Jamaica's Rio Grande is indeed a grand river. It rushes down from the thickly forested 7,000-foot-high ridges of the Blue Mountains, then meanders down into a broad river valley so lush and lost in time that it could be Shangri-La. Tributaries like the Wild Cane River catapult through Moore Town, where freed African slaves lived beyond the reach of their former owners for hundreds of years. In 1739, the English struck a treaty with these militant Maroons, as they were called, granting them 2,500 acres and the right to semi-autonomous governance.
We rented a car one day and drove up to Moore Town, which has the exotic feel of a remote mountain town in Africa. Though the people are perfectly friendly, if a bit wary, there is still no place to stay. The town's several small museums were closed, but faith healers were doing a big business. Loads of curious and hopeful locals had bussed into Port Antonio then crowded into taxis — some held a dozen or more — out to Moore Town where they made donations to legendary Mother Roberts for her services and healing touch. Further up the hill, Ivy Harris (another, less flamboyant healer) is an expert on the healing properties of all the mountain herbs. We picked up a hitchhiker on the way back who said modern medicine hadn’t cured his lumbago so he thought he would give this laying on of the hands a try. “She pulled a rusty nail right out of one man’s head. Others say she cut right through people’s bodies and takes out the bad spirits. How she do that?” He shook his head. I asked him whether it had been worth the 12-hour round trip from Kingston. He shook his head, “Wait and see.”
Since Moore Town has no restaurants, we drove back down the scenic but potholed road to Berridale, where river rafting excursions push off. We stopped to buy some drinks for the trip, met our captain, who had been rafting for 60 of his 66 years, and scrambled aboard our long and skinny bamboo craft with a raised dais seat that made us feel like river royalty. As we glided down the river, tiny banana plantations lined the banks, and men fished the shallows for crayfish. I slipped overboard and flew through the water next to our raft for many hundreds of yards, then clambered back on as we swung into an area of gentle rapids. The jungle thickened, the hillsides steepened, the pools deepened; this was a pristine riparian wilderness with no sign of roads or houses, only the tops of feathery bamboo nodding their heads up along the ridges. Unknown birds serenaded the silence. I spent over an hour floating alongside the raft, sometimes spinning on the surface, watching the jungle, sometimes underwater admiring the golden color of the river rocks lining the bottom.
After a few hours, we came to a stop at Belinda’s, a riverside food shack, where Belinda herself served us baby bok choy with scallions and curried grilled crayfish that had just been caught. That night we spent the night at nearby Mockingbird Hill, a charming boutique eco-hotel, with its gorgeous tropical gardens where fluting tree frogs sang us to sleep. We awoke to a long, lazy breakfast in the famed Mille Fleurs restaurant looking down over the hills to the sea. We enjoyed fresh local scrambled eggs with callaloo (Jamaican spinach), bammy (cassava flatbread), fresh sliced mango, and heaps of caramelized fried plantain.