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RAFTING JAMAICA’S RIO GRANDE:

DOWN THE RIVER BY BAMBOO RAFT

Errol Flynn knew a civilized island activity when he experienced it: river rafting couldn’t be more civil than on Jamaica’s Rio Grande. This is truly one of the Caribbean’s most unique adventures afloat.

Though thousands of visitors have been rafting down the Rio Grande in Flynn’s wake and the ‘put-in’ can sometimes look like a bamboo raft parking lot, this adventure doesn’t feel very tourist-crazy once the rafts spread out on the river. You’ll see plenty of fauna and flora, as well as experience a side of Jamaica that’s different from the bustling beaches and shopping areas.

The adventure begins at Grant’s Level, which is about six miles north of Port Antonio. Here, rafters board the two-person bamboo rafts for the two- to three-hour trip downstream to Port Antonio.

The rafts are made up of ten or so bamboo logs bound together and they typically run about four feet wide and 25 to 30 feet long. Many of the rafts are colorfully decorated with orchids and other foliage. They feature comfortable wooden “lounge” chairs for their passengers.

The licensed and experienced raft captains can make the trip even more enjoyable, thanks to a wide array of knowledge about local plants, animals, people, and history (and most of it is true). Positioned at the front of the raft and typically barefoot, they guide the raft down the river, using the current to move the raft and a pole for pushing off the bottom (and, occasionally, for pushing away after getting grounded).

The languid trip down the shallow river is typically only accompanied by the narrative from the guide, the murmur of the Rio Grande, and some riverside crafts and souvenir salespeople. However, the lush view from the throne-like seat of the raft is enough of a souvenir for most people.

It certainly was for Errol Flynn, who is often credited with making Rio Grande bamboo rafting a tourist attraction. Before Errol flamboyantly began floating down the river for pleasure, bamboo rafts were used on the Rio Grande (and other Jamaica rivers) as a means for carrying bananas from the island’s plantations down to the sea and awaiting ships in Port Antonio.

Founded in 1723 as the capital of Portland Parish, Port Antonio was Jamaica’s most important center for banana growth and export until the early-1900s. Tourism started when one of the island’s first hotels was built there in 1905, quickly turning Port Antonio into a vacation mecca for the rich and famous of the day, including Rudyard Kipling, Randolph Hearts, and J.P. Morgan, Jr..

Though a ship’s captain evidently started the use of bamboo rafts as a means of transportation in the 1870s, it took Flynn to make it popular with visitors. The popular movie star started coming to Port Antonio by yacht in the 1940s and fell in love with the area. Upon first seeing the mist-shrouded mountains dropping down to the sea, he is said to have gushed that Port Antonio was more beautiful than any woman he had ever seen. He eventually bought several properties in the area, including a still-thriving plantation.

Once Flynn found the joys of rafting from the mountains back to his adopted town, he invited many visiting movie star friends along for the ride. These turned into raucous raft “races” and floating parties for those lucky enough to be invited.

Today, about 150 rafts operate on the river, but it never feels crowded. There’s time and space to stop for a quiet picnic lunch, take a refreshing dip in the cool river, or simply enjoy the scenery.

The journey ends at Rafter’s Rest, which has a restaurant, bar (Red Stripe somehow tastes even better here), a souvenir shop, and changing facilities. Though you may not feel exactly like Errol Flynn’s friend or be allowed to return to his plantation, you will have experienced bamboo rafting much like he did back in the 1940s and 50s.

If you’re not staying in Port Antonio, be sure to allow time to visit this fun seaside town. With a main street lined with royal palms and good crafts shopping at Musgrave Market, Port Antonio is still much like the town with which Flynn fell in love.

For advance information about rafting the Rio Grande, contact Rio Grande Attractions at Rafter’s Rest, P.O. Box 128, Port Antonio, Jamaica, W.I., telephone 0993-2778.