Luckily, our guides made the trip easy -- even for a novice spelunker like myself -- directing us deep into a cave for two full hours. We shimmied through narrow passageways, crawled underneath claustrophobia-inducing low ceilings, waded through hip-deep water, and hoisted ourselves up a short wall by using a rope. Later, we took a swim break in a natural pool tucked in a dark corner of the cave.
What we saw in that subterranean maze was undeniably impressive -- five-foot-long stalactites as thick as tree trunks; tiny plant life growing in sunless conditions, white due to its lack of chlorophyll; and bats hibernating in pockets in the ceiling of an expansive chamber room. But what was perhaps even more amazing was what we couldnt see when we all simultaneously turned off our headlamps. Id never before experienced darkness so complete and disorienting.
After leaving the cave, we hiked to the home of a friend wed made along the way who kindly served us a lunch of ackee and saltfish (known to us as codfish), the national dish. We had heard the unappetizing truth about the fruit ackee: If its opened before its fully ripe, a naturally secreted toxin can make it deadly to eat. Prepared correctly, however, its completely safe. The food didnt look lethal -- in fact, it looked a lot like scrambled eggs. In the spirit of adventure, I took a bite. It was salty, chewy, and delicious. We chased it down with a glass of coconut water, thanked our host, and went on our way.
The following day, we traveled through Kingston and into the Blue Mountains, a region known for its coffee and fresh spring water. Our car climbed higher and higher on narrowing gravel roads until we reached the cabin where wed be staying. This would be it: Our trip would culminate with our climbing to the summit of Blue Mountain, the tallest peak in the chain of the same name and the highest point on the island. We set our alarm clocks for the ungodly hour of two a.m. in hopes that we would make it to the top in time to see the sunrise.
The few hours we spent in bed were mostly restless; a mix of nervousness and anticipation blanketed the group. When it was time to go, we downed mugs of Blue Mountain coffee, layered on as many clothes as we could, armed ourselves with flashlights, and began the long climb to the top.
And thats how I ended up here, shaking in my sneakers and squinting through the mist. The details of the climb up -- the twisted ankles and the killer switchbacks and the hikers who were simply too tired to finish the ascent -- are trivial in comparison with the end result, which is an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment. Maybe Im more of an adventurer than I thought, and Jamaica is what has brought that out in me. We have gone high and low, fast and, well, slightly less fast in search of Jamaicas pulse-pounding potential, and weve found it at every turn. And rather than run away, Ive faced it all head-on.
To our disappointment, the fog prevents us from being able to see the sunrise, much less the expanse of coastline thats visible on a clear day. But as we make our way back down the mountain, the fog begins to dissipate and the breathtaking sight of the wrinkled topography below us forces me to a halt. Suddenly, Ive forgotten the pain and exhaustion of the morning. All I can think about is how grateful I am to have had this experience, with these fantastic people, on this incredible island -- and how glad I am that Ive had a camera to capture it all. My friends never would have believed me.
HOW TO GET THERE
American Airlines offers daily flights to Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and to Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston, Jamaica.
IF YOU GO
Chukka Caribbean Adventures
Cockpit Country Adventure Tours (STEA)
(Ocho Rios location)