Touristy stores. Windy roads. Brightly colored buildings. Lush rainforest. Huge malls. Downtrodden towns. Modest fruit stands. Sprawling mansions. Rolling hills. Energetic waters. Reggae rhythms. Jerk spices. We found all this and more when we decided to venture off of the resort property on our final full day in Jamaica.
Our driver, who told us to call him Misty, first brought our group of eleven through a small town called Anchovy, where he stopped to buy us some “Jamaican coffee” to give us energy to get through our long day. I’d never had sugar cane before, but it had a very unique sweetness that I really enjoyed, even if it was a little hard to eat. The thick yellow tube was meant to be gnawed at, sucked on, and spit out, and we made a bit of a mess of ourselves. We continued to get our sugar fix as we drove on into the Jamaican countryside, with Misty pointing out lots of interesting things along the way. We saw a historic church, a mansion under construction, and a mural detailing Jamaica’s history.
It was about an hour and a half of driving before we turned up a long driveway and parked next to a woodcarver’s stand. After disembarking, visiting the restroom, and checking out the carver’s wares, Misty let us down a steep hill, and suddenly we seemed to be in a very small village. Tiny colorful houses dotted the lush landscape- a store, a restaurant, some changing stalls, a few offices. A group of friendly employees check us in and got us ready for our swim through the Mayfield River by doling out rental shoes and helping us stow our belongings in a locker. Then, we were off!
As we were approaching the river, I became increasingly angry with myself. This was undoubtedly the perfect place to use our GoPro camera- which we had forgotten back in the states. I had waited until the night before leaving to pack, and a dinner I had been invited to that night went about two hours longer than I had expected. Meaning I had done all of my packing at nearly midnight with a less than clear head. Certainly there are worse things we could have forgotten. Plus, we purchased a disposable water camera at the resort’s shop before coming just so that we would have something, and on top of that one of the guides was taking photos and he said we would have the opportunity to purchase those later. Still, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated at my own forgetfulness.
Once the river was right in front of me, it all melted away. Not just the annoyance of the forgotten camera, but everything else. The mosquito bites I had gotten the night before. The tiredness in my feet. The slight sunburn on my shoulders. The checklist of things I need to do when I get home. The concern over making it back to the resort in time for dinner. All of it was gone and there was nothing but me and that beautiful river. Vibrant greenery surrounded every inch of the banks. The crystal water tumbled over smooth rocks. Suddenly a splash brought me back to reality. One of the guides had jumped in, and my tourmates were following suite. When it was my turn, I tried to imitate the guide’s graceful dive and I don’t think I succeeded. But it didn’t matter. The water was cool and refreshing, like the best medicine for your skin.
When we came up to our first series of falls, the guides showed us how to use them as “nature’s Jacuzzi”. The water was strong and it made swimming near the falls difficult, but if you position yourself against them, bracing your body against a rock, the water would beat down on your back, shoulders, and arms like the world’s most powerful water jets. It was the best five minute massage I’ve ever had! And it came in handy too. After using strength and stamina to climb up the slippery rocks, there was always another little fall waiting up ahead to soothe your muscles.
We trekked on through countless waterfalls and mineral pools, having a blast along the way. The guides were supportive and watchful to the handful of weak swimmers in our group, quick to offer a hand, always pointing out the shallow swimming areas and easier climbing rocks. For the braver guests, they safely demonstrated and facilitated more daring endeavors, like swimming through the underwater tunnel, ducking into the secret room in between the waterfall and rock face, jumping from the high tree into the river, and swimming right into the rapids. They were tons of fun too, telling colorful stories, snapping photos, and showing off the most daring stunts of all.
At the spot of the jumping tree, I was initially undecided about whether I would do it. Having passed on the underwater tunnel swim I felt like I needed to regain some sense of adventure. Plus on second glance it wasn’t really that high, so I went for it. Climbing up the tree was actually scarier than making the jump! While there were some pieces carved out and a few boards nailed on in an attempt to make some semblance of a ladder, it wasn’t all that meticulously done and the whole thing was extremely slippery and very thin. I may have muttered my insecurities under my breath as I climbed to the top, and the guide waiting for me up there heard me.
“No worries! You can do it! And as you soar through the air everyone will cheer for you, and when you are back in the water, life will be good.”
Well, I did it. I curled into a cannon ball and jumped off as cheers and applause erupted from my tourmates. I hit the water with a splash and came up feeling incredibly dizzy! Turns out an ocean of water took the opportunity to take up residence in my ear. I steadied myself on a rock as a few other people made the jump and by the time we were ready to move on the discomfort had subsided. Before we left the area one of the guides upstaged us all by climbing to a tree nearly twice as high and doing a perfect somersault into the water!
The “grand finale” of the river swim was what the guides called the Washing Machine- a U shaped cove settled in the rocks with a powerful waterfall flowing all the way around the semi-circle- causing the middle of circle to foam up with rapids (like a washing machine I suppose?). Apparently you could slide in from the side and swim the whole way around the U behind the waterfall- in between the waterfall and the rock face.
This, my friends, is where I realized that I am somewhat claustrophobic. Who knew? I am totally fine with dark, enclosed space. Elevators, caves, those motion simulator rides where the screen is barely a foot from your face… none of them have ever bothered me. I was even able to enjoy time behind one of the smaller waterfalls during the day’s journey. But that one had a larger space to breath and a less powerful water flow. This time, when I followed Chris into that tiny space behind the waterfall, my face inches from the rocks and the current threatening to pull me under, the sound of the waterfall positively deafening and filling my ears so that I could concentrate on little else… I completely lost my breath. I didn’t expect to be scared, so I was very taken aback by my body’s reaction to this place. It is very difficult to describe- it kind of felt like someone had put a pillow over my face, or like my brain suddenly forgot how to breathe. I had to consciously remind myself to take long, full breaths, counting as I inhaled, and counting as I exhaled, and if I forgot to count my breaths were short, quick, and ragged. The guides had suggested following the U around to the center and then “emerging gloriously through the falls and into the washing machine!” but that was definitely not happening. I did make it to center of the U, but then I made an about face and exited the way I entered. While Chris and a few others took the route through the center rapids, two of my tourmates did exactly what I did, and five others didn’t make it anywhere near the washing machine, so I was about par for the course. How strange it was though, to never have felt a panic like that before, and have it rise up at a moment when I was least expecting it.
Short panicked moment aside, the washing machine was neat to look at. Plus I did make it into the center of the washing machine’s rapids briefly because it was much less scary coming into it from the outside rather than trying to bust through from behind the falls. We lingered a bit in the pool below, getting our last splashes before jumping out of the river for the short walk back to our starting point. The guides were great on this walk, pointing out all the plants native to Jamaica. It helped to distract from the fact that we were soaking wet and a little chilly!
After grabbing our bags out of the locker and hitting the changing stalls, we sat down for a traditional Jamaican jerk lunch. My vegetarian version had a nice flavor but some parts of it were a little too spicy for me. As we ate and enjoyed our punch, the employees started beating on drums, singing Jamaican songs, and doing traditional dances. It was great lunchtime entertainment, until the rain started coming down! We were outside but underneath an overhang, so we only got a little bit wet as the wind blew some mist at us. After we were done eating and the music stopped, I think everyone was a bit anxious to get on the way but it seemed our driver was waiting for a break in the rain. When it finally came we said our goodbyes, piled into our van, and set off, just as a fresh rain began falling. I was enjoying the ride back, watching the rain fall over the landscape, until I realized that not all of the water had extracted itself from my ear!
This time, the pain didn’t subside until much later in the evening and was not completely gone until our flight the following day landed in Newark. But ear pain and slight claustrophobia aside, our river trip was an amazing success. We got to see the beautiful Jamaican countryside, meet a few friendly locals, have a refreshing and fun swim, learn about the native plant life, and enjoy a delicious traditional lunch with truly Jamaican entertainment. We even made it back to the hotel in time for the bonfire with the bride, groom, and other wedding guests, which was a blast.
What more could we have asked for from our final full day in this beautiful country?
** a small tip we gathered- a few other people were talking about a similar trip to Dunns River Falls, which they said was a ridiculously crowded, overly touristy, way too expensive rip off of an excursion. I’ve never been there myself, but based on what others have said I would suggest Mayfield Falls as a great alternative. Our small group of 11 guests and 3 guides never ran into any other groups anywhere on the river!