Jamaica’s Greatest Outdoor Experiences

Jamaica is much more than just the beach. The island’s great outdoors includes thick rain forest, numerous waterfalls, rivers on which the sport of rafting was born, swimming holes, and more. Jamaica’s natural beauty has been the set for more than one Hollywood movie, and if you really can’t drag yourself away from the beach, the bioluminescent bays offer a different form of outdoor adventure.

Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Go tubing on the White River with Ocho Rios Jamaica Tours and cool off in one of Jamaica’s most picturesque bodies of water. The jade colors of White River, dotted with fishing boats along its banks, rocks, and leafy banks, make it an ideal choice for shutterbugs and nature lovers. Combine your tube float with a stop at Irie Blue Hole, for a fun leap into the river-fed sinkhole.
Whithorn, Jamaica
Aqua Nature Park, a well-maintained and verdant retreat 40 miles east of Negril, offers visitors a chance to take a dip and cool off in the Venture River. The river, which flows through a swimming hole on the property, has small, colorful fish and a cascade. Owner Steven delights in conducting walking tours of his family’s property, and can teach you quite a bit about the Jamaican plants and fruits he grows. (Don’t miss seeing the enormous cotton tree.) A casual restaurant and bar, with some reggae playing in the background, rounds this experience out into a lovely, low-key afternoon escape for couples, families, or anyone looking for a taste of real Jamaica.
Chill out from the sun at the Blue Hole Mineral Spring, a 50-foot deep turquoise natural pool sitting 20 feet below a cave opening. Jump off the cliff edge like the Jamaican divers on site, if you’re feeling brave. Otherwise, head down slowly on the ladder and let go from a closer distance (like I did). There’s a small entrance fee to this park--located about a half-hour drive south of Negril in the town of Brighton--which includes access to an on site bar and restaurant, as well as an outdoor traditional swimming pool. But my guess is you’ll be too tempted by the underground shimmering and therapeutic fresh water.
Manchioneal, Jamaica
Reach Falls is an off-the-beaten-path delight. Located up in the John Crow Mountains on Jamaica’s east coast, this 30-foot jade-colored cascade tumbles into several pools in the surrounding rain forest. You’ll need a bathing suit and a waterproof camera to capture the natural splendor. Local guides are available to help you make your way across the swimming holes and levels, and show you the best spots. Or you can explore it solo. Because of its distance from tourism spots, there are no crowds, no harassment, just an entrance fee to your very own Garden of Eden. On-site changing rooms are available as you exit by the parking lot. Small fun fact: The falls play a minor role in the 1988 Tom Cruise movie Cocktail.

Blue Hole Rd
You’ll more than likely gasp when you first glimpse this 180-foot-deep, jade- and sapphire-colored body of water surrounded by verdant rain forest. Though you can spot it from the road as you drive along Port Antonio’s east coast, the Blue Lagoon is best appreciated while gliding across it on a bamboo raft. The entire scene looks straight out of the movies, which is why locals would probably tell you that it was a location for the eponymous 1980 movie starring Brooke Shields (which, in fact, was filmed in Fiji). Even if you don’t hop on a raft for a float, at least get out of the car to take in the stunning view. (An on-site restaurant and deck were closed for renovation some years back and still haven’t reopened.)
Main Highway, A1, Falmouth, Jamaica
Adventurous souls should plan on a moonlit dip in the bioluminescent Glistening Waters, also known as Luminous Lagoon. Boats leave from a marina, located an hour north of Montego Bay, on scheduled night tours. As your tour boat speeds out into the dark of night, you’ll spot fluorescent blue streaks in its wake—bioluminescence that’s created when living microorganisms (in this case, dinoflagellates) are disturbed. You can jump in for a swim, too, and glow in the dark as you splash about. It’s an amazing phenomenon to witness, and it’s said to exist in only five lagoons or bays in the world. Back at the marina, the Glistening Waters restaurant offers beautiful views, as well as pre-cruise drinks and food.
The hike up the Mayfield River to the waterfall nicknamed the Washing Machine requires walking in the river itself at times, and at one point, swimming through a tunnel. Along the way, you’ll be surrounded by lush fern trees and bamboo. You’ll need water shoes, a swimsuit, and a sense of adventure to take part in this, one of the best ways to see Jamaica‘s verdant interior. The trailhed is an hour’s drive from from Negril, and you’ll find lockers and a small restaurant there. Guides are always on hand to show you the way—you won’t make it without them, they know all the right places to place your foot. (Be generous with your tips—they may be having a great time, but this is their job.) The reward at the end of your hike? Two waterfalls. Swim underneath and feel the refreshing force of nature.
Somerset Falls, P.O.,, Hope Bay, Jamaica
There’s no shortage of refreshing waterfalls in eastern Jamaica. But after Reach Falls, I’d say Somerset—also located on the east coast—is a close second in natural beauty. Somerset Falls’ cascades can be reached by hiking or by canoe ride along the river. Either way, it’s a stunning, still relatively verdant area teeming with bird life—resident parrots—and caves to explore. It’s easy to find too, ideal for a day trip from either Port Antonio or Ocho Rios. Look out for a billboard right off the paved northern highway, about an hour and a half north of Ocho Rios.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Jamaica’s most touristy site—famous for being featured in the James Bond movie Dr. No.—is also one of its most beautiful, in spite of the countless bodies that visit and attempt the climb daily, both locals and tourists. The view of the falls is spectacular. And call it cheesy, but it’s actually fun trying to ascend stone steps while being splashed by 600-foot-high powerful falls that cascade down into a jade pool. Grab a licensed guide on-site if you need one, otherwise latch on to one of the human chains you’ll spot when you arrive. The falls are just a stone’s throw from Ocho Rios, so any route or shared taxi will make a stop here for a few bucks.
Negril, Jamaica
A signature experience in Negril is to go on a two-hour glass-bottom boat snorkel trip, toward the cliffside or to the nearby reef around Booby Cay. Truth be told, snorkeling isn’t a must if you’re not up for it—but floating on a small boat amid deep jade and turquoise waters and being able to see marine life 20 feet or more below through the glass is a memorable experience. If you do want to snorkel, the cliffside has stunning limestone formations and underwater caves, while the reef is filled with all sorts of marine life, from stingrays to barracuda. A glass-bottom boat ride shouldn’t cost you more than US$20 per person. Look out for Famous Vincent‘s boat—the best pick—or approach one you see resting along Seven Mile Beach, across any reputable resort. The boats—including Famous Vincent—occasionally ride along the cliffside resorts in the mornings or afternoons, looking for anyone interested in an impromptu adventure.
Blue Mountains, Jamaica
Lush source of the mellow, world-famous Blue Mountain coffee, Jamaica’s longest mountain range is nature at its best, seemingly a world away from nearby bustling, noisy Kingston. In these mountains 7,400 feet above sea level, the air is cool, the views—of villages and falls across the mountains—are magnificent, and, yes, the peaks look blue. The winding narrow roads, though occasionally nerve-racking, add to the overall mystical atmosphere. A handful of hotels and cabins, including the prestigious Strawberry Hill, provide lodging. Staying in the mountains overnight is highly recommended so you can take the famous sunrise summit hike.
Jamaica’s interior beauty includes several botanical gardens. Shaw Park, located in Ocho Rios’ surrounding hillside at up to 800 feet above sea level, is a great stop for families, with a large waterfall cascading through, gorgeous flower gardens and plenty of picnic space. When you want to get away from the heat and chaos of downtown Ocho Rios, head up to the hills and relax here. It’s a US$10 entrance fee and the park is open during regular business hours.
Rafting on the Martha Brae River—a float down a three-mile segment of the river on a 30-foot bamboo raft—provides a pleasant hour or so in one of Jamaica’s gorgeous ecosystems. Passengers can slip into the water and swim beside the raft, or look for birds in the lush trees along the river’s banks, or just sit back and be carried along. The staging area is 20 miles away from Montego Bay.
Thatch Hill Rd, Ocho Rios, Jamaica
With a 20-foot waterfall, a deep turquoise pool, and underwater caves, the Irie Blue Hole is a special find. You’ll need to hire a guide in nearby Ocho Rios to bring you up the mountain to explore this off-the-beaten-track place, but it’s one of Jamaica’s most stunning swimming holes. The lush setting, surging blue waters, and options for cliff-jumping will keep you there for hours. This gorgeous blue hole is now attracting more visitors, but it never feels too crowded. Yet!
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