Bamboo rafting on Portland’s Rio Grande River is #bucketlist material. Trust me.
Of all the experiences I have indulged in on my numerous trips to Jamaica, this was by far the most relaxing, edifying and invigorating all at once.
We drove for almost 3 hours to escape the bustling city life of Kingston and were happy to spend the afternoon in the sleepy parish of Portland. There, the accents are thicker; foreigners aren’t as common a sight; and the idyllic scenes from numerous tourism commercials and music videos play out in real life. Talk about #vacationgoals.
Next time you’re in Jamaica, get yourself a tour guide, hop on a raft, and let the river take you on the ride of a lifetime. Here’s everything you need to know if bamboo rafting is on your Jamaica travel itinerary.
Reserving a Raft
Finding a raftsman is as easy as showing up. In fact, a guide will most likely find you before you even see him. That was the case with our guide, Curtis, who approached our vehicle as soon as we crossed the bridge and veered left. It’s quite possible he could smell our enthusiasm, or maybe it was written all over our faces, but before we could properly formulate a question he rattled off our options with a thick Jamaican twang I couldn’t help but love.
We chose the 1.5 hour long tour because it best suited our schedule, then we drove with Curtis to the street parking close to the bank of the river where a few of the rafts were waiting to be claimed. After gingerly stepping down a short but steep hill, we made it to the vessel, settled in, and were off on our bamboo rafting adventure!
From the moment Curtis pushed us onto the river my body began to relax. The water was calm, the sky was the perfect shade of blue, the trees were a brilliant green and floating along this wide body of water on a vessel made from all-natural materials felt somewhat therapeutic. No engines. No plastic. No fiber glass. No steel. No problem.
Additionally, while bamboo rafting could hardly be considered one of Jamaica’s best kept secrets, it has somehow managed to avoid becoming an activity that’s overrun with visitors on any particular day. I only counted 9 other rafts on the water during our tour – some with families and squealing kids, others with couples quietly soaking in the experience – but they were all far enough away not to interrupt our peace. Even as they passed, the river was wide enough for the raftsmen to keep a comfortable distance from each other and there was no interaction among us beyond a polite wave and friendly smile.
Halfway into our trip we passed the area where the other rafts had stopped for a break, and rounded a big bend. I gasped at the view – literally. It was worthy of a National Geographic magazine cover. At this spot the river widened; the water was so clear that, even waist-deep, I could look down and see the chips in my toenail polish; and the mountains rose up straight ahead providing us with the most spectacular, unobstructed view of some of Mother Nature’s best work.
Curtis was the ultimate. The ultimate guide. The ultimate raft operator. The ultimate historian. He was passionate in his quest to educate us about the river, the rafting industry, the village and it’s visitors. For every question he had an answer.
Is this the river where Shaba Ranks shot his video?
How long do these rafts last?
The front where he stands lasts 3 to 4 months. The other part can function significantly longer.
Who makes the rafts?
There’s an entire industry in the village, comprising raft builders, raft operators, and even unofficial security guards who look after the cars when visitors park on the street (be sure to have a tip for them upon your return). Curtis himself knows how to build and operate the rafts.
Even when there weren’t questions he would offer interesting bits of trivia. For instance:
- Bill Cosby was on the river only a couple years ago.
- Shaba Ranks wasn’t the only superstar to shoot a video on these waters – Shaggy made one as well.
- After heavy rain, the river rises as high as the debris caught in the trees along the riverbank i.e. pretty high.
- The bridge for vehicular traffic was badly damaged during hurricane Ivan so the steel from the old train bridge was taken to reinforce it, making the vehicular bridge safe for driving (and walking) but resulting in the closing of the train bridge that was used by pedestrians.
Up. Down. Push. Repeat.
It should be noted that while lounging in these rafts is quite a soothing exercise, actually moving them is not. After decades of daily practice, Curtis made it look effortless and did not once skip a beat, but as he proudly informed us – rafting is even better exercise than going to the gym. #Truth
I took a turn at it on the way back and my first few strokes were entertaining, to say the least. There were even a few attempts when the raft literally did not budge, despite all the elbow grease I thought I was throwing behind it. When you take into consideration the size of the raft, the weight of the ‘oar’ and the resistance from the water though, you quickly realize that rafting is no easy feat.
Eventually, I got into a rhythm: Up high. Down hard. Stick it into the riverbed. Push. Repeat.
Exhausting. Tedious. But rewarding when I realized I had moved us maybe 2 or 3 yards in just as many minutes…nothing for an in-shape, gym buff to brag about but a lot for this lazy island girl to feel proud of. #noshame
And it’s safe!
It might be a little odd watching the water enter the spaces in the bamboo at the front of the raft, watching it sink just below the surfaces as it fills up. But no worries. You’re safe.
For those concerned about the depth of the river, for 80% percent of the ride we were in water so shallow it barely reached your calves. There were brief instances where only 3 to 4 ft of his 12 ft ‘oar’ was above water, but the raft itself is secure and you don’t have to worry about getting into the water at all if you don’t want to.
Note though that the river gets higher after heavy rains so take that into consideration when making plans.
Overall it was one of those rare experiences that is actually as idyllic as you imagined it. The rafts are in perfect condition. The river is calm. The views are unbeatable. All you need is the right company!
When to go
The tours take place day and night with no set time. Just show up and you can book a scenic daytime ride or enjoy the sunset from the river.
1.5 hours @ $5,700 JA takes you partially up the river and back to the original spot with 20 to 25 minutes time to just chill in the water. The advantage, aside from the price and the shorter time frame is that you are taken back to the spot you parked which makes it a hassle free process.
3 hours @$8,500 JA you park at the mouth of the river then take two taxis to the starting point up the mountain before taking the raft back down where you will collect your car.
What to take with you
- Gear: Beyond a swimsuit, no special equipment is required. Water shoes might make walking on the rocky riverbed easier but I was perfectly fine without them.
- Personal effects: The seating area in the raft is about 2 ft off the water so you can walk with all your belongings and not worry about them getting wet.
- Equipment: I strongly recommend taking a camera to capture the experience – so many things to photograph and the most beautiful backdrop for the selfie-takes out there!