Inspired Travel: ‘Voluntourism’ in Jamaica

Jake's Treasure Beach Jamaica

Radiant white sand beaches, crystal, limpid waters that allow glimpses of flamboyantly-hued fish without the need to even get your hair wet…is it any wonder that millions of travelers flock to the Caribbean each year?  Umbrella bedecked tropical drinks beckon, and the Islands offer a perfect setting for relaxation and recreation.  But, for those who want a more involved vacation, a new type of  “All Inclusive” is taking hold, melding tourism and volunteering  – Voluntourism.

On a recent trip to Jamaica as a guest of the Jamaican Tourism Board, I was afforded the opportunity to explore the island beyond those stunning shores. The result was – to me – a deeper, richer, more inspired travel experience that sent me home with a warm feeling that had little to do with the copious amounts of rum that filled my checked baggage.

The Blue Mountains of Jamaica as seen from Strawberry Hill Resort
The Blue Mountains of Jamaica as seen from Strawberry Hill Resort

The Blue Mountains

Climbing the winding road up into the mist covered Blue Mountains is a surreal experience.  Here it is most obvious how Jamaica (Xaymaca) earned it’s moniker – The Land of Wood and Water. Lush forests bursting with vibrant flowers give way to rain-swollen streams that glisten in swaths of brilliant sunshine. The road itself is dotted with countless vendors, offering everything from peanuts to Red Stripe.

Did I mention the goats yet? Goats are everywhere. They rule the road with little concern for passing traffic.  In fact, I’d swear that more than one of them had a few choice words for our little expedition as we impeded upon their leisurely stroll down the center-line.

Overlooking the valley, with a view that stretches all the way to Kingston and the bay, sits a Georgian estate house built in 1805. Decorated with period pieces and bursting with historical artifacts, the house sits at the head of the Craighton Estate Coffee Trail. Along the twisting paths that lead to the gazebo overlook of this 400,000 acre coffee plantation, you can witness first hand the budding sustainability movement in Jamaica. 

An active member of the Certified Rainforest Alliance, Craighton Estate produces non-GMO coffee employing social and environmental sustainability best-practices. The result? A world-class product that is rich, smooth and has zero acidic aftertaste. Seriously, I didn’t even put sugar in mine and it was bliss. 

The life cycle of a Craighton Estate Coffee Bean
The life cycle of a Craighton Estate Coffee Bean

Along with the best coffee I’ve ever had (and I’m addicted a connoisseur)  Craighton also boasts a man beyond match, Alton Bedward…whom I’ve deemed, “The Most Interesting Man In Coffee.” Not only is he passionate about his fellow Jamaicans owning and bettering this already nearly-perfect product, he knows more about the global cultural and historical impact of coffee than I’d venture anyone alive today.

For example, before Alton I had no idea that marriage matches in Turkish culture are often effected by the prospective bride’s ability to impress her future in-laws with her coffee making skills. A visit to Craighton should be on the list of all who travel to discover.

Treasure Beach

On the undeveloped South Coast of Jamaica sits the aptly named Treasure Beach. Here farming and fishing remain a way of life, as they’ve done for generations.  In many ways this seemed to me to be  the heart of Jamaica. Perhaps this is because I was raised in a rural farming community where cattle roamed – though not nearly as freely the goats do here – even more bold than in the mountains.

The area emits a provincial warmth that permeates every corner. Friendly locals and expats gather at the diner and sit in the open-air upon makeshift picnic tables, enjoying Blue Mountain coffee from a mismatched collection of mugs that accompany the amazing breakfast and ardent Sunday Football discussions.  A proud farmer walked us through his fields, beaming as he displayed the beet crop  he’d pulled fresh from the ground for our inspection.  Yes, in a land of dazzling beauty, Treasure Beach is a gem. 

Surrounded by the same beaches and waters that draw so many to the resorts down the coastline, Treasure Beach has much to offer. Among those offerings is the opportunity to ensconce yourself within the community through many voluntourism activities. Such as those provided by Breds – The Treasure Beach Foundation.

Jason a Generational Farmer in Jamaica
Jason – a generational farmer in Saint Elizabeth, Jamaica – shares his story and freshly harvested beets.

Breds was established by local hotelier Jason Henzell and Peace Corps volunteer Aaron Laufer in 1998.  Their focus is on fostering community empowerment through programs designed to enhance the education, vocational training, recreation, and livelihoods of the Treasure Beach community, while also ensuring the sustainability of the environment that nurtures it.

Breds also provides a mutually beneficial connection between the tourism sector and the community. They offer many avenues for visitors to explore, gain understanding and contribute – all while having a great time! 

Fishing in Jamaica

Resources for Planning Your Voluntourism Visit to Jamaica

Youth and Environment: Breds Foundation. They can help arrange your visit and tailor activities that fit your skills.

Health: Issa Trust Fund. The mission of the Foundation is to provide a system of prevention, health promotion and education, community health improvement and other services to promote well-being and development for the people of Jamaica.  As the mother of a child who suffers from asthma, their recent inhaler campaign was near and dear to our family. 

Environment and Education: The Sandals Foundation

The very best resource in planning your trip is the Jamaican Tourism Board (JTB) itself. They have a unique program called, “Meet The People” which offers visitors a chance to explore beyond the resort and experience the Jamaican way of life.  The program is available at no cost to individuals and families. Whether you want to bump up your dance moves by learning to dance to a reggae beat, delve into the Jamaican art scene with a local artist, learn from Rastafarians the story that led to the rise of this religious form, or master the art of making traditional Jamaican dishes, the JTB staff is there to guide you.

In fact, they set me up with an amazing local chef and cookbook author and I can’t wait to share the tastes and history I learned with you! Post and GIVEAWAY coming soon!

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