Many visitors to Jamaica spend their entire holiday tanning on the beach, but the less sedentary will find a variety of ways to get around. Privately run minibuses provide a comprehensive and cheap – if very chaotic – public transport system, while shared route taxis are great for short hops. Renting a car is the most convenient way of seeing the island, however, but it’s expensive in comparison to the US or UK; if you just want to make the odd excursion, it can work out more cost-effective to hire a driver.
Comprising anything from pockmarked minivans to air-conditioned, tinted-window coaches, Jamaica’s fleet of privately owned buses and minibuses (the names are used interchangeably) is nothing if not eclectic. Though minibus transport is pretty anarchic, with no timetables and regulation stopping at the red “PPV” plates that denote a vehicle is licensed for public carriage, the system does work, and is a viable option for short hops and cross-island trips. One exception to the rule is the Knutsford Express (960 5499, knutsfordexpress.com), whose smart, air-conditioned buses connect Kingston, Ocho Rios, Montego Bay and Negri on the north coast and on the south coast Kingston, Mandeville, Luana, Savanna-La-Mar and Montego Bay, according to scheduled services. Kingston, meanwhile, is served by a fairly comprehensive network of government-owned buses.
Regular minibuses do have some definite downsides: drivers can show little interest in the rules of the road, and passengers are squeezed in with scant regard for comfort – and if you’re one of the first to board, you’ll have to wait until the vehicle is full before it’ll leave. On the other hand, they are a great way to get a window into Jamaican life away from the resorts. Bear in mind that you may not be able to get a direct service to your destination, especially if you’re travelling a fair distance – the journey from Montego Bay to Port Antonio, for example, might involve changing buses in Ochi, Port Maria and Annotto Bay. Non-stop long-distance buses do exist, though, so if you’re not up for an interrupted journey, ask the locals if and when direct buses leave. In general, services start at around 6am and continue until 7 or 8pm, and are severely reduced on Sundays.
All towns have a bus terminal of sorts, either a proper bus station or a designated area along the main road, often near the market, and buses have their routes written on the front, back and sides of the vehicle. Conductors shout out the destination repeatedly before departure, scouting the area for potential passengers and cramming in as many as possible. Once on the road, buses and minibuses will stop anywhere to pick up or drop off passengers (except in Kingston, where they’re restricted to bus stops and terminals). If you want to get off before the terminus, tell the conductor and fellow passengers where you’re going when you get on, or yell “one stop”, or something similar, when you get there. To get on a bus mid-route, just stand by the side of the road and flag it down, but bear in mind that the earlier in the day you travel, the better – being stuck in a bursting Jamaican bus on a boiling afternoon is no picnic.
Fares (J$50–300) are paid to a conductor after boarding, and having the right change, or at least small bills, will make your life easier.
Renting a car is by far the best way of getting around and seeing the island. Though some of the roads beggar belief, Jamaica is a relatively easy country to drive in. Distances are small, and while some locals have a kamikaze approach to driving, most are extremely courteous. However, rental prices are high, averaging around US$50 per day – though rates can go as low as US$30, and you’ll usually get a discount if you rent for more than a few days. Third-party insurance is normally included in the rental rate; you’ll have to pay another US$12–25 per day to cover potential damage to the car. If you choose not to take this out, you’re liable for every scratch on the car, whether caused by your own error or not. Websites like carhire300.com and holidayautos.com usually offer slightly better rates than going direct to the car hire firm; expect savings around US$5–$10 a day.
There are rental companies all over the island, from international outfits to small-scale local offices, with the best selection in Kingston, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios – we’ve listed the main players here, and local operators within the Guide. You’ll often get a better deal by going with a local company, especially as the more premium outfits offer guaranteed roadside assistance and allow you to pick up and drop off in different major towns for no extra fee. To rent a car, you’ll need a current licence from your home country or an international licence and, in theory, you’ll need to have held it for at least a year. Most companies stipulate that drivers must be at least 21 years old (though some will rent only to drivers over 25). Before you set off, check the car to ensure that every dent, scratch or missing part is inventoried, and that the petrol tank is full (bear in mind that you’ll have to return the vehicle with the same amount of petrol).
Driving in Jamaica is on the left, and speed limits are 50kph in towns and on minor roads, 80kph on main roads and highways (though some stretches of the new highways have 110kph limits). The Jamaican police often set up roadblocks to check for illegal firearms and drugs, as well as proper licensing and registration, and do speed checks by way of radar gun – the safest bet is to stick to 50kph unless you see a sign indicating otherwise. Jamaican drivers have an informal system of flashing their lights to other drivers to indicate police presence ahead. If you’re stopped, be polite and cooperate fully. Note that wearing seat belts in the front and back of cars is mandatory and driving with an unsecured child can lead to a ticket.
Unless there’s been recent heavy weather, most main A-roads are in pretty good condition, while the highways along the north and south coasts are pristine and a pleasure to drive (bear in mind that the south’s Highway 2000, and the new causeway from Kingston to Portmore have a minimal toll fee – J$170). Minor roads, however, are often badly potholed and are best taken slowly.
Jamaicans can be pretty cavalier behind the wheel, with many drivers (particularly those in charge of taxis or air-braked, diesel-spitting juggernauts) often dangerously macho and impatient. Always drive defensively; watch out for overtaking traffic coming towards you, as passing a long line of cars (even if it’s impossible to see what’s coming) is common practice; untethered animals also stray onto roads in country areas, so be on the lookout at all times. At night, many locals drive with undipped headlights; keeping your eyes on the left verge helps to avoid being dazzled. You should use your horn as freely as most Jamaicans do; a toot is just as likely to mean “thank you” as it is an indication of some kind of hazard or an intention to overtake (and in the case of the latter, it’s always safest to slow down and let the overtaker pass you). Daredevil stunts notwithstanding, Jamaican drivers tend to be pretty courteous. often giving way at junctions and offering loud vocal suggestions as to how best to handle situations.
Jamaican taxis vary from the gleaming white vans and fancy cars of the Jamaican Union of Travellers Association (JUTA; Kingston 927 4534; Montego Bay 952 0813, Negril 957 4620, Ocho Rios 974 2292; jutatours.com), the official carriers, to the Japanese estate cars that are the vehicle of choice for most taxi men. Licensed taxis carry red number plates with “PP” or “PPV” on them, and there are a number unlicensed taxis that will offer their services –although hiring one (for a variety of reasons from lack of insurance to general safety) is not recommended. We’ve given numbers of taxi firms throughout the Guide, but during the day, it’s usually just as easy to flag a car down in the street.
Fares are pretty reasonable in Kingston and the less touristy areas – a taxi from New Kingston to Devon House or the Bob Marley Museum will cost about US$5, from the airport to New Kingston around US$20, and US$12 for the journey from New Kingston to Stony Hill. On the north coast, prices are rather more hefty – around US$50 for ten miles, and you’ll always pay a little more if you take a taxi affiliated with a hotel. As taxis are unmetered, always establish a price before you get in (or over the phone if you’re calling for a taxi). If you hail a vehicle on the street, the first figure may be just an opener; don’t be afraid of negotiating.
Shared taxis, or “route taxis”, operate on short, busy set routes picking up and dropping off passengers anywhere along the way. Some are marked by the PPV number plate, but many more are not, making them difficult to identify, except by the squash of passengers and the wad of small bills in the drivers’ hands. They’re used more by Jamaicans than visitors, so it’s not uncommon for a driver to assume that you want to charter the whole taxi if you flag one down, in which case he’ll throw the other passengers out – make it clear that this is not what you want. Prices are much closer to bus fares than to charter taxi rates; a route taxi from Parade to New Kingston will cost approximately J$100.
If you don’t drive – or don’t want to – but still want to travel independently around the island, hiring a local taxi driver for a day or more is an excellent option, and generally costs about US$180 a day. Local drivers often make good tour guides, too. We’ve recommended reliable drivers throughout the Guide.
Jamaica should be much better for cycling than it is. Places like the Blue Mountains, perfect for biking, are not well geared towards independent cyclists, though several tour companies offer an easy, if pricey, way of seeing them on a bike. Throughout the island, rental outlets are thin on the ground; we’ve listed them where they’re available – Treasure Beach is particularly popular.
Renting a scooter or small motorbike is easier, and can be an exhilarating way of touring the island, though not all resorts have outlets – most are in Negril. Rates are on average US$40 per day, and though in theory you’ll need to show a driving licence, these are rarely asked for. Under Jamaican law, all motorcycle or scooter riders must wear helmets – you’d be a fool not to in any case. Zooming about on two wheels, though hugely enjoyable, does of course bring the usual dangers; be on your guard for potholes and daft goats and dogs straying onto the tarmac.
There’s plenty on offer if you’re after an organized tour; most hotels have a tour desk which organize trips to well-known attractions like Rose Hall or Dunn’s River Falls, or “highlight” tours of the local area, usually run by one of the “conventional” operators here. At best, they’re a hassle-free and comfortable means of getting around; at worst, they barely skim the surface of the country and its culture from the shelter of an air-conditioned bus. Prices start from around US$60 for a simple half-day excursion to US$100 for full day-trips. Tours of specific sights are listed in the relevant chapters throughout the Guide. For a more tailor-made, one of a kind experience – albeit more expensive – book with a company not affiliated with your hotel (prices start from US$60 for a half-day); options include visiting a rasta village, discovering a private lagoon or checking out an off-the-beaten-track rum bar.
The Jamaica Tourist Board’s Meet the People programme introduces holidaymakers to local Jamaicans with shared interests – religion, nature, art and culture – for no charge. You can register online (visitjamaica.com) or contact your local JTB branch.
Barrett Adventures Rose Hall, Montego Bay 382 6384, barrettadventures.com. Customized packages to waterfalls, plantations and beaches islandwide.
Beat’n’Track Music Tours 395 8959, firstname.lastname@example.org. For the lowdown on the Kingston music scene, or just to see the capital from a local’s perspective, look no further than tour operator Andrea Lewis who conducts excellent trips.
Caribic Vacations 953 9878 caribicvacations.com. Self-proclaimed “memory maker” tour company that provides both typical and off-the-beaten-track trips around the island in small private cars or large buses.
Glamour Tours 953 3810, glamourdmc.com. A destination management company that offers concierge services to plan events including weddings, activities, excursions and longer itineraries.
Jamaica Cultural Enterprises Kingston 374 6370 or 540 8670, jaculture.com. Specializes in tours of Kingston as well as tours across the island. Can provide airport transfers.
Jamaica Tour Society Montego Bay 357 1225, jamaicatoursociety.com. A boutique tour service that organizes unconventional and customized trips for the discerning traveller in search of an authentic Jamaican experience. Tours can range from a half-day up to full holiday planning.
Our Story Tours Kingston 377 5693, email@example.com. Offbeat and fascinating historical tours. Emphasis is on Kingston, Spanish Town and Port Royal, but custom-designed tours are available to any part of the island. It’s the only company to offer trips to see the racing at Caymanas Park – unmissable.
Sun Venture 30 Balmoral Ave, Kingston 10 960 6685, sunventuretours.com. Reliable, innovative and eco-friendly scheduled and custom-designed tours – the best on the island for offbeat excursions. Mainstays include Blue Mountain and Cockpit Country hikes, bicycle tours, south coast safaris, caving and city tours.
Treasure Tours Calabash Bay, Treasure Beach 965 0126, treasuretoursjamaica.com. Small, personal tour company with eight different day tours to south coast attractions, and a popular day-long “non-tourist tour” that visits inland St Elizabeth and some of the local deserted and hidden beaches.
Tropical Tours 952 1126, tropicaltours-ja.com. Large-scale group tour operator that offers accommodation booking services as well as tours to the most popular sites.
Your Jamaican Tour Guide Montego Bay 377 7634, yourjamaicanguide.com. A range of private tours (plus transfers) and personal guides by local Alrick Allen and his team of drivers, including activities like cooking with rastas and going to a local bar.