Shcuk-schuk-schuk. Pause. Schuk-schuk.

In five swift strikes from her machete, the Jamaican woman had successfully scalped my coconut. She flipped the remaining flesh away from the hole, stuck in a technicolor straw, and handed it down to me.

“Three dollars, please,” our guide said, “and another five for the Red Stripe.” Marissa diligently handed over the cash, and the woman finally broke a smile.

In the sweltering, stale air, I took my first grateful sip of a long-anticipated flavor: fresh coconut water straight from the fruit. From our first day at sea out of Fort Lauderdale, I declared my desire to try only a few things in the Caribbean; coconut was at the top of the list. On our final day in port – Ocho Rios, Jamaica – it finally happened.

Our captain and guide pushed away from the shore. Our long bamboo raft drifted down the Martha Brae. This is what the Princess Cruises excursion brochure had called this excursion: River rafting on the Martha Brae.

Martha Brae River, Jamaica

The Legend of the Martha Brae

The Martha Brae is a lazy, winding river on the northern shore of Jamaica. According to legend, an old witch named Martha used to live on the banks of the river. When Spanish settlers forced her to help them look for buried treasure, she tricked them, changing the course of the river to drown them in a cave.

The river took her name because of her role in changing its shape; of course it’s difficult to verify who Martha might have been – if she ever existed at all. Nevertheless, the Martha Brae is one of the prime spots for slow water rafting in Jamaica, and a popular shore excursion offered by most of the cruise ship companies.

Our Bus Ride to the Martha Brae

How to Visit the Martha Brae

To visit the Martha Brae, you’ll need to take a bus from Montego Bay (20 miles) or Ocho Rios (40 miles). These transfers are provided by tour and cruise companies as part of the excursion. Our narrator was a cheery Jamaican woman who told us we could call her our ‘momma’ and that she would take care of us in Jamaica.

She explained the meaning of ya man (there are about 20 meanings and uses), the cultural power of Bob Marley, and how proud Jamaicans are of Usain Bolt. Her funny stories were endearing and had our bus of tourists laughing as we cruised through the Jamaican countryside.

Hibiscus near the Martha Brae

Rafting the Martha Brae

At the Martha Brae, we disembarked from our bus to enjoy a rum punch before queueing up to board a raft. The rafts themselves are made by lashing together dozens of bamboo trunks in a long rectangle. A seat is mounted on the back, and the captain stands at the front. He uses another bamboo trunk to ‘punt’ the boat downriver, much as gondoliers in Venice do.

Each raft fits three people: a captain and two guests. Marissa and I ended up with a reserved elderly Jamaican gentleman. He seemed to take no notice of us versus any other guest he had helped guide down the river in his many years of work.

Rafting the Martha Brae

After embarking the raft, we drifted, somewhat lazily, past mangrove trees and underwater gardens of river grass. Vendors along the shore offered food and souvenirs, and I expressed my desire for a coconut. At one point, we passed a vendor offering fresh coconut, and our guide quietly said: “I know someone better, farther down the river.” (This was likely because he has a pre-arranged deal with my coconut saleswoman to bring her business and share the profits; I admire his entrepreneurial spirit.) We drifted on; at the end of the cruise, we stepped off our bamboo raft to pass through a souvenir shop and re-board our bus back to Ocho Rios.

Coconut Juice, Travel Blogging, and New Destinations

Over the hour we spent on the raft, Marissa and I discussed the trees, the scenery, our cruise so far, and the state of travel blogging. One of the best parts of traveling with fellow travel bloggers is having time to discuss The Industry. Marissa and I never tire of this, and with little else to fill the time, our leisurely conversation drifted from Pinterest best practices to increasing traffic.

River Rafting the Martha Brae

Over coconut juice and Red Stripe, time seemed to stop around us. The river flowed, we drifted on. Jamaica was the quietest, calmest destination on our 10-day cruise.

It surprised me how much I enjoyed visiting Jamaica. Everyone we met, including our quiet guide and reluctant-to-smile coconut juice proprietor, seemed pleased to show us their country, to explain common misconceptions – and rationalize those misconceptions that are actually true. (For example, ganja is common, but the laws are complicated so it’s best to not try and buy while visiting.) Jamaica is a rising ecotourism destination, drawing crowds who want to visit more than all-inclusive resorts and pristine beaches. Many are surprised to find Jamaica has all of this to offer – and more.

Jamaica, like Costa Rica, left a mark in my memory and a flavor in my mouth. Fresh coconut water and jerk chicken are calling me back.

[info]My rafting excursion in Jamaica was part of a 10-day Panama Canal cruise with Princess Cruises. As part of my partnership, I am sharing this (and other) stories about my experience in the Caribbean. You can see more on the Princess Cruises website, and book your trip here[/info]

[success]If you enjoyed this story, check out others about my cruise:

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