We spent just over two weeks in Jamaica. During our time there we stayed in AirBnBs, a hostel with no electricity, an all-inclusive resort, and we camped in a beautiful spot overlooking Kingston. We drove from one end of the island to the other while trying to refrain from drifting to the right side of the road- the side we typically drive on in the U.S. We went to the highest point in Jamaica, saw an “alright” Blue Hole, got scared by ghosts, drank the best cup of coffee we’ve ever had, and climbed a cliff only to plunge into the pristine sea 35 feet below.
I am sure you’re aware that Jamaica is beautiful and filled with wonderful beaches, lush tropical forests, breathtaking mountains and teeming with hidden gems tucked away waiting for you to find. So, the hard part of this post is deciding how to write about Jamaica without being trite, especially because it seems that everyone knows someone who has been to Jamaica. The all-inclusives of Montego Bay take all the worry out of a holiday. Get on a plan at your local airport and then some hours later when you arrive in Jamaica, a shinny van whooshes you away to your resort.
That was not our experience in Jamaica. Our adventures began with trying to catch a route taxi-yes, at night- and ended with us soaking in the past few weeks while floating in a lazy river.
In no way is it simple to boil down a trip into “highlights,”and we certainly do not aim to reduce a travel experience to a sum of attractions. At the same time, we value providing tangible suggestions that might to help guide a fellow traveler (or local exploring her own backyard).
Great Rose Hall: Ever been to a “staged” haunted house? Ever been to a museum? How about a staged haunted attraction that simultaneously provides a history lesson? This stunning historic home in Montego Bay is worth a visit. We visited at night, which limited our ability to take in the view, but the nighttime tour allowed for an extra spooky time. We learned about paranormal activity in this house and listened to recounts of the disgrace in the days of slavery. While the spooky actors made light of the haunting, the historical narrative highlighted the importance of the historical context. We recommend buying your tickets in advance.
Irie Blue Hole: Apparently Jamaica has quite a few blue holes in different regions of the county. We visited the lovely Irie Blue Hole. A brief Jamaican patois lesson: irie means “alright.” This site is not officially a tourist attraction, so we were alone to enjoy parts of this geological wonder with few visitors around. Come prepared with your bathing suit, as you can take your time swimming in the natural pools and explore various levels of the river. You can rappel off of a small waterfall and free fall 25 feet down into a natural pool. It is worth hiring a guide but keep in mind that they will try to rush you. We enjoyed the first level on our own and then asked for a guide to take us up the river. You can easily spend several hours here! There is a small fee to enter (less than $15; in addition,guides work off of tips).
Rick’s Cafe: Rick’s Cafe in Negril is certainly worth a visit. Whether you are open to jumping
off of cliffs of various heights (up to 35 feet) into pristine waters or whether you feel more comfortable as a spectator, it’s an interesting place for people watching. For the climbers out there, you can do some basic deep water soloing there-we reckon about a v2 up the 35ft face. We arrived before the mass of tourists and it really was night and day once those tourist buses arrived. We suggest arriving late morning/early afternoon. Do not let anyone fool you, there is no entrance fee nor a fee to jump off the rocks/cliffs. The food/drinks are over priced so I wouldn’t go with an empty belly either. However, you can cross the street or walk down the road for more reasonable and less crowded options.
All Natural Cafe: We highly recommend this gem in Negril. The setting is so beautiful and unique. Imagine an outdoor tropical cafe that creatively utilizes all sorts of scraps to furnish and decorate. The juices and food were delicious and reasonably priced. This cafe is off the beaten path and you might think you are lost as you try to locate this place, but we promise, it exists and is worth a visit!
- Blue Mountains: We spent several days in the mountains relaxing, exploring, and drinking the perfect coffee blend. It took a little time for us to plan out this part of our trip considering it is highly advisable to hire a guide if you want to hike to the peak for the sunrise. Also, once in the mountains, the terrain is relatively rural. So, it is advisable to plan the most basic aspects of your trip beforehand. We decided to devote a separate page to discuss the Blue Mountains. Please see here for our detailed account of visiting the Blue Mountains.
- Jamaica by car: We mostly explored this country by car, which was a great experience. Tourists seem to stick mostly to organized tours, so we often found ourselves feeling especially free. We could arrive at “attractions” on our own schedule and we really got a feel for some of the landscape and small towns. We bought fruit from vendors on the road and visited small grocery stores to make our own meals nearly every night. The roads were generally good and we were able to navigate easily with a basic map and GPS from time to time. Keep in mind that car rental agencies seem to be stricter in Jamaica requiring you to have written verification from your credit card company if they cover the cost of insurance. I never ran into this issue before. So, it’s a good idea to have a printed document or one in your email…assuming you’ll be able to access email once in the country.
Getting around, route taxi
A route taxi is a shared taxi that zips around most Jamaican roads. They are marked with red license plates and are shared with as many people as the driver can cram in. The trick to riding a route taxi is knowing the cost of the fare before you get in. If you ask the drive once you arrive at your destination, you are likely to be overcharged. If you know the price, you can just hand the driver the cash and part ways with a smile.
In reflecting on my experience, the sense of adventure and the beauty of this island are certainly salient. However, the discomfort, uncertainty, and
sadness I feel about human history are also at the forefront of my mind. I do not intend on diminishing anyone’s approach to vacationing in the Caribbean, but in approaching this trip, I knew that the resort life had never really appealed to me, at least not for an entire trip. With the approach to seeking the “local” experience, also comes the reality of the conditions of the country and its people. Moreover, the incredible privilege of holding a U.S. passport and to earning U.S dollars, was crudely brought to the forefront of my mind. Upon reflecting to a cab driver about the wide spread of Jamaican culture throughout the world, the driver quickly challenged my attempt to praise his culture. He immediately responded, “That’s because of slavery” and went on to discuss how Jamaica was one of the last stops in the imperialists’ journey, resulting in “only the strongest survived.” I’d like to think that I am a culturally and politically conscious person, but this individual promptly showed me that no amount of reading, college degree, or knowledge of his island would show the true and complex picture of this country.
Although I reflected on important global issues throughout my visit, I also had lots of fun exploring. I absolutely loved relaxing in our off-the-beaten AirBnB in Negril (email us for contact info). I slept one night in the hammock on our balcony overlooking the sea, while being serenaded by the sounds of lively ocean crashing on the rocks. I also loved driving from Ocho Rios through the Blue Mountains. Once in the mountains, it was great to camp in Hollywell National Park overlooking Kingston below. Overall, it was great to drive around the island. I will not deny that ending the trip in the comfort of a resort was a relaxing way to unwind and heal from sunburn and bug bites. This was my first trip to the Caribbean and I think this experience certainly set the bar high. Any trip that provides beautiful sights, interesting conversations with natives, awareness of global issues, and a reflection of my privilege is certainly a gift in the journey of life.
And yes…I did hear reggae morning, noon, and night. One love.
Jamaica is a wonderful country filled with beaches, mountains, bustling cities, and a wide array of people. I’m sure there are a million blogs that will tell you that Jamaica is a magical wonderland filled with people with big hearts and bigger smiles… which can be true. One thing I’ve always found true is that no matter where you go, the sky is the sky, the ground is the ground, and people are people. Keeping this in mind has kept the rose colored lenses off of my eyes, allowing me to see wherever I am as it is. Like anywhere else, there will be amazingly kind people and people who are not so amazing.
Something to keep in mind…people will try anything to engage you in conversation then try to sell you something. For example, if you are wearing an”Ohio State” t-shirt the peddler will start with something about Ohio, and then he’ll try to sell you something. If you are polite and firm, the solicitor will give up.
In one situation someone came up to me and said he was from the hotel security. At the time Potato and I were not saying in a hotel but an AirBnB. I smiled and asked him “what hotel?”. Remember when walking around to be polite and firm and the solicitor will give up. But you will be solicited often, and for everything. The minimum wage in Jamaica is around 150 Jamaican Dollars, which would be around 1.50 USD. So if you tip someone a dollar that is roughly an hours work. With that in mind, Jamaica can be a really expense island with a liter of gas costing 450 Jamaica Dollars, and a gallon of milk is about the same. It easy to understand why so many people try to get a few dollars out of you. A dollar to an American might mean very little whereas a US dollar can go a long way for a Jamaican.
There is no more eloquent way of saying (or writing) it, I had lots of fun in Jamaica. I loved driving around and making plans essentially the day before or maybe the day of. We were able to fly by the seat of our pants mostly due to AirBnB. We found most of our lodging though instant booking. We cooked most of our meals and simply took our time. We definitely were stared at, as random tourists walking around isn’t all that commonplace in smaller towns. On the other hand, apart from those soliciting from us, most people did not bother with us, and many were very helpful.