It’s known for its laidback Rastafarian spirit, but Jamaica also has much to offer adventure-seeking travellers. From climbing cascading waterfalls with your bare hands to exploring underwater plane wrecks, we've rounded up nine great ways to break a sweat in Jah’s garden.
Surfing Jamaica’s east coast breaks
It’s not the first place you’d consider bringing your stick, but Jamaica is one of a good handful of Caribbean islands with decent surf. Boston Bay, near Port Antonio, is the most popular (and picturesque) spot for beginners to intermediates, while further south towards Kingston, breaks including The Ranch, Makka, Copa and Lighthouse draw more advanced surfers. Jamnesia, Jamaica’s only surf camp, is located in Bull Bay. Its home break is Zoo, but a surf shuttle is also available to other spots. The best swells arrive between December and March, but some breaks also work from July to September.
Biking down the Blue Mountains
Hurtling down a bumpy mountain road on a beach cruiser rather than a proper mountain bike is a fun (if slightly nerve-wracking) way to take in the lush, jungle scenery of Jamaica’s Blue Mountains. Blue Mountain Bicycle Tours (bmtoursja.com) offers pickup from Kingston, Ocho Rios, Montego Bay and Trelawny for transfer to Hardwar Gap, including morning tea and lunch. There’ll be stops on the way down the mountain range for photos, and to see how the nation’s famous Blue Mountains coffee is harvested. Don’t forget your swimwear – the bike tour ends at the base of a waterfall before your transfer home.
Navigating the Great River rapids
Coasting down Jamaica’s Rio Grande on a traditional raft made from bamboo poles lashed together remains as popular as the days of Errol Flynn. But for a real rush, sign up for a white-water rafting excursion on the Great River, near Montego Bay, with Caliche Rainforest River Rafting (calicherainforest.shoreadventures.net). The class III-IV rapids are suitable for most people of average fitness, but you must be able to swim. Tubing is another fun way to ride several of Jamaica's rivers; Chukka (chukka.com) offers several good tours.
Strapping on a dive tank
Jamaica proffers more than 100 dive sites around the whole island, but the best are located on the fringing reefs that line its north and west coasts. Negril is home to the highest concentration of sites including the famed Throne Room, a cave full of giant sponges and soft corals, and Deep Plane, the remains of a Cessna at 21m. Home to the nation’s first marine park, Montego Bay is Jamaica’s other major diving hub, with hit-list dives including Airport Reef and Windowmakers cave. Further east, Runaway Bay is home to the eponymous Canyon, and the sunken Reggae Queen tugboat.
Exploring Jamaica’s cave network
Jamaica is honeycombed with picturesque limestone caves. While it’s easy to visit the handful of ‘show caves’ that dot the nation's coastline, such as Discovery Bay’s Green Grotto, on your own, serious spelunkers would be wise to contact the Jamaican Caves Organisation (jamaicancaves.org) for more information (and guide recommendations) before exploring more advances caves such as Mexico and Ipswich Caves (both near YS Falls), Gourie Caves (Christiana) or Coffee River caves (Troy).
Cliff diving at Negril
Not just a scuba diving hub, the west end of Negril is fringed with cliffs perfect for practicing your aerial diving moves. The most famous spot is rowdy Rick’s Café, alongside which you’ll find a handful of jump points up to a height of around 10m. The usually calm, turquoise water below is reassuringly deep, and there are stairs to help you clamber out for another round. Be prepared, however, for an audience.
Climbing Dunn’s River Falls
Terraced down the side of a jungle-covered mountain that meets the sea, Dunn’s River Falls is Jamaica’s top-grossing attraction. But this unique waterfall isn’t just for admiring. Starting on a white-sand Caribbean beach, visitors can clamber up the smooth, travertine face of the falls through a series of turquoise springwater lagoons to the ‘summit’ in about 30minutes. Guides are available to lead cautious climbers around the slippery spots along the 180m-long climb, but it’s easy enough for most people to tackle on their own. Protective booties are also available to rent or buy, but in our experience it's easier to find your footing without them.
Summiting Blue Mountain Peak
Jamaica's Cockpit County trails might be a little more challenging, but the three-hour hike (one-way) to the top of the nation's highest peak (2256m) is hands-down one of the most rewarding ways to get your blood pumping on a Caribbean morning. Most hikers set off from Penlyne Castle at around 2am to reach the summit by sunrise. On a clear day you’ll be able to get a glimpse of Cuba as you sip a celebratory Blue Mountain coffee at the top before ascending back through several stunning ecosystems that were too dark to admire on your way up. For a more low-key Blue Mountains ramble, take your pick of the well-maintained trails in the Holywell Recreation Area.
Zipping through Jamaica's jungle canopies
If you’ve never been zip-lining, Jamaica is a top spot to start. While it has since been eclipsed by the Dominican Republic for being home to the longest zip-line in the Caribbean, the fifth section of the Great River Adventure offers an impressive 1600foot-long ride. An even more adventurous option is H’evan Scent, which, along with a series of zip-lines accessed by climbing very high poles, offers guests a spin on a special swing called ‘the screamer’ which is hoisted 50 feet into the air before being released. Barrett Adventures (barrettadventures.com) can tee up a visit to either for you.
For more information and activity ideas in Jamaica, check out visitjamaica.com.
Lonely Planet Destination Editor Sarah Reid (@sarahtrvls) travelled to Jamaica as a guest of the Jamaica Tourist Board, British Airways, Courtleigh Hotels & Suites, Couples San Souci and Goblin Hill Hotel. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies for positive coverage.