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Jamaica

Jamaica Itineraries

First Timer’s Guide to Understanding Jamaica

Jamaica Golf: Montego Bay Golf Courses

Jamaica Off the Beaten Path to Bob Marley

Jamaica’s Best Jerk Pits

Jamaica’s Best Natural Attractions

It is confusing the first time you meet a Jamaican in the evening and he greets you with the words “Good Night.”  Is something wrong? No, the Jamaican is not leaving or dismissing you.  After all, it is night. Saying “Good Evening” (when the evening is the briefest part of the night) does not really make much sense. The Jamaican perspective on the time of day is a very logical one. Perspective…Jamaica will probably change it for you in many ways.

Jamaica, slightly smaller than Connecticut, is located about 90 miles south of Cuba and 100 miles west of Haiti. Jamaica is one of the Caribbean’s most popular islands, each year averaging about two million overnight visitors and 1.5 million cruise ship passengers. The third largest Caribbean island, Jamaica is 146 miles long and varies between 22 and 51 miles wide. It is about 80 percent hilly and almost one-half of the land area is above 1,000 feet.

Jamaica offers tremendous geographic variety: desert, high mountains, rivers, valleys, beaches…almost everything but snow (although it may drop below freezing in winter on Blue Mountain Peak). The diverse landscape is perfect for such varied activities as climbing river falls, river rafting, taking a horseback ride into the mountains, cycling down the Blue Mountains, zip-lining and long (or short) wilderness hikes.

The most popular tourist destinations are Ocho Rios, Montego Bay and Negril, each with its own distinctive attractions. Port Antonio, where Jamaica tourism began, still attracts tourists but often of a different type. Treasure Beach on the South Coast is just beginning to be noticed.

Port Antonio

Jamaica tourism began here in the 1880s when Port Antonio was called the “banana capital of the world.” In winter, the empty banana boats turned into “cruise ships,” bringing to Port Antonio such celebrities as writer Rudyard Kipling, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst and financier J.P. Morgan.  Hollywood actor Errol Flynn loved Port Antonio so much he moved there and lived on 64-acre Navy Island. Today celebs such as Tom Cruise, Eddie Murphy, and Denzel Washington have vacationed in this out of the way spot, off the radar of most tourists. Jamaica’s famous jerk barbecue originated near Port Antonio, at a small village called Boston.

Ocho Rios

This popular resort area on the northeast coast also is Jamaica’s busiest cruise port. Fronting Ocho Rios Bay, the area’s largest beach is Turtle Beach, a crescent of white sand flanked by palm trees just off Main Street. Nearby Dunn’s River Falls, one of the country’s most famous landmark attractions, is crowded almost every day as chains of tourists scale the fast-flowing waterfall. Other attractions include dolphin swims, riding a bobsled Jamaican style, zip-lining through the trees, Green Grotto Caves and trail rides on horseback that end with a horseback swim in the sea. The name Ocho Rios is a confusing one. It does not mean “eight rivers” but is most likely a corruption of the town’s first Spanish name, “Las Chorreras,” which means “the waterfalls” or “the springs.”  The British apparently misunderstood  “Las Chorreras” to mean  “eight rivers,” hence the name Ocho Rios.

Montego Bay

Called Mobay by locals, it is Jamaica’s second largest city after Kingston, the capital city. Mobay is the largest resort area and home to Sangster International Airport.  It features 15 miles of coastline sprinkled by beautiful white-sand beaches and some of the island’s most varied shopping and liveliest nightlife. Mobay is the hub for river rafting, tours of old Great Houses, location of one of the Caribbean’s three bioluminescent coves as well as a handful of excellent golf courses. Mobay also is the launching point into the remote limestone Cockpit Country, which has the greatest diversity of plants and animals anywhere on the island.

Negril

Located  on Jamaica’s west coast, Negril can claim the island’s calmest water and best beach, Seven Mile Beach, which has been rated as one of the Caribbean’s best. A former hippie hangout and newest of Jamaica’s 3 major resort areas, Negril is the best place on the island for sunset watching, as popular here as in Key West, FL. Although Negril cannot quite compete with Mobay or Ocho Rios in the variety of daytime activities, there are some excellent day tours to attractions like Y.S. Falls and a safari on the Black River. While its nightlife is notably lively. Negril still is first-rate for hanging out and relaxing. The name Negril is thought to be for the black cliffs south of the town.

Treasure Beach

This is the name given to a 6-mile stretch of beaches and coves on Jamaica’s South Coast which has grown rapidly in popularity for those seeking the original feel and flavors of Jamaica. Treasure Beach includes four coves–Billy’s Bay, Frenchman’s Bay, Calabash Bay and Great (Pedro) Bay—that offer a mix of white and dark sand beaches. No big developments (yet) so there is little to do but unwind, relax and dine on authentic Jamaican cooking at beachfront cafes and food stands. With charter jet service available from Kingston, quiet Treasure Beach may not stay that way for long.

Ganja Law Change

This is an island-wide destination change. Jamaica long has been famous for the pervasive smell of ganja (marijuana) which was illegal to possess in any quantity, but that didn’t always deter tourists from seeking it out when it was sold so openly in places like Negril.

The law has changed. Now Jamaicans and tourists can possess 2 ounces or less of the formerly wicked weed without fear of criminal prosecution. If found by the police, you can be ticketed for a fine costing about US$5. Failing to pay the fine will go on your criminal record. It still is illegal to smoke in public.

For some, this is one more attraction in a country already with so many.

When To Go

With such diverse geography, Jamaica is an island with many different  activities as well as a variety of regional weather patterns. Some months are better than others, as well as less expensive.

In Jamaica, the Caribbean Sea usually remains above 80F even from December through March and climbs to the mid-80s from July through October.  (Find out what the water temperature is today) The winter months also are the driest season, although it still rains during that time. March is the driest month of the year, traditionally receiving only 1.06 inches of rain. But it is much more expensive then. April has only a bit more rain (2.09 inches) and hotel rates usually drop after April 15. April would be a good time to visit, once Spring Break is over.

In winter, there always is the possibility a cold front from North American will make mornings and evenings chilly and churn the water too much for small boats to go out. But the weather still will be ideal for other land-based activities. No wonder winter is Jamaica’s most crowded season. Even a slight chill beats freezing temperatures.

In summer, the best time to visit is the month of July which ties April at 2.09 inches of rainfall. Both are among the driest months of the year. And July hotel rates are low season all month long. July does fall during hurricane season but tropical activity usually is highest from August to October.

How Much Time To Spend

Most air and hotel packages are based on a 5 to 7-day stay. There is so much to see in Jamaica. You could easily spend several weeks, if not a month.

High and Low Season

As on all Caribbean islands, the high season runs from December 15-April 15. These not only are the best weather months, this is the time Jamaica is most crowded with sun-seeking visitors avoiding the winter cold. Hotels also tend to be crowded with college students during the annual Spring Break running through March to about mid-April. Some resorts appeal to students by offering special activities; others discourage the crowds.

From mid-April to mid-December, hotel rates and airfares tend to drop perhaps 20-percent or more.  With fewer tourists, hotels and restaurants are most thankful for your business and service often is at its best. However, some resorts may have reduced staffs and cut back some services. Resorts often do their remodeling and upgrades in September and October, usually the slowest months.

Weather and Climate

The coastal temperature is mild year-round, between 72F and 88F. However, Jamaica’s location in the northern western Caribbean region means it is influenced by cold fronts originating in North America. These fronts may bring rain and cooler temperatures. Evenings and mornings tend to be chilly once a front has passed through.

During the warmest months of May through October, Jamaica enjoys several natural cooling conditions. In addition to the northeast trade winds, an onshore breeze known as the ‘doctor breeze’ helps make the day comfortable. At night, the breeze changes to an offshore one called the ‘undertakers breath.’

In the mountains, the annual temperatures range from 59F to 71F. In the highest regions of the Blue Mountains, the temperatures may fall to 50F. As a rule of thumb, it drops 1-degree F in Jamaica for every 300-foot increase in altitude.

The average annual rainfall is 78 inches but varies considerably from the windward side to the leeward side of Jamaica. The windward side north of the Blue Mountains experiences more rainfall, higher humidity and hot muggy summer days. Some higher altitudes receive from 100 to 300 inches of rain annually.

The leeward side, located south of the Blue Mountains, experiences less rain and lower humidity. Although showers may fall anytime of year, Jamaica has two designated rainy seasons. The first is in May and the second in October
and November. Tropical storm and hurricane activity normally are most active from August to October.

Events and Holidays

Special Events  
The islands biggest party bash is Carnival, held the week before Easter across the island with musical entertainment and parades. Just as rousing is the Christmas gala Jonkanoo (called Junkanoo on other islands).  The party, celebrating Jamaica’s West African heritage, features masqueraded party-goers parading through the streets. Reggae music festivals, including a Bob Marley Birthday Bash, are held throughout the year.

National Holidays  

Ten public holidays are observed annually. Many but not all holidays are observed on the same day each year.  See specific dates for the this year.
New Year’s (January 1)
Ash Wednesday (varies by year)
Labor Day (May 23, must fall on a work day or it will be changed )
Good Friday  (varies by year)
Easter Monday  (varies by year)
Emancipation Day (August 1,
Independence Day (August 6)
National Heroes Day (varies by year)
Christmas Day (December 25, may be observed on Dec. 26 if it falls on a Sunday)
Boxing Day (December 26, may vary)

Time Zone

Jamaica is in the Eastern time zone (UTC -05:00).  Jamaica does not observe daylight savings time.

What To Pack and Wear

What to Pack
Sunblock SPF 15 or higher; brimmed hat; sunglasses; toiletries; any required medications; water bottle; insect repellent in case of mosquitoes or sand fleas; Benadryl for itchiness; light sweater in winter; umbrella or rain jacket; electrical adapter and possibly a transformer depending on your hotel; e-reader or other entertainment device in case of rain; backpack for day activities; any items needed for special activities such as diving, fishing, hiking or golf. Also an unlocked cellular phone to purchase a SIM card from a local mobile carrier.

What to Wear
Many resorts have a dress code, which they post online. In general, shorts, tank tops, swimsuits, short-sleeved shirts, sundresses and light slacks are perfect. In the evening, more elegant attire such as skirts, slacks, collared shirts and closed toed shoes are the required dress, although dress shorts may be permitted in some casual restaurants. Sleeveless shirts: never for dinner. When out shopping, dress as conservatively as you would back home.

Other

International Dialing Code
1-876

Pack for a Purpose
Before packing, consider bringing some badly needed school supplies for the island through the Pack for a Purpose program.
No candy or balloons wanted, only items like pens, pencils, erasers, individual pencil sharpeners, solar calculators, deflated soccer balls and some medical supplies, including Band-Aids and bandages.

Volunteering Opportunities

It is possible to spend part of your vacation as a volunteer for a few hours or a day (or more if you like). Opportunities include teaching or supporting a reading program, volunteering at an orphanage, doing building maintenance or helping a farmer in his fields.

Meet The People Program
Since 1968, the Meet the People program has helped arrange visitors to meet with Jamaicans who share the same profession, hobby or interest. The Jamaican Tourist Board is in charge of arranging a meeting to simply talk and converse or participate in an activity such as touring a facility, visiting a church or school, shopping at a local craft or food market, even hiking. It is a way to get to know Jamaicans that would normally not be possible on a short vacation. Interested?  Fill out the online application.

What it Costs

How much a Jamaica vacation costs depends largely upon when you visit, where you stay, your activities and where and what you eat. For a family of four, expenses range from $2,500 to $5,000 depending on how upscale they choose to be.

Jamaica offers a wide range of places to stay, including 5-star resorts and hotels; all-inclusive resorts; private villas; small inns (under 50 rooms); guesthouses; condominiums; spa resorts; golf and tennis resorts and convention hotels. The overwhelming majority of rooms are in Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Negril.

Jamaica pioneered the concept of the all-inclusive resort, an option many first time visitors and honeymooners choose. All-inclusive resorts, however, often are the most expensive places to stay. Some smaller hotels have facilities that are equally good but they do lack the varied activities of an all-inclusive. How many of those activities genuinely appeal to you? Will you actually use? If you are more interested in where you stay than getting out and exploring Jamaica, an-all inclusive may be best for you.

Check out the large hotel booking sites, especially any air/hotel/car rental packages. Some airlines also offer air/hotel/car packages. In the high season, rooms at small Jamaica inns start under $100 per room while all-inclusive resorts are as high as $750 per person per night. When booking, be aware some resorts have a mandatory resort fee (up to $30 daily) not included in the quoted price.  Do not forget to factor in the government room tax of 10%-15%, which is determined by the number of rooms at the hotel. The greater the number of rooms, the higher the government tax rate.

Jamaica is one of the few islands that encourages camping. Most of the developed campsites are in Blue Mountains National Park. Stay only at developed campsites with other campers nearby. True wilderness camping is not a wise thing to do because of the risky of robbery.

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in $US.

See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
Free
$ => Tickets less than $25 per person
$$ => Tickets $25-50 per person
$$$ => Tickets $50-100 per person

Sleep
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $100-250 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $250 for a double

Eat
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $15-30 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $30 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)

Shop
N/A => Not applicable

Tours
$ => Tickets less than $50 per person
$$ => Tickets $50-100 per person

Airfare and Car Rental Prices

Airfare
Airline service to Jamaica is available from the U.S., Canada, Europe and South America. Unless you plan to visit Kingston, the Blue Mountains or Port Antonio, Sangster International Airport at Montego Bay (airport code MBJ) is your destination. Deciding when to book a reservation has become a game between airlines and consumers. Fares constantly change but are usually lowest on Tuesday evening or Wednesday. Try to fly on the day fares are cheapest. Friday and Sunday may be the most expensive days to travel while Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday may be the cheapest. You need flexibility for the best fares. Booking a flight six weeks out may be the best time but deals can pop up anytime. Less than three weeks out the fares often skyrocket. Sign up at Kayak and Airfare Watchdog, which will let you know when fares fall. Quoted airfares to Jamaica may or may not include Jamaica’s arrival and departure taxes.

Good places to search multiple fares at once include Kayak, Google Flight Matrix and Momondo. They all display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites. Check the sites of low fare airlines to Jamaica that the online consolidators may not always include, especially JetBlue and Southwest. But never ignore an individual airline’s site. Some of their best deals do not show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Many airlines also share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mails. After purchasing tickets, sign up at Kayak for email alerts if your fare decreases so you can contact the airline for a refund or voucher.

Rental Cars
Economy cars rented with AC and automatic shift at Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay (Mobay) start at around $60 per day for a 7-day rental in the low season and $100 per day in the high season. Check the rental rates at companies like Expedia and Hotwire that offer comparison price shopping. For best price, do not be too picky about the make and model of your rental.

Money Savings Tips
Costco and BJ”s members receive good discounts for most major car rental companies. Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. spouses, unmarried partners or BFFs) complimentary extra driver coverage. Many companies charge a daily fee for an extra driver.

Once you narrow down your rental choices, check the rental policies of the company. In Mobay, they vary considerably from each other. Valid rental ages are 23-75, although some younger drivers with a valid license may be able to sign a contract if they pay an added rental fee. Jamaica levies a tax of 20% on car rentals.

Car Rental Insurance
When it comes to rental car insurance, Jamaica is different from other countries. Do not assume your favorite credit card will cover collision damages. Some credit card companies, including American Express, refuse to insure cars rented in Jamaica. What about  yours?

Will your own personal car insurance also provide rental coverage?    Many rental policies (including those of many credit cards) are for C.D.W. (Collision Damage Waiver) only. What you also need is   L.D.W. (Loss Damage Waiver), which covers the loss the company suffers for every day the car in not available for rental following an accident.

Carefully examine the rental coverage offered by car rental companies at Sangster International and their daily insurance fees. Is the insurance fee $14 or $30 or more per day?  Insurance fees vary according to the vehicle type. If separate coverage for damage to tires is available for a reasonable cost, consider taking it unless you plan to stay entirely on the main roads. Tires are not always considered part of the vehicle for CDW. Ask the rental clerk.

Moreover, what types of damages does the insurance cover? Exterior only? Exterior and interior? If the policy covers only exterior damage,  you may be liable for all interior damage unless you have a copy of a filed police report that a break-in occurred. If you left the car unlocked when it was damaged, you are out of luck.

Even if you buy rental insurance, some Mobay rental car companies demand a damage deductible starting at a surprisingly hefty $1,500. Why rent from that agency? If you do and the car is damaged, you can only hope your personal car insurance will cover some of the rental deductible amount. Whether it will depends on your own personal deductible.

Insurance

Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), insurance is probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling at a  hurricane-prone time of the year, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case.”

How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework — check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.

Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with one of the above companies).

If you have pre-existing health conditions
This is one reason to consider buying travel insurance. Many policies have exclusions  for pre-existing medical condition. However, companies may waive that exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip. Again, it’s best to check the fine print.

Credit card insurance
If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and added restrictions.
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.

Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:

Trip Cancellation
About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.

Medical
Does your health insurance policy cover you when you are out of the country? And what guarantee can you offer that you are able to pay for hospital and other expenses when in Jamaica? To ensure health coverage, consider purchasing travel health insurance. If you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center back home, an air ambulance may cost from $30,000 to $50,000 depending on circumstances.

Trip Interruption
If you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick and you have to return home before your trip is scheduled to end, the insurer will help pay for your return and may pay up to 150% of the cost of your unused vacation days.

Travel Delay
 Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.

Baggage
Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.

Cancel For Any Reason
Some insurance companies sell a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. The cost may be greater (often 10% or more) for this type of policy but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.

Exchange Rates and Currency

The local currency is the Jamaican dollar. The official rate of exchange fluctuates daily. When prices are given without any indication whether they are US$ or J$, the prices usually are in U.S. currency. US dollars are taken almost everywhere except places frequented mostly by Jamaicans. By law, change must be given in Jamaican currency. Pay in US dollars as close to the amount as possible. You can ask for dollars back but may not receive them. Avoid carrying big bills when shopping. Money can be changed back into dollars at the Mobay airport in the departure lounge but there could be long lines. Better to change currency at your hotel or a bank before checkout.

Money, ATMs, Credit Cards

Money, ATMs and Credit Cards
Best places to exchange money are banks, cambios, hotels/resorts and the Mobay airport, although the rates are likely to be different. ATMs may charge a 2% fee in addition to your bank charge. Credit cards are widely accepted. Unless charges are listed in your home currency, you may be subject to a  foreign currency exchange fee of 3% or more on your credit card. Use a  credit card that does not charge an exchange fee.

Tipping and Costs That Add Up

Tipping
From 10%-15% is normal. An automatic service charge may  be included in restaurant bills; feel free to ask. Airport porters and hotel bellhops receive US$1 per bag except at an all-inclusive resort where tipping is included. Leave something for the person cleaning your room, such as $20 and more for the week if the service has been satisfactory. Room cleaners are often the most overworked and least appreciated part of the staff.

Be prepared for tipping when it’s appropriate by bringing a roll of 20 one-dollar bills as well as  several $5 bills with you. These will be handy in both Jamaica and on your return.

Visitor Taxes 
Arrival and departure taxes may be included in the cost of your ticket. If not, the arrival tax is US$20; the departure tax is US$37 payable in U.S. or Jamaican dollars at the airport before going through immigration. The government room tax is 10% to 15% depending on a hotel’s number of rooms. The larger the hotel, the higher the tax rate.  Expect a 20% tax on rental cars and a 20% tax on overseas phone calls.

Incidental Costs
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If  traveling with kids, consider your snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above items

Tour Costs
These add up quickly if you take just one tour a day. Some operators may offer you lower rates if you bundle a week’s worth of tours with them. Don’t look for this on their websites. Ask, about it over the phone or in person. Also check out the Jamaica Travel Saver Card, a bargain as long as merchants agree to honor it. The card offers some excellent buy one tour, get a second tour free options at some of the most popular places.  It is also good for discounted tours, meals, even some hotel rooms.

Other

 

Transportation

With two major international airports, Jamaica has good airline connections from many parts of the world, including Asia. Four cruise ports on Jamaica’s North Coast are popular Western Caribbean cruise stops, with the number of cruise passengers not far behind the number of air arrivals.

Sangster International Airport is the main hub for the Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Negril tourist areas. The airport is the Caribbean’s fourth busiest airport. Norman Manley Airport, serving the capital city of Kingston, is ranked 14th.

Jamaica has a little over 13,000 miles of paved roads, many in poor repair. When driving around on your own, pay attention when heavy rains occur since they may leave some roads impassible. Remember that driving is on the left and that breakdown assistance is often unavailable in rural areas. And pay careful attention when entering a roundabout, a traffic circle that is much like a merry-go-round, especially if you miss your exit.

Not surprisingly, taxis, chartered minibuses and organized tours are the most popular methods for seeing Jamaica.

Getting There

Airlines
Jamaica enjoys frequent air service from North and South America as well as Europe. Airlines flying to Jamaica direct from the U.S. include Air Jamaica, American Airlines, Caribbean Airlines, Delta, Frontier, Southwest and United. Other airlines include Air Canada, British Airways, Copa, Cayman Air, Sunwing Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. Here is a complete list of airlines flying into Montego Bay.

Airports: 
Montego Bay: Sangster International Airport, one of the Caribbean’s largest airports, is located in Montego Bay (locally called Mobay) and the main tourist hub for those staying in Mobay, Ocho Rios or Negril. The airport also has a domestic terminal with local flights for Kingston, Negril, Port Antonio and Ocho Rios.

Ocho Rios: Just 9 miles from Ocho Rios is Ian Fleming International Airport which can handle only small commercial aircraft and private jets. Unlike the others, this airport is not named for a Jamaican. Ian Fleming, the famed creator of James Bond, was a British subject. However, Fleming wrote most of the novels in Jamaica near Ocho Rios and the books/films helped make Jamaica a top tourist spot.

Negril: Negril Aerodrome (NEG) is located 4.3 miles north of Negril Point, convenient to area resorts. The 12-minute flights are made by one airline, International AirLink. No night flights.  http://www.nmia.aero/airline_information

Port Antonio: Ken Jones Aerodrome (POT) is 6.2 miles from Port Antonio has a single runway and a terminal building with a passenger-waiting lounge and seating for 24-30 persons. No  night flights.  Service on charter flights from AirLink Express. No scheduled flights. http://www.intlairlink.net/

Kingston: Norman Manley International Airport  (KIN) in Kingston is best suited for those going to Jamaica’s capital city, to the Blue Mountains or Port Antonio.

Airport Lounges: Both Sangster and Norman Manley International airports have VIP lounges with complimentary Wi-Fi service, refreshments and free telephone calls to the USA, Canada and UK. This is an excellent way to avoid the long lines at arrival and departure and the price is reasonable.

Cruise Ship Ports
Many of the major cruise lines offer a stop in Jamaica as part of a Western Caribbean cruise. About a third of Jamaica’s visitors arrive by cruise ships, which dock in one of four ports. All situated on Jamaica’s north coast, the cruise ports at Montego Bay, Falmouth and Ocho Rios host the larger vessels. Port Antonio caters to small cruise ships.

Getting Around

Sangster Airport Taxis
The airport’s two official taxi companies, JUTA and JCAL, share a common desk located just outside the Customs exit. They have the only authorized taxis to make transfers from Sangster International Airport.

Driving Times
Sangster International Airport at Mobay is the most used tourist airport. Two other popular destinations, Ocho Rios and Negril, are a considerable distance away. Due to terrain and road conditions, driving may take between 2 to 3 times longer than in the U.S. Shuttles and rental cars are most cost efficient way to reach these destinations. Note: some resorts include round trip airport transfers as part of a vacation package. Does yours?

These are the distances and estimated driving times between major Jamaican cities.

Montego Bay to Negril is 52 miles: drive time 90 minutes-2 hours depending hotel location.

Montego Bay to Ocho Rios is 62 miles; drive time 90 minutes to 2 hours.

Ocho Rios to Port Antonio is 60 miles; drive time more than 2 hours

Ocho Rios to Kingston is 60 miles; drive time about 90 minutes.

Port Antonio to Kingston is 68 miles; drive time less than 2 hours

Kingston to Mandeville is 61 miles; drive time around 90 minutes

Road Map
This Esso oil map is decades old and many of the highlighted resorts are long gone but little has changed in terms of roadways except the road to Negril. The Esso map also is interactive.  This Google map is current but with less detail.

Rental Cars
Readily available at Sangster, Norman Manley and Ian Fleming International Airports.  Rental cars can also be booked by most hotels and resorts.  Rental-car drivers must be at least 21 years old, have a valid license and cash or major credit card or travelers checks to meet insurance regulations. Remember, driving is on the left and Jamaica is not the most secure place to drive after dark.

Harley Davidson Jamaica
Harley rentals are available at Sangster International Airport and all the major tourist locations including Montego Bay (three locations), Falmouth near the cruise port terminal, Ocho Rios and Negril. Bike tours offered including passenger-only rides. Naturally, all locations are well stocked with Harley gear. Phone (876) 940-3756.

Traffic
The speed limit is 30mph (50kmph) in built-up areas and 50mph (80kmph) on the highways. Like anywhere, the speed limits are not always observed. Jamaicans like to use their car horns so do not be surprised if you hear a loud blast when a local passes you. Mobay has the most congested streets and is the most difficult city for a first-time visitor to navigate.

At Negril, traffic moves slowly on the roadway that parallels the long skinny beach. Driving anywhere in Jamaica requires your full, close attention. In general, Jamaicans tend to drive like the devil is chasing them and closing in fast. Driving after dark outside the major tourist destinations can be dangerous due to the lack of street lights and the risk of crime.

Many tourists are not familiar with traffic circles or “roundabouts” but every driver needs to know how to navigate them. Often poorly marked, traffic circles require vehicles to move in a clockwise direction. Any vehicle entering the traffic circle must yield to those already in it. Finding the proper exit can be confusing due to poor signage. It is crucial to stay left following the flow of traffic when exiting the roundabout to avoid a head-on collision.

Jamaican Road Conditions
Jamaica is mostly mountainous and the roads narrow, with big trucks and tour buses barreling around the curves without warning, especially in the Blue Mountains. Most roads are paved but in poor condition, some with deep pot holes that can seriously damage a car’s tire and bend the rim. Pedestrian crosswalks are few, so it’s common in tourist areas for people to dart out in traffic to cross a street. Jamaican road conditions call for hyper-vigilance.

Jamaican Taxis
 Licensed taxi cabs have red-and-white license plates. Sangster International Airport in Mobay has two taxi cab companies located just outside the customs exit. Rates between locations are predetermined by posted price or taxis may be metered. Away from the airport you could find yourself negotiating with a driver and the fares are based per person, not per car.

Shuttle Service
Another option from the Mobay airport to your hotel is a transportation service that serves Ocho Rios, Negril and Montego Bay. The shuttles can be shared or private. Private Taxi Tour: hiring a taxi for a half or full day avoids the challenges of driving yourself around. The cost depends on the distance covered and the length of the tour. The driver knows the roads, how to get there and what places to avoid. This is a safe way to travel as long as you use a licensed taxi arranged through your hotel.

Walking
The tourist areas generally have good sidewalks but in some places you might have to use the side of the road, potentially a problem in high traffic areas where speeds may be excessive.

Discounts and Passes

Jamaica Travel Saver Card
The island-wide Jamaica Travel Saver card is a bargain as long as merchants honor it. It offers some excellent buy one tour, get a second tour free for some of the most popular places. It is also good for discounted meals and certain hotel rooms. The card price is a very good deal.

Tickets

Tickets are sold by individual tour operators.

Other

Accessibility
The U.S. State Department advises that Jamaica is not well equipped for physically challenged visitors. Although some of the country’s all-inclusive resorts are accessible, most transportation, entertainment, and even medical facilities are not. Jamaican law does not mandate access to transportation, communication, and public buildings for persons with disabilities, and few buildings have these accommodations. Consult websites and blogs focusing on accessible travel for practical information about traveling in Jamaica.

Background

The third largest Caribbean island, Jamaica is a mountainous land just south of Cuba and west of Haiti. Almost half of the island is above 1,000 feet, with 7,402-foot Blue Mountain Peak the highest point. Smaller than the state of Connecticut, Jamaica is 146 miles long and 22 to 51 miles wide. The terrain is lush with valleys, caves, bays, waterfalls and some 120 rivers, many of them small.

Population
With an estimated 2.8 million people, the multi-racial mix includes African, European, East Indian, Chinese and Middle-Eastern. Jamaica is the fourth most populated Caribbean country.

Electricity
Many modern resorts have the U.S. standard of 110 volts, 60 cycles. However, 220 volts, 50 cycles is still used in some places, which requires an adapter and possibly a transformer. Many cell phones and camera batteries can be charged at 220 volts. Know the electrical requirements of your equipment ahead of time.  Most 110 volt hair dryers cannot dual voltage. That is why hotels usually provide them.

Public Nudity
Illegal except at resorts with special areas and beaches for nude or topless swimming.

Panhandling
Jamaica is a poor country with a high unemployment rate, especially among young people. Panhandling is something every visitor should expect to encounter at some point. Rather than beg outright, some people try and sell you trinkets or seashells for a few dollars. This becomes a hassle only if you let it. If you’re not interested, a friendly but firm “No, thank you” normally stops the seller. Or, if you want to give the person money but not insult them, buy the trinket, take it and leave it behind in your hotel room.

Ganja
 In Sanskrit the word for “hemp,” ganja is the Jamaican term for marijuana or cannabis. Although ganja was widely inhaled and its aroma often present throughout Jamaica for many years, it was illegal for anyone to possess in any amount until an amendment to the Ganja Act in 2015. Now anyone found in possession of two ounces or less of marijuana will no longer be subject to arrest or detention by the police. Instead, the person will receive a ticket for a fine of J$500 (about US$5). The fine must be paid within 30 days. Conviction of failing to pay the ticket will be recorded on the offender’s criminal record. Smoking ganja in public brings stronger penalties, including a mandatory court appearance and the possibility of community service or a fine of J$2,000. Anyone found with more than two ounces of ganja is subject to immediate arrest and detention. Attempting to export ganja in any quantity will bring severe penalties.

Drinking Laws

The legal age is 18. Driving under the influence could immediately land you in jail.

Crime & Safety

Jamaica does have a problem, primarily Jamaican on Jamaican. Tourists using common sense should experience no problems if they follow several precautions, which really apply to anywhere.

In public areas, keep luggage, handbags or backpacks in view at all times. Do not leave valuables unattended or in plain view in hotel rooms, at the beach or in a locked car.

Keep possessions close to your body. Women’s handbags should stay zipped and men should wear their wallet in a front pocket. Do not carry or show large amounts of cash and avoid wearing expensive jewelry outside your resort.

Never accept rides from unknown individuals or take an unmarked taxi. You’re only setting yourself up for a crime. Women should never go out alone at night, visit risky areas or become too friendly with hotel staff.

In an armed robbery, resisting or hesitating to hand over your possessions could lead to violence. See the latest travel warnings from the U.S. State Department under the Safety and Security heading.

History

The original inhabitants of Jamaica are believed to be the Arawaks or the Tainos who came from South America 2,500 years ago. They named the island Xaymaca “land of wood and water” and grew vegetables, fruit and tobacco.

Christopher Columbus discovered the island in 1494 on his second voyage.  The Spanish treated the Taino brutally. The natives died off from being overworked and from European diseases against which they had no immunity.

The first Spanish colonists arrived in 1509 but the settlements never received the support they required from Spain. When the British attacked Jamaica in 1655, the Spanish surrendered the island, many fleeing to Cuba or hiding in other parts of the island.  Their slaves, who became known as the Maroons, escaped into the mountains. Under British rule, Jamaican-based piracy against Spain flourished. The buccaneer headquarters at Port Royal grew rich from the spoils. Port Royal was known as the “wealthiest and wickedest city in the world” until an earthquake destroyed it 1692.

Sugar became the new cash crop, with large numbers of African slaves imported to work in the fields. Slaves escaped whenever they could to join the Maroons, who fought two wars against the British. In a 1740 treaty, the Maroons gained land and rights as free men.  The slaves still in captivity rebelled regularly. Slavery was abolished in 1808 and Emancipation granted in 1834. Like most Caribbean islands whose wealth depended on sugar cane, Jamaica slipped into poverty and recovered only gradually.

In the early 20th century, the island began moving toward self-government and developed a two party system. Jamaica gained its independence from Britain in 1962 and adopted its own national constitution the same year.

Culture

Although the large majority of Jamaicans are of African ancestry,   East Indian and Chinese descendants of indentured servants brought in to work the sugar cane fields are easily found throughout the island. Traces of the Taino language are prominent in their words tobacco, canoe, hammock, barbecue and hurricane. Jamaica’s unique blend of heritages and ethnic mixes creates one of the Caribbean’s most dynamic and colorful cultures.

Etiquette

Speaking Etiquette
One of the great cultural misunderstandings between tourists and Jamaicans is who should speak first. Jamaicans normally are very polite people and expect to be treated with courtesy. They like to be spoken to or acknowledged when you pass them, even if it is just a nod. In any social situation, speak first as politely as you would converse with a colleague at work. Say it with a smile, which is almost always returned. You may be amazed at how much friendlier Jamaica quickly becomes when you start the conversations.

Cuisine

Although Jamaican cuisine includes a variety of fresh vegetables, meats, fish, fruits and spices, jerk chicken with a Red Stripe beer is what many visitors want for their first lunch.  Flavorful Jamaican jerk chicken and jerk pork are now internationally famous. Jerk derived from the need to smoke meat to preserve it, a practice started in the New World by Caribbean buccaneers.  Jamaica’s Maroons refined the technique by poking the meat with holes to add spices, a concept brought with them from West Africa.  The Indian influences on Jamaican cuisine are pronounced in the popularity of curries; curried goat is an island favorite.

Ironically, the official national dish of ackee (the national fruit) with saltfish (salt-cured cod) was originally a cheap slave food. National Geographic rates ackee and saltfish as one of the world’s two best national dishes, although it can be an acquired taste.   Other well-known traditional dishes include rice and peas and callaloo soup. If none of these sound appealing, be assured every type of cuisine is available in Jamaica.

Ital pronounced (EYE-tal) is the diet developed by Rastafarians. Derived from the word vital, ital in its strictest form excludes salt, meat (especially pork), preservatives, colorings, flavorings or anything artificial. In practice, it involves using local Jamaican foods and ingredients, including fish and maybe even a little salt. Common ways of flavoring ital food is the use of coconut milk, Scotch bonnet pepper, pimento (allspice), thyme for flavor and as a salt substitute, garlic, onions, scallions, green peppers, tomatoes and other vegetables.

Religion

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Jamaica has more churches per square mile (except for the Vatican). The churches represent Protestants, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Bahai’s, Roman Catholics, and several other Christian denominations.

The Protestant faith has the largest Christian following.  The Rastafarian religion, which originated in Jamaica in the 1930s, is not considered a part of Christianity since its followers worship Haile Selassie I, emperor of Ethiopia from 1930–1974, as their god.  Rastafarians consider black people living outside Africa to be captives. Rastafari developed as an alternative to white-oriented religions.

Language

English is the official language, spoken with the country’s famous lilting accent. Many Jamaicans also speak a local patois (“patwa”) that includes English, African and Spanish words and where gesture, body language and tone are as important as what is said. Using ridicule, irony and profanity is common.  What could be a normal conversation may look a heated argument. Speakers also may talk so fast it all seems incomprehensible to a visitor. If you don’t understand what someone is saying, don’t be bashful about asking them to repeat the words and to please slow down.

Recommended Reading

Newspapers

Jamaica Observer

Jamaica Gleaner

Books

This Is Reggae Music: The Story of Jamaica’s Music by Lloyd Bradley

10 Books Every Jamaican Should Own

Jerk from Jamaica: Barbecue Caribbean Style by Helen Willinsky

Art

Art is everywhere in Jamaica. Some of the most popular souvenirs are wood carvings, paintings and handmade knick knacks, and some of them are quite good.

If you want to see the best, browse these art galleries, most located in Kingston.

Harmony Hall  in Ocho Rios with more than 100 of Jamaica’s finest artists and artisans, all for sale.

National Gallery of Art in Kingston.

Olympia Gallery in Kingston, another of Jamaica’s best art galleries.

Red Bone Blues Café in Kingston is more on the pop culture side.

IF you stick to the main roads and do not pick up strangers, a day trip to Kingston could be safe. Be back in your hotel/resort well before sunset.

Movies

These films were partially made in or about Jamaica.

Dr. No, starring Sean Connery in the first of the James Bond film series. Partially filmed in Jamaica around Ocho Rios and Montego Bay.

Cool Runnings, a movie loosely based on the true story of Jamaica’s bobsled team.

The Harder They Come starring Jimmy Cliff and credited with introducing reggae to the world.

The Mighty Quinn starring Denzel Washington and filmed entirely in Jamaica.

IMBD list of top Jamaican movies, most of them probably not easily available.

Music

Reggae is Jamaica’s best known and most popular music. The protest music of the Rastafarian religion, reggae has been called the most important development in Caribbean music since the steelband, or pan, which originated in Trinidad. Unlike calypso, which sings about yellow birds and other idyllic things, reggae is an honest, often harsh look at the world through the eyes of black islanders.  Anything but sentimental, reggae is primarily message music about poverty, social injustice and worshipping Jah, the Rasta term for god. Bob Marley (the museum to him in Kingston is holy ground to reggae lovers) is credited with developing and popularizing the new form. Several other styles of reggae have developed, including the very popular and faster dancehall reggae.

Soundtrack for a Road Trip

To hear the Jamaican music of today, simply turn on the radio. The variety of
programming is impressive.

Or try these internet radio sites:

jamaicaradio.net with a wide variety of stations

Music and talk stations

Bob Marley songs on Pandora

And these apps

iTunes Jamaica music app

iTunes reggae app

Android Jamaican music apps

Websites and Maps

Jamaica Maps

Google Map of Jamaica

Road Map  from long ago but still mostly accurate

Port Antonio Google Map

Ocho Rios  by Mapquest

Montego Bay  by Mapquest

Negril  by Mapquest

Treasure Beach by Jamaicacaves.org

Jamaican Websites

Visit Jamaica the official tourism website

Jamaica Tourist Board, Jamaica’s marketing organization

Juta Tours for reliable transportation all over the island

Chukka Caribbean, the most complete Jamaican adventure operators

And all of the websites linked to in the Itineraries

Other

Accessibility

While not perfect, Jamaica is ahead of some other islands because it has been welcoming tourists for so many decades. For cruise ship passengers, the cruise ports are wheelchair friendly. For places to stay and tours to take, search Google for “Jamaica accessibility.” Then, if necessary, refine your search for hotels and tours based on your city of choice.