Jamaica is a country that is deeply connected to its roots, rich in culture, misunderstood, misrepresented and simultaneously well known. Many people who travel here will opt for an all-inclusive package and have a nicely escorted and managed vacation, never straying far from the carefully constructed bubble of their resort. This may be a nice way to travel, but you will probably not learn much about yourself or the world -you stand a good chance of seeing some very nice pools though. This guide isn’t for those who will be traveling to Jamaica this way, you can have the cliff-notes version; the pool will be right there, the bar is right there as well, the buffet starts at 5:30PM and the front desk will be happy to call you a cab. There’s your guide, have fun in your bubble. Or you could dare to read on, perhaps you’ll be inspired to venture outside the walls of your all-inclusive luxury resort just a little further, or better yet you might skip the all-inclusive entirely and learn a little bit about Jamaica and yourself on your trip…
Before traveling here there is little doubt that you will hear warnings from overly concerned people; “be careful… I hear it’s dangerous there,” etc. etc. I’m not talking about the usual friendly, “have a safe trip” that people will wish you, these are expected and welcome before any trip, but there seemed to be a different tone when we mentioned we’d be going to Jamaica, as if Jamaica was somehow more dangerous than traveling to say, Washington D.C. or Detroit -it’s not. A part of me couldn’t help but wonder how much of this had to do with the fact that white people in Jamaica are the vast minority, a phenomenon found in most of the world… If you simply follow the normal rules of international travel you will leave Jamaica having had a safe and fun trip. What are the normal rules of international travel you ask? You really only need one, use your common sense.
If you are traveling to Negril your trip will begin in the Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay. Landing is a bit of a thrill as you look out the window and see the bright blue-green ocean get closer and closer. Only the most trusting traveler won’t question whether or not there will be land below you when it comes time to touchdown. If your pilot does their job right the runway will appear beneath you at the last moment and within minutes you will feel the heat and humidity of the Caribbean while you wait for your luggage. After a brief (hopefully) welcome from customs you will quickly find shuttles or taxis willing to take you to Negril for about $25-70 per person. You also will undoubtedly be offered some Jamaican smoke, don’t accept, even if you want some, you’ll have more than ample opportunity and this isn’t the place; unless you want to pay exorbitant prices for lower quality that is. After getting dropped off at the hotel you most likely will be offered smoke from several other people, any groundskeepers, bellhops, front desk workers etc. are all liable to offer it to you, again your answer should be no. They love the fresh tourists, your whole stay people will ask you how long you’ve been in Jamaica because the newer you are the more likely you still haven’t bought something from someone else. Your answer from the first minute you arrive should be; “I’ve been here a little while already.” Same with if you’ve visited the island before, let them know you’ve been here and played these games already and they’re likely to treat you with a little more “respeck.”
If you want smoke you’ll want to develop a bit of a relationship with one or several of the hustlers that hang out on the streets by shops near your hotel. They will want to be your friend and keep you happy so the better you get to know them the better for you, you might even make a new friend. Don’t get confused or suspicious by the word hustler, that’s what these guys do, they hustle dope, tours, fruits, bracelets, coffee, artwork, music etc. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just the way of life here. That said you should always keep an eye on your money, how much things cost, exchange rates etc. because there are also people who will try to hustle you in the more malicious sense everywhere in the world and Jamaica is no exception. Of course that kind of goes with that common sense thing I spoke about before…
Walking the streets of Negril requires navigating a few things; one is the traffic. (Cars drive on the left here.) There is a complete lack of sidewalks and traffic whizzes by, honking as they go. Don’t let the honking scare or confuse you though, they are just letting you know they are there, or quite often it is a taxi seeing if you want a ride. You can usually just wave them off with a simple gesture. As in any area with potentially dangerous traffic it is good to make yourself visible and make eye contact with drivers whenever possible. The other obstacle requiring navigation on the streets of Negril (there is basically only one) are the street vendors and other people selling things who will try to stop you everywhere you go, they are aggressive and will sense any hesitation so if you know you don’t want to buy something right then let them know. A polite “no thanks” is usually enough but don’t hesitate to continue walking like you‘ve got somewhere to be. I used to work a job that required stopping people walking by to try to sell them stuff and trust me, it’s not a surprise when someone ignores you, it’s just part of the game. Almost everyone you meet has something to sell you; “look at these buds really quick mon’…” or “wanna see what I made today,” and so on… it can get exhausting pretty quick. No need to be rude though, just say “no thanks,” look like you’re on your way somewhere and keep walking.
When you do want to buy something do yourself and the country a favor and shop outside of your hotel or resorts souvenir shop so you can give right back to the community. Buying artwork from the artist that made it has a much stronger appeal to me than buying cheap “made in China” souvenirs at resort prices anyway. Once you find where you want to shop have a look and shoot to negotiate their original price in half. You won’t always get there but it’s a good estimate of what you should be paying. Also they will usually suggest stuff for you to buy, the suggested items are almost always the cheapest things (for them) and they throw them in to raise their starting negotiation price. Don’t be fooled into buying stuff you don’t want, find the pieces you like and make an offer on them, just because they show you five things and say it’s $20 worth of stuff that they’re willing to part with for $15 (you deserve a deal after all) doesn’t mean that it’s anywhere near $20 worth of stuff; especially if it includes items they selected for you. It also seems to help if you use Jamaican Dollars instead of USD, although it can get hard to keep track of when the exchange rate is $88JD to $1USD. The best negotiation tactic seemed to be genuinely trying to leave without buying anything though, that’s when you’re liable to get really good deals because often merchants would rather sell something than nothing.
Getting around requires either mitigating the dangers of the road by foot or joining them in a taxi, there are “official” taxis that have red license plates, there are also “unofficial” taxis everywhere and often you’ll get a better deal with these. Allegedly the “official” taxis will have a standard rate but even with them it seemed to fluctuate quite a bit and was always negotiable, getting from one end of Negril to the other shouldn‘t cost more than $7USD. Always settle the price before getting into the car and whether it’s an “official” taxi or an “unofficial” taxi don’t accept what they tell you first unless it’s $5 or less. I usually would include about $1-2USD for a tip on top of the $5-7 cost of the ride; the better the price they gave me the better the tip I gave them. I’ll even pay more for a ride from someone if I don’t feel like they were trying to rip me off in the first place. Almost every taxi driver is also a “tour guide” and will be happy to take you to see the sights. If you find one you like and want to take a tour then take their card or just make plans with them. The prices don’t seem to range too much and are a little flexible but in the end it’s more important to go with someone who you’ll have a fun day with than to save $20-30USD.
The most popular tours were; Mayfield Falls, YS Falls, Black River, The Great Morass and the Appleton Rum Factory.
The Mayfield Falls trip consists of a river walk through a remarkably clear, mineral rich river with several little falls and pools to swim in. As you walk and swim your way up the river you can stop and feel the power of the waterfalls on your back and hide behind curtains of water. The entrance to the park is $15USD and they will provide a guide to take you up the river. Your guide will be happy to take pictures and provide you with a hand over the slippery spots, the assumption is also that they will come get you out of the water if you run into trouble… Don’t forget a tip for them, we gave ours the cost of the entry as a token of thanks but I‘m usually at a loss for how much you should tip, if I have the means I error on the side of giving more than I would guess is the norm when I‘m traveling in poorer countries than my own. Explore Mayfield in the virtual world before you go on their website; http://www.mayfieldfalls.com/.
YS Falls is similar to Mayfield but features a zip-line and tubing opportunities, there is more information, including prices on their website; http://www.ysfalls.com/.
Royal Palm Reserve offers tours of the Great Morass which is Jamaica’s leading eco-tourism attraction, you can see plants, crocodiles and other wildlife on this 300 acre reserve. Find more info here; http://www.negril-tour-guide.com/royalpalmreserve.html. You can also explore the area without entering the Royal Palm, ask a local guide about different options to see what’s best for you.
The Appleton Rum Factory is a working rum factory that provides tours and of course, samples. Learn more here; http://www.appletonrumtour.com/.
Several of these attractions are in the same area so if you are up for it and want to save money and/or have a limited amount of time it is possible to include several of these in a day. Prices for the taxi fare range from $70-200 total for one or several of the sites for a couple people. The more people the cheaper the rate per person. Negril also offers a myriad of water sports and for you to engage in, jet skis, parasailing, snorkeling, scuba diving, swimming, glass bottom boat rides and more are all readily available on the beach.
Now for some reason most guide books and reviews seem to generally skirt around this subject, the stigma of so many years of Reefer Madness I suppose; but let’s talk about what Jamaica is known for -the ganja. Cost and quality can vary but I’ll just say that as someone who has been spoiled his whole life in Colorado, the Jamaican weed can’t hold a stick to the quality we see in here. I’m sure there is much better than what little we saw in Negril but overall the quality fell somewhere between swag and standard kind bud. Fortunately the price fell somewhere in there as well, $25 buys you roughly ¼-½ oz, unless you don’t negotiate; then $40 will buy you the same amount. While marijuana is technically illegal in Jamaica you will see it almost constantly and many Jamaicans smoke openly on the street or beach. We took a cue from the locals and happily yet discreetly smoked almost wherever we wanted. It would be safe to assume that a cop would be more likely to give a tourist a problem about smoking then they would a local though so being a little less brazen than them would be wise. Ordering food and then passing the time with a joint was perfectly acceptable at most outside eateries, discreetly of course. This was helpful for two reasons, one is obvious; food always tastes a little better after a joint, the other is that it’s a nice way to pass the time as food service runs on “Jamaican Time,” that is to say, slow. It also is recommended that the female members of the group hold any contraband you are traveling with as they are less likely to be searched.
One of the best parts of traveling is trying different cultures’ foods, Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern definitely got that right. Some places you visit the food is good, others not so much. Jamaica is one of those places where the food is good, very good. Negril is no exception and has many unique island flavors for you to try. We stayed on the west end of Negril so most of what I had the chance to enjoy was on this quieter end of town. If you aren’t near the places I mention just ask the locals where to eat, once you hear the same response a few times you’ll know it’s the right place. Almost every restaurant has a version of jerk chicken, some have better jerk than others though and it’s best to get right to them. For instance, 3 Dives features some of the best chicken I’ve ever had in my life; jerk or otherwise, and you shouldn‘t miss it if you‘re in Negril. Make sure to order your jerk with the hard dough bread, it helps with the spiciness and is delicious on its own. The owner of 3 Dives, Lighty, is usually there working the grill and is happy to talk to you about his delicious, home raised chickens. The seafood is good as well, don’t miss the massive serving of grilled lobster, after you‘ve had the chicken of course.
Choices Restaurant, right across from Hotel Samsara, doesn’t have the best jerk but their fried chicken is a treat. Also nearby is Royal’s Vegetarian Kitchen where you can get a traditional rasta style i-tal meal -that is essentially vegan. If you’re there don’t skip the amazing fruit smoothies, I never knew what flavor I’d be getting, I would just have faith in Uncle Royal and he never let me down, each smoothie was a delicious concoction of perfectly blended fruits. Sips and Bites is a little further down the road toward the lighthouse and is another option for consistent good eats. Bentley’s Crab House features rooftop dining and service from the chef, unfortunately while the price is befitting of Bentley’s huge ego, his food is not.
On the more popular, touristy side of Negril near the big name resorts is Sweet Spice, here you can also find delicious seafood and other good local cuisine. When we ate here it was busy yet we were the only tourists in the joint, a sure sign that you’re in the right place. These are just a few of the many, many, fantastic options on this island. Foods to look for are anything jerk, conch, any local fish, soups, curried goat, stewed ox tail, and patties. The patties are unlike anything I’ve had before, perfectly flaky pastries surrounding well seasoned meats, seafood or veggies -fantastic. On your way out of the country stop by the Island Deli in the airport for one last patty before heading home, they are just as good as the ones found on the street and those eating Wendy‘s or other fast food will look on with envy at your departing Jamaican snack. Lastly, if you get the opportunity to have a home-cooked meal with a Jamaican family, take it. One of our guides invited us over for dinner and cooked us the best meal we had during our whole stay, fresh fish, fresh fruit, fresh veggies and as he put it, “love,” we could definitely taste the difference.
The fruit in Jamaica is almost worth the trip by itself, try as many different types as you can (usual rules of cleanliness apply, preferably choose fruit that involves a peel.) My personal favorites were the dried coconut, honey banana, pineapple and ackee. The coconut is totally unlike what you’ll find in the candy bars at home, it has a smooth, subtly sweet taste that lingers in your mouth after you have finished. Ackee is a fruit found locally that tastes, and looks, a lot like scrambled eggs; careful though, this interesting fruit is poisonous before it’s ripe. Ackee makes for a delicious side or breakfast.
There is one last tip I will leave you with and it applies to more places than Jamaica but is particularly relevant here, that is to not just take in the scenery as you travel but to stop and take in the people. Listen to the pearls of wisdom shared by the locals, invite them to have a meal or a drink with you, stick around for more than just bartering or making a purchase, do more than just order a drink from the bartender, ask questions, spend time relating and making friends and you will soon realize that it wasn’t the swimming or the tanning, and certainly not the pool, that made the best part of the trip, it was the people. Your memories of the sunsets and the ocean will blur together and fade into a nostalgic euphoria about your time in Jamaica rather than a memory, but the smiles and moments shared with the local islanders will remain vivid in your mind long after you‘ve settled back into your routine at home.