Faster, higher, deeper: eco adventure in the Caribbean

More and more visitors come to the Caribbean not just for our beaches and our festivals, but for physical adventure

Andrew Hurley’s Ford Puma Evo blasts through the stage at Duck Pond during Rally Barbados 2005. Photograph by Narend Sooknarine/zorce.comBelize’s famous Blue Hole. Photograph by Tony Rath Photography/www.trphoto.comDiving off Champagne Beach in Dominica. Photograph courtesy the Dominica Tourism OfficeEl Tucuche towers above the North Coast Road in Trinidad. Photograph by Alex SmailesRapelling through the tree canopy in Costa Rica. Photograph courtesy the Instituto Costarricense De TurismoSt Lucia’s Pitons “Petit to the left, Grand to the right” with Grande Caille Point in the foreground. Photograph courtesy the St Lucia Tourist BoardSt Vincent’s Soufriére. Photograph courtesy the Ministry of Tourism, Youth, and Sports, St Vincent and the GrenadinesWhitewater rafting in Costa Rica. Photograph by Skene Howie and Jule Guaglardi

FASTER

RALLY ROUND

Standing on a hill near the end of the Sailor’s Gully stage, he asks, “Know why our Bajan rally drivers do so well?

”Not wanting to assume, I let German-Bajan rally driver Christian Scherr explain. “It is the flying fish! You know how flying fish should be swimming and yet they can fly, right?”

Apparently, the key to driving prowess lies in the national seafood’s ability to impart supernatural talents.

Just then, our ears recognise the drone of a four-cylinder turbocharged engine, interleaved with the sharp, gunshot-like blasts of an anti-lag system, as Barry Gale’s Lancer Evolution Rally Car approaches. Discussions are temporarily over, as we ready the cameras for a rapid burst of photos. As they crest the hill, Gale and his navigator Ryan Rodriguez are totally busy. The car slides by sideways through the left corner, decimates the short straight in front of us, then continues drifting around the next ninety-right, about twenty feet away. Five precious seconds of mechanical cacophony — differential whining, gear shifter clacking, loud anti-lag popping, tires screeching, engine roaring, turbo wooshing — along with the smell of scorched rubber and racing fuel: a diamond-studded treat for the senses of any motorsports enthusiast.

Further down the stage there is a long uphill straight, and judging from all the cheers, they have solved the turbo-boosting problem, allowing the spectators on the crest to see some airtime.

Unlike drag racing, which is a straight-line acceleration contest, usually held over a distance of a quarter mile, and circuit racing, which is a multi-car race around a prepared looping race course or track, rally racing or rallying takes it a few steps further. Cars race on closed public and auxiliary roads under natural conditions. The roads are typically unfamiliar to all but the local drivers. Rally cars are prepared for heavy abuse, and are designed to withstand roll-overs, impact crashes, jumps, and all the stresses associated with running on imperfect surfaces while gunning for the fastest time through a stage. Needless to say, the driver and navigator need to be physically fit and the pit crews supremely capable of intense and often expensive repairs. Large rallies cover thousands of miles over many stages, and the World Rally Championship provides the ideal proving ground for top car manufacturers. The level of team preparation, the skill of the driver, the competence of the navigator, and the ability of the car to perform durably are key factors to winning any professional rally.

The Rally Barbados weekend is part of the annual two-week Barbados Rally Carnival, usually held near the end of May. Parties, cocktail dinners, scrutineering, RallySprint racing, and “shakedown” testing add up to an exciting family, media, and race-team vacation. The rally attracts close to a hundred local, regional, and European teams, who methodically prepare their machines for the colourful Saturday morning start at Simpson Motors in Warrens, north of Bridgetown, where lots of rally paraphernalia is on sale. The arsenal of the professional spectator can include fold-out chairs, camcorders, well-stocked coolers, sunblock, branded apparel, flags, umbrellas, air horns, and the tray of any given pickup truck. With all the rally cars in their new liveries, the Saturday start is a great place to get good “before” photos, as the rate of attrition in Rally Barbados can be high, even for the top-profile World Rally Championship-spec vehicles that compete.

For spectators, a guide and a way to get around the island quickly are necessary, and, short of competing, there is no way to see the entire rally at once. Thousands of well-informed fans flock to the more accessible tarmac stages, like Sailor’s Gully, Malvern, Cane Field, Turner’s Hall, Duck Pond, and the final showdown at Vaucluse Raceway in St Thomas Parish. This seventy-acre facility simulates most of the surfaces (tarmac, dirt, gravel, wet), elevation changes, and difficult corners found on the roads of .

Only two cars can compete at once in a RallySprint race, but there are plans to accommodate multi-car RallyCross events. Vaucluse is the real secret to the Bajans’ success. “Upcoming drivers have been able to condense around seven years’ worth of rally experience into one or two years’ practice at Vaucluse,” says Greg Cozier, co-owner of the raceway. Other Barbados Rally Club aces like Trevor “Micey” Manning, Paul “Surfer” Bourne, Roger Hill, Sean Gill, Barry Gale, and Roger “Sheriff” Skeete have clearly eaten their share of flying fish. While they may drive for the fastest times, others focus on the high-skill drift-style driving that makes them crowd favourites.

Other names to watch for: Gary Gregg and Doug Gore of Jamaica, Steve Olliviere of St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Fawaz Mohammed, Ainsley Lochan, and John “Penti” Powell of Trinidad and Tobago.

Don’t slow down

• Central Trinidad’s sugar cane fields are scored with many unpaved roads, which the Trinidad and Tobago Rally Club arranges to have closed for high speed stages like “Jack and Jill” at Rally Trinidad every August. Jamaica-born Trinidadian John “Penti” Powell is considered to be the most capable driver, in his Corolla WRC v II, but Ainsley “Mr Action” Lochan is capable of coming close in his Lancer Evo7 — unless he makes one of his (usually) very spectacular crashes.

• Rally Jamaica, held annually by the Jamaica Millennium Motoring Club, is a mixed-surface rally. Local champion Gary Gregg in his Ford Focus WRC is a dominant force, winning both Rally Jamaica 2005 and Rally Barbados 2006. Doug Gore, David Summerbell, Peter Moodie, and Jeffery Panton are also strong contenders. This event attracts foreign drivers like past WRC Champion Didier Auriol, who revel in the thought of racing through the loose stages at Wakefield and on the tarmac through New Kingston.

• If rally isn’t quite your thing, try the extremely popular high-speed circuit, go-kart, and “chappy” 50cc mini-sport bike races at Guyana’s South Dakota Raceway. Mark Viera — with a record of 35.6 seconds around South Dakota — is the man to beat.

TWO WHEELS GOOD

The experts call Tobago a mountain biking island paradise. Why? Dozens of excellent trails ranging in difficulty, many of them running through the Main Ridge Reserve, the oldest protected forest in the Western Hemisphere, others with spectacular views of the sea. Hilly terrain, offering alternating challenging climbs and easy downhill coasts. One picturesque, secluded beach after another, where bikers can cool down after a big ride. And an island big enough to provide several days’ varied riding, but small enough to be covered end to end.

Where else: the sheer forested slopes of St Lucia and Dominica; the “upper ring road” around Nevis Peak

MAKE A SPLASH

The twenty-mile gorge of the Macal River in Belize offers some of the most exciting whitewater rafting in Central America, especially during the January-to-June rainy season, when the class V and VI rapids are at their most boisterous. Rising to 1,500 feet above the river at some points, studded with caves and washed by waterfalls, the walls of the Macal gorge make a dramatic backdrop to the river’s truly knuckle-whitening runs, with thick rain forest for miles around.

Where else: class III to IV rapids on the Pacuare River in Costa Rica offer thrills for whitewater novices

LET RIP

Barbados, a small coral spur jutting out from the Antillean chain, is where the Atlantic’s huge swells first meet land. No wonder the island’s east coast is one of the Caribbean’s most celebrated surfing spots, and the famous — or infamous? — “Soup Bowl” near the village of Bathsheba is the height of aspiration for Caribbean surfers. At nearby “Parlors”, a.k.a. “The Mother of All Walls”, waves sometimes reach forty feet. Beginners might want to head for more sheltered conditions off the south coast.

Where else: more than sixty breaks round the coast of Puerto Rico, with the best on the north and west coasts; Encuentre near Cabarete on the north coast of the Dominican Republic

Narend Sooknarine

HIGHER

CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN

“This,” said our guide, “is the Devil’s Staircase.”

Until now, the trail up El Tucuche, Trinidad’s second-highest peak (3,073 feet), had been only modestly strenuous — a stroll, really, for experienced hikers. But suddenly we found ourselves at the foot of what looked like a vertical cliff, at least two hundred feet high, and somehow we had to make our way to the top.

“Just use the small trees to pull yourself up, like a ladder. Don’t look down. If anyone really needs it, I can climb up and send down a rope.”

None of us would admit to needing the rope, and our guide was already thirty feet up, scaling the cliff like a spider. How hard could it be? Well, it would have been easier if so many of those convenient small trees that were supposed to provide handholds weren’t some treacherous species of palm with thick black thorns covering their trunks. Would I tumble ten stories, or crucify myself halfway up? Some latent goat genes must have kicked in. I waited till I was almost at the top of the Staircase to look down. From up here, it looked more like four hundred feet.

After that, the rest of the climb was a breeze. The trail followed a ridge up the mountain, with gorgeous views of forested valleys below. Near the top, we entered elfin forest: dwarf trees, delicate ferns, cool mist. We were climbing up past the clouds. Then: sunlight, breeze, the summit: a small plateau covered with short grass, practically a lawn. Someone had gone to the trouble of planting lemon trees on one side. And the concrete marker stone — we took turns standing at the very top of the mountain.

El Cerro del Aripo, some miles east, is thirteen feet higher, but a much easier, less spectacular climb. El Tucuche is Trinidad’s real mountaineer’s prize, and a treat for botanists and birders also. The tiny, rare golden tree frog makes its home in bromeliads near the peak. And then there are the 360-degree views: to the south, the expanse of the central plains; to the north, a near-vertical view down to Las Cuevas Bay — with binoculars, you can make out swimmers and sunbathers; to east and west, the magnificent Northern Range, the last hurrah of the Andes, broken off from South America eons ago.

The ascent takes about four hours, for climbers of moderate fitness, and allow three hours to return. It’s possible to camp at the summit — there’s a half-ruined wooden shelter not far below the summit on the northern side — but it gets pretty cold at night, and you have to bring your own water. There are several unsignposted and often crisscrossing trails leading up, down, and around the mountain, so a local guide is essential. And the climb is much easier during the dry season, from January to May; in the rainy season, expect many slips and slides, and to come down the mountain covered in mud.

Peak conditions

• The Dominican Republic’s Pico Duarte, at 10,164 feet, is the Caribbean’s highest peak. There are two major hiking routes, one about 28 miles, the other about twice the distance. A guide is compulsory, and it may be a good idea to hire a mule to carry your gear.

Jamaica’s Blue Mountain Peak (7,405 feet), about fifteen miles east of Kingston, is a popular climb (at its busiest, up to five hundred people make the ascent each day), three or four hours from the starting point at Hagley Gap through coffee plantations and forest.

La Soufrière (4,000 feet) is St Vincent’s highest peak, and also an active volcano with a magnificent crater lake. The popular hike takes about three hours; make sure you’e in good shape.

St Lucia’s Pitons are among the Caribbean’s best-known natural landmarks, twin volcanic cones rising dramatically from the sea on the island’s south-west coast. It is possible to climb Petit Piton (2,438 feet), but the ascent is difficult and dangerous. Gros Piton (2,618 feet) is a strenuous four-hour climb, and a guide is highly recommended

PENTHOUSE VIEW

Eighty per cent of tropical rain forest species live in the middle and upper tree canopies, at a height usually accessible only to birds and monkeys. The forest canopy walkway in the Iwokrama reserve in central Guyana, a series of observation platforms and bridges suspended in the treetops a hundred feet above the forest floor, allows visitors a close-up view of hundreds of arboreal species, and approximates the thrill of being airborne.

Where else: the Pacuare Canopy Adventure in Costa Rica and the Ocho Rios Canopy Tour in Jamaica, where visitors can swing and glide through the trees on horizontal traverse lines

GRAB HOLD

The highest point in the Cayman Islands is the Bluff on Cayman Brac, a limestone outcrop rising to 140 feet, its sheer sides plunging into the Caribbean Sea and providing heart-poundingly exciting opportunities for rock-climbing and rapelling. Seven areas around the east end of the island have been expertly bolted, and the Brac is now clearly marked on the maps of renowned rock-climbers from around the world. At the spectaular Wave Wall, the vertiginous ascent is matched only by the views over the churning sea.

Where else: the dramatic vertical rock walls around Saba

Philip Sander

DEEPER

HOW LOW CAN YOU GO?

From the air, it looks almost manmade, a perfect circle, deep aquamarine in the turquoise expanse of Lighthouse Reef, a thousand feet across, sixty miles off the coast of Belize: the Blue Hole.

During the last ice age, when this was all dry land, the hole was a huge underground cavern created by water slowly eroding the limestone rock. When melting ice caps raised the sea level around the globe, the cavern flooded, and eventually its roof collapsed under its own weight. Today, the Blue Hole has become an icon of Belize, famous since it was visited by Jacques Cousteau in 1972, and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996. It’s also a must-do on the checklists of adventurous Caribbean divers.

Locals may exaggerate and tell you the Blue Hole is bottomless, but it’s somewhere closer to four hundred feet deep — way past the limits for recreational diving. This isn’t a dive for beginners, and it’s crucial to go with a dive master familiar with the hole’s terrain. The maximum safe depth is about 130 feet, where in the very faint light filtering down from the surface you can see a massive rock ledge with stalactites and other rock formations, up to 45 feet long, relics of the Blue Hole’s previous incarnation as a cavern.

On the descent, the experts say, it’s best to keep your eyes on the near-vertical walls of the hole. It may be tempting to stare into the apparently limitless blue of the centre, but severe disorientation or, worse, vertigo, can result. Buoyancy control is key, and the dive master’s instructions must be taken seriously. Divers can stay at these depths for just ten minutes or so; any longer, and you run the risk of nitrogen narcosis — the dreaded bends.

As you return to the surface, the midnight blue water gradually lightens and grows warmer. There’s an obligatory pause at about twenty feet, for proper decompression — this is a good time for fish-spotting. Look out for groupers, butterfly fish, gobies, barracuda, and the small school of bull sharks that prowls round the rim of the hole. And when you get back to shore, head for the nearest souvenir shop and buy one of the t-shirts reading “I Dived the Blue Hole”. This is one adventure you’ll want to brag about.

Deep thoughts

• The largest of the Bahama Islands, Andros also boasts not one but abut two hundred blue holes, small flooded sinkholes that crater the limestone terrain and are connected by subsurface fissures. In many of the holes, a layer of fresh water from rain sits atop heavier salt water. Off Andros’s eastern coast, the Tongue of the Ocean is the world’s third-longest barrier reef with a 6,000-foot-deep trench separating the island from New Providence, excellent for thrilling wall dives.

• Little-known Saba is basically a steep mountain rising abruptly from the sea, which means excellent wall diving right offshore. Seven underwater pinnacles, including the famous Eye of the Needle, astonish even experienced divers, and a well-controlled marine park protects the best dive sites.

• The nutrient-rich waters off Tobago — where the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic meet — teem with marine life. The northern end of the island is perfect for drift dives; the south offers coral reef diving and the chance to observe hundreds of species.

• Less awe-inspiring, more fun, and certainly more romantic: at Champagne Beach on the south-west coast of Dominica, geothermal vents in the sea floor fill the warm water with millions of tiny bubbles, giving the sensation of swimming in a huge glass of bubbly. Diving here is a strangely sybaritic experience.

SINKING FEELING

The Blue Lagoon near Port Antonio on the north coast of Jamaica is another of the Caribbean’s supposedly bottomless holes — it’s actually 178 feet, with a floating platform moored above the centre. It’s also the spot where Jamaican David Lee set a new world free-diving record in 2001, sinking to the very bottom and swimming back to the surface without an oxygen tank in one minute and forty seconds. This is decidedly not a sport for the inexperienced, but mere mortals can at least enjoy swimming and snorkelling in the lagoon’s dark waters.

Where else: Caymanian free diver Tanya Streeter set an absolute world record off Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos in 2003

GOING TO GROUND

The Cockpit Country in western Jamaica is an extensive region of rugged limestone, heavily forested and broken by hundreds of huge sinkholes — the “cockpits” — and for the most part uninhabitable by humans. It is also home to more than seventy charted caves, making it a spelunking dream. There are caves here for every level of experience, but the Cockpit Country can be unforgiving and you don’t want to get lost among its narrow ravines. The Jamaican Caves Organisation can help arrange guides and equipment rentals and provide valuable technical information.

Where else: The Guadirikiri and Fontein caves near the north-east coast of Aruba boast Arawak rock paintings and a healthy bat population; Harrison’s Cave in Barbados is literally a drive-in cave — electric trams take visitors deep underground to see glistening stalactites and stalagmites and an illuminated waterfall.

Philip Sander