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River rafting down the Rio Grande near Port Antonio was popularized by Errol Flynn 50 years ago. (Sharon Matthews-Stevens)
River rafting down the Rio Grande near Port Antonio was popularized by Errol Flynn 50 years ago. (Sharon Matthews-Stevens)

Leave Jamaica’s big-box resorts behind Add to ...

Our nine-metre-long bamboo raft noses gingerly into the current and accelerates as our captain thrusts a long pole into the water. We’re headed toward the first hurdle – a river narrow created by a steep limestone wall wrapped in moss and foilage on one side and a stone peninsula on the other. Around us hump-backed hills are swathed in 20 shades of green, vegetation so dense it seems as if plants grow on falling trees before they even hit the ground.

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Whitecaps dance, hissing as the raft slices the water. Waves ripple through the spaces between the wired bamboo deck and send up a cool spray that’s welcome in the broiling sun.

The raft’s bow lifts and drops, tilts, levels out. I’m jolted by sudden exhilaration, a spasm of momentary anxiety. Then we’re through, gliding on the still silvery waters of Jamaica’s Rio Grande.

Having visited the island many times before, our goal this week is to discover and explore Jamaica’s rivers. And the Rio Grande, we realize, is a true tropical gem.

Now the river carries us in a rhythmic pulsing flow created by the steady thrust of Captain Eric’s pole as he guides our craft. He bursts into the Banana Boat Song.

What else could he sing?

A hundred years ago, bamboo rafts like ours carried cargo from plantations upstream to the sea near Port Antonio, destined for the weekly banana boat.

Decades ago, Errol Flynn hired captains like ours to race his friends down the river – introducing a tourist attraction shared by the likes of Pierre Trudeau and Magic Johnson.

And now us.

The Rio Grande is like a Jamaican Amazon, but for the fact that when I slide into the water for a quick swim it’s not piranhas that nuzzle my legs and arms, but a school of tiny, friendly fish.

A few days ago, we were on another Jamaican river (roughly 270 kilometres to the southwest) where, I suspect, the inhabitants would welcome me into the water with equal enthusiasm.

Black River is Jamaica’s longest navigable river, starting in the inland mountains of Trelawny and flowing 60 kilometres through some of the country’s most spectacular scenery: royal palms, mangroves, bulrush forests five metres high, a hundred species of birds, the occasional decrepit shrimp boat – and something like 300 crocodiles.

On that adventure, our skipper – a.k.a. Cornell, a.k.a. Crocodile Dundee – gently turned the wheel of the pontoon boat just off the dock. We glided across the river and he slowed the engine to let the boat drift near the shore. A crocodile three metres long sunned itself with the commitment of a Negril tourist. Cornell leaned over the gunwale with a dismembered chicken carcass in his hand. The crocodile stopped sunning.

There was a sudden splash, a flick of a massive tail and the reptile was an arm’s-length from the boat. The chicken disappeared from the skipper’s grasp – if he’d been a split second slower he’d have lost his hand, too.

Now we head upstream and stop at a thick stand of mangrove with a backdrop of rugged mountains and swamp. Our tour boat is the only sign of humanity.

“Here Phillip, here,” Cornell called out. Another crocodile, previously unnoticed by me, sliced the water, slow but purposeful. Cornell turned and grinned at his passengers: “Kind of like my pets, aren’t they? Phillip’s one of my favourites.”

The engine growls and we head further upstream.

“Pregnant clouds,” Cornell observed. “Rain.” But the rain stayed away and the sun returned, beating down on the pontoon boat’s canvas-roof.

Still, no one chose to swim. To swim at Black River is suicidal. To swim at nearby YS Falls is to experience Nirvana.

We approached this next stop on our guided tour of the south coast through an emerald valley decorated with towering mango trees and African grass animated by winds tumbling down from the Santa Cruz Mountains.

We are chauffeured by a tractor that climbs into dense forest and stops in a green glade where the aroma of flower blossoms mixed with an earthy fertile smell. Here, where the green-tinted water glistened in the sun, all sounds ceased but the overpowering sibilant roar of the river, cascading 25 metres in seven tiers, stopping to rest at sun-dappled pools where tourists laughed and splashed.

Poinciana blossoms hovered over the shores, shaded by vegetation clinging to sheer cliffs of limestone that fall away to the water. There’s a multitude of liana vines and a concatenation of orchids.

I stopped at one glittering pool, watching a graceful white curtain of water. The lifeguard grinned at me and pointed. “Just there under the trees – water massages your neck and back. Best massage in the world.”

He took my hand and guided me across the slippery rock. I submerged myself. All tension magically disappeared.

Relaxing in the soothing water I remembered other Jamaica rivers: a long-ago rafting trip on the Martha Brae near Montego Bay, floating aimlessly through a jade-coloured corridor where the trees almost always form an overhead canopy; or, even better, the escape we found earlier in this week on the South Negril River during an outing with Duke in his home-made fishing boat named Winterfresh.

While the other rivers are popular tourist attractions, very few people know about South Negril River in Jamaica’s most westerly reaches.

Mere minutes after casting off in Winterfresh, we left Negril’s big box resorts far behind. We motored past rudimentary huts where fishermen had pulled their boats onto the shore and plied placid waters, admiring the mountains in the distance. We saw more birds than people, great blue herons and egrets, buzzards sunning in the old Royal Palm Reserve.

There were no other boats on the South Negril that day and we felt like we’d discovered a place no other tourists had found; an unspoiled jewel on this well-travelled island.

Let others form a human chain of lobster-skinned cruise passengers skittering over slimy rocks at Dunn’s River Falls in Ocho Rios, the island’s most famous attraction.

I prefer Jamaica’s other rivers.

IF YOU GO

WestJet and Air Canada both offer direct flights (about four hours) to Montego Bay.

WHAT TO DO

Explore the South Negril River; about $45 for two. Winter Fresh Fishing Charters, winterfresh.ca

Check out the crocodiles at Black River; $15 (U.S.) per adult. J. Charles Swaby Black River Safaris; 876-965-2513

Go rafting on the Rio Grande; $72 (U.S.) per raft. Rio Grande Attractions; 876-993-5778

Or on the Martha Brae River; $78 (U.S.) per person, including hotel transfer. Jamaica Rafting; jamaicarafting.com

Spend a day at YS Falls – take on tubing, swimming and the zipline canopy tour; $15 (U.S.). ysfalls.com

Take a tour to Black River and YS Falls. TMT & Tours (ask for Tyrone Moore); 876-417-4535

WHERE TO SLEEP

Rockhouse Hotel on the cliffs at Negril boasts individual cottages combining rustic and elegant, many perched right above the water. With an excellent restaurant and perfect sunset views, it’s an ideal pied-à-terre for exploring South Negril River and the nearby beach (Jamaica’s best). Rooms start at $160 (U.S.); rockhousehotel.com.

Jake’s on Treasure Beach boasts designer cottages in a garden seaside setting and a salt-water pool. Enjoy gourmet meals on the dining terrace and explore Black River and YS Falls. Rooms start at $115 (U.S.); jakeshotel.com.

WHERE TO EAT

While each of the hotels listed above offer great cuisine, you have to do jerk at least once. Find the Scotchies road-side shacks (locations near Montego Bay and Ocho Rios). It’s the best jerk I’ve ever had. Dinner for two, including beer, roughly $20 (U.S.).

The writer was a guest of the Jamaican Tourist Board. It did not review or approve this article.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrected stated that Errol Flynn visited Jamaica 50 years ago.

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