Sipping coconut on a sun-drenched beach with reggae rhythms beating in the background is probably what you expect from your Jamaican vacation. After all, this is what the tourist ads promise. But unless you plan to stay locked up in a hotel room for the duration of your trip, there is a pretty good chance that you’ll have at least one unscripted experience that doesn’t quite fit into this idyllic picture.
It’s a land of contradictions – sprawling mansions just metres away from wooden shacks, or a pristine beach at the end of a pothole ridden road. Many of the people behind the smiling faces that bring pina coladas or teach you how to dance to reggae music have real world problems of their own just outside the hotel’s gates. If you want to experience the real culture and feel of Jamaica, be prepared to go off script and hit the road at some point. However, before you go on your Jamaican adventure, here’s what you should know.
1. Driving/transportation is an experience onto itself
Traffic in the cities and towns can be rough, especially at peak times, and you’re most likely to experience this when travelling to and from the airports which are both located in cities. Add to that the fact that Jamaicans are always in a hurry and it’s not uncommon to see taxis and buses driving at breakneck speed. To be on the safe side, travel only with legal taxis which bear a red licence plate. Those authorized to carry tourists will also have an extra seal showing that they have been certified by the Jamaica Tourist Board. Tip: always agree on the price before getting in the vehicle, and tipping your driver is appreciated.
2. Beware of stray animals on the roads
If you plan to rent a car and drive in Jamaica, you should know that stray dogs and cats often dash across the street. You may even encounter cows and goats in rural areas where farming is prevalent. The best thing to do is to drive within the speed limit and be vigilant. Also, try to resist the urge to touch stray animals as they might not even be stray at all and you could be accused of stealing. Many owners allow their pets and farm animals to roam freely and theft of animals is a big problem in some areas. It’s best to try your very best to avoid hitting the animal and go on your merry way.
3. Prepare to bargain for lower prices
There is a wide disparity in prices depending on where you shop for souvenirs but vendors are always willing to strike a bargain. The choice is endless, from T-shirts, to handmade jewelry, to straw hats and bags, to intricately carved wooden ornaments and figures created by local artisans. When you find the item that speaks to you, don’t hesitate to haggle your way to a lower price than the one quoted by the vendor. The aim is to find that sweet spot that both you and the seller are happy with.
4. Leave your swimsuit on the beach
Jamaica is hot and humid for most of the year but that doesn’t mean that you should walk around in the city streets in your swimsuit. The majority of Jamaicans likes to dress modestly and would prefer that you leave your swimsuit on the beach. Shorts and short sleeve top are okay for almost everywhere on the island, however, some public buildings and government offices (even hospitals) have strict dress codes and you will not be allowed inside if your shoulders or belly button is showing. Pack at least one modest outfit in case you need it.
5. Economic disparity is evident
When it comes to economics, Jamaica is a land of contrasts. The ritzy hotels mask deep poverty in many city slums and rural communities. Venturing into the cities, you will likely encounter homeless people begging on the street, or children selling sweets and drinks to help pay for their education. Whatever you do, don’t flip out your wallet in public to give away money. If you wish to assist somehow, many hotels have outreach programs to assist the surrounding community and some even offer guests a chance to volunteer during their vacation. It is advisable to work through an established NGO rather than giving money directly to individuals.
6. Temper your expectations
You are more likely than not to have wonderful memories of your Jamaican vacation. Most businesses that serve tourists are certified by the local tourism authorities and undergo regular checks to ensure that they maintain prescribed standards. However, even with all the checks and balances, stuff happens. Off the beaten road spots do exist that are not officially recommended but still welcome visitors who like to get away from the touristy areas. If you do decide to visit one of these attractions, be prepared for a lack of sanitary conveniences and proper facilities, as well as little to no security. And if you happen to have an unpleasant mishap during your stay, report it immediately to the local tourist board and they will investigate and take remedial action if necessary.
7. You’ll be overwhelmed by the culture
As soon as you set foot on the island you’ll be amazed by the warmth of the people you encounter. Having relied on tourism for the last forty years, many Jamaicans have a vested interest in your enjoyment of the country and have developed great skill in figuring out what makes you happy. You may just happen upon the coconut vendor who effortlessly wields a machete to prepare you an ice cold drink in mere seconds, or the bartender whose voice will convince you that he’s Sam Cooke reincarnated. You should also know that Jamaicans also like to party and although there is a law against loud noises after 2 a.m., party promoters can apply for special permission to extend this, meaning that music could be blaring until the sun rises. On the flip side, you are always welcome to join the party if you can’t sleep.
8. Eat what the locals eat
Many Jamaican dishes are seasoned with scotch bonnet pepper so if spicy food is not your thing, you might want to enquire about the heat index before you take a bite. When driving along the highways in Jamaica, you’ll see streetside vendors selling ready to go local meals like curried goat, peppered shrimp, fried fish, and roasted yam and saltfish. A good tip is to ask your driver for his recommendation or go the stall that has the biggest crowd. You might wait a bit longer for the meal but the crowd usually follows the best food. This is one time you want to be smart and mimic the locals.