Grand Cayman certainly has a lot to offer the active traveler, especially if you like water sports. SCUBA diving, snorkeling, sailing, windsurfing and other waterborne activities no doubt attract more people here than anything else. On my first visit to the island earlier this year, though, I found that there are a few terrestrial pursuits worth checking out as well. Take hiking, for instance…
Wait, wait, wait… hiking? In Grand Cayman?
Yeah, I was as surprised as anyone to find a viable hike here. What little I knew about Grand Cayman’s physical make-up prior to my visit was that it was flat (highest elevation: 60 feet) and dry – not an ideal combo for the Caribbean’s typically lush, tropical hiking areas. The Mastic Trail, the one and only hiking trail on Grand Cayman, is certainly uncommon when compared to other hiking options we’ve mentioned before in the rainforests of Martinique, Dominica, and Nevis, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying, especially if you’re not afraid of snakes.
Wait, wait, wait… snakes?!
Indeed, this trail is loaded with them, and trust me, they’re the curious brand of snake that really doesn’t like to move off to the side just because you’re walking by. I found this out about five minutes into my journey along the Mastic Trail. Before I get into the details of my frightful wildlife encounter, though, here are two bits of useful advice…
1) As this sign I encountered near the head of the trail says, The Mastic Trail is not a loop. It’s a two-mile walk one-way, which means that if you don’t have a buddy ready to pick up up at the opposite end from where you’re starting, be prepared to walk back the exact same way you came, four miles total.
2) I started my hike from the southern entrance to the trail, which is easily accessible near the midway point of Park Sound Road that runs north-south across the eastern end of the island. DO NOT DO THIS! The entrance along the north shore is more scenic and offers better signage. There’s even a map that tells you a bit about the wildlife you may encounter on the trail, which would’ve been useful at the section where I entered.
Signage issues aside, the Mastic Trail offers a fascinating opportunity to experience one of last remaining truly virgin dry, subtropical, semi deciduous dry forests in the Caribbean. It’s named for the Mastic tree, which used to predominate the island, but have been decimated over the centuries by rampant deforestation.
The history of the trail goes back more than 100 years, when an early settler named William Watler got some friends together and built it to make it easier for him to get produce from his fruit orchards to market. Back then, the Mastic Trail was a more formal throughway comprised of mahogany logs and beach rocks, but after the island’s primary coastal and cross-island roads were completed, it became the overgrown natural playground we see today.
For just a short, two-mile stretch, the Mastic Trail boasts a wide variety of ecosystems. You pass through swampy mangroves, dry forest, a grassy savannah, and a rocky area with trees and foliage growing straight out of ironshore rock. The forest is so virgin that some of the flora has been dated back more than 200 years!
Of course, all this pristine nature means that the animals here are pretty bold too. The snakes – small and harmless – may make you think twice about this hike, but if you love birds, the slithery guys will be an afterthought. There are just so many birds here, all whistling, cackling and singing loudly, as if to herald your approach to other feathered friends further down the trail. On my hike, I enjoyed a veritable symphony of bird calls, especially in the middle of the trail, which is also where you’ll find the most dense forest.
Now, I’m no bird expert, but I definitely saw and heard Bananaquits, Caribbean Ground Doves, Cayman Parrots and a couple West Indian Woodpeckers. Like the snakes, the birds were exceedingly curious. Every time I looked up from my careful search for good footing (and snakes) I’d see one perched just two or three feet from me, singing in such a way as if to ask: “What are you doing here?”
As it got dark, and I found myself near the heart of the Mastic Trail, I started to ask the same question. The trail is fairly easy, with no climbing and just the rocky footing over ironshore giving me some slight pause as I moved quickly on the way back to my rental car. Moving at a faster pace made me much less apt to notice all the snakes, so you may want to treat this hike more like a sprint if snakes are an issue for you.
The Mastic Trail is open every day. Entrance is free for those going it alone, or you can arrange guided tours via the National Trust for the Cayman Islands for a small fee.