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Bicycling Jamaica

A rough but agreeable journey



Home to 30 species of birds found nowhere else; I have set my sights on Jamaica for my latest biking, bird-watching vacation.

The island located in the northwestern Caribbean Sea, has more endemic bird species than any other island in the region.

Any guesses how many endemics Canada has? Zero!

I am accompanied by my long-time travel companion, the unflappable Miss Hisano. Like Sherlock Holmes' Dr. Watson, she is always up for an adventure to break her daily routine, even if that routine is bicycling to a beach.

I had not heard or read anything good about cycling the island, so we hedge our bets and bring compact folding bikes. They can be easily loaded into a bus or taxi if unfavourable conditions prevail.

Because accommodation is scarce outside the big resorts on the North Shore, we uncharacteristically book all eight nights before leaving Florida.

Except for Montego Bay (we did not dare try Kingston), the cycling ends up being surprisingly good, at least by tropical standards. I was expecting the roads to be rougher, the traffic heavier and the weather hotter.

Jamaica is known internationally for its three R's... Resorts, Reggae and Running. I offer a fourth: Racing, as in car racing.

So "laid-back" otherwise, the Islanders are presumably inspired by their national hero, Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt, whenever they get behind a steering wheel. Every driver seems to strive to be the world's fastest human. It's an intimidating habit from a cyclist's perspective, but I turn adversity into advantage one morning.

Leaving Hisano to sleep in, and then enjoy the beach (she tells me this is what normal people do when visiting tropical islands), I hop on a bus before dawn, bike in tow, in order to access promising habitat. "Now here is a cat that appreciates the importance of getting to the birds by sunrise" I say to myself, as I observe with wary satisfaction the speedometer hit 145 km/h.

The next day, we embark on a five-day bike tour, along the North Coast, East Coast and then the Blue Mountains.

We start near Ocho Rios, where we happen to pass by Bolt's new establishment, Tracks and Records. It is a bar. "Hmm, that's odd," I tell Hisano, "you would think that rather than alcohol, Mr. Bolt would be a purveyor of fast food!"

It does not start with an R, but it quickly becomes apparent that Jamaicans are also world experts at shouting. They would surely win gold if it were an Olympic discipline, as they practice the activity every day, even with total strangers.

Jamaicans evidently practice an uninhibited lifestyle, and a very friendly one, too. Often when I dashed into a roadside shop for snacks and drinks, Hisano would quickly attract amicable solicitations from local males. I am naturally jealous.

I wish that I, too, could radiate such magnetism with the local males... the local male birds, that is. (Like anywhere else, they tend to be more colourful than the females.)

On one day, foolishly wasting time in a futile search for rare endemics we run out of daylight, eventually getting caught in the dark in a confusing network of deserted, unmarked dirt roads in the Blue Mountains, which have now become the black mountains.

A river halts our progress — there is no bridge to be found. I consider pulling out my binoculars and telling Hisano that we are here to find the Jamaican Owl, but she knows we are quite desperately lost.

We start heading up a muddy trail, aiming for the only visible house lights, far above. But then, for the first time in perhaps 30 minutes, we hear the rumble of a motor vehicle below. I turn and dash back to the road. I get there just as a pickup truck slows to ford the water.

They can't see me so I knock on the window and ask for a lift. They agree and we pile into the back with our bikes. Bolt may be the world's fastest human, but I claim to be the world's fastest hitchhiker.

Fifteen minutes later, we are deposited at our hotel in Mavis Bank. Despite its $120 price tag, the room has no electricity this evening. We will have a similar issue at our $140 hotel the following night, appropriately named Starlite, as that is the only illumination available. But I cannot say that I am shocked. Outrageously overpriced accommodation seems to be the norm on Anglo Caribbean Islands. That is why I have waited so long to come here.

Currently on a solo bike tour in Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains as I write this, I am paying less than one fifth as much per night, lights included.

For the Grande Finale on our last morning we return to the North Coast down Buff Bay Road. Like on Haleakala, Maui, this is a popular route with tourists, who get a lift up and then roll down on mountain bikes.

Bad asphalt and good birding slow the 1,200-metre vertical descent, but we are not in a hurry. Once we get down to the shore, we have no intention of riding all the way back to Ocho Rios. Instead, we fold up the bikes and board a series of shared taxis. Cheap and fast, we cover the 110 km in less than two hours in three different cars for $15 each.

The last evening on the island, I set foot on a Jamaican beach for the first time.

I must, because it is where the resort's buffet is served, and dinner is included with the room. Free electricity, too!

We are entertained by live reggae. But I would rather be listening to a Crested Quail Dove or a Jamaican Poorwill, two of the 16 endemics that eluded my binoculars.

On the bus back to the airport, we notice Bolt on billboards, promoting high-speed Internet. The track star also appears on the stamps that I have used for postcards, but alas, even the world's fastest human cannot speed up Jamaican postal delivery. Though we will only need 95 minutes to get back to North America, my postcards will take up to 10 weeks to get there!