Green Grotto Caves, St. Ann
Discovering the Hidden Story of the Green Grotto Caves
Last year after possibly watching one too many Indiana Jones and Lara Croft movies, I placed the pointed goal of visiting the Green Grotto Caves on my adventure list. It is a fairly popular local activity that I had been hearing about for years. Yet somehow traveling to the destination had escaped me. So I decided that 2018 was the year that I would finally make the drive and explore the cave.
Settling somewhere between Discovery Bay and Runaway Bay; the Green Grotto Caves is a naturally occurring network of underground caving system located in Jamaica. The caves that are located on Jamaica’s north coast; is a predominantly unexplored system of underground caverns immersed within a surrounding of lush foliage. Much like the story of Fort Charles; its history is believe to date as far back as the original indigenous people, the Tainos; with one or two of their remaining artifacts being found as you explore further into the caving system.
The caves were affectionately named for the green algae which once extensively covered their walls and is known around town by many names including; Runaway Bay Caves, Cave Hall Caves, Discovery Bay Caves, Dry Harbour Caves, Hopewell Caves, Rum Caves and Dairy Caves. That’s a lot of names!! The Green Grotto Caves is one of Jamaica’s best kept natural attractions and it remains as a site of not only physical beauty and glorious architecture; but also a culturally and historically significant destination preserved in the parish of St. Ann.
How to get there
Located approximately an hour and forty five minutes from Kingston, thirty minutes from Ocho Rios and an hour from the second city of Montego Bay; the journey to Green Grotto Caves is a pretty straightforward one. Today I’ll be sharing directions from the perspective of coming from Kingston.
If you’ve been here for a while, then you will know that my preferred mode to travel to the northern parish of St. Ann is via the north to south toll road. This increasingly expensive route of travel is a simple straight drive that lasts less an hour. Once you arrive in St. Ann you’ll be greeted with a round-a-bout. At this point you take the first exit off the round-a-bout and continue straight.
You’ll drive through other St. Ann hotel and tourist hot spots like St. Ann’s Bay & Runaway Bay. The exact sequence I believe is St. Ann’s Bay then Priory, followed by Salem then finally Runaway Bay just before you arrive in Discovery Bay. But don’t quote me on that. Once in Discovery Bay you’re only a few minutes away until you’re greeted with the Green Grotto Caves sign on the left hand side across the road from the Ultimate Jerk Center. Once on the property you can park in one of the ample parking spaces and make your way to the ticket booth.
Show me the money honey aka What’s the cost?
As far as attractions in Jamaica goes, this one is pretty reasonably priced. Operated by the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) of Jamaica; the price of entry to the caves is $20 USD for patrons aged 13 years and older and $10 USD for the youngens aged 4-12. This price is payable in JMD at the relevant exchange rate. For us locals who present ID (either your driver’s license, passport, voter’s ID or employment ID); the price is $1000 JMD for ages 13 years and above, and $500 JMD for ages 4- 12 years. The Green Grotto Caves are operational daily between the hours of 9 am and 4 pm and tours last approximately forty five (45) minutes.
The Intriguing History of the Green Grotto Caves
As mentioned earlier, the history of the caves dates as far back as Jamaica’s first inhabitants. It is widely believed that the Tainos used the caves as a makeshift home and shelter. Some even suspect they may have had some religious ceremonies there. Over the years there have been discoveries of cave paintings, tools and fragments of pottery which shows how important the caves were to its original inhabitants.
The next notorious use of the cave came during the 17th century (1655) when the British made their play for the island. The Green Grotto caves were used by the overpowered Spaniards as a secret hideout during the English invasion to avoid being captured. It is said that the Spanish Governor at the time was able to hold out there for a few weeks until he was able to escape the island. There is an underground tunnel which links the caves to the sand at Runaway bay. It is believed that the Spanish used the tunnel in their attempt escape the Island and flee to Cuba.
Continuing our walk through history, the next noted users of the caves were the runaway slaves during the 18th century. Slaves would run from their plantations and use the caves to hide from their former masters. They had to maneuver through the pitch black cave network to escape their colonial owners. Seems like everyone was running to the caves from the British.
By the mid 20th Century, the caves were used by smugglers running arms to Cuba between the two world wars. During World War 2, the Government of Jamaica used the entrance of the cave as a storeroom for rum in barrels for safe keeping. We are indeed rum people.
In 1999 the caves were purchased by the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) to be developed as an eco-tourism attraction.
Green Grotto Caves was the location for the James Bond movie ‘Live and Let Die’
In the 1973 James Bond film starring Roger Moore, the caves was used as the villain’s underground base of operations. The caves were the setting for Doctor Kananga's subterranean base on the island of San Monique. The scene where Bond's submarine emerges from the underground lake was filmed in Green Grotto Cave.
Did you know that Jamaica was the birth place of James Bond. The author Ian Fleming came up with the character here in Jamaica way back in 1953. As a result we have a James Bond beach and Ian Fleming airport here in Jamaica. Also, did you know that the latest James Bond film featuring Daniel Craig is currently being filmed here in Jamaica? Welcome home James. Welcome Home.
Back in the 80’s and early 90’s the Green Grotto Caves used to be a night club and Disco
During the 1980s the Green Grotto Caves was owned by a rich American family who thought it a great idea to turn it into a night club. “The Pirate's Nightclub” was a local hot spot at the time. There was a dance floor, set up bars, built benches for seating and were open for business every night.
Rumour has it that this operation shut down because too many drunk people kept getting lost in the caves in the middle of the party. Hmmm….. I wonder why? Plus the vibration of the music was destroying the integrity of the structure. In fact, much of the stalactites and stalagmites were destroyed during the caves’ hay day.
The Caving Experience
On entry to the caving network, visitors are given a hair net and a hard hat by the group’s tour guide. Next you are given instructions as to what you should and shouldn’t do while in the caves; as well as you are given a waiver to release them from responsibility should any harm befall you while in the caves. Which you shouldn’t worry about once you listen to your guide. But if ears don’t hear bottom will feel so listen up people. The next important piece of information given at the beginning of the tour is that you aren’t allowed to video record but you can take photos.
The most luring feature of this natural attraction is the large labyrinthine limestone cave with its numerous rock formations, its stalactites, stalagmites and abundance of overhead ceiling pockets. There are several interconnected pathways and chambers which extend approximately 37 meters down into the caves. The caves are connected by concrete pathways; as well as the lush vegetation on the outskirts. These naturally-occurring features are passed and identified as you delve deeper into the caving system until ultimately you arrive at the caves’ innermost cavern known as a grotto.
My tour began in the disco cave as I like to call it. But it’s really called the Runaway Cave. This is the cave where the music was loud, libations were flowing and the bodies were grooving. It is where the infamous ‘Pirates’ Nightclub’ had set up shop back in the 80’s; prior to the government re-purchasing the grounds making it into the touring attraction it is today. You can still see remnants of the caves’ clubbing days; including cement bar stools, a stage, and the dance floor. It’s like those partying days pictures you have buried that one day your kids discover while growing through your stuff. The memory isn’t going away. At this point we were also greeted by the caves true home owners- the bats; who fortunately appeared to be asleep at the time as none of them flew around. There are approximately 10 million bats within the two caves.
As we progressed through the caves, my guide pointed out some of the most interesting structures and features while giving us a very in depth history lesson which I spoke about earlier in the post. Honestly, it was the first I was learning a lot of this and to do it in an underground cavern no less. The lengths we go for knowledge. We were also showed the infamous escape cave that the Spanish used to evade British capture during the English takeover in 1655. Imagine I could’ve been speaking Spanish at this very moment had this not happened. Hablo espanol?
The journey through the cave is aided by the use of bridges, staircases, and pathways that carry you to different chambers of the caves. This coupled with motion sensor lights to guide the way through the caverns.
Our journey eventually led us down numerous steps (felt like a thousand to my short stubby legs but were probably like 100) to the grotto i.e. the innermost cavern. Here we are greeted with crystal clear, pristine, translucent water that lies within the grotto. This water is brackish due to the mixture of the seawater mixing with the river water. In the pool you will witness true beauty as the the stalactites are reflected in the water.
My guide informed my tour group about how the Tainos would escape from the enslavement by the Spanish. He reminded us they had to do so without our modern luxuries like railed stairways and light. Bear in mind they couldn’t light torches because the bat faeces (guano) is rich in nitrogen which is highly flammable.
To demonstrate (because we are all about live action role play here), he turned off all the cave lights. When I say it was daaaaaark. It was Daaaark!! I’ve never seen darkness like that, not even in St. Elizabeth. I couldn’t see a thing. I didn’t know where to turn. I just stood frozen eagerly awaiting the return of light to the room. I couldn’t imagine how they were able to do it and travel in the dark. But they did it. And so did the African slaves. These mavericks were able to maneuver through the darkest nights and toughest terrain to escape enslavement. I salute them. Especially since the caves’ other inhabitants come out to play in the dark. Including scorpions, bats, the yellow boa and lizards. Fortunately only a lizard poked its head out during my trip.
One of the last stops on my trip through the caves was the stop at the Wishing Well. There we were encouraged to toss in coins and make wishes for love, success, money of whatever your heart desires. Because I was an eager beaver who thought 2 was better than one. Or maybe I was greedy Gretchen. But I choose to drop 2 coins and make 2 wishes. Double the chance right?
The tour eventually ended where we began, outside the Runaway cave. Albeit we took a different route to get there. Can you believe this experience only covers a small percentage of the caving system? The rest remains largely unexplored because as you delve deeper into the caverns there is less oxygen.
A Grotto is a cave that has an underground river. The Green Grotto Caves has a lake that is 19 feet deep.
Stalactites are formed when rainwater touches the limestone. This forms carbonic acid. The carbonic acid melts the limestone. When the water evaporates it leaves a deposit which hardens to form stalactites.
Stalagmites are rock formations that start on the ground. When water drips from the stalactites it melts the limestone and forms carbonic acid. When the water evaporates it leaves a deposit that hardens.
Fig tree roots will grow up to a mile underground to get to a water source. So they were often used as guides to find water sources.
The caves were first opened to the public in 1959 as show caves due to their involvement during the British takeover in 1655.
Green Grotto Caves is Green Global Certified
In February 2003, the Green Grotto Caves became the first cave system in the world to be granted a Green Globe certification. Green Globe is a global environmental organisation which runs a certification program for sustainable tourism. The caves were also the first attraction in the Caribbean to be granted the certification.
The caves achieved platinum certification by EarthCheck in 2012 (after receiving gold certification in 2009). The first in the Caribbean. This certification is given to businesses which practice sustainable travel and tourism.
Green Grotto Tour Tips
Wear comfortable clothing. You’ll be walking a lot so you want to be as comfortable as possible
Wear sneakers. Speaking of comfortable, you need to wear comfortable shoes
Always wear a helmet. Protect yourself from falling rocks and bat faeces
Do not break off or disfigure the delicate cave formations
Do not litter the caves. This is an eco-friendly destination so no pollution
No smoking!!! The cave is full of Nitrogen gas produced as a result of the bat faeces. Can you say KABOOM?!! Say no to caving fires people!
The Green Grotto Caves experience is an exclusive picturesque journey through Jamaica’s rich history. The caves, secret passages and caverns have all played a pivotal role in the creation of the Jamaica that stands today. It’s the perfect blend of an ecotourism focus mixed with a strong historical and cultural story preserved in the passages and pristine caves that share secrets only the walls could tell. It is a true national treasure. This tour is perfect for all adventure-lovers with a thirst for knowledge about Jamaica’s rich history and culture. It’s an ecotourist’s dream adventure.
I would definitely recommend a visit to the Green Grotto Caves. It was truly a wonderful experience. I learnt. I marveled. I left richer for the experience. The sheer beauty of nature’s ingenious glory is definitely a site to behold.