Getting Marooned in Jamaica | Culture, history & hiking

Posted by on Jan 22, 2011 in Blog, Jamaica Travel, Jamaican Culture, Maroons | 0 comments

Getting Marooned in Jamaica | Culture, history & hiking
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Enjoy a GREAT article from the Toronto Star about Jamaica's Charles Town Maroons and the Cunha Cunha Maroon Trail linking Portland and Saint Thomas. I love cultural events and activities and keep saying that one of these days I'm going to make the trip to meet Ivelyn Harris. The author makes me want to go now! :yes: Superb job - very informative - keep writing!

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Getting Marooned in Jamaica

Janie Robinson
Special to the Star

CORNWALL BARRACKS, JAMAICA—Bouncing my bag along a rocky dirt path, past grazing goats and barking dogs, I’m falling farther and farther behind my host, as my usually handy wheeled-luggage tries to find traction.

I’ve come to Jamaica’s mountains to visit Maroon settlements and hike their trails. But if I had known I’d be doing it with my bags in tow I wouldn’t have packed quite so much.

Struggling with my suitcase, which keeps flipping on its back like some kind of stranded turtle, my Maroon host, Ivelyn “Blossom” Harris, turns back to me with a big smile — easily lifting my overloaded luggage, and calmly crossing the swaying footbridge over the Rio Grande River with my bag balanced on her head.

Visiting Maroon settlements, hidden high in the beautiful Blue and John Crow Mountains in northeastern Jamaica, takes some time, patience and, I’ve now learned, light packing.

Even the Port Antonio locals questioned whether I could actually reach my final destination — the remote Ambassabeth Cabins, to hike the Cunha Cunha Maroon Trail.

“The mountain road to Bowden Pen is washed out and I think the hiking trail is still in really rough shape after Hurricane Gilbert,” warns innkeeper Shireen Aga, as we discuss my rugged “Maroon Country” plans from the eco-chic comfort of my Port Antonio hotel.

I’ve been enjoying the best of both worlds — staying in the charming Mocking Bird Hill Hotel, and taking easy day tours from here to hike and explore the Maroon settlement in Charles Town, then returning to the comfort of my romantic room, overlooking lush organic tropical gardens, and sweeping ocean views.

The Charles Town Maroons are certainly the most accessible from Port Antonio. Powerful murals etched on the outer walls of the Charles Town Museum and Safu Yard graphically illustrate the life-long struggles and rich heritage of Maroon culture.

“The Maroon story is the biggest one in Jamaica,” says Kim Douglas, greeting us at the door of the museum with a “mantee” (welcome) in Twi, the traditional language of the Maroons. “It’s the story of a ragtag group of Africans who made the most powerful nation on earth at that time, the British Empire, sign a peace treaty in the 1700s.”

The 300-year saga of these fiercely independent Maroons is one of Jamaica’s most fascinating stories — arriving to this country from West Africa, as slaves to the Spanish, and eventually escaping to the mountains to fight both the Spanish and British for their freedom.

To this day, Maroon settlements remain a communally owned, self-governing homeland of those former runaway slaves.

The unique Charles Town Museum tour includes traditional Maroon drumming and dancing, with artefacts on display showing how the runaway slaves supported themselves while living off the land; a calabash (used as utensil or bowl); the kalaban (a bird trap baited with seeds); the jungs (a spear used to hunt wild hogs), and the abeng (a cow-horn instrument), “the Maroon warriors’ first wireless means of communications,” jokes our tour guide.

It’s a scary, scenic drive to the Maroon settlement of Moore Town — several hours on a winding mountain road, more potholes than pavement, often eroded down to one narrow lane with plummeting banks down to the Rio Grande River.

The historic settlement of Moore Town is the burial site of Maroon’s legendary leader Nanny, with a monument marking the National Hero’s grave.

“We think that legends of Nanny and her magical Maroon warriors transforming themselves into trees along the trail come from plants like these,” says Moore Town’s Colonel Sterling, pointing out the cocoon vine growing along the trail leading to the sacred Nanny Falls. “Cocoon vine can be cut for days and not whither. The warriors would wrap themselves in the vine to hide, making the British report that the Maroon ‘look like trees and were evil spirits.’”

The Colonel shares some fascinating stories of the mystical Maroon warriors and their legendary leader Nanny — you can’t help but be impressed by a woman whose reputed powers included the ability to catch cannon and rifle balls between her buttocks, and return fire.

Lunch with a direct descendant of the infamous Nanny is another teeth-jarring half-hour drive farther up the mountainside to Cornwall Barracks.

“Most of the people who come to me, come for healing — for peace,” says Harris, a bush doctor who credits her grandmother for her knowledge of herbal healing. “There was one man I healed who’d been bent over for 17 years. I boiled together 11 different herbs to use in his herb bath, and when he came out of the bath he was standing 6 feet tall and straight.”

In addition to herbal healing, she also runs Harris’ Guest Cottage and Herbal Bush Bath House, is an author and artist.

A special herbal tea “to help purify the blood” comes with a tasty traditional jerk pork lunch, before a stroll through Ivey’s garden, where “herbs are at their full potency during the full moon.”

“Maroons have always known how to survive off the land, including the use of bush medicine,” says Harris, recommending Balsam for fever, Blackberry for pain, Dog Blood to help women who are trying to get pregnant, and Mango leaf for high-blood pressure.

The healer obviously practices what she preaches, and is certainly healthy enough to easily lug around my heavy luggage on her head, as we take the goat path and swaying footbridge shortcut to my final Maroon mountainside destination.

Turns out, my Port Antonio innkeeper was right about the washed out road to Bowden Pen. But the ingenious Maroons have figured out several ways around it while they wait for repairs, including this footbridge shortcut.

The Cunha Cunha Pass Maroon Trail has now been fully restored, reopening in 2002 after being nearly wiped out during 1988’s Hurricane Gilbert. The 8-kilometre mountain trail, used by the rebellious Maroons fighting for their freedom, links the parishes of Portland and St. Thomas, and passes through some of the most pristine forest in Jamaica.

With my luggage happily stowed in one of the lovely little Ambassebeth Cabins, I’m ready to hit the historic hiking trail high in the Blue Mountains.

“Bowden Pen use to be called Four Feet because only beast of burden could access the community,” says guide Peter Higgins, starting our hike from the northern end of the Cunha Cunha Maroon Trail.

I’m told bottled Jamaica’s Blue Mountain spring water is all the rage these days — almost as popular as the region’s world-famous coffee.

Our 64-year-old guide is obviously proud of his Blue Mountain heritage, sharing his love and knowledge of his mountain home with visitors who are here for a day-hike along the historic Maroon trail.

“Being born in an area like this, and very dependent on the environment for your survival, we wanted to create an eco village where people could come to learn about the environment — share it with others who are not so blessed,” says Linnette Wilks of the local Bowden Pen Farmers Association project that began in 1995 as one small cabin.

Ambassabeth Cabins remain a rustic retreat on the lush mountainside, overlooking the grand Rio Grande River; quaint cabins with indoor plumbing and dormitories with outhouses, all made of bamboo and other local materials, with a large dining and recreation hall next door to the cook-house, where tasty Jamaican dishes are prepared over wood fires.

“People who come here get a touch of the past — a touch of the purity of life,” says Wilks. “They experience what life must have been like . . . fresh air, clean water, the sound of the birds, and your connection with your environment and with nature.”

Janie Robinson is a Barrie-based freelance writer and videographer whose trip was subsidized by the Jamaica Tourist Board.

Just the facts

ACTIVITIES: Easy day trips from Port Antonio to the Charles Town Maroon Museum and Sambo Hill Hiking Trail can be arranged through Mocking Bird Hill Hotel (

Learn more about Nanny of the Maroons during day visits or overnight retreats at Sister Ivelyn Harris’ Guest Cottage and Herbal Bush Bath House (

MORE INFO: The Cunha Cunha Maroon Trail can be accessed from the Maroon village of Hayfield in the south, or at Bowden Pen and the Ambassabeth Cabins at the end of the Rio Grande River Valley road. Contact or call (876) 395-5351 or (876) 381-1528 to book Ambassabeth Cabins.


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