On my recent trip to Jamaica, I had the opportunity to check out Chukka Caribbean Adventures, an adventure sport company that offers horseback riding, dune buggies, ATVs, and ziplining for the adventurous types who don't want to spend their entire vacation vegging out in a lounge chair by (or in) a pool. Whether or not I'm the "adventurous outdoorsy type" is open to some debate,and a great deal of raucous laughter by all who know me. Sign me up for the "Old Lady Beach Chair Tour," featuring hot cabana boys with an endless supply of frozen drinks with umbrellas in them, and I'll be your spokesmodel forever.
The night I arrived in Jamaica, our Jamaica Tourist Board guide and host, Jarron, told me with much delight, "We've arranged for a special horseback ride for the group, followed by going into the ocean on horseback! It's called a 'Ride and Swim'."
"Great!" I replied, trying to muster up as much enthusiasm as I could, while thinking to myself that this was combining two things that I fear most in life in one neat little package. I wanted to ask him if maybe we could add on a colonoscopy at the end, just to make it a little more exciting for me, but I held back. I didn't want to appear ungrateful for the opportunity, after all.
Part of my discomfort with horsebacking riding is that large animals tend to scare me. Maybe it was some cow-tipping trauma in my rural Ohio youth. Maybe it was too many forced viewings of creepy Mister Ed during childhood. I never went through a horse phase like most girls I knew, with the repeated readings and viewings of Black Beauty and My Friend Flicka. Despite living in a farming community, I never participated in 4H livestock raising contests or had any desire to muck out a barn. It just wasn't my thing.
I thought long and hard about the prospect of riding a horse the night before the ride. People have ridden horses for centuries, I thought. They're gentle trail horses, not wild mustangs. I'm sure they don't bite...I'll let them know I'm a lawyer and show them who's boss. Don't mess with me, Seabiscuit, or you'll be on your way to the glue factory by dawn. Random thoughts of a clearly disturbed mind.
It wasn't actually the horse I was afraid of, it was the fear of falling off and breaking my neck. Even if I didn't break my neck, what if I fell off and was not able to hoist my ample backside back up on the horse? What if my horse didn't like me, and was secretly judging me and wishing I'd actually used Weight Watchers for the past year rather than just paying for an online subscription and losing my password? There were a million what-ifs, not many of them good.
I decided that I wasn't going to make a big deal about it, that I would try it, but hope that the Chukka people would understand and let me off I couldn't hack it. I thought I should probably just do it, in the spirit of Nike commercials, bucket lists, and the "feel the fear and do it anyway" crowd. I thought about my son, who's not afraid of anything other than green, leafy vegetables and heard his voice urging me on to try something new. I steeled my resolve and cheerfully boarded the bus to face my fears and live out some fantasy I didn't know I had to become Dale Evans and Xena Warrior Princess rolled into one.
On our way to Chukka Adventures, several others also noted that they had never ridden horses before either, and had some trepidation. Jarron said he would see what the alternatives might be. When we arrived at the property, I immediately spied the full bar featuring frozen rum drinks and a jerk chicken stand that was firing up the grill for lunch. At least now I knew I always had the option of swilling pina coladas on the beach with a couple of other bloggers, always an appealing situation to find oneself in. Or, I could down a few Bahama Mamas, bravely board the horse, and not feel any pain no matter what happened.
We arrived and I scoped out the pastoral scene, which featured a few bored-looking horses milling about a fenced in area. The fact that the sign said "The Final Chukka" didn't make me feel any better. There were several rows of identical helmets neatly arranged on the ground, so my fears were not entirely unfounded. Anything that requires a helmet must have at least a possibility of riders falling and breaking their heads. I wasn't sure if I should be comforted by the fact that I would be wearing a helmet, or more fearful that I might have to put it to the test.
I was contemplating riding around the practice ring a few times just to save face and to say I had tried it. Jarron sidled up to me and asked, "How about a dune buggy ride? I think we can work it out for you to go in a dune buggy instead of a horse. One of the professional guides will drive you."
Hot Damn! A machine that goes fast! Something I love! I bubbled over with excitement. "Absolutely! I replied.
By the time word got around, it wasn't just me taking the dune buggy, but three others as well. Brendan from Brendan's Adventures, Tracey from Solo Traveler and JJ from the Jamaica Tourist Board and I all piled into a 4-person dune buggy. Brendan told us he wanted to drive because he rides horses all the time in his travels around South America, so it's nothing novel to him. Tracey also hadn't ridden horses before, and JJ was just along for the ride. We all had to wear helmets, so head-breaking was still a possibility.
I sat in the backseat with JJ, and I had the dubious honor of sitting behind the driver. Even though Jamaicans drive on the left side of the road, this was an American-style left-hand drive vehicle. We lined up with about 5 other cars along a dirt road for a safety briefing with our guide, Kevon. Kevon asked if we wanted to "go slow or very slow" to which the group replied, "How about fast or faster?" Kevon did not look amused.
Kevon told us that he would be at the lead in an ATV, and there would be another guide bringing up the rear, in case anyone got into trouble, and to keep the pace fairly slow and safe. In our group were a family from Texas, two sisters from Canada, and a honeymooning couple. We were the only 4-person car, and everyone else was in pairs.
We took a few laps around a muddy test track, just to make sure everyone could drive the car properly. Given the sounds of devilish glee Brendan was emitting during the muddy test drive, I could tell we were in for a hell of a ride. Brendan also managed to hit even the smallest puddle with gusto, allowing mud to spew into the car and all over all his passengers. I started to wonder whether a sobriety test might have been a good idea.
We started down the dirt road amid the deafening roar of engines, like the Indy 500 qualifiers on a gravel track. After fording a small stream, we caught up with the horseback riders, and had to carefully pass them. Most of the riders looked very serious, sitting tall in their saddles and concentrating on the path ahead. I guess the horses are used to sharing the road with loud, crazy dune buggy drivers, because they seemed a little bored by the whole experience. We passed members of our blogger tour group, and we waved and hollered at them. A few waved back, and some just smiled through gritted teeth.
We caught up with the large group of ATV drivers who left the camp before us, and passed them as well. Brendan got a little bored with the slow pace, and decided to purposefully slow down, hang back a bit, then gun the engine to catch up. The husband of the honeymooners let out a Whoop! every time Brendan did this, and followed suit.
Though the ride wasn't terribly fast, it was incredibly bumpy. Every bone in my body shook, rattled, and rolled. It reminded me of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, only instead of a three-minute thrill ride, it lasted about an hour. Luckily, Harrison Ford did not come swooping out of the jungle at us, because I'm pretty sure Brendan would have turned him into roadkill.
At one point, we noticed the daughters of the Texas family two cars ahead running over a skinny log in the road. The log jammed under their front tires, and the drive lost control and rammed into another skinny tree. Since we weren't going very fast, no one was injured, but Kevon stopped everyone so that he could extricate the log out from under the car, and inspect it for damage. Nothing was broken, so we headed deep into the forest, over a rocky path full of mud and large stones.
About mid-way through the course, we passed through a small neighborhood of brightly colored shacks and houses. Some kids came out to wave at us as we zoomed through. I thought the noise of all these machines roaring by must drive the people in this neighborhood crazy, but no one seemed particularly bothered or put out by it.
About half an hour into the run, Kevon waved us over to the side of the road. He told us this was our first nature stop, and led us to an tree with large, nubby spikes growing out of the trunk. This was a macca tree, and according to Jamaican lore, it was tree used to test true love. In the old days, if a young man was courting a woman and wanted to marry her, he had to climb a macca tree to show his love. According to Kevon, going up was not a problem, but getting down could be challenging, especially if you slipped. He told us that if a Jamaican guy really wanted to impress a girl, he would say, "I love you so much, I'd climb a macca tree for you, baby."
I have no idea if he was telling the truth or making this all up to amuse himself by getting gullible tourists to believe him, but it was a good story nonetheless. It seems like kind of a strange way to prove your love to someone, especially since having shredded man-parts would not make for good husband material, if you ask me.
Kevon asked if anyone wanted to try it, and despite the idea that it would likely become an instant hit on YouTube, everyone in the group declined. We all piled back into our respective dune buggies and headed up the steepest part of the climb to the top of the mountain. I don't think the horse would have been able to make the journey up that far, and I was certainly glad we weren't hiking it either. It was a beautiful ride through some lush green forest of tangled vines and bamboo.
At the top of the hill, we reached the turnaround point and parked the dune buggies for a view of the ocean from on-high. The site was once set to be the home of a wealthy landowner, due to the number of fruit trees, coffee plants, and fertile soil. The house was never finished, and so the only people around were some locals sitting under the trees and enjoying the view. An elderly woman handed Brendan the largest avocado I've ever seen as a gift. He politely declined, but seemed to really take a shine to him. I still wonder if he had accepted the next step would have been for him to climb the Macca tree and make her his wife. I guess we'll never know.
The trip down the mountain was a little scarier than the trip up, and I think Brendan found some new puddles to hit along the way. He was an excellent driver and made it even more exciting and entertaining than it might otherwise have been.
By the end of it, I had mud caked all over my arms, legs, and shirt. There were some points that I could not stop laughing, despite mud being flung into my mouth and up my nose. I never knew that a dune buggy could be so much fun, and I was secretly glad my motion-sickness-prone child was not along or I would have missed this entirely.
When we got back to the bar area, the horseback riders were already back and sipping frozen drinks. They laughed at the fact that every time one of us took off our sunglasses, there was a reverse-raccoon effect, with white circles around our eyes and mud everywhere else. I assured them that women in Palo Alto pay top dollar for mud mask treatments, and I was pleased that I got one for free.
It took several washings to get all the mud off my face, arms, and legs. I don't think I've been that dirty since I was about nine years old and got caught up in a vicious tug-of-war battle with some angry Girl Scouts. Oh well, lucky for me that soap is cheap, but memories like these are priceless.
Tips for Adventurous Families:
- Chukka Caribbean Adventures offers a variety of adventure tours and combination tours, but can only accommodate children 6 an up. My 11 year old would have liked the horseback riding, ziplining, and tubing, but because he is prone to motion sickness, the dune buggy ride would be out.
- These adventures are really not pregnant women or people with back or knee troubles. Check the site for details on things like age, weight, and physical restrictions.
- You can book on the phone, through your hotel, or through your cruise. Costco sometimes has vouchers for Chukka Caribbean Adventures that can save money, but you have to call to book and cannot book with vouchers online.
- Prepared to get dirty if you opt for dune buggies or ATVs. Wear plenty of sunscreen if you opt for the horses. One member of our group ended up with a nasty sunburn after the ride, even though she applied sunscreen before getting on the horse.
- Check out Chukka's Facebook Page for a $5 US Voucher, good through September 30, 2011.
Disclosure: My trip, including airfare, hotel accommodations, admission prices, and meals were sponsored by the Jamaica Tourist Board. I did not receive any additional compensation or incentive to write this post. The opinions expressed in this post are original and my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Jamaica Tourist Board or Chukka Caribbean Adventures.
All photos were taken by Glennia Campbell, Copyright 2011. All Rights Reserved.