The Blue Mountains begin where Kingston ends, and a starker contrast would be hard to imagine, with the chaotic concrete maelstrom fast replaced by lush tranquillity and staggering natural beauty. The mountains are named for the mists that colour them from a distance, and their craggy slopes form an unbroken, undulating spine across Jamaica’s easternmost parishes, a fabulously fertile wilderness with a surprisingly cool, wet climate. The dense forest provided perfect cover for the Windward Maroons during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, though as a whole the mountains have proved largely inhospitable, with today’s sparse population concentrated in settlements like Gordon Town and Newcastle.
The northern slopes of the mountains are covered by a huge quilt of dense, primary forest, but deforestation has badly affected the southern side, where great chunks have been cleared by coffee planters, farmers and (catastrophically) hurricanes Gilbert and Ivan in 1988 and 2004. Though cattle are farmed on some of the denuded lower slopes, to try to protect the wilderness from further devastation 200,000 acres were designated a national park in 1993, with the stated aims of managing natural resources for long-term sustainable use and generating income opportunities through ecotourism (see blueandjohncrowmountains.org). To assist with the latter, hiking trails have been carved into the interior of the forest, often following ancient mule trails over the mountains.
Tourism here, though on the rise, is small-scale with just a few hotels and budget options – but most have spectacular locations. Coffee is the mainstay of the local economy, and excellent tours for those keen to see how the stuff is produced are to be found at the coffee factory at Mavis Bank and at smaller plantations such as Old Tavern. Dark and earthy, Blue Mountain coffee is considered one of the world’s best by experts, and prices reflect that assessment, though you can usually find it cheaper here – at hotels, coffee factories or direct from the farmers – than anywhere else. Visitors also come here to hike up Blue Mountain Peak or to follow the well-maintained trails at Holywell or around Lime Tree Farm – superb trekking, for which you’ll nonetheless need to be well prepared. Elsewhere, the botanical gardens at Cinchona are a delightful spot, a magical splash of colour 5000ft up.
Many visitors find mountain residents more gentle and welcoming than Jamaicans elsewhere – despite the evident poverty and grinding workload that many of them face.