Reggae and rum drinks at the hotel bar are about as close as many visitors get to the 'real' Jamaica. Even in the big resort area of Montego Bay, however, it’s not hard to find a slice of authentic Jamaican community life. Mount Zion is a rural farming village in St. Ann Parish, literally up the hill from the big resorts lining the island’s north shore.
The road up to the village, which starts near the Cinnamon Hill golf course, is bumpy and potholed, making you wonder how bike tours once used this route for one-way trips down the mountain. Lush foliage presses in on both sides of the road, but soon enough you arrive at the welcome sign for Mount Zion.
In Rastafari culture, Mt. Zion represents the ultimate paradise, which is probably not how you would describe the Jamaican village of the same name. Two public buildings dominate the town: the Mount Zion All Ages School -- where paintings of Jamaica’s national heroes adorn the back wall -- and the circa 1838 Mount Zion United Presbyterian Church. These, plus three rum bars and a smattering of private homes, comprise the village.
What it lacks in material wealth, however, Mount Zion makes up for in its strong sense of community. Visitors are something of a novelty here -- you will draw attention from the local schoolchildren and anyone who happens to be liming at the bars. A rum shop run by the gregarious Willy (and inhabited by at least one friendly ganja-smoking regular) was our first stop, and after ordering an ice-cold Red Stripe I got a mini tour from an eager teenage guide who showed off some of the local produce (ackee, the Jamaican national food, hanging from a tree outside the bar; and the biggest avocado I have ever seen) before leading me up the hill to the church, the evident pride of the village.
Attended by two elderly ladies with rag brooms, the church seems not to have changed much in the past 170 or so years except for some newer pews, but was spotlessly clean and still very much a centerpiece of village life. Heralding our arrival on a Saturday afternoon, the attendants rang the massive copper church bell for us, doubtless startling some village residents (Sunday services already!?).
The kids we met chatted up a storm about their lives at school, while the bartender waxed philosophical between pouring drinks and selling bread to local residents. Everyone seemed happy to see us, and we were thrilled to get at least a brief insight into the timeless pace of life in the quiet Jamaican backcountry.
If you go, it never hurts to have a local guide like our Ivan Bowwow -- the resident taxi driver at the Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort in Montego Bay -- but economic self-interest aside, even Ivan says that tourists can feel secure driving a rental car up to Mount Zion for a visit (just mind the potholes). Bring an open mind, your camera, and a few dollars for the rum bar, the church collection box, and maybe a small tip for your impromptu young guides...
If you're looking for an authentic look into local culture and community in Jamaica, Mount Zion is a great place to visit – not just for the sights and sounds, but for the people, who certainly made this trip one of my most memorable Caribbean expeditions.