COCKPIT COUNTRY, JAMAICA

In 1655, when the British army and fleet failed to capture Santo Domingo, Spain’s most prized colony, Gen. Penn and Adm. Venables decided to take Jamaica so as not to return home empty handed. Lacking any organized defense, the Jamaican Spaniards fled to Cuba and released their slaves who, in the west, sought refuge in the inhospitable hills of the Cockpit Country. The “Maroons” here have a colorful history of outwitting and harassing the British who eventually negotiated a treaty in 1738. Sovereign lands were ceded to them and they were given the freedom and autonomy that slaves in the New World did not acquire for another 100 years. Their descendants still live in the Cockpit Country which remains uncharted and impenetrable.

Karst Topography
Karst Topography

This rugged terrain is characteristic of the Karst topography that defines the area. Limestone is dissolved and removed by subsurface water resulting in underground caverns. As caverns develop, the water table is lowered and eventually the caverns collapse creating sinkholes that leave the land with the appearance of an inverted egg carton. No roads traverse the Cockpits. They are accessed only from the surrounding Maroon settlements.

In St. Elizabeth, the Cockpits are best explored from Accompong just north of Maggotty. The road to Accompong is narrow, winding and full of holes. From Accompong, there is a two hour hike to see the Peace Cave where Cudjoe, their Ashanti leader, signed the treaty with the British. Guided hikes are also available to the interior. Wherever there are trails, the land will be cultivated, especially in the valleys where soil has accumulated after being washed down from the hilltops. There are numerous caves and there is a rugged grace to the lay of the land with its razor-sharp limestone hills that drop precipitously to the valley floor. The trails stop where virgin forests remain. While anything is possible, penetrating this area is not recommended. Among the challenges involved is the fact that in many places, only a thin, brittle layer of rock remains over the deep caverns that have been eroded from below and the possibility always exists of plunging through the thin limestone into sinkholes of unknown depth.

In recent years, the Maroons have come to recognize the financial potential of tourism and they readily welcome visitors. If your visit is planned by a tour company, all formalities will have been taken care of for you. If not, you will need to pay a visit to Mr. Harris Cawley. He used to be the Colonel but he still retains much of the responsibility for visitors to the area. He will make all hiking arrangements including guides, porters and food. Hiking the Cockpits is a challenge and a unique opportunity to explore an area unfamiliar to most Jamaicans.

Best Times to Go:
Mornings are best for short hikes because the hills are still misty and cool. For campers, December to March is cooler and therefore more comfortable.

Getting There:
From the main road (A2), turn off at Lacovia beside the service station to take the road north to Maggotty. Just past Maggotty as the road curves in an easterly direction, there are signs for the road to Accompong to the north. Do not hesitate to stop and ask for directions. It is easy to get lost in these hills.

Clothing/Gear:
Comfortable clothing and walking shoes, a light jacket, pants, rain gear, a hat with brim, suntan lotion, insect repellent, compass, first aid kit and a water bottle. If you plan to camp, you will need to bring an extra tent for your guide.

General Information:
Hiking costs are modest, about $25 per day per person, and include your guide as well as a community assessment since the Maroons pay no taxes to the Jamaican government and therefore, receive few services. Food and water can be purchased but if you are only going on a day hike, it is best to bring them with you. Bring enough to share with your guide. To make your own arrangements, call Mr. or Mrs. Cawley before making the trip to Accompong. Your guide will be ready when you arrive and you will be able to get an early start. Camping costs are slightly higher due to the need for porters to transport your food and equipment.

Planning Tips:
  • Don'’t attempt to hike the Cockpit Country alone. It is a harsh landscape and the endless hills that all look alike make it easy to become hopelessly lost.
  • Plan to use a local guide. He will know the safe paths and will help you to avoid trouble spots.
  • Bring sufficient water. Small surface streams are non-existent in the Cockpits. In an emergency, look for bromeliads that collect water.

Important Resources:

  • Countrystyle Limited
    PO Box 60
    Mandeville, Jamaica WI
    Tel: 876-962-3725
    Fax: 876-962-1461
    Email: countrystyle@mail.infochan.com

    Countrystyle is a leading marketer of Jamaica’s country life and specializes in providing alternatives to traditional ‘sea and sand’ vacations. They are located in the Astra Hotel and will make all arrangements to visit the Cockpit Country. Countrystyle specifically addresses the needs of independent travelers, environmentalists, botanists, ornithologists, and nature lovers. One of the more popular products is the “Countrystyle Community Experience” day tour whereby visitors are able to share their personal interests with similar minded Jamaicans.

  • Mr. & Mrs. Harris Cawley
    Accompong
    Beth Salem P.A.
    St. Elizabeth, Jamaica WI
    Tel: 876-909-9222
  • Contact Mr. or Mrs. Cawley to make arrangements to visit Accompong if you are traveling independently. A few days notice of your visit is highly recommended if you want to hike into the Cockpits or even if you just want to sample some of their ‘jerk’ dishes.
Related Books:
  • Jamaica: A Visitors Guide by Harry S. Pariser provides a rich historical perspective to the Maroons and the Cockpit Country.
  • The Adventure Guide to Jamaica by Steve Cohen has an excellent section describing the physical aspects of the Cockpit Country.
  • Jamaica: A Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit by Christopher Baker relates the history of the Maroons and is an excellent general guide to Jamaica.


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