Ocho Rios, Jamaica, would seem to be Spanish for "eight rivers," but it is most likely a corruption of the Spanish word chorreras
, which means "waterfalls." Jamaicans refer to it fondly as Ochi. The second-most important tourist town on the north coast, it offers the island's best shopping, plenty of regional attractions, varied nightlife and fairly good (though often crowded) beaches. It sits on the edge of the jungle in a sheltered bay with a mountainous backdrop—truly lovely.
Ocho Rios is one of Jamaica's most-visited cruise ship ports, and many noncruisers frequent the all-inclusive resorts in the area. Our only regret is that Ocho Rios can be crowded, especially when the cruise ships are in port, and as it continues to develop, it is losing the charm that made it so popular in the first place. However, there has been a townwide drive to crack down on hustlers and illegal vendors and to encourage residents to take more pride in their city and property, with regular maintenance and decorative plantings.
Ocho Rios sits at the foot of the Dry Harbour Mountains, midway along Jamaica's north shore, about 70 mi/115 km east of Montego Bay. The hills crowd down to the shore west of town, and the coastline is deeply indented with small coves and bays. Many are, from a practical standpoint, the private reserves of hotels and all-inclusive resorts.
There is little order to the town's irregular layout. Main Street winds along the shorefront and is lined with tourist amenities, including the main crafts market, bars, restaurants and sundry hotels. Highway A3 (the main coastal highway) bypasses town as DaCosta Drive and runs along the shore (west to Montego Bay and east to Port Antonio). Milford Road runs south from DaCosta Drive and snakes into the highlands, linking the north coast to Kingston.
In 1494, Christopher Columbus landed about 8 mi/12 km west of today's Ocho Rios in a bay he named Santa Gloria (he was stranded at the same site nine years later, when his worm-infested ships sank). The Spanish initiated their first settlement—Sevilla la Nueva—on the site in 1509.
In the 17th century, local Spanish Gov. Don Christobel Arnaldo de Yssasi refused to give up control of the area to the British after they gained control of the island in 1655. Bloody battles ensued at Dunn's River in 1657, Rio Nuevo in 1658 and Shaw Park in 1659. Yssasi fled the island in a dugout canoe in April 1660.
The British farmed pimento, lumber and cattle, but Ocho Rios never developed into a major fruit-shipping port like other towns. It remained little more than a small town with a fishing harbor until the 20th century, when tourism and bauxite became mainstays of the local economy. In 1923, the Shaw Park great house, located on a struggling citrus plantation, became Jamaica's first exclusive hotel. By 1948, it was joined by similar establishments, including Sans Souci and Silver Seas.
Meanwhile, chemical analysis revealed that the local soil contained high levels of bauxite, the chief raw material used to produce aluminum. Following this discovery, the bauxite mining industry took off, thanks to the efforts of foreign investors Reynolds and Kaiser. This led to dredging and expanding the harbor, which served both the bauxite export and the cruise ship industries.
The contemporary look of Ocho Rios was initiated in the 1960s, when the St. Ann Development Council sponsored tourism development, including shopping malls. As one of Jamaica's foremost tourist resorts, Ocho Rios has taken steps to further upgrade its facilities to meet the demands of 21st-century travelers.
Though Ocho Rios, the garden parish, is surrounded by natural beauty—waterfalls, tropical gardens and jungled mountains—the town itself is little more than a hodgepodge of modern strip malls and shopping centers catering primarily to tourists.
You can easily tour the town on foot in an hour or so, and if shopping is what you're after, everything is conveniently located on Main Street. (Note that the main highway is shown on some maps as "Main Road," but it's actually DaCosta Drive and not to be confused with Main Street, which runs parallel to it.)
Along the waterfront and within walking distance are high-rise resorts where you can swim, catch some rays and partake in your favorite watersport.
Ocho Rios sparkles with discos and clubs where you can hear reggae, soca and calypso music, as well as foreign hits and slow-dancing tunes. Most of the city's nightlife is along Main Street, but the all-inclusive resorts have discos and live entertainment and sell evening passes to nonguests.
At least once a week, these resorts offer full floor shows with limbo, fire-eating and (more or less) traditional music and dance. They sometimes have headline entertainers. Chris Blackwell's Island Village is a setting for major concerts, held monthly in an open-air amphitheater.
Ocho Rios restaurants offer a range of cuisines and prices. You should find something to match your mood and budget along Main Street, although many of the most satisfying restaurants lie farther afield.
There is no shortage of roadside jerk stalls selling Jamaica's famous seasoned pork, chicken and fish, as well as the perfect antidote for the spicy food—fresh coconut milk directly from the husk. US$7-$10 will usually buy you jerked chicken or pork, bread and a drink.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$30; $$$ = US$31-$45; $$$$ = more than US$45.
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