Named for the green algae which once covered their walls, the Green Grotto Caves in Discovery Bay blend ecotourism and history into a 45-minute tour. These caves, secret passages and caverns have played a pivotal role in Jamaica’s history– first used by Jamaica’s earliest inhabitants the Tainos for hundreds of years as a home, source of food and sacred ground, by the Spanish and later runaway slaves as a hideaway, by smugglers running arms to Cuba between the two World Wars then in more recent times as a rum barrel storehouse.
Evidence of the caves’ former uses has been gradually uncovered over the years with even a secret passage leading from the main cave to the Puerto Seco Beach a few miles away! This attraction was the first in the world to be green globe certified & achieved platinum certification by EarthCheck in 2016, serving as proof that its management team is committed to sustainable development and that Green Grotto is truly eco-friendly in every sense of the word. This means that the caves are virtually untouched and despite the addition of footpaths, stairs, railings and dim lighting for safety and the tourists which crisscross its floors daily, dangerous critters still lurk in the caves’ deepest crevices.
Once you get off the North-South Highway and pass the roundabout, it’s literally one straight road through St. Ann’s Bay, Priory, Salem & Runaway Bay. You know you’re nearby after you pass the Grand Bahia Principe Hotel then the sign for Pear Tree Bottom River. Its entrance is on the left of the road coming from this direction. Parking spaces are ample and from the parking lot you’ll be met by either a security guard or tour guide directing you on where to purchase tickets.
Adults ages 13 and over pay US$20 while ages 4 – 12 pay US$10, also payable in Jamaican currency. With a local ID (Jamaican passport, drivers’ licence or voters’ ID) you’ll pay JA$1,000 and JA$500, adult and child respectively. They’re open every day of the week from 9 to 4pm but go a bit earlier than closing time to facilitate your tour’s estimated duration of 45 minutes.
I was quite pleased with the property’s facilities. These include restrooms– one of which is wheelchair accessible, a first aid station, a souvenir store if you’re feeling so inclined, snack counter and seating facilities. People with physical disabilities are able to do the tour although there will be a few limitations along the way e.g. going to the cave’s innermost cavern.
Highlights of the Cave Tour
Safety first! Thus, you’ll be given a disposable hair net and hard hat which came in handy for all the bending under stalactites and caverns I had to do. You’ll have to sign a waiver freeing them of medico-legal responsibility before the tour should any harm befall you but once you listen & stay close to your guide, you’ll be fine. The tour begins in the main cave where my very affable guide Brian pointed out evidence of the cave’s most recent use in the 1970’s or so as a popular nightclub. Now obviously, hosting a nightclub in a cave riddled with bats wasn’t a good idea and after a tragedy that use ceased. We got to see where the path known as the escape route lay, although it was eventually sealed up for safety and to prevent possible unscrupulous activity.
Next, we were led down 65 steps, 37 metres into the cave’s innermost cavern to the extremely deep river which runs through the cave. I can’t recall ever seeing water as crystal clear as that! The water was a perfect looking-glass, still, untouched. The water is brackish as it receives inflow from the sea. Brian then told the story of the Tainos who had to hide in the caves from Spanish enslavement and persecution in the 1500s, gingerly footing their way down without the steps, lighting and railings which we take for granted, holding on to unlit rocks, feeling their way to and fro in the pitch black. Torches were unsafe because bat faeces, or guano, is highly flammable and of course, that was learnt the hard way. The only sliver of light came from the occasional sinkhole or twilight zone as it is called when underground looking up and that could only help in the daytime. The Tainos still found a way to make it work because as to what most Jamaicans can attest, necessity is the mother of invention. Thus, they learnt to hunt fish and janga (crayfish) from the bowels of the cave as well as how to drink from the brackish water. They were wise enough to know that denser sea water sinks when left undisturbed and so salvaged fresh water from the top of the salty mixture.
To demonstrate their bravery, Brian turned off his flashlight then flicked the switch for the cave’s lights off after cautioning us to immediately alert him if we felt anything scurry past. The cave is home to Jamaica’s prized endangered & endemic yellow non-venomous snake the Jamaican boa constrictor, other snakes, nine of Jamaica’s 21 species of bat, scorpions, gigantic centipedes, lizards, roaches & the like. Bats flitted about occasionally but minded their own business and I felt reassured knowing there’s no rabies in Jamaica. However, I began to wonder whyyyy don’t they enforce a sneakers only policy?! I’d brought a pair just for this trip but opted not to wear them after hearing slippers were fine. If only they had told me this part too before the tour! Thankfully I didn’t see (or feel) any land creatures today but the guide could recount his previous experiences and that of other colleagues which was more than enough for me.
It was darker than pitch black. Even after standing for what felt like five minutes in the dark I still couldn’t manage to see my waving fingers in front of my face. Thankfully he was only joking about us being required to find our way back in the dark because I couldn’t deal with that. I happily accept that my ancestors were braver than I. Brian considered today a good day since the tide was low enough for us to stand on the platform and view the river, saying that sometimes the water level gets so high above the platform that we have to merely observe it from the staircase instead. And no, the fish which live there aren’t blind as was once previously believed. That myth was debunked in the 2000’s when it was found that the fish respond to light stimuli.
After getting back upstairs, we were led outside on a path which meanders through dead corals. What are corals doing above sea level might you ask? It’s proof that Green Grotto was once underwater of course. There’s no other logical explanation as to how corals found their way on land. Then there was the wishing well, a deep spring also featuring water so clear that I could see the pennies at the bottom 40+ feet deep. It didn’t hurt to throw in a $10 coin and make a wish either.
Along the way, we marvelled at interestingly shaped stalactites (c=ceiling) and stalagmites (g=ground, my way of remembering the difference) and got to see quite a few in formation. Whatever you do, please don’t touch these delicate structures! The oils and grease from our hands can block their tiny pores preventing water from flowing through them and halting their growth since they are formed from calcium salts deposited by dripping water.
Check out these interesting structures:
The tour only covers 7% of the total cave system. The remaining 93% has never been fully explored due to previous explorer teams almost running out of oxygen along the way since deep within the caves have no fresh air supply. For all you adventurous souls out there, maybe with a background in speleology or hobby in spelunking, this could be your next project. You’d have to make an application to the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, among other government bodies, since the caves are now a protected heritage site. Who knows what other treasures or species are waiting to be discovered?!
I can’t believe I’ve never gone here before, not even on a school field trip. This was my first time inside a proper cave and surprisingly, I actually enjoyed it. It had the right amount of adventure & fun with a tups (bit) of scare. It even got me Googling spelunking opportunities in Jamaica as if I’d be brave enough. Anyway, I rate the Green Grotto experience full stars ☆☆☆☆☆ and can’t wait to return someday soon with my brother this time. Let’s truly see if he outgrew his fear of the dark. 😂
‘Til next time. ✌