When we think Jamaica, the word "adventure" may not immediately come to mind. With Jamaica, we envision spans of fine sand and sapphire-blue water. We think Bob Marley, reggae, and dreadlocked Rastas. We think of the much publicized violence and drug culture of urban Jamaica, an image entirely at odds with the spectrum of private beaches and resorts that have long appealed to international travelers. And yet "adventure" still doesn't seem to fit unless you're locking your car windows and keeping your head down as you drive through the tenements of Kingston. Is it actually worth the plane ticket if all I'm going to see are lazy river expeditions, Bob Marley-related landmarks, dudes vending marijuana on the sly, and a few passable reggae acts performing covers at the local Kahunaville? Rejoice, Embark user, for Jamaica has a few tricks up its sleeve.
At only 234 kilometers (145 miles) in length, Jamaica is not exactly a country of open spaces and adrenaline-sapping opportunities, yet there are plenty of beaches up and down its coast, waterfalls to scale at its interior, and the incredible Blue Mountains, which invite more active pursuits like biking, hiking, and even tours of local coffee plantations. Since most activities of interest are incorporated into the tourist economy, you'll find attractions like Dunns Falls and YA Falls trampled with frequency. On the other hand, the type of crowds that gather at Rick's Cafe in Negril can make quite an audience for both the sunset and your cliff-jumping prowess. Try caving in the heart of island, hiking to off-the-beaten-path waterfalls like Tacky and Reach, or escaping to beaches away from the tourist resorts like Treasure Beach or Lime Cay. Even famous resorts like Montego Bay have more to offer than meets the eye, for the scuba diving in these translucent waters is the best on the island. Look over our adventure page if you'd like to know more.
As far as Jamaican culture is concerned, it's often boiled down to Rastafarian stereotypes (brightly-colored clothing, words like "jah", permanent clouds of pot smoke, etc.) that most travelers don't leave the resort property long enough to dispel. Which isn't to say that there aren't more than enough Jamaicans that fit this description, but Rastas are only a small part of the population and marijuana is actually illegal despite the fact that it'll probably be pawned at you as soon as you get off the plane. Even if you choose to explore the island via tour bus and only visit famous landmarks like Bob Marley's birthplace, Nine Miles, or Tuff Gong Studios in Kingston, it's better than spending your whole vacation under a beach umbrella. Combine that with jerk chicken with the locals or freshly caught lobster at a local shack and you can truly get a sense of the hearty, friendly nature of the Jamaican people.
If you are traveling on your own, there are a few things to make sure of. First, the island infrastructure, despite advancements in the last few decades, is still poor by international standards. Roads are far less reliable at the center of the island, while options like route taxis (which make scheduled stops) may be the cheapest way to get from place to place along the coast. As far as safety is concerned, basic precautions include staying out of run-down areas and being sure to exhibit the same common sense you would in any country, including the United States. Most of Negril, Montego Bay, Port Antonio, Treasure Beach, or other lesser known, but intriguing parts of Jamaica all are considered safe enough to even bring kids, much like many other Caribbean islands. Don't take our word for it; browse our included activities, videos, pictures, and more for a better sense of what awaits you if you choose Jamaica for your next adventure. Believe us, it doesn't just have to be a day at the beach.
Most first world countries, including the United States, do not need visas if visiting Jamaica for less than 180 days. For more information on if you need a visa for your country of citizenship, consult the following link.
The currency in Jamaica is the Jamaican Dollar. Find the most up-to-date exchange rates here.
The Jamaican government is a parliamentary democracy based largely on the political traditions of the United Kingdoms. The head of state is the monarch of England, who chooses the ceremonially powerful governor-general to rule locally. Executive power is given to the cabinet and the head of government, the Prime Minister, while legislative duties fall to the Senate and House of Representatives and judicial duties fall outside of government jurisdiction and are presided over at the highest level by the Court of Appeals (although the UK's Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is a possible next step for unresolved disputes). The two-party system is comprised of the Peoples' National Part, which often espouses liberal, sometimes socialist ideology, and the conservative Jamaica Labour Party. There is noted corruption at various levels of government, while the lack of law enforcement (like the illegality of marijuana) is a sizable concern, as well as rampant poverty in both urban and rural areas. Here's an accurate take on Jamaica's "economic freedom."
Speaking a language known as Jamaican Patois that differs very little from English, you'll find that with a little practice with the minor variations in pronunciation, you'll have little trouble speaking with the locals. The majority of travelers to the island will be staying in resorts or dealing with tour operators who communicate well in more familiar English anyway, so the language will be of little concern. Also, despite the pop culture infiltration of reggae, Rastafarian English, (known for the use of "I" instead of "me" when speaking) is actually considered a different language. You'll hear it as soon as you leave the airport from the guy trying to sell you marijuana.
Crime and Safety:
It's pretty obvious that crime is the Jamaican elephant in the room. Most folks who enjoy Jamaica do so from a resort lounger or from the comfort-in-numbers that a guided tour will provide, often because of the ruthless lawlessness that pervades the land. Okay... ruthless lawlessness is quite a stretch and likely an extension of prejudicial thinking. The truth is that there ARE high rates of violent crime in the more urban areas of Kingston and Montego Bay, while homosexuals are treated with animosity. A lack of timely judicial process and a deficiency in the enforcement of laws have combined with high poverty rates and gang-related behaviors to create conditions in some areas where violence has become commonplace. Luckily, this will not usually be where you will be going. Instead, wherever there are tourists, there will be locals trying to sell you something and make a few bucks. If you are looking to brave the world beyond the resort gates, there are a few things to keep in mind: travel in groups when possible, know where you are going at all times, avoid heading into private areas with people you don't know (we've heard of travelers having their money taken when going to see "marijuana plantations"), and keep your possessions secured. To be honest, due to crime rates and a lack of reliable transport on the island, it may just be best to book tours or do your due diligence in the research department; it's best to take care of personal safety so that you better enjoy your trip.
Modes of Transportation:
Jamaica is not a big country, but as far as transport is concerned, it is considered quite an adventure no matter where you are going. There are a few main highways that encircle the island, but even these are not the most well kept and the bumpy ride is a risk to induce sickness. Rural routes are even worse and can often be unpaved. Route taxis are the way that most local Jamaicans travel if in need of public transport, although they don't go very far and always have a specific destination, so you may have to change-over a few times if you're traveling across the island. Then again, they are really cheap, while charter taxis will cost a little more and will travel directly to your chosen destination (just be sure to negotiate your fare at the START of your trip). All official taxis will have red license plates that start with the letter "P". Then again, if you have a few different tourist attractions in mind, it doesn't hurt to take a bus with a tour group; It's usually safer and you won't get lost. If you do rent a car, please remember that JAMAICANS DRIVE ON THE LEFT!
Jamaica has a largely tropical climate, especially along it's coast, while the more mountainous inland can tend to be more temperate. This means that no matter what time you visit, you'll undoubtedly be enjoying a lot of warm weather and sunshine; average high temperatures vary between 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit and average lows are between 70 to 80 degrees.
Eating and Tipping:
Tipping is customary in Jamaica with most service jobs. A tip of 10-15% is customary for restaurant staff, although it would be worth checking the bill first for an included tip. Tipping hotel staff is along international standards, i.e. $1-$2 per bag for the bellhop or the same amount for a room cleaning. Also, once you've negotiated your rate at the start of a taxi ride, it's also customary to pay the driver a 10% tip at the end of the ride. All other service personnel could use a tip as well; Jamaica is a tough place to live and anything extra helps.
Jamaica is known for its use of spices in meat dishes, particular the "jerk" seasoning on chicken and pork. The fresh seafood is also prevalent, while most basic dishes will have combination of rice or beans. Common fruits include ackee, coconut, mango, plantains, and many more that thrive in the tropical setting. Dinner may be eaten as early as 4pm, although most restaurants will be serving food until quite a bit later.
In Jamaica, the legal drinking age is 18, although you'll find that many establishments that sell alcohol won't even check for identification. The most popular beers on the island are Red Stripe and Dragon Stout, which are everywhere, but you'll be hard pressed to find any craft beers or anything else other than your basic American import. You can also get Jamaican rum from drinking establishments for pretty cheap or from popular rum distillery, Appleton Estate, and a handful of distilleries in the Kingston area.
Since it is so deeply intertwined with Jamaican rasta culture and our international understanding of Jamaica, we'd be remiss in not addressing the overt marijuana culture. Once you leave the airport, it's likely that you'll encounter someone trying to sell it to you; despite the illegality of the drug, it is everywhere and police will often turn a blind eye toward Jamaicans smoking it in public. You'll encounter it at Nine Miles, you'll encounter it on the streets of Kingston or the beaches of Negril; no matter your disposition toward it, marijuana is a famous countrywide pastime. Be cautious toward men who may approach you with obvious fake names (Dr. Fantastic is an actual example), especially if they're looking to show you their "marijuana plantation." Remember that Jamaica can be a dangerous country if you don't keep your wits about you. Consult our Crime and Safety section for more information.
Interesting Cultural Fact:
As of the end of 2013, 5 of the top 6 fastest runners in 100 meter world history were Jamaican, led by record-holder, Usain Bolt.
Peak season:December to April
Phone code:Dial 1-876
Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival
For three days at the end of January, Montego Bay comes alive with the grandest music festival in Jamaica. With previous headliners that include Celine Dion, Maroon 5, and Jamaica's own Harry Belafonte, you'll see big names join local talent and food and craft vendors to create a huge, raucous occasion. Held at different venues in Negril and Montego Bay, the main concerts are held at Greenfield Stadium in Trelawny.
Jamaica's biggest festival, held in Montego Bay every July, is the Reggae Sumfest. With a range of the biggest international reggae and pop stars (everyone from Ziggy Marley to Rihanna), this huge event caters to a generally younger, hipper crowd and even features nights that emphasize beach music and Jamaican dancehall. For more information on the upcoming Sumfest, check the official site!
Bob Marley Week
During the week that surrounds Bob Marley's birthday on February 6th, all of Jamaica celebrates the life and passing of its greatest icon with music and celebration. The center of activities is Negril, where performances, exhibitions, and much more occur in conjunction with the Bob Marley Museum, while rastas and tourists from all around come to pay their respects and even do a little partying.