Ecotourism and Local Culture on Jamaica's South Coast

Ecotourism and Local Culture on Jamaica's South Coast

Jamaica’s South Coast is an off-the-beaten path destination with Georgian architecture, lush landscapes, crocodile excursions and a laid-back vibe

By: Mark Rogers
Jamaica’s South Coast is an off-the-beaten path destination with Georgian architecture, lush landscapes, crocodile excursions and a laid-back vibe
Jamaica’s South Coast is an off-the-beaten path destination with Georgian architecture, lush landscapes, crocodile excursions and a laid-back vibe

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The Details

Jamaica Tourist Board

Jamaica’s South Coast is an off-the-beaten path treasure, brimming with historic sites, including a 19th-century Caribbean port town replete with Georgian architecture. The region is also rich in biodiversity — lush landscapes and great beaches prevail with local color and simple restaurants.

“With a rugged coastline, rambling hills, jungle wetlands and colonial architecture, Jamaica’s South Coast is intriguingly diverse,” said Paul Pennicook, director of tourism for Jamaica Tourist Board. “Relatively untouched and all natural, the area is truly Jamaica’s best-kept secret, an ideal location for visitors who desire a laid-back and easy ambiance.”

What a traveler won’t find is an abundance of glitz. Since access is key for many vacationers, Jamaica’s South Coast has lagged behind the island’s North Coast when it comes to tourism visitation and development. The South Coast lacks an international airport, which means most travelers first fly into Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, and then make the two-hour drive down to the South Coast. 

Travelers looking for an all-inclusive beach vacation have plenty of convenient options on the North Coast. But the South Coast is for a special kind of traveler, one who puts a premium on ecotourism, local culture and the kind of authentic experiences that abound when tourism development hasn’t taken over.

In my visits to the South Coast, I’ve always enjoyed the change of pace, which is a few beats slower than the rest of the island; the friendliness of the local people, who are pleased to see tourists; and the natural sights and activities, from swinging like Tarzan on a rope over a waterfall pool to viewing crocodiles on a boating excursion.

If your clients are considering a Jamaica vacation that includes the South Coast, they can add value to their visit by timing it to coincide with the upcoming and inaugural South Coast Rum, Food and Music Festival. The festival will take place July 25-26 at Coast Line Beach Parotee in the town of Black River. On the day before the official start of the festival, participating hotels are the site of welcome parties. On July 25, there’s a beach party and local tours of Elizabeth Parish. On July 26, the festival culminates in a reggae stage show. Throughout the event, participants will have a chance to experience local cuisine, music and culture, and drop into the festival’s “kiddies village” or “rum village.”

There are several major sites on the South Coast that first-time visitors should experience. Black River, for one, is a former 19th-century shipping port and an unpretentious town with a real-life ambiance. Most travelers go to Black River for boat excursions that take passengers upriver and past mangroves to view an abundance of birds as well as the American crocodiles that make the river their home.

Ys Falls is where clients can find the aforementioned Tarzan swing. The area is a prime picnic spot, with eight cascading waterfalls, a zipline, a swimming pool and an amazing landscape with some of the most majestic trees I’ve ever seen.

Treasure Beach sprawls along 6 miles of shoreline, with a mix of black and coral-colored sand. This is a good choice for those who want to kick back with a Red Stripe, order some jerk fish and soak up the local vibe.

The Appleton Estate Rum Tour gives visitors an inside look at the rum-making process. Visitors will watch as the estate’s resident donkey demonstrates how the sugarcane press was powered in the 18th century. After a tour of the various stages of distillation, visitors have the option of knocking back a sample of the estate’s prize-winning rum.

While adventurous travelers may want to seek out guesthouses or some of the down-market hotels, most clients will want more mainstream lodgings. Top choices include the all-inclusive Sandals Whitehouse European Village & Spa; funky but chic Jake’s, located in the fishing village of Treasure Beach; the moderately priced, colonial-style Hotel Villa Bella; and Bluefields Bay Villas, a luxurious five-star resort with waterfront villas that often plays host to vacationing celebrities.

The South Coast would be a particularly good choice for repeat visitors to Jamaica, those who have done the North Coast and who are ready to delve deeper into Jamaica’s unique charms.