The Hellshire Hills are one of Jamaica’s most aptly named regions. It's a designation that keeps crowds out and visitors confined to other parts of the island.
The area is lightly traveled, to say the least — in fact, except for hunters, locals gathering firewood and scientists, no one enters the Hellshire Hills.
Adventurous false starts, mon
That in and of itself appealed to us. My friend Matt and I planned to travel east from Mandeville, somehow reach the edge of the hills along the coast, and hike in as far as we could. After buying supplies in the crowded market, we were sardined into a minivan, headed for Spanish Town. We swung out of Mandeville, fishtailing onto the highway. We were off.
Our expedition came to an inglorious halt when the engine began to sputter five minutes later — smoke billowed from the hood, and 18 people filed out of the small door onto the narrow shoulder.
Other minivans with people’s faces involuntarily pressed against the windows raced by. With a "No problem, man” declaration and a quick phone call, 15 minutes later we squeezed into another van that pulled up.
Struck by The Cupid
Spanish Town, the former capital, had seen better days. From here, we headed toward the coast via Port Henderson and ended up on Fort Clarence Beach.
"Laid back" and "local color" best describe the area. Rough shacks line the beach, and a few hotels advertising hourly rates stand along the main road.
Up along the coast, we watched fishermen tending their nets and Rastafarians waiting out the afternoon heat. We grabbed a plate of spicy salt fish from one of many stands and watched the sunset across Kingston Harbour late in the afternoon.
After realizing that accommodations were scarce, we managed to get a room at The Cupid, paid for 12 hours, and settled in for the night.
More than meets the eye
Lying in the rain shadow of the Blue Mountains, the Hellshire Hills are the driest region in the country. A far cry from the lush cloud of rainforest, the vegetation here consists of low shrubs, cacti and thorns. Thickets stretch across limestone chiseled to sharp points by rare precipitation. It forms an inaccessible wilderness within the shadow of Kingston’s development, but doesn’t remain completely untouched.
Several housing and tourism schemes have largely failed, but unfinished buildings and roadbeds line the fringes of the area.
What looks like a desert at first is actually one of the most important refuges in the entire West Indies for flora and fauna unique to dry forests. The Jamaican iguana, which has the double distinction of being the largest native land animal in Jamaica and the rarest lizard in the world, survives only in the Hellshire Hills.
Look, ma, no maps!
Nearby Two Sisters Caves is also worth a visit. A wooden stairway leads below sea level, where it’s possible to see the remains of a petroglyph carved by the Arawak more than 1,000 years ago.
Without a map, guide or any reliable information, our plan was simple: Head west as far as we could go.
Our hike began in a developing suburb. Homes in various stages of non-completion stood atop the steep cliffs overlooking azure waters.
Eventually, we reached a gravel track leading into the arid hills. Thorn scrub clung to the steep slopes and 10-foot cacti grew along the ridges.
Two miles further, past several derelict cars rusting alongside the road and windblown trash clinging to the low shrubs, the real Hellshire Hills begin. An intractable landscape of boot-cutting limestone carved by precipitation, deep ravines and dense thickets, it wasn’t completely inhospitable: Birds thrived and lizards scurried between cracks.
The only possible route followed the rugged coast. We hiked across razor-sharp ribs of stone, across dramatic headlands jutting out to meet the waves rolling in from the south — blue crashing on gray, sending spouts of white into the blinding sky.
The sun was intense, but we pushed on for several miles. We rounded an especially steep promontory and stumbled upon a small crescent of white sand tucked between short cliffs. A small stand of mangroves clung to the shallows.
After a refreshing swim, rinsing the dust and sweat from the hike, we lounged in the sun and started our return trip with the cacti throwing long shadows on the darkening rock.