A Week in Ocho Rios, Jamaica

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This idea started with Groupon. We needed a vacation. A week on the beach at an all-inclusive resort sounded great, but where would we go? Costa Rica? Dominican Republic? Puerto Rico? Based on the dates we wanted to travel, Costa Rica was out as it was going to be dry and brown instead of its picturesque green. Dominican Republic had some sketchy reviews. Mama Juana anyone? Jamaica was looking nice though. Stable weather, warm temperatures, nice beaches. We settled on the Jewel Dunn’s River Resort just outside of Ocho Rios. A flight out of Boston took us to Miami, and from there we dropped into Montego Bay, Jamaica. A bus ride across the north coast brought us to the resort. Although the first full day was marred by some missing luggage, that was the fault of the airline. We checked one bag. How exactly did they lose it?

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In my desire to document my travels and hopefully walk away with some decent images, I brought three lenses and two batteries along with a bunch of memory cards. Yet again I was without a tripod, but one of these days I may finally look into a small travel version. This trip is probably the first real use my wide angle Sigma has gotten. Also in the bag was the nifty fifty and the 18-200 travel lens. At times I couldn’t decide which lens to use, so on different days I walked around the same places with different lenses. The above shot is actually two photos stitched together to get the wider point of view and then cropped to the square that I liked.

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Of course, there was plenty to see as well as plenty to do. Starting with the resort, the rooms were upscale, the beach was clean, and the grounds were well kept. On the east end of the beach, sea kayaks and boats lined up for our use. Palm trees, peacocks, statues, sparkling and/or colored swimming pools, lit up trees, stray cats, and spiders were a few of the available subjects. We did watch a stray cat use the beach as a litter box one night, but then we also witnessed the grounds crew raking the sand. While sitting on the beach or near the pool, I spent a lot of time staring up at palm trees and as a result wound up trying to capture something interesting based on that premise. One of my favorites is the black and white tree further down this post.

A view from the boardwalk of the Jewel Dunn's River Resort.
After walking around the resort at night, I realized the potential for night shots and subsequently spent a few more nights wandering around with a camera in hand and finding creative ways to make sure the camera didn’t move during the long exposures. The neighboring resort, the Riu, was hard to miss from the end of the boardwalk and luckily I could use a railing as a camera support. It was on this same walk that I captured the blue swimming pool. The submerged lights would shift color every few seconds, so depending on when you saw the pool, it could either be yellow, blue, green or red. Grace was hanging out in a hammock during my walk and security had stopped to make sure that she was alright. When I got back it looked more like something was wrong! Why was security there?

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After a few days of being on the resort and getting the feeling that we weren’t seeing the real Jamaica, we opted to take a walk. From our balcony we could see much of the village and daily smoke from burning. The driveway from the main road into the resort was longer than we realized and lined with some interesting flora. The tree image above is from this walk. By the time we reached the gate, we were sweating from the humidity and heat. The security guard took down our room number for security purposes (like us not returning!) and told us we could go wherever we wanted. Immediately outside the resort, we saw the difference. Things were a lot more rough and poverty was the rule. There were a lot of goats, an absence of glass in the windows, and we watched someone ride a horse to the store. In some ways I didn’t feel safe carrying my camera around, and everyone wanted the money that us Americans likely had. Somewhat ironically, an older man helped us cross the street and we walked further up into the village. A group of barefoot kids befriended us and gave us a quick tour in hopes of getting tips.

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One morning we decided to get up early and walk back down to the boardwalk in an attempt to catch a foreign sunrise. The security guard from the night before bid us good morning. He had been up all night. We were able to watch the sun rise up over the hills behind Ocho Rios and cast its light over the bay. The few clouds in the sky gave the moment some drama, and the two images below are from this morning. I wanted something in the foreground against the sky and the light fixture seemed to fit. With a flash I could have maybe used a person. It wasn’t until we turned to leave that I noticed the flag poles against the bright orb and the orange light it was splashing across the tables and boardwalk.

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Later in the week, we woke up early for an excursion to go horseback riding. Now, we didn’t exactly wake up early to get there, but we needed time to eat. There were six restaurants at the resort, although only two of them were available for breakfast. My favorite was the Coral CafĂ© for its buffet with numerous local flavors such as ackee and saltfish. In the village, the children actually showed us an ackee tree. After breakfast, we loaded into a van and drove into Mammee Bay before entering into an historic area and winding slowly uphill. At the top, we met our guides and our horses (my horse was named Atlas) and proceeded to ride back down the hill. The hillside was a mix of grass and spiderwebs that were slowly engulfing the ruins of a British settlement. Due in part to knowing that I would be riding the horse in the ocean, I opted not to bring my camera. I could have spent hours in those ruins. As we rode closer to the beach, we passed evidence of ancient Spanish settlements and a tree with fruit like gourds that was used to make musical instruments. Once in the water, the horses made a mess. Apparently they like to relieve themselves in water and the term seabiscuit now makes perfect sense.

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It was the next morning that we ventured into Ocho Rios for some shopping. The bus was full of us tourists and the first stop was the “Reggae Walmart” as the sign said, although it was a local craft market akin to a flea market. Every shop owner wanted you to view their items and many of them were selling the same things. I was more interested in taking a few photos of the colorful scene than I was buying anything, however I did get offered some “blueberry.” When I asked what blueberry was, the man motioned for me to come to his shop. Once inside he pulled out a bag of weed and I could only laugh. On the way out of the market, I captured the colorful hillside and shacks seen below. It took extensive RAW processing to return the scene to how it looked in memory.

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The other shopping area that we went to was a more traditional mall, the Taj Mahal shopping area. We (Grace) haggled for better prices on coffee and hot sauces. I’m not much of a haggler. The Taj Mahal photo below is from when I was waiting for the bus. I wanted to capture its symmetry against the blue sky and I’m still not sure if I needed a different angle.

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After shopping, we rode up the hill into Coyaba Gardens, a collection of beautiful botanical gardens and waterfalls. Now that I see their image gallery, I’m finding it kind of funny to compare photos. At the base of the hill, the bus stopped for the tour guide to show us the Bob Marley tree, or the dreadlock tree. I didn’t realize that we were allowed to get off the bus for a second or two. I grabbed the camera and snapped a few frames, eventually winding up with the one you see below. Someone there with their first SLR camera asked me how much my lens cost and I rattled off the price without mentioning that it wasn’t a top quality lens.

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Our tour of the gardens was rather rushed and I hung back taking photos of whatever I could. I probably could have spent the entire day beneath the canopy. At one point, the tour guide plucked a massive spider off of its web and let it crawl around on his face before putting it back in his hand to show everyone. A few of the women were screaming and ran away in fear. He placed the arachnid back on the web and walked on as if nothing even happened.

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At the end of the tour, while people perused the giftshop, I walked back into the gardens for a few more shots and the two below are a result of that. The lush tropical flora, waterfalls, and blue sky were easy to photograph and difficult to capture. Both of my final images are similar to images in their photo gallery. I think it’s my second image that really captured the depth and texture of the scene while the first one is more of an artsy take on the subject.

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After our hurried trip through the gardens, we moved on to Dunn’s River Falls, a 600-foot cascade that was apparently in the movie Dr. No. Within the falls are a number of paths that have been cleaned to enable people to climb them. Of course, I didn’t bring my main camera here either, opting to bring a waterproof point and shoot. I could have spent another day just shooting here as well. Wearing only shoes and a swimsuit, we ventured to the base of the falls on the beach where the river emptied into the Caribbean Ocean and with everyone in the group holding hands, we began our ascent. Men were warned to tighten their drawstrings and women were told to make sure they didn’t lose their tops. Nothing about the climb was difficult although at one point I looked up at the trees above us and counted seventeen massive spiders without even moving. The guides pointed out a natural slide and those who wanted to were able to slide down the rock in the rush of water and splash into a pool below. The current pushed us so that our heads were pushed under while our feet were pushed upwards, essentially rolling us upside down under water before righting us.

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Overall, our experiences with horseback riding, the gardens, and the falls were excellent and the only real detractor was the pressure we felt from the numerous shop keepers and salespeople. In leaving the falls, we had to run a gauntlet of shops. We started through as a group and one by one the shop owners plucked us off. One woman just decided to run through and not stop for anything.

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On our last full night in Jamaica, we had dinner reservations for the Jade Samurai, a teppanyaki style restaurant with limited seating. They had four rooms that each sat nine people. We wound up sharing a room with a family from various parts of Canada. They were a few minutes late due to a hockey game and were celebrating the last night of their family reunion. Conversation was enjoyable, there was no shortage of free alcohol, and the night soon carried over into the tree bar. For most of the night we had no idea what time it was and we left just before the bar closed. For reference, that was 2 AM. Somewhere in that evening, I drank three shots of tequila, a couple of beers, a few mixed drinks, and a glass of wine or two. I was definitely not sober, but I had the sense to have my camera on me. I remember staring at the liquor bottles around the lit up tree bar and knew I needed to shoot it. I used a stack of napkins as a lens stabilizer so that I could use a low ISO and captured the bottles above. Stumbling around the bar later, I also cranked the ISO much higher to shoot handheld and captured a view of that magical bar as seen below. It may be one of my most memorable images simply for the story behind it. The next day was rough and by evening we were ready to depart. A 3 AM van ride brought us to the airport and from there we bid goodbye to Jamaica.

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Geoff-Diane Couris, Aaron Fox liked this post

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