The birthplace of Bob Marley, reggae, and jerk cuisine, Jamaica packs a lot in its punch. The third-largest island in the Caribbean attracts millions of visitors every year, not least for its dazzling landscape of white sand beaches, 7,000-foot mountain peaks, waterfalls, and glorious sunsets. But beyond its iconic beach life, mega-resorts, and gorgeous scenery, it’s Jamaica’s deeply-rooted African culture and friendly people that catch visitors by surprise. Coupled with a “no problem” outlook on life, it’s no wonder Jamaica tops many a traveler’s bucket list. As the Jamaica Tourist Board aptly says, “Once you go, you know.”
Jamaica’s peak season runs mid-December through mid-April. The tourist crowd is at its highest from December through February thanks to breezy nights (a light jacket is recommended) and plenty of entertainment options. Little known is that discounts abound during summer and hurricane season, when crowds are few and temperatures only slightly higher. Room rates can get slashed up to 50 percent during this slow season, and it’s just as fun a time to go, if slightly quieter. Whatever time of the year you choose to venture to “Jamrock,” you simply can’t go wrong. Jamaica is the island that never sleeps.
Major airlines fly to Jamaica, as do discount carriers like Spirit and JetBlue. Visas are not required of U.S. or Canadian visitors for stays of up to 90 days. Jamaican immigration officers are some of the friendliest in the Caribbean—know your return date and flight for forms—and customs may randomly search your bags for undeclared items. Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport is well-connected to the rest of the island via public and private transportation. Upon exiting the airport, hop into your resort’s shuttle or bus if you’re staying in Montego Bay. If heading to Negril and other parts, your best bet is to book a ride with Clives Transport Jamaica—an affordable, reliable, locally-owned company offering shared vans or private transfers.
Once at your destination, get the number of a trusted taxi driver from your guesthouse or resort. All licensed taxis have red license plates, but it’s safest to know your driver ahead of time. Individual drivers and tour operators offer long-distance excursions, or you can rent your own car with an international driver's license. Just be sure you have a recent map and instructions from a local. While the highways are paved and reliable, not all roads are created equal in Jamaica and signs aren’t always clear.
You won’t ever starve on this foodie island. Jamaica has the best street snacks and shacks in the Caribbean—readily available, cheap, and tasty. From peanut pushcart vendors to jerk grills steaming roadside, and from stuffed patties and juicy fruits to windows dishing out boxed lunches of rice and beans with stew for under US$5, there’s no end to the belly-filling options. Casual restaurants and fine dining are just as satisfying; seating is often alfresco or seaside. Jerk centers are located throughout the island, perfect for families and anyone on a road trip, offering picnic-table seating and child-friendly menus of chicken and french fries. For the grown-ups, drinks don’t fall short, either. Early birds will love a cup of Blue Mountain coffee, and afternoons call for a cold Red Stripe and some bar hopping. Most locals grab a rum’n Ting while catching the sunset—Appleton dark rum or Wray & Nephew white rum with a splash of the Jamaican grapefruit soda called “Ting”—or a warm Guinness. Many tourists love their rum punch.
Every day in Jamaica is a cultural experience. Iconic activities include cooling off in the river, playing dominoes at the corner bar, stopping for jerk chicken or pepper shrimp roadside, dancing barefoot to live reggae on the beach, and hanging out late into the night at an impromptu neighborhood street party. Jamaica’s boisterous, fun-loving people have an intoxicating energy. Even if you’re just beachcombing in tourist havens Negril or Montego Bay, there’s no escaping the local flavor in Jamaica, and that’s what makes it “irie.” For more immersion, head to the hills of Cockpit Country and meet authentic Maroon and Rastafarian communities.
Jamaica is an island of year-round festivals, from food fests to annual reggae concerts and cultural celebrations. Keep a lookout for billboards and flyers, or ask anyone in town. Scheduling your trip around one of the festivals is a great idea, too. Pick either the first week of February for Bob Marley Birthday Bash celebrations and concerts in Negril, or July for the annual Sumfest concert in Montego Bay. If you’re into cultural ceremonies, don’t miss the Annual Maroon Festival in Accompong Town, held on the south coast during the first week of January. Then hop on over to the annual Jamaica Jazz & Blues Festival held the second or third week of January.
Jamaica’s accommodation options are numerous, ranging from all-inclusive mega-resorts to charming guesthouses tucked inside fishing villages. To experience Jamaica fully, it’s best to stay at a locally-owned, licensed hotel or guesthouse. A laid-back place where the response to every request is “No problem,” on this island you’ll be hard-pressed to encounter any issue that your hotel or any friendly Jamaican wouldn’t stand ready to solve. Of course, as with any tourist destination, beware whom you befriend and trust your instincts. Generally, however, Jamaicans are some of the friendliest people in the Caribbean and want you to enjoy their country and way of life. English is spoken islandwide, as is patois. The currency is the Jamaican Dollar, but U.S. currency is accepted everywhere. Just know the daily exchange rate because it often fluctuates. Tipping is the norm, and it’s up to you how much you decide to give, as any amount is appreciated. Electricity is on par with the U.S. and Canada at 110-120 volts, and unlike in many other Caribbean islands, the tap water is actually safe to drink. Be aware that you may be approached, particularly in the tourist areas, with offers to purchase marijuana and other illegal drugs. Note that “ganja,” while plentiful on the island, is illegal! Tourism police and undercover cops regularly patrol the beach and tourist nightspots. Road or beachside vendors can get a tad persistent, but a firm “no, thank you” will go a long way. Crime exists in Jamaica as in any other destination, but the island is by no means unsafe to tourists. If anything, most Jamaicans go out of their way to ensure tourists are happy and safe. Petty thefts occur where opportunities arise—leave your valuables at home and don’t flash any jewelry or electronics. Ultimately, beyond the gorgeous scenery, delicious food, and reggae music, it’s the people who make Jamaica a fun and fascinating destination unlike any other in the Caribbean.
Lebawit Lily Girma is a freelance travel writer and photographer who splits her time between Washington, D.C., Belize, and Jamaica. A serial expat, she has traveled the Caribbean for the past ten years and lived for extended periods in Jamaica and Belize. Lily's articles and photography, which focus on culture and adventure, have been published in New York Magazine
, CNN Travel, The Travel Channel, American Way, BBC Travel, and others. She's the author of Moon Belize
(Avalon Travel/Perseus Books). Follow Lily's journey on Sunshine and Stilettos
and look for her new Jamaica guidebook to be released this fall.