up here – a dozen cats lounge in the courtyard in the soft light of late day, and coffee bushes thrive in a fenced-in patch.
We use the time until dinner for a short ascent to watch the sun go down. The sun is shining in the sky, dipping the green slopes with their typical wrinkles into a milky light, later we think we can make out a blue shimmer above the tops – maybe it's just imagination, but that's where the name of the Blue Mountains comes from. From the highest peak of Jamaica – simply called "Peak" (2.256 m) – we are separated by about 950 meters of altitude and 12 km. We want to cover this distance during the night, in time for sunrise.
Back in our lodge we notice that three Germans – a couple and a single traveler – have made it up here. Quirin paid 100 dollars for the cab ride and would like to join our sunrise tour spontaneously. Only the time of departure – 1h in the morning – gives him a headache, as he has spent the last days partying extensively in various Kingston dancehall clubs. After a beer he finally agrees, whereupon we have to toast again. As we hit the hay for three remaining hours, a surprising number of Red Stripe bottles line the antique dining table at Whitfield Hall.
Sugar cane as provisions
A quick face wash in the light of the oil lamp, a quick luggage check by Robert – and we are ready to go. The light cones of our headlamps are soon joined by lots of phosphorescent fireflies. As obscure as it is dark, as incessantly loud chirping the crickets and grasshoppers at the wayside.
The first section of the trail is not exactly underwhelming. We climb Jacob's Ladder – a series of scree serpentines. After about 45 minutes, as we look down on the delicate lights of Kingston far below on the horizon, I am quite out of breath. A bit earlier than planned Robert gets his miracle cure out of his backpack: pieces of sugar cane from the supermarket. They are chewed and spat out again – something to get used to, but just right. The sucked out liquid reduces the thirst, the concentrated sugar drives directly into the bloodstream and activates new forces.
The next break is at the Ranger Station in Portland Gap – it's the last rest stop with toilets before we take the Peak Trail to the summit. We are now in the national park area. The Blue and John Crown Mountains have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2015 – one of only 32 World Heritage Sites included for both their scenic and cultural values. The latter is due to the aforementioned Maroons – escaped African slaves – who established their own culture in the mountains and fought against the colonial masters.
The trail is narrow and stepped, in the glow of our lamps we make out a jungle-like terrain with lianas and lush mosses – later also a tarantula. We would love to lie down in the lush green, but the new day is not waiting for us. In addition, a Rasta with a joint in the corner of his mouth and a group of springbreakers in shorts and T-shirts in tow has just passed us – of course, we can't let that happen to us.
Top of Jamaica
Robert has long since turned to psychological tricks – his "only one more kilometer from here" statements are suspiciously protracted. As the ether fills with the gray of dawn, the Blue Mountain birds wake up and cheer us on the last few miles with their calls.
Finally the peak is in sight: no cross, but a simple pyramid made of iron bars marks it. A view all the way to Cuba, which supposedly opens up from here on very clear days, is denied to us – it has become too cloudy in the last few hours. So be it! The sun slips out of the cloud bed and pours its light over the Caribbean – a unique sight. Quirin, the party-loving German, can't help it and rises two meters above the rest by scrambling onto the summit pyramid. "Top of Jamaica" he calls out with his cell phone drawn.
On the way back our legs ache, but now – in the daylight – we see the full splendor of the Blue Mountain landscape. Primeval forest interspersed with lianas and roots, then again wide views of the steep hills and slopes of the thoroughly green Blue Mountains. And again and again coffee plantations. Back at the lodge we can finally taste the famous Blue Mountain Coffee. Even from own cultivation – it is served to us by our hosts for brunch. We would love to lie down in the leather couches of Whitfield Hall, but we have to go back to Kingston.
Kingston, Hope Road 56
The reason is the biggest sight of the city, resp. their short opening hours. We are dog-tired and it is about 40 degrees in Kingston, but we don't want to miss the Bob Marley Museum. The tour takes you through the rooms of that house on Hope Road where the reggae god lived from 1975 until his death and recorded many legendary records. Something particularly amazes me: the view through his bedroom window falls exactly on the Blue Mountain Peak. Above Bob Marley's stately bed hangs not a picture of his wife Rita, but a portrait of Haile Selassie, the former Ethiopian regent whom Rastafarians revere as the returned "black messiah".
I think of the Maroons and the coffee growing Rastas. Then to Marley's thick dreadlocks and the roots and vines in the Blue Mountains – and how one resembles the other. Finally, I can't help thinking that today we have not only reached the highest point of Jamaica, but also a good part of the soul of the island.
Info and addresses: Blue Mountains, Jamaica
Flights to Jamaica are available e.g. about Miami (Florida). If you land in Montego Bay and not in Kingston, you can get to the capital or Port Antonio very comfortably with the Knutsford Express tour bus.
Hiking in the Blue Mountains
The Blue Mountains are a hiker's paradise. About 30 trails ( called "tracks") lead up various hills, but not all of them are in a good condition. The most popular one is the "Peak Trail" up to Blue Mountain Peak, with 2.256 m highest peak in Jamaica. If you're traveling at night, hire a local mountain guide – the trails have many forks, after all, and a rescue in the Blue Mountains can take a long time.
Hagley Gap or Penlyne Castle are good starting points for the Peak hike (about 950 hm and 12.5 km distance). The Peak Trail starts at the Ranger Station (Portland Gap), where there are toilets.
What to bring: Plenty of water, provisions, headlamp with spare batteries, rain jacket, warm clothes (temperatures before sunrise can be frosty).
National Park Fee: $5 USD