Light years away from the sleepy fishing village of a few decades ago, OCHO RIOS (usually just called “Ochi”) has long been overtaken by the tourist industry. Developed specifically as a resort, planners often overlooked aesthetics in the chase for foreign dollars. Each week thousands of cruise-ship passengers disembark here (especially from December to March), and Ochi is fully geared up to easy-access tourism with numerous neon-fronted in-bond stores, visitor-oriented restaurants and several slickly packaged attractions. Ochi isn’t the best choice for the classic Caribbean beach holiday – the meagre strips of hotel-lined sand just can’t compete with Negril and Montego Bay. Yet in spite of its scenic deficiencies and the fact that local culture takes a bit of a back seat, Ochi does boast a certain infectious energy, and the fact that its town and tourist area are one and the same means there’s less of the “sitting duck” atmosphere of the Montego Bay strip. Harassment here too, has become only a minor irritation.
“Ocho Rios” is a corruption of the Spanish name chorreros, referring to the “gushing water” of the many local waterfalls – there are not “eight rivers” here. In contrast to its poetic name, the town has a somewhat violent history as the site of several bloody battles that took place when Spanish governor Don Christobel Arnaldo de Yssasi refused to give in to the British after their capture of the island in 1655. Major skirmishes took place at Dunn’s River in 1657, Rio Nuevo in 1658 and Shaw Park in 1659, when Yssasi’s men were attacked by a group led by his erstwhile ally, Juan de Bolas, a former slave who had defected to the British. In 1660, Yssasi fled the island, but local Spanish legacy remains in a smattering of place names and through the fragrant pimento tree, first discovered by the Spanish in St Ann and commercially planted here ever since.
The British left a more pervasive mark, with their huge sugar cane, lumber and cattle farms, though most planters were absentees. Ocho Rios remained little more than a fishing harbour until the twentieth century, when tourism and bauxite began to physically sculpt the land. In 1923, a great house at Shaw Park became Jamaica’s first exclusive hotel, and by 1948 it had been joined by the Sans Souci Lido, Silver Seas and Dunn’s River (now Sandals). Recurrent crop failures led local planter Alfred DaCosta to chemically analyse the St Ann earth in 1938, finding that the soil contained high levels of bauxite, the chief raw material used to produce aluminium. Foreign companies Reynolds and Kaiser bought up huge tracts of land, and in 1968 forty acres were reclaimed from behind what is now Ochi’s Main Street. The harbour was dredged, and Reynolds built a deep-water pier, while Jamaica’s Urban Development Corporation imported sand and built another jetty for cruise ships. More than three decades later, their efforts have brought about the firmly established resort town of today.