Travels & Places: Jamaica

Jamaica

Ever since Errol Flynn cavorted here with his Hollywood pals in the 1930s and ’40s, travelers have regarded Jamaica as one of the most alluring of the Caribbean islands. Its beaches, mountains and carnal red sunsets regularly appear in the world’s tourist brochures, and, unlike other nearby islands, it democratically caters to all comers: you can choose a private villa with your own private beach; laugh your vacation away at a party-hearty resort; throw yourself into the thick of the island’s life; or concentrate on experiencing the three Rs: reggae, reefers and rum.

But behind the now familiar clichés of ‘tropical’ scenery and ‘shimmering’ beaches lies a different Jamaica – one whose character arises from its complex culture, and which aspires to be African in defiance of both the island’s geography and its colonial history. Jamaicans may have a quick wit and a ready smile, but this is not the happy-go-lucky island of Bacardi adverts and Harry Belafonte numbers. The island’s sombre history is rooted in the sugar-plantation economy, and the slave era still weighs heavily on the national psyche. Rastafarianism may mean easy skankin’ to some, but its confused expression of love, hope, anger and social discontent encapsulates modern Jamaica – a densely populated, poverty-ridden country that is struggling to escape dependency and debt. Come to Jamaica with an open mind and an interest in exploring these contradictions and you will truly have ‘no problem mon.’

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Kingston
Jamaica’s teeming capital city suffers from a negative image that, though partly deserved, belies its many appeals. At first neither welcoming nor beautiful, the city is diminished by squalor, and its culture can be darned right intimidating. Seething tensions simmer below the surface and often boil over. But although there are places visitors are advised to steer well clear of, Kingston is the vibrant heartbeat of Jamaica and its center of commerce and culture. It hustles, it bustles, and it merits a visit, especially during one of the annual festivals.
The view from the mountains reveals leafy foothill suburbs overlooking a magnificent natural harbor. Just north of the waterfront is the historic downtown area, with its highrise hotels and offices, and its urban underclass: hustlers, street vendors, and beggars. New Kingston is uptown, north of the old center.

The Bob Marley Museum, at the reggae superstar’s former home in New Kingston, is the city’s most visited attraction. Highlights include the singer’s simple bedroom with Marley’s star-shaped guitar by the bedside, the bullet holes that ripped through the rear wall of the house during an assassination attempt in 1976, and the tree outside beneath which Marley would smoke ganja and practice his guitar.

Downtown Kingston’s waterfront area is well and truly ready for its planned restoration, but it’s still a good place for a breezy walk, and you can visit the craft market on the wharves. A few blocks westward is the National Gallery, displaying Jamaican works from the 1920s to the present, including a good collection of Edna Manley’s sculpture. Every December it hosts a national exhibition of contemporary art.

The majority of budget hotels are on the south side of New Kingston. Pickings are slim downtown where options are mostly glitzy and upmarket. There are heaps of good food options downtown, however: Indian, Chinese and Yankee places rumble for the belly-dollar with local chowmasters. North of New Kingston and running away to the west, Red Hills Rd has plenty of jerk stands. You can smell the spice and smoke as you drive along. Red Hills Rd is also one place for street parties and discos, but regardless of which area you find yourself roaming, reggae music is sure to be blaring. This place jumps!

Ocho Rios
Ocho Rios, 67 miles (108km) east of Montego Bay, is in a deep bowl backed by green hills and fronted by wide, scalloped Turtle Beach and a reef-sheltered harbor. The town is popular with cruise ships which disgorge 400,000 passengers a year into Ochi’s compact, charmless streets. If the garish pleasures of Turtle Beach get too much, there are less built-up swimming options nearby to the east. Fern Gully, a couple of miles inland, zigzags for about three miles through the canyon of an old watercourse. Trees form a canopy overhead, filtering the subaqueous light. It’s best to visit the gully early in the morning, before the traffic fumes collect in a thick haze.

Dunn’s River Falls, 2 miles (3km) west of town, is Jamaica’s best-known attraction. You might as well forget about trying to avoid the crowds here and just join the daisy chain clambering up the tiers of limestone that stairstep 600 ft (180m) down to the beach in a series of cascades and pools. The water is refreshingly cool and the falls are shaded by tall rainforest. Less than a mile further west, Laughing Waters spills to a fabulous little beach, although the falls aren’t what they used to be since being tapped by a hydroelectricity plant.

Montego Bay
Jamaica’s northwestern node is the thriving port city of MoBay. This is resort Jamaica at its purest and most puerile, where a crowded tourist mishmash of one-way streets full of honking cars and pedestrians almost obscures the scintillating beaches, the golf courses, the historic houses and the mountain-village life going on behind the narrow coastal strip. Despite MoBay’s reputation as a hustlers’ city, there are attractions which make it worth being asked ‘Hey, Jake! Smoke? Coke?’ every few steps. Many admirable Georgian stone buildings and timber houses still stand downtown, and there is an excellent variety of arts and crafts. Every kind of water sport is offered, although most of the good beaches are the private domains of resort hotels.

Those seeking a budget holiday with a lively nightlife and shops and markets packed with bargains will be right at home, as will those seeking to spend a week idly sunning at an all-inclusive upmarket resort. However, if you’re interested in Jamaica beyond the tourist ideal of ‘Caribbean-ness,’ you’ll find little in Montego Bay.

Negril
Negril, 52 miles (84km) west of Montego Bay, is Jamaica’s fastest growing resort and the vortex around which Jamaica’s fun-in-the-sun vacation life whirls. Despite phenomenal growth in recent years Negril is still more laid back than anywhere else in Jamaica (it’s one of the few places where you can tan the whole booty). You’ll probably interact with locals more here than in other resort areas given that woodcarvers hawk their crafts on the beach, makeshift stalls selling health foods and jerk pork line the roads and mellow greetings are proffered freely by locals. And you don’t need the magic mushroom omelettes which show up on restaurant menus to consider sunsets over Negril’s 7 mile (11km) long beach hallucinogenic.

The Negril Watershed Environmental Protection Area is the first protected wilderness zone in Jamaica. It is intended to protect the entire Negril area, including a marine park, the Great Morass swampland north of Negril town and nearby mangrove forests. Although the final details of the project are still being drawn up, the conservation area is already a reality.

Jamaica-1Getting Around
Intra-island flights can be a quick way to travel between Montego Bay, Kingston, Negril, Ocho Rios and Port Antonio. Helicopters can also be chartered for scenic rides or for personalized tours, but this will dig a deep hole in your rum money. Jamaica’s bus ‘system,’ while comprehensive, is the epitome of chaos: timetables don’t really exist and buses are often literally overflowing. Buses and minibuses do service virtually every village in the country though, so if you’re getting out and about, you’re sure to use them. The upside is that they’re inexpensive and a great way to meet the locals. Whether you find traveling by bus fun, frustrating, freaky or infuriating depends on your frame of mind.

Numerous local and international operators rent cars and motorcycles. Road conditions vary from excellent to awful, driver temperament varies from merely impatient to flagrantly suicidal. Expect to be honked at, sworn at and swerved around…stay calm and stay cautious, and if you do ‘mash up,’ don’t be drawn into an argument with an emotional Jamaican driver. Very few Jamaicans have bicycles, but you can rent bikes in towns of any size. If bringing your own bicycle from home, carry as many spares as you can

Cockpit Country
Cockpit Country is a dramatic, sculpted 500-sq-mile (1295 sq km) limestone plateau in Jamaica’s central west. The area is studded with thousands of conical hummocks divided by precipitous ravines. Light plane or helicopter excursions are the most spectacular way to get a sense of the area’s scale and beauty, and given that no roads penetrate the region, this is often the only way visitors get to see the Cockpits. Virtually unsullied by humans, the area is replete with wildlife, a temptation for birdwatchers, nature lovers and spelunkers (the Cockpits are laced with caves, most of them uncharted). Most of the trails are faint, rocky tracks, often overgrown slave trails that you can only follow with the aid of a machete. The rocks are razor-sharp, and sinkholes are everywhere, often covered by decayed vegetation and ready to crumble underfoot. Never travel alone here, and don’t underestimate how strenuous and hot it can be.

It’s easiest to approach Cockpit Country via Montego Bay to the north, where buses and minibuses head to towns like Clark’s Town and Windsor on the northern fringe of the wilderness area.

Long Bay
Long Bay, in the northeast (not to be confused with another Long Bay in the southwest), has one of the most dramatic settings in Jamaica. The aptly named bay is a one-mile crescent with rose-colored sand, deep turquoise waters, and breezes pushing the waves forcefully ashore. This is one of the most consistent surf spots on the island, although swimmers should beware of the bay’s dangerous undertow. Canoes are drawn up on the beach with fishing nets drying beside them and you may even be able to hire a fisherman to take you out in his canoe. Long Bay is perfect for budget travelers seeking to ease into a life of leisure in a fishing village that’s untouched by mass tourism.
There’s a rustic camping ground and cabin accommodation is available. Many locals also rent out rooms in their houses. There’s a lively beachside bar and restaurant, and a few jerk and seafood options. Buses run to and from Port Antonio, the northeast’s major town.

Alligator Pond
Alligator Pond’s lonesome location at the foot of a valley between steep spurs on Jamaica’s southwest coast has effectively cut it off from the rest of the country. The village is set behind a deep blue bay backed by dunes and the main street is smothered in wind-blown sand. Each morning local women gather on the darkened beach to haggle over the catch delivered by fishermen. The Sandy Cays lie about 20 miles (32km) offshore, poking out of the ocean a few feet. They’re an excellent location for scuba diving, snorkeling and nude bathing.
The beach is lined with funky stalls catering to fishermen and there are a couple of places in town renting basic rooms. A private minibus operates between Kingston and Alligator Pond, and if you’re already in the central highlands, there are other transport options from the villages.

Treasure Beach
Treasure Beach is the name given to four coves stretching for several miles south of Starve Gut Bay on Jamaica’s south coast. The rocky headlands separate romantically isolated coral-colored sandy beaches. Although there are several rental villas and hotels, the area remains largely untouristed. Each morning women ride down from the hills to sell their freshly picked fruit and vegetables, while fishermen prepare their boats to sail out to the teeming fishing grounds offshore. Water sports haven’t caught on here, although the waves are good for body-surfing. You may even see marine turtles coming ashore to lay eggs. This portion of coast also draws hikers who follow trails used by fishermen. Minibuses run all the way from Montego Bay to Black River, from where there is a bus all the way in to Treasure Beach.

Facts at a Glance

Full country name: Jamaica
Area: 4411 sq miles (11,425 sq km)
Population: 3 million
Capital city: Kingston (population 800,000)
People: 76% African descent, 15% Afro-European descent, 4% European, 3% East Indian & Middle Eastern, 1% Afro-Chinese & Chinese
Language: English and patois
Religion: 80% Christian, including revivalist cults such as Pocomania and Rastafarianism
Government: Independent member of the British Commonwealth
Prime Minister: PJ Patterson

Environment
Columbus described Jamaica as ‘the fairest isle that eyes beheld; mountainous…all full of valleys and fields and plains.’ Roughly ovoid in shape and lying 90 miles (145km) south of Cuba, it’s the third-largest island in the Caribbean. Despite its relatively small size, Jamaica boasts an impressive diversity of terrain and vegetation, although few visitors venture afield to experience this array.

The island is rimmed by a narrow coastal plain pitted with bays everywhere but in the south where broad flatlands cover extensive areas and there are long ruler-straight stretches. Most of the resorts huddle along the north coast, where the vegetation is lush and the beaches are white and sandy. The limestone interior is dramatically sculpted by deep vales and steep ridges, dominated by basket-of-eggs topography such as in Cockpit Country, a virtually impenetrable tract pitted with bush-covered hummocks, vast sinkholes, underground caves and flat valley bottoms. The uplands rise gradually from the west, culminate in the tortuous Blue Mountains in the east, and are capped by Blue Mountains Peak at 7402ft (2220m).

Jamaica’s idyllic tropical maritime climate means that dramatic fluctuations in temperature are virtually non-existent. Weather patterns can change quickly, though, especially during rain-prone May to December. Officially, hurricane season lasts from June to November, but relatively few of the hurricanes that sweep the region touch Jamaica. The last great storm to hit the island was Hurricane Gilbert, which roared ashore in 1988, causing immense damage, killing 45 people and leaving one-quarter of the population homeless.

Jamaica’s lush climate has allowed a myriad of plant and animal species to thrive, although human habitation over the last 500 years has devastated areas of the island, making many species extinct. Small numbers of wild hogs still roam remote pockets, and there are over 20 species of fruit and insect-eating bats. Otherwise, the only native land mammal is the endangered Jamaican hutia, or coney, a large brown rodent akin to a guinea pig. Imported animals are much more common, such as cattle, goats and mongooses, a weasel-like mammal introduced from India in the late 19th century to control rats, an earlier stowaway introduction themselves.

Jamaica has plenty of slithery and slimy creatures: crocodiles are found in wetlands and mangrove swamps along the south coast, lizards and frogs are everywhere, iguanas hang on to survival in remote backwaters, and there are plenty of snakes, none of them poisonous. Birdlife is prolific, although some endemic species have become extinct and many more are endangered. Egrets are commonly seen riding piggyback on cattle. John Crows (actually the ungainly turkey buzzard) are found all over Jamaica. Yellow-breasted bananaquits, sneaky kling-klings (kleptomaniacs when it comes to picnics), owls, doves, woodpeckers, pelicans and hummingbirds can also be spied on the wing.

Jamaica’s offshore habitats are prodigal places, especially along the north coast, where the waters are scintillatingly clear. The rainbow-hued reefs support sinuous boulder-like brain corals, soft-flowering corals that sway with the ocean currents, and over 700 species of fish. Marine turtles find Jamaica’s beaches appealing as nest sites, although their numbers have suffered at the hands of hunters. The endangered manatee – a warm-blooded marine mammal with a huge bloated body, a blunt snout, and a paddle-like tail – can be seen in swamps in the island’s south.

Facts for the Traveler
Visas: US and Canadian citizens do not need passports for visits up to six months. All other visitors must arrive with a passport, but most western travelers do not need a visa.
Health risks: None
Time: UTC minus 6 hours
Electricity: 110V, 60 Hz
Weights & measures: Imperial
Tourism: More than 1 million visitors per year

Jamaica is relatively inexpensive compared to other Caribbean islands, though how much you spend depends largely on the style in which you travel. Budget travelers will need around US$20-30 per day, while those staying in comfortable hotels and eating at tourist restaurants will need at least US$75 per day – add another US$50 per day if you hire a car. Rates at all-inclusive resorts begin at $300.

The Jamaican dollar is the only legal tender though prices are often quoted in US dollars, which are widely accepted. European currencies are generally frowned upon so it’s best to have US dollar travelers’ checks. All major brands of travelers’ checks and credit cards are accepted in Jamaica. You can exchange money at banks, licensed exchange bureaus or hotels, though the rate at hotels is usually 2% to 5% below the bank rate. Plenty of Jamaicans will approach you to change Jamaican dollars on the black market. This is illegal and the black market rate is usually only 5% to 10% better than the bank rate so it’s not worth the risk of falling for a scam.

The government charges a 15% General Consumption Tax on hotel and restaurant bills and most purchases from shops. Most hotels add an additional 10% service charge. A 10% tip is considered normal in most hotels and restaurants, though some restaurants add a 10% to 15% service charge, in which case there’s no need to leave an additional tip. Most prices in shops are fixed but bargaining (higgling) at street stalls and markets is expected. Bargaining occasionally gets a bit brusque so do your best to keep things good natured.

When to Go
Jamaica is a year-round destination thanks to its idyllic tropical maritime climate. Seasons are virtually non-existent and day time maximum temperatures along the coast hover constantly between 80 and 86°F (27 and 30°C). Even up in the Blue Mountains temperatures are only just under 68°F (20°C) for most of the year.
If you plan on spending time on the east coast or in the Blue Mountains, you may wish to take account of the so-called rainy season, which extends from May to November with two peaks: May/June and October/November. Although this time of year is a little more humid than others, rain usually falls for short periods (normally in the late afternoon) and it’s quite possible to enjoy sunshine for most of your visit.

The peak tourist season runs from mid-December to mid-April, with Christmas and Easter the busiest weeks. During this period the resort areas of the island are flooded with foreign tourists and hotel prices are highest. You can save wads of money (40% or more at some hotels) by visiting during the less-crowded low season which lasts from May to November.

Culture
The island’s rich artistic heritage reaches back to pre-Columbian days when the Arawak Indians etched petroglyphs on the ceilings and walls of caverns. Examples can still be seen in caves dotted throughout the island. Today Jamaica, and particularly Kingston, is a center of Caribbean art, its vital cultural energy having flourished tremendously since independence in 1962. Edna Manley, wife of Norman Manley, Jamaica’s first prime minister, was instrumental in the unshackling of Jamaican art from European aesthetic prescriptions. From the 1920s until her death in 1987 Manley was a central figure in the Jamaican art world both for her sculpture, and for her vigorous promotion and encouragement of local artists, which included the island-themed primitives (labeled ‘intuitives’) and a more internationalist group of painters schooled abroad. No collective visual style defines Jamaican artworks, but many emphasize historical roots in their works. The international success of reggae music has had a profound effect on Jamaican visual arts. Rastafarians are common subjects, as are market higglers, animals, and religious symbols merged with the myths of Africa.

From hotel beach parties to the raw discos of the working-class suburbs, Jamaica reverberates to the soul-riveting sounds of calypso, soca (a soul-calypso fusion) and reggae. Music is everywhere. The earliest original Jamaican musical form was mento, a folk calypso fused with Cuban influences that emerged at the turn of the 19th century and was popular through until the 1950s when early boogie-woogie and R&B eclipsed it in the dance halls. Ska, though short-lived, was an unmistakably Jamaican take on R&B mixed with mento. Danceable doubletime ska was adopted by the poor and dispossessed, who later turned to the soulful, syncopated beat of reggae music and its political, social and religious messages full of metaphor, expressions of anger and praise of Jah (God). Reggae is associated above all with one man: Bob Marley, who helped spark a ‘Third World consciousness’ by being both a musical superstar and a consistent voice against racism, oppression and injustice.

Officially English is the spoken language but, in reality, Jamaica is a bilingual country and English is far more widely understood than spoken. The unofficial lingo is patois – a musical dialect with a uniquely Jamaican rhythm and cadence. Patois evolved from the Creole English and a twisted alchemy of the mother tongue peppered with African, Portuguese and Spanish terms, and Rastafarian slang.

Jamaica’s homegrown cuisine is a fusion of many ethnic traditions, with Arawak Indian, Spanish, African, Indian, Middle Eastern, Chinese and British influences all detectable. A typical Jamaican breakfast is ackee, a tree-grown fruit which bears an uncanny resemblance to scrambled eggs when cooked. Lunch is usually a light snack, maybe a heavily-seasoned meat or vegetable pie. Main meals usually feature goat or pork, usually curried, served with rice and beans. Seafood dishes are also popular, often pickled and fried with peppers and onions. Jamaica’s most popular dish is jerk, a term that describes the process of cooking meats smothered in tongue-searing marinade, and barbecued slowly in an outdoor pit over a fire of pimento wood, which gives the meat its distinctive flavor.

Tea is a generic Jamaican term for any hot, brewed drink, and may be herbal, mixed with rum, milk, spices and even fish. Beware of marijuana or hallucinogenic mushroom teas, which may be more than you bargained for in an after-dinner digestive! Skyjuice is a favorite cool drink, made from shaved ice flavored with syrup. Coconut juice, straight from the nut, is also popular. Beer and rum are the most popular alcoholic drinks. Jamaican Blue Mountains coffee is among the most flavorsome in the world, but due to farcical authentication and licensing requirements, much of what is sold as the genuine article is not all it’s c racked up to be

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