The funky island of Jamaica was the last place we visited together – after some 4 months and 8 countries: wild mojito-soaked nights in México, splendid days of roadtrippin’ on the islands of Hawai’i, snorkeling in Sulawesi, train rides in Myanmar, relaxing in hammocks on Thai islands and enjoying conversations with warm-hearted people in Communist Cuba.
We were quite unsure, initially, what Caribbean islands to pick for that leg of the trip and high on the list were e.g. Puerto Rico (for its mysterious Isla de Mona) or European overseas territory like Martinique, Guadeloupe or Saint Martin? Or maybe even the Bahamas? It all turned out to be a rather pricey last step-over and we were on a budget after all. So we finally opted for the two biggies Cuba (for its history) and its Southern neighbour Jamaica (for its relaxed vibes), leaving the island of Hispaniola for another time: I remain being highly curious about the République d’Haïti as well as the República Dominicana.
While our days in Cuba passed away, I began pondering about if Jamaica really would be as relaxing as its reputation. Wait, what actually is its reputation? A Google search of “reputation of Jamaica” actually throws up things like:
“I wonder why Jamaica has such a bad reputation” / “Is it safe for tourists?” / “Is Jamaica dangerous?” / “Flawed paradise: Catching the buzz of the real Jamaica”
Unsurprisingly, it dawned on me that those last days that cK and I had together might not be quite as relaxing as we would have wished for. Well – perfect! Who needs to relax here? We want adventures! Also, my beloved sister is a well-traveled expert on Jamaica and she happily supplied us with information on transport costs, food and street wisdom. We felt ready for the low-budget challenge once we were through airport security and immigration, enjoying free internet after those abstemious Cuban days.
Before getting into personal travel details, here are some general facts and numbers on the island that locals apparently refer to as “the rock”:
Jamaica’s national tongue is a variation of English called Jamaican Patois, Elizabeth II. is officially still the head of state (but the island gained independence from the UK in 1962) and its 3 million inhabitants are spread along 10,000 sq km (Belgium, in comparison, is about three times as large: 30,700 sq km). The currency is the Jamaican dollar and € 1 buys you about 140 Jamaican $.
A short flight from Holguín in Cuba took us to Montego Bay on Jamaica’s northern shore. Research told us that hostels would be rather expensive (the most expensive on the whole trip, in fact, since we slept in the car on O’ahu and Kaua’i) – we decided to look around once in town, starting with the Reggae Hostel. Now, getting into downtown was an issue – the airport is about 4km away and after the ATMs refused both our credit cards and the taxi drivers tried to charge us the dumb tourist prize (20 U.S.$ instead of 1$) we decided to walk. However, we didn’t come far – another (much friendlier) driver let us jump into his car for a buck each. The Reggae Hostel actually did turn out to be the cheapest: we paid 16 euro for a dorm in a bunk bed.
What to do in Montego Bay? Well, we walked around quite a bit, got familiar with people, prizes, street concepts and explored: from the post office at Barnett Street to Pye River Cemetary and back after shopping groceries in Mega Mart along the Howard Cooke Boulevard.
Also, we experienced the classic Let-me-sell-you-dope incident: (Just another) Dude approaches us on the street: “I know you guys from the hostel, how do you like it, I can tell you are looking for something special, let me show you around, come come, I bring you to the best local bar!” We didn’t really feel like heading home yet, so followed suit, being fully aware that it’d be hard to get out of that situation again (easily). Just the way he tried to sell us his weed was remarkably funny: “This is good mountain weed, black soil (or was it brown?) and you better buy right now, because it’s Thursday and it’ll be more expensive again tomorrow!” We actually did feel a little paranoid that evening in the hostel: Is he possibly working here?
After two nights in MoBay we took a Route Taxi towards Negril Beach, mainly because we wanted to see the sunset above the ocean one last time. Route Taxis are an easy and straightforward way to get around the island, especially outside Kingston (which is mainly served by buses) and the prizes are set, so there is nothing to worry. For Negril we booked a place online (and paid a mere 13 euro), did indeed enjoy the sun setting over the sea (at least some of us did) and took it real easy. Very enjoyable.
Next on the list was a place I was looking forward to most: Treasure Beach on the south side. Lonely Planet described it as a “unique part of Jamaica that gets all the facets of the quintessential Caribbean experience exactly right.” Whatever that was supposed to mean: I was keen. cK organised accommodation via Air B’n’B (for 14 euro each), but it was no different from a regular guesthouse. A sweet one, though! There were quite some travelers in the rooms around us and most of them spoke German, so we ignored them altogether and simply had a fabulous time ourselves. Contrary to what we’ve heard, the beaches were sweet and the currents big fun!
By the way: If you like good (and especially vegan) food, there is one place in town you definitely shouldn’t miss: the Gee Wiz Vegetarian Restaurant. That night my gut was the happiest on the island, I’m sure of it!
Later that night we were watching what is likely the world’s most famous Jamaican comedy: Cool Runnings, a 1993 movie (by Jon Turteltaub) telling the real story of Jamaica’s bobsleigh team’s running at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Alberta, Canada (they didn’t win). Bad decision, good story!
As sweet as Treasure Beach was to us: We needed to head on because time was running out. Three days before splitting ways we went to Kingston, Jamaica’s capital (680,000 inhabitants, founded in 1692). There would have been rather cheap accommodation options, but we decided to use Couchsurfing and that actually turned out rather nicely. Our host was a 39 y.o. mother of two named Melissa who worked nightshifts in a dancehall bar. We weren’t exactly good at communicating with each other, but that might have had various reasons, e.g. the incredibly loud volume of the speakers. However, we did end up at her place at one point and spend our final 3 nights there as well. It’s been all rather uncomplicated luckily – a rather unusual, but nevertheless most interesting CS experience.
Three nights meant two full days for us – on Day I (March 12) we got up when Melissa’s daughter played the flute in the morning and there was no return to peaceful slumber. We then headed Downtown and from there took a bus to the city of Ocho Rios on the north coast in order to do some hiking and see some waterfalls. It’s been lovely to see the island’s lush interior, but in retrospect we should probably have gone to Port Antonio in the district of Portland instead. Well, next time… I guess?
Also, we (rather literally) had a hell of a trip since just next to us on the bus was a crazy dude who free-style preached to his busload of sheep about how Jesus helped him to get through bad times and how important Christ is for each and everyone. One of those things that make you realize how Jamaica is often not only not relaxed, but actually very strenuous and certainly not cool. It’s a relatively poor country after all and it really has its more than fair share of issues and economic downsides.
The city of Ocho Rios wasn’t exactly overwhelming (and most of the locals not really a charming bunch), but walking in the outskirts was a welcoming distraction. We walked west (along the highway) towards the Little Dunn’s River Falls, but even there some kids tried to charge us quite a ridiculous tourist prize to get down to the coast, so we relaxed at an alternative entrance. Again, if you face the choice, you’re probably better off with Port Antonio and Portland instead!
Day II was exclusively Kingston! We started off with seeing the National Heroes Park (if you leave Jamaica without having heard of Sam Sharpe and Norman Manley you failed!), then walked all along the city to Emancipation Park and finally arrived at 56 Hope Road, Kingston 6: Bob Marley’s former place of residence and also home to the Tuff Gong reggae record label, a museum since 1987 (Marley died 1981 in Miami, aged only 36).
We walked all the way back into Downtown again, passing Trench Town and some curious places like Rock City (that rather reminder me of Detroit). At that point we were definitely ready to leave “the rock” behind. Fun fact: We kept on being asked about where we’re from and the answer “Sweden!” was already firmly established (we’d sometimes say “He’s from Finland, I’m Swedish”). People just loved it! Sweden really seems to be the thing – popular all around the planet. That makes me wanna see the country of northern bliss again… (as if 2009, ’14, ’17 and ’18 had not been enough!). At Treasure Beach, however, one Jamaican saleswoman actually responded in Swedish: “Åh, jag pratar lite svenska!” – we smiled surprisingly and quickly hushed away.
Jamaica was rather expensive country in comparison – not so much when it comes to food and transportation, but definitely concerning accommodation – it’s rather comparable to the U.S. or Australia here. Luckily, however, we were able to couchsurf in the capital – that drastically reduced costs to a tolerable medium.