Ditch the Boat for a Bamboo Raft Down Jamaica’s Legendary Martha Brae River

Ditch the Boat for a Bamboo Raft Down Jamaica’s Legendary Martha Brae River

One good reason why you should explore Jamaica beyond the beaches and resorts

There’s more to the island of Jamaica than beaches and rum punch. For nature-loving couples or history buffs, taking a romantic bamboo rafting ride is about as relaxing a time as you could have. There’s some fascinating local lore to learn here, and even a celebrity pedigree to prove just how special rafting in Jamaica can be.

Getting to the Martha Brae River is easy—there’s a free transfer included with every tour. A guide will pick you up at your vacation home and bring you back at your convenience. Make sure you wear a swimsuit in case you want to take a dip, and suntan lotion would be a good idea. Bringing a camera or sharpshooting smartphone should practically be mandatory; you won’t want to miss the chance to grab some beautiful nature shots—and neither will your Instagram followers. If only you could capture the feeling of blissful relaxation this tour is destined to bring!

The Beauty of the Martha Brae River

The Martha Brae river fills up on water from a tiny town called Windsor in the Cockpit Country rainforest. During Jamaica’s 18th- and 19th-century plantation golden era the river was used as a vital artery, connecting Trelawny’s sugar estates to the port town of Falmouth. Sugar and other crops were sent from the plantations to the harbor for shipment to Europe via bamboo rafts, which are still made to the same design today.

The river starts in a town of the same name, and the story of how that name came to be is like a snowflake: there are many versions, but none are exactly the same. While the details differ depending on who you ask, the core of the story remains consistent. Most storytellers agree that there was once a Taino witch named Martha Brae. The Taino people were one of the Caribbean’s indigenous populations.

The legend goes that Spanish settlers on the island were looking for gold, and enlisted Martha to help them. She led them to the gold, hidden in a cave by the river, but before they could collect their riches, she used her powers to reverse the direction of the river’s current and trap them in the cave. Some say the witch sacrificed her own life too—and the gold was never found. Some believe the treasure remains hidden along the riverbank. Will you be the one to find it?

What to Expect on Your Tour

At the entrance to the attraction, your captain will greet you and show you to your raft, a 3o-foot-long construction made of bamboo poles. For those wondering about the safety of cruising down a river on a raft made of bamboo, the structure weighs nearly 700 pounds and you’ll notice it’s to be shockingly stable as soon as you lay foot upon it.

Once you’re all settled on your raft—each one has comfortable cushion seating—you’ll embark on an easy-going, slow-paced three-mile ride that will last just over an hour. To get you in the cruising mood, your captain will hand you tropical rum drink as you set off.

Bamboo Rafting in Jamaica on the Martha Brae River

A raft captain steering his bamboo boat down Jamaica’s Martha Brae River.

During your trek you’ll pass by loads of bamboo trees on both sides of the river—bamboo is Jamaica’s fastest growing tropical plant—but these aren’t the ones that built your raft. No, those are off-limits. Instead, raft captains build their boats with bamboo collected from 10 miles up in the mountains.

Keep your eyes peeled the whole way down the river to spot trees growing bananas, almonds, tropical fruit, Royal Poinsettias and African Tulips. If you have any questions about the plants or wildlife as you go, just ask your captain—many of them have been leading groups down the river for decades and know every inch of it. Once you’re back on dry land you can take a walk through Martha’s Herb Garden and learn about the healing properties of these same local plants.

The Martha Brae River rides have grown in popularity in recent years—aided in part by some of the legends that have famously enjoyed its magical journey: athletes including boxer Lennox Lewis, NBA star Patrick Ewing, and eight-time gold medalist sprinter and Trelawny native, Usain Bolt. And the list doesn’t end there; director Spike Lee, actor Chuck Norris, and country music stars Kenny Rodgers and Johnny Cash have all jumped on board.

Read more: Jamaica’s Best Beach Bars

Luminous Lagoon

Glowing waters at Luminous Lagoon in Jamaica

The eerie glowing waters Jamaica’s Luminous Lagoon

The best way to end any relaxing and scenic river ride is with a dip in the water. At Martha Brae River, this tradition is taken to a whole new level. At the river’s  north end, the water flows into Oyster Bay, a natural harbor to Falmouth and Florence Hall Village, where the Martha Brae collects before feeding into the Caribbean Sea. Also known as the Luminous Lagoon, the bay was an important sugar port in the 18th century but has since been discovered to be noteworthy for another reason: Dinoflagellates. What are dinoflagellates, you ask? They are microscopic organisms that when disturbed produce a spooky blue glow. In other words, when swimmers jump in the water at night, millions of these dinoflagellates light up the lagoon and illuminate the outlines of fish and other creatures milling around under the surface. It’s a natural underwater light show that can only be seen in a handful of places—Luminous Lagoon is one of only four places in the world where you can witness this mesmerizing phenomenon. Tour boats take visitors around the lagoon every night—it’s the perfect way to cap off a day of river rafting on the Martha Brae.

Read more: Going Off Grid at Discovery Bay’s Green Grotto Caves

Where to Stay Nearby: Summerhill Villa

Summerhill Villa from Luxury Retreats in Montego Bay, Jamaica

Summerhill Villa from Luxury Retreats in Montego Bay, Jamaica

Every vacation needs a home, and Summerhill Villa is the answer if you’re looking for a place near Martha Brae River. Just a 45-minute drive from the attraction, and with access to the world-class Half Moon Golf Course and Country Club included with your stay, you really couldn’t ask for a better setup in the Montego Bay area. Surrounded by lush tropical flowers and fruit trees in a gated community, this villa has its own pool, barbecue, ping pong table, and croquet, so you’ll have plenty to do at all times. On the other hand, you’ll have nothing to actually do since your villa provides you a private cook, butler, housekeeper, and gardener. At Summerhill Villa in the heart of Montego Bay, it’s all taken care of.

Take a tour of Summerhill Villa in Montego Bay

Photo Credit: iStock; Luxury Retreats