Travel Tales: Jamaica

"Do not leave your resort," one friend warns before we depart for a week in Jamaica. Well- meaning relatives promise drug dealers, thieves in the streets, aggressive trinket vendors patrol- ling public beaches. And our fellow resort guests lead by example: No one explores. No one hires a guide or rents a car. No one sets foot off the beaten, all-inclusive track. But by week's end Amy and I have had enough insulated indul- gence. We dash through a downpour to meet local friend Kaci in the resort's round- about, her two-door Civic revving like a getaway car.

We zoom past the guard gate and turn east. Free! We drive along the sheer limestone cliffs of Jamaica's north coast, leaving the rain behind. We're going to look for Tacky Falls — more spectacular than famous Dunn's River Falls, rumor has it, but off the radar. Kaci was born in Jamaica, and she's never heard of it. She drives fast. About 20 miles past Port Maria, we turn at the sign for Robin's Bay.

At the first fork, Kaci stops a man with few teeth and no helmet on a motorbike. Well, he says it's our decision, but if it were him, he'd take the uphill road. "Ask again up at the snack shop." My map, which shows the bay but not the falls, classifies these routes not as A-, B- or even C-class, but "Other road," catchall for any backwoods track you shouldn't drive in a Honda Civic. Kaci accelerates and brakes, threading the remnant pavement through potentially axle-busting ruts and crater-size potholes.

The keeper of the little food stand thinks the falls is closed but points up toward the police station in Islington. There, a policeman in a T-shirt and shorts leans over the counter to peer at Kaci's track shoes and my suede hikers. "You'd be better in rubber boots," he says, but he directs us onto Roadside Drive, down past a church and a crossroads. A woman loitering outside the station volunteers her opinion that we will never make it.

Just looking for the falls is fun. After a few days at our luxurious all-inclusive — Couples Tower Isle in Ocho Rios — the property had begun to act more like a shield against the island than a gate- way to it. The resort lobby has two main doors. One leads down wide white steps to a pool with a swim-up bar, to buffets arrayed with refined Caribbean-fusion cuisine, to the late-night singalong piano lounge and the full-service beach, to our well-appointed room and to all manner of pampering. The other door leads to Jamaica.

To their credit, the staff have encouraged our desire to explore. Sean Dixon, a translator for Couples who grew up in this area, told me about Tacky Falls, as impressive as Dunn's but undevel- oped — no tour buses or cruise-ship crowds. "It's in the jungle above Robin's Bay," he said, "but you'd have to go with someone." Jamaicans seem to prefer going with you to giving directions, especially if it's their favorite spot.

On the barely passable road — shattered but posted with prim street signs — we ford a clear stream. Then as the road climbs the side of the valley, we pass through a group of men lining the road. An old guy on the left says, "You're lost." A young guy on the right says, "Tacky Falls." We can already hear the roar.

Kaci parks where the road ends. The two locals fall in as we walk down a grass-covered embank- ment turned to muck by the rain. We cross the stream, and the young guy, Roan, takes the lead, hacking through fallen branches with a machete. We skirt the top of the falls and follow the trail down the steep mountainside. Everton, the old guy, says, "Stay to the left." Sure-footed in flip- flops, he holds a joint in one hand and offers the other to Amy, telling her where to step. Just two hours from the resort's front door, we come over the bare roots of a giant tree and see Tacky Falls. There's no one here.

Legend has it, an escaped slave named Tacky, fleeing his captors, leapt from the falls to his death. Today, water leaps through angled sunlight down to our shaded shelf. From there it flows through a series of rills and pools to another drop. Layered mountains rise on either side, covered with dense foliage.

Everton and Roan seem content to stay as long as we like in a spot they've seen a thousand times. They say people show up every few days and usually have the place to themselves. Everton says if we wait, the sun will shine down the watercourse from above. He asks if we mind before he fires up his cigarette, then starts clearing leaves from the pools. Conscious of his accent, he speaks slowly. "I keep this clean," he says, gesturing.

I walk around barefoot in the shallows on rock surfaces washed smooth. Roan shows me a spring, the sweet water safe to drink. He opens seed pods with his machete to reveal slivers of edible nut. He points out the plot high on the hillside where he grows crops. He has to tend the garden with a safety line around his waist. "I don't know why I plant there,” he says. He shows me an empty bat cave behind the falls. "Rat-bat feces," he says, picking up crumbly scat big enough it could've come from a flying greyhound. "Excellent manure, good for marijuana."

When the sun rises above the ridge, the water shines. Everton has cleared the leaves from most of the tier. "That's good," he says. We put our shoes back on and Roan leads the way out. "Keep to the right." We pass through a stand of bamboo at the top of the falls, which forms a tunnel of dappled sunlight.

Jamaica does have a few sketchy areas, and it's smart to be careful traveling anywhere, but if we'd stayed at the resort, we would have missed this wonder.

Everton stops us on the road and points to the territory we've crossed. "This is our land," he says. "You are welcome here."