Before you go: If you’re going off the tourist grid and or planning to eat or live adventurously, you should get vaccinated, at least a week in advance, for Hepatitis A, B, and typhoid fever. If you’re going straight to a walled tourist compound, don’t bother. These vaccinations are expensive, as much as $400 total. But dying or getting sick is also not cost effective.
Beware phone expenses; check what your plan covers. International calls, or calls within Jamaica, can be ridiculously expensive, as much as $2.50 a minute, plus you get lousy reception. Turn off the data roaming feature on your phone, or you will incur huge data roaming fees. If you use Skype, make sure you use it with Wi-Fi, not data roaming, or you’ll incur big charges for the latter. If you’re just going on vacation, use the Internet for communications and avoid your phone. If you’re going to be in Jamaica a while and communicating with the locals, then your first stop should be at one of the many Digicel outlets to put a chip in your phone and get a local phone number. Locals are very big on the WhatsApp phone app to keep in touch.
Why does an American, or anyone from a first world country, pay a lot of money, and go to a lot of trouble, to travel to a 3rd world country? What do we hope to find? Adventure? Or just a different brand of the same things we could really find in our own country?
Jamaica is just an hour flight from Miami, but it’s an entirely different world. And generally speaking, not in a good way. If you go to the capitol, business center, and biggest city, Kingston – and most tourists don’t – you’ll hear even from the locals that it’s not a safe place. “Be Careful” is the watchword, even for Jamaicans, as Kingston has one of the world’s highest murder rates, thanks to gang related drug violence and routine but violent robbery, practiced mainly against other residents of Kingston. In reality, Kingston, like most other places, has safe and unsafe areas, depending on the time of day. Like anywhere else, you want to walk like you know where you’re going, especially if you don’t, and don’t slow down for people that approach you on the streets – if you need to respond, do so in a positive, cheery manner, but without slowing down.
But, you say, you don’t care; you’re headed to one of Jamaica’s beautiful beaches, and you’re going to bypass the entire Kingston area by flying into the tourist oriented airport at Montego Bay rather than Kingston’s airport. And there certainly are plenty of resorts with beautiful beaches in the Montego Bay area, or, not too far away, in Negril. Many of these are all inclusive resorts, where you can eat and drink as much as you want for one fixed price. But the really nice ones, say Secrets at Orchid Bay or Cyobarra, tend to be quite pricey, at least for foreigners, as locals may sometimes qualify for steeply discounted local rates. And of course you’ll get nothing of local culture, because the only Jamaicans you’ll ever encounter will be resort employees; the resorts are almost always walled compounds, designed to keep most locals out and guests in – partly for their own safety. But why would you ever want to leave, when all of your needs – food, drink, nice beaches, some light entertainment, are met within the compound?
Of course, for many Americans, and other first worlders we suppose, the idea of being able to get a drink while standing in the pool or the ocean is nirvana. Of course, there are all inclusive resorts throughout the Caribbean, with many in the Dominican Republic for instance, as well as in other parts of the world. Jamaica is easier than many other places though, as English is spoken, the dollar is accepted as a currency with most tourist goods quoted in dollars, and there are direct flights from Miami, New York, and elsewhere.
Although Jamaicans speak Patois – a mix of English and Creole – to each other, you will always be able to communicate with a Jamaican, even if you stray far from the tourist path, and this is certainly not true of many other island destinations. It’s even kinda fun talking to the locals in Jamaica, as they really do say “Yeah Mon” for any number of reasons, and patois is easy to pick up if you’re in the tiny percentage of travelers who make the effort. (“No mon, me good” is all you have to say to ward off the local vendors.) Note that Jamaicans tend to be direct and literal; if they say “fat”, they often mean simply “big”. If you’re called “white man” it simply means they’re identifying you by your skin color, nothing more. You can either say “No thank you, I don’t need a cab at this time” or simply, in patois, “No cab”.
A thing for reggae music and/or Bob Marley is another Jamaican attraction, but you’re more likely to hear young Jamaican girls singing the latest American pop song – even country and western! – than a Marley tune. The people are reasonably friendly, although it’s a very poor country, so, like all such countries, you’ll often find people working you way too hard to buy their typical tourist goods. And while crime is worst in Kingston, it’s an island wide issue, although you should be safe in your resort enclave (but use the in room safe).
One aggravation, and one big reason why Jamaica is so poor, is the short term “Get ‘em while you can thinking”. So the first thing you’ll encounter in Jamaica is overpriced, non-negotiable taxi fares. $28 to Kingston from the Kingston airport, and $25 from the airport at Montego Bay to your resort which might be 10 or 15 minutes away. On a per mile basis, taxis are more expensive in Jamaica than in the US, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, although petrol prices in Jamaica are much higher. And I’ve been in cabs that seemed literally on the brink of falling apart.
You’ll get better deals if you charter a taxi, which you’ll often have to do if you’re moving around the island. Locals take buses, but, believe me, you don’t want to join them. Charter rates are somewhat negotiable, but will often be on the order of $75-$130 US to move between, say, Kingston and Negril, or Negril to Montego Bay. For much longer trips, like between the airports you’re looking at longer travel times and a higher fare. Jamaica is a two tier society, which is a fancy way of saying they try to screw “rich” tourists at every turn. If you visit the famous falls at Ocho Rios, you’ll find that locals pay about $6 US, while everyone else pays $20. Hotels often provide very significant discounts to those with a Jamaican ID. But taxis are the worst; a short drive that might cost a local a couple dollars will cost a foreigner $25. If you’re feeling a little adventurous and want to try the Jamaican system, then ask where the local taxi stand is. But beware; these places are chaotic, with a very informal system, which often requires a taxi to get multiple passengers before it will leave. And then it might drive over a median to actually reach the road. And a local taxi from a taxi stand will usually only be allowed to travel within a defined geographic area; so Jamaicans often have to switch taxis even if they’re not going all that far.
It’s always worthwhile to find a taxi driver you think is fair and you’re comfortable traveling with. Safety on the roads is a real concern as well, as we’ve spent a couple hours in a small taxi fearing for our life, as the driver passed every vehicle on the road. You may have bought into the “laid back Jamaica” vibe (see below), but Jamaica’s taxi drivers generally have not, and this is doubly scary due to the Jamaican custom of people, including children, selling food while standing in the middle of the road with absolutely no protection. We recommend On Time taxi; which, somewhat remarkable for a country like Jamaica, is usually on time.
And while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about time. I’ve heard that there are people less punctual than Jamaicans, but I haven’t actually encountered them. I can’t speak to business, but socially the women of Jamaica run anywhere from occasionally and miraculously on time, to hours late, the latter being more common than the former. It’s not a cliché to say that Jamaicans have a different idea of time, and to a large extent this is because so many are unemployed, or not part of some system that has trained them, for better or worse, to watch the clock. A Jamaican that has a job, or even is going to school, is more likely to adhere to first world ideas of punctuality than one who does not. And before you go off on how cool it is that Jamaicans aren’t slaves to the clock, you might try waiting a couple hours at the airport to get picked up, or sitting alone in a restaurant for an hour waiting for your date. Not really so cool.
Part of the reason that Jamaicans often run late when meeting with foreigners is that they are actually coming from further away than the area they identify. They may say they live in Kingston, Mandeville, or Montego Bay only because those are well known areas; in fact, they may really live outside those areas in fringe towns or more rural outlying areas. So if someone says they’re coming from “Kingston” try to find out where they really are; could be very near by, or quite far away.
But all of this begs an important question; what really makes for a worthwhile trip, one that justifies the inevitable hassles and expense of traveling? Does it make sense to travel to Jamaica if you learn nothing about Jamaican culture or society? Maybe it does, if your idea of a grand time is walking around nude at the Grand Lido resort in Negril, and drinking pina colodas by the ocean. That doesn’t happen to be our idea of a good time, although Bloody Bay is certainly a beautiful beach. We love splashing around in the warm, clear Caribbean sea, but many travelers don’t even take advantage of this easy pleasure. It’s amazing to us the scene we recently saw at the Cyobarra resort; with a beautiful, shallow ocean just steps away, there was no one in that crystal clear water. Instead, the very small and completely mundane pool was crowded. C’mon people; you travel all this way to the Caribbean and then go to the little pool instead of the ocean?
And speaking of the ocean, one thing you’ll learn, if you actually bother speaking to any Jamaicans other than to say “Ketchup, please!” you might learn that most can’t swim. Seems a little bizarre, since Jamaica is a small island surrounded by the sea, and no one is more than a couple hours from the water. In fact, even though you will never know it from reading tourist guides, there is ocean and beach right at the foot of the rough and tumble city of Kingston! Only locals go. Not only can’t they swim, but they are often afraid of the ocean, which might makes sense if they were surrounded by the type of fierce and blustery Atlantic ocean, but, hey, we’re talking about an ocean that has little or no waves, generally crystal clear water, and is often shallow enough so that you can walk out 50 yards and still be in waist deep water. This is the gentlest ocean you’ll ever find, like swimming in grandma’s bathtub, yet you’ll still hear the locals act as if it was as dangerous as a bad section of Kingston at 2AM.
Another surprise is that these days you’ll actually find some Jamaicans at Jamaican resorts, as well as black Americans. It used to be simple to tell who worked at the resort and who was a guest – if they had white skin, they were American guests. If they had black skin, they were Jamaican employees. Not so simple anymore, as at least some Jamaicans and black Americans are able to afford a Caribbean vacation.
If you’re an Attitude Media reader, you know we’re all about intelligent, calculated risk taking, whether in travel or any other areas of life, like investing. You know that we’re always looking to get away from the crowd, not go with the crowd. In Jamaica the crowd is at the beach, not without reason, as this island nation is surrounded by water and has a lot of beautiful beaches. But what most people don’t know is that Jamaica also has some stunning, truly beautiful mountain areas. Specifically, the Blue Mountains, which are actually green and verdant. They’re about 45 minutes outside Kingston, but a completely different world. How different? At night, from a distance, way up high, the lights of Kingston sparkle, and this mundane, gritty city actually looks beautiful. If you know Kingston, you know that’s a miracle. The blue mountains are where green mountain coffee is grown. We recommend the Strawberry Hill resort, owned by former Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, and at the very top of one of the highest peaks. The resort is small, the rooms a bit dated, and service moves at a Jamaican pace, but the views from the porches off the cottages can’t be beat. There’s not a lot to do up here, but bring a bottle of wine, and drink in the views.
Some other places to know about in Jamaica:
Mandeville – There is no reason for you to go here. By Jamaican standards, it’s actually a well off town, with many from Kingston building nice vacation houses here because of the higher altitude, cooler temps, and can be reached from the capitol in about 90 minutes. But the hotels are generally terrible and not to international tourist class standards. Hotel Mandeville for instance seemed to me like something out of a horror movie. My apartment had cracked glass; the kind of place when you don’t take off your clothes when you go to bed.
Montego Bay – As discussed above, most tourists will fly into the Montego Bay Airport and go straight to their all inclusive resort, never leaving. That’s not all bad, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you have visited Jamaica; you have just visited yet another big international resort that happens to be on the Jamaican coast. Montego Bay is the second biggest city in Jamaica and has the most resorts.
Secrets at Orchird Bay – Beautiful setting storybook setting on a peninsula with views in every direction, and, at least in the preferred club, excellent food as well as a wide variety of dining options in the various restaurants. The rooms are a little dated, and I struggled with the air-conditioning. Service is generally so-so, and for some reason they powerwash the pavement in the middle of the night, which is not great if you have a room nearby. Balconies generally have very nice views. Overall, this is a very nice resort, but it seems to attract the normal cast of crude, fat, Americans.
Cyobarra – Very nice rooms and good service, except when dining, in this fairly small resort. If you’re looking for a large place with a lot of activities this is not for you; the dining options are very limited, and way overpriced, but the beach and pier are nice. One hassle is that the Wi-Fi does not work in rooms, so you’ll need to take your device the short distance to the hotel lobby. Service at all the restaurants is 2nd rate.
Hilton at Round Hill? – I would not recommend this place. It’s really a massive all inclusive beach resort, without much of a beach. In fact, it is the worse beach I have seen in Jamaica. The rooms, and the resort in general, are kinda tired, and the dining options are limited. This is the kind of place where families go on vacation because they got a good deal. While the resort bills itself as being 400 acres, only a tiny fraction of that is actually usable by guests. Everything about this place screams “huge chain hotel for the middle class”. Having said all that, however, you can still get lucky; we had an excellent waiter in the Italian restaurant who really made the evening. But this place is several notches below somewhere like Secrets at Orchid Bay.
Negril – About an hour from Montego Bay, with perhaps nicer beaches. Here you can find the classic trees growing right on the beach postcard view. But most tourists won’t be able to tell the difference between Negril and any other beach resort destination, although there is quite a large difference in quality among the various all inclusive resorts.
Yes, there is a Margaritaville in Negril, but if you stay at places like that please don’t use this site.
Grand Lido – This is a second rate all inclusive resort, but it has very nice beaches on Bloody Bay, and it can be an excellent value, especially if you’re traveling with a Jamaican who qualifies for the large locals discount. My girlfriend and I were quite surprised to see everyone walking around naked before realizing that we had stumbled onto the clothing optional beach. Mainly middle aged somewhat overweight white people. But there is a normal main beach which is very nice. This is a very large resort, but many of the dining options close depending on demand. The rooms generally have very nice ocean views and are very close to the beach. The food is acceptable if not wonderful, there is very little entertainment, and if you want to use WiFi you have to make what can be a very long walk from your room to the lobby. Still, if you get this place at the right price, it can be fine. The hotel is generally in need of refurbishment, as are the rooms, but still, not too bad.
Ocho Rios – About an hour and a quarter from Montego Bay, the area has a reputation as being safer and nicer to walk around than bigger towns. But don’t bother; the town itself is not worth seeing, and in some areas is disgusting, such as the fetid canal. But do go to the falls. Buy or rent the shoes, put your things in a locker, have someone with a preferably waterproof camera, and climb the falls.
The Village Hotel in Ocho Rios may be the worst hotel value in all of Jamaica; terrible rooms, but not all that cheap, and directly next to the disgusting canal referred to above. Service is poor, and the restaurant is a sad joke. Another room where you’ll just try to get through the night. And they have the gall to charge $5 to use the room safe. The good news is that the Internet works from from your room, and you’ll need that to plan your escape.
A stay in Kingston for a foreigner really means a stay in New Kingston, the business district and safest area. All the international class hotels are in the same general area.
The best hotel overall is probably Spanish Courts, which is very nice, has good service, and nice rooms. Unlike the vast majority of what you’ll see, even in New Kingston, this hotel is up to first world standards. In fact, the colorful, creative interior design is as nice as anything you’ll find in hotspots like New York or Miami. One problem with Spanish courts is that they’re adding a bunch of rooms, and they otherwise seem to be under perpetual construction, which is somewhat surprising given that the hotel is fairly new. Also, one side of the hotel fronts a busy road, and produces a lot of noise in the rooms; don’t let the staff tell you otherwise. The restaurant is expensive, and the café adds $2US to add vanilla to your latte; nothing is a bargain here, except the rooms on weekends can be reasonably priced. Keep in mind that Kingston is a business city, and the hotels here cater to businessmen as well as tourists. The biggest problem with Spanish Courts is that the neighborhood is sketchy, and generally devoid of attractions other than an ATM and a nice Pizza Hut. You can feel a bit confined in this small hotel after a few days, as there is really no escape valve. Workout room is very meager and pool is mainly ornamental, but restaurant is very nice, and includes a nice breakfast.
A better location although just a short walk from Spanish Courts, although not necessarily better rooms or service, is Pegasus. Much bigger than Spanish Courts, with nice grounds – even a tennis court and a nice pool. This is a large hotel with big lobby and a lot of room to move, especially as it’s across the street from Emanicipation park, a large nice park. Food prices here seem more reasonable, but the design is generic without any of the character of Spanish Court. If your visit is short, I’d go with Spanish Courts; more than couple days and you’ll feel claustrophobic there, so I’d go with Pegasus.