Jamaica’s reputation as a “luxury” destination combined with the high cost of living compared to most developing countries means that this isn’t a cheap destination by any means, though there are ways to make savings if you’re on a budget. Some things, like car rental and petrol (and hence taxis, too), cost more than in Europe and a lot more than in the US, while you’ll pay a fair bit extra for a drink or a meal in a tourist-oriented restaurant or bar than you will in a locals’ joint. Eating at local restaurants, and taking shared taxis and public transport are the main ways to keep costs down, and there are inexpensive (if rather basic) accommodation options across the island. Equally, don’t be scared to negotiate on prices – particularly in taxis and at markets and roadside stalls, the first price quoted is often an opening gambit, and even hotels and guesthouses are generally fair game for a bit of bargaining, especially during low season.
In terms of daily budgets, accommodation is likely to be the major expense. If you’re prepared to put up with extremely basic guesthouses or hotels, eat and drink in locals’ restaurants and travel around by shared taxi or minibuses, you should be able to get by on a daily budget of around US$40/£26/€32 a day. A step up from this – a hotel with better decor and facilities, meals in tourist restaurants and bars, and car rental – will set you back around US$230/£147/€184 a day. At the upper end of the scale, staying at the best resorts, dining at the best restaurants, and hiring a car and driver will set you back at least US$360/£230/€288 a day – though the sky is really the limit.
Jamaica has a bad reputation for violent crime, but while the island certainly does have its problems, you’re very unlikely to get mixed up in them. The resorts are well policed, and the JTB are keen to stress that you are more likely to be robbed in New York than Montego Bay. Most tourists still steer clear of the capital – even rural Jamaicans are wary of going into “Town”, and you’ll be warned against going at all of the resorts – but such trepidation is largely misplaced. You’ll be surprised at how safe and friendly Kingston feels. Drug-related organized crime is a frightening reality, but it is a reality that affects poor Jamaicans rather than tourists. It’s almost always restricted to ghetto areas – pockets of west Kingston and Spanish Town that you’re never going to go to; elsewhere, the vast majority of visitors experience no crime or violence during their stay.
At the same time, robberies, assaults and other crimes against tourists do occur, and it’s wise to apply the precautions you’d take in any foreign city. Don’t flaunt fat rolls of bank notes, avoid walking alone late at night, don’t go mad smoking ganja in the street, lock your hotel room door at night – in short, use your common sense and you’ll prevent potential problems before they happen. You might also want to read the travel advice of your own government.
The emergency number for the Jamaican police is t 119. Individual police stations are detailed throughout the text.
Australian Department of Foreign Affairs smarttraveller.gov.au
British Foreign & Commonwealth Officegov.uk/foreign-travel-advice
Canadian Department of Foreign Affairsgc.ca
Irish Department of Foreign Affairsdfa.ie/travel/travel-advice
New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairssafetravel.govt.nz
US State Departmentstate.gov/travel/
Hustling – the hard-nosed, hard-sell pitches you’ll be endlessly subjected to on the north coast – can be the chief irritation of time spent in Jamaica. The tourist trade has long been adversely affected by the stream of young hopefuls aggressively (or humorously) accosting foreigners in the street with offers of transport, ganja, aloe massages, hair braiding and crafts. It’s wearisome, but much of what is perceived as harassment is simply an attempt to make a living in an economically deprived country, and while some locals see tourists as easy prey for exploitation, many street touts are genuine. Hustling is a game played in the true entrepreneurial Jamaican spirit; the sales pitch is finely honed and modified to match the perceived nature of the potential client, and the national aptitude for “lyrics” (artful banter designed to break down even the most hardened sensibility) can make encounters with street vendors an entertaining and educative experience rather than a trial. This often depends on your attitude to the approaches, so try to respond with humour and charm rather than irritation and frustration (which, admittedly, can be difficult when the fiftieth taxi driver of the day offers his services). For more on ways to deal with approaches, see Dealing with hustlers.
Tourism officials are loath to acknowledge it, but many people do come to Jamaica in search of what aficionados agree is some of the finest marijuana in the world, and certainly ganja is part and parcel of the culture here to a greater degree than in other Caribbean islands, smoked more openly and available more freely. Be warned that quite apart from being illegal, Jamaican ganja, or “herb”, packs a mightier punch than anything you’re likely to have experienced before. Yellow-eyed Jamaicans who’ve been smoking since their teens can cope with a spliff before breakfast – fresh-off-the-plane visitors probably can’t.
Bear in mind, also, that despite the stereotypical view of an island populated by ganja fiends, those Jamaicans who smoke are in a minority; most locals neither smoke nor approve of those who do. And despite its links with the Rastafarian religion and frequent use as a medicinal draught, possession, use and export of any quantity of ganja is against the law and carries stiff penalties. Tourists are just as eligible for prosecution as Jamaicans; at any one time there are hundreds of foreigners serving sentences in Jamaican jails, in horrifyingly harsh conditions.
If you choose to smoke ganja, trust your instincts. You will be approached with offers; buy only from someone you feel you can trust. You should be equally wary of carrying ganja around the island; if you pass a car at the roadside flanked by a worried-looking white person and a swarm of cops, you can bet that the police are conducting one of their routine searches.
Finally, do not attempt to smuggle ganja out of the country under any circumstances; however devious you think your method, customs officials have seen it before, while sophisticated scanning machines can pick up the tiniest amounts. Even carrying rolling papers can prompt protracted questioning.
The island standard is 110 volts, with two-pin sockets, though some older hotels still use 220 volts. Take adapters for essential items – some of the upmarket hotels and guesthouses have them, but you shouldn’t rely on it. Current is poor in some areas, and foreign appliances can run slowly.
Visitors from North America, the UK, Australasia and South Africa do not need a visa and are allowed stays of up to six months without one. On arrival, your passport will be stamped by an immigration officer who may ask you for proof of adequate funds, where you’re staying during your holiday (if you don’t know yet, pick any hotel in our listings, as you may be delayed if you can’t name a place) and evidence of a return or onward flight.
It’s possible to apply for an extension for up to twelve further months. You’ll need to contact the Ministry of National Security, located at the Mutual Life Building, North Tower, 2 Oxford Rd, Kingston 10 (876 754 7422, mns.gov.jm) or, in Montego Bay, the Immigration Office at Overton Plaza, Union St (t952 5380 1).
Note that there are no Jamaican embassies or consulates in Australia, New Zealand or South Africa.
Canada Jamaica High Commission, 275 Slater Street, Suite 800, Ottawa, Ontario KIP 5H9 613 233 9311, jhcottawa.ca.
UK and Ireland Jamaica High Commission, 1–2 Prince Consort Rd, London SW7 2BQ 020 7823 9911, jhcuk.org.
US Embassy of Jamaica, 1520 New Hampshire Ave NW, Washington DC 20036 202 452-0660, embassyofjamaica.org.
Health-wise, travelling in Jamaica poses few problems. Food tends to be well and hygienically prepared and the filtered and heavily chlorinated tap water is safe to drink. Jamaica is not generally malarial, and though there was a brief outbreak in 2006, malaria prophylaxis are not considered necessary for visitors. There are occasional outbreaks of dengue fever, and more recently Chickungunya, carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, found throughout the island, which can be serious for the infirm, very young or very old. Symptoms include extreme aches and pains in the bones and joints, rashes around the torso, dizziness, headaches, fever and vomiting. There’s no effective vaccination.
To avoid being bitten by sandflies and mosquitoes, cover arms and legs at dusk and dawn, and apply lots of DEET-rich repellent. Mosquito coils are sold everywhere and can be effective, if a bit smelly, and many hotels provide plug-in anti-mossi devices, too. Of more natural alternatives, the locally produced Starfish Oil of No Mosquito is a nice citronella-based repellent. Once you’ve been bitten (and you will be), gently apply some antihistamine, after which you shouldn’t touch the area at all. Though hellishly tempting, scratching (or even a light investigative rub) will always lead to more irritation, bigger red marks and possibly infection.
If you’re unused to it, Jamaica’s humid climate can bring on a host of minor complaints. Open wounds take longer to heal and easily become septic: clean cuts straight away, and dress with iodine, dry antiseptic spray or powder rather than creams. Blocked sweat ducts can cause uncomfortable and unsightly prickly heat rashes; to treat or avoid these, wear loose cotton clothes, take frequent cool showers without soap, dust with medicated talcum powder and don’t use sunscreen or moisturizer on affected areas. It’s also important to remember to drink plenty of water, and always apply high factor sunscreen when outside (and, if possible, keep out of the sun between 11am and 3pm).
Jamaica has no poisonous snakes, but there are a few underwater hazards to be aware of. Spiny black sea urchins are easily missed in a bed of sea grass – if you tread on one, remove the spines immediately, soak the skin in vinegar (or urine) and see a doctor; water heated as hot as you can stand is useful for getting out the spines. Never touch coral; apart from the fact that contact kills the organism, coral can cut and you’ll come away with a painful, slow-to-heal rash. If you do have a brush with the reefs, don’t touch the affected area directly, but wash it with a diluted vinegar or ammonia solution.
Jamaica has the third-highest incidence of AIDS in the Caribbean, with the disease being the leading cause of death for Jamaicans in their twenties. Unofficial sex tourism has long been a part of the scenery in the resorts; if you do have sex while away, always use a condom. Brand-names such as Durex are available in pharmacies and larger gas stations.
There are two, sizeable public hospitals in Kingston, while Cornwall Regional in Montego Bay is the best equipped on the north coast. Although many locals can’t afford it, you are guaranteed better care, facilities and service at private hospitals or clinics in the main towns, with MoBay Hope in Montego Bay and St Andrew’s Memorial in Kingston being two of the best. The easiest way to find a doctor in a hurry is to ask at your hotel; some have a resident nurse, and all will be able to recommend a doctor or private clinic locally. Most of these are reliable, but you’ll have to fork out for the treatment and claim on your insurance once back home, so make sure you get receipts.
Every town has at least one pharmacy, with those in resort towns well stocked with expensive brand-name products; they will only issue antibiotics with a doctor’s prescription.
Canadian Society for International Health 613 241 5785, csih.org. Extensive list of travel health centres.
CDC 800 232 4636, cdc.gov/travel. Official US government travel health site.
International Society for Travel Medicine US 1404 373 8282, istm.org. Has a full list of travel health clinics.
Hospital for Tropical Diseases Travel Clinic UK www.thehtd.org/TravelClinic.aspx
MASTA (Medical Advisory Service for Travellers Abroad) UK masta-travel-health.com for the nearest clinic.
Tropical Medical Bureau Ireland 1850 487 674, tmb.ie.
The Travel Doctor – TMVCtraveldoctor.com.au. Lists travel clinics in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
It’s always sensible to take out travel insurance before visiting Jamaica to cover against theft, loss and illness or injury. A typical policy will provide cover for loss of baggage, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash or cheques, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. Most exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid: in Jamaica, this can mean scuba diving, windsurfing or white-water rafting, though probably not kayaking or jeep safaris. When securing baggage cover, make sure that the per-article limit will cover your camera or any other valuables. If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, and in the event of having anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement from the police.
Internet access is available in all towns and resorts, with both dedicated cybercafés and wi-fi in many bars and restaurants. Almost all hotels have a connection, too, with terminals for guests’ use and/or wi-fi, while libraries and larger post offices sometimes have free access.
For unlimited Wi-Fi on the go whilst travelling Jamaica, buy a Skyroam Solis, which works in 130+ countries at one flat daily rate, paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis. You can connect up to five devices at once. Prices start from as little as €5 a day.
Most hotels have a laundry service, but check prices before handing over a huge load as charges can be per-item and not at all cheap. Many large towns have at least one public laundry (listed in the relevant chapters), which is a less expensive option.
International mail is slow – reckon on around ten days to a fortnight for airmail to reach Europe or North America. If you’re really in a hurry to send something overseas, try DHL (toll-free 1 888 225 5345 or 920 0010, dhl.com.jm) or FedEx (toll-free 1 888 463 3339, fedex.com/jm).
Most towns and villages have a post office, normally open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm; smaller postal agencies in rural areas keep shorter hours. Those in large towns have poste restante facilities – mail is held for about a month, and you’ll need your passport or other identification to collect it. Stamps are sold at post offices and in many hotels. It costs J$60 to mail a postcard to anywhere in the world; rates for international letters are J$60–100. Rates for parcels are available online at jamaicapost.gov.jm.
For touring or driving around the island, the best map to get hold of is the Shell Jamaica Road Map (1:250,000), which is contoured and includes excellent street maps of Kingston, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios as well as Spanish Town, Mandeville and Port Antonio. It’s sold in good bookshops and selected Shell petrol stations islandwide. Also useful, and a more manageable size, is the JTB road map, Discover Jamaica, which includes a 1:350,000 map of the entire island, a 1:34,000 map of Kingston and small maps of the other main towns. It’s available from JTB offices abroad, and, in Jamaica, from the offices in Kingston and Montego Bay – you may have to pay a small fee.
Jamaica’s unit of currency is the Jamaican dollar (J$), divided into 100 cents. It comes in bills of J$5000, J$1000, J$500, J$100 and J$50 and coins of J$20, J$10, J$5 and J$1, plus seldom-used copper coins (in locals’ stores, it’s common to be given boiled sweets in lieu of small change). Note that the J$100 and $1000 bills look very similar – it’s surprisingly easy to mix them up. At the time of writing, exchange rates were US$1=J$112, £1=J$181 and €1=J$144. Given the constant fluctuation of the Jamaican dollar, the US dollar has long served as an unofficial parallel currency, particularly at the north coast resorts, and prices for tourist services – hotels, car rental, sightseeing tours, etc – are usually quoted in US$. Restaurants and bars vary, with some quoting US, others Jamaican; for minor items like bus fares, short taxi rides or roadside snacks, drivers and vendors will always quote Jamaican dollars. In the resorts, US dollars are as widely accepted as Jamaican, but when paying a bill, check in advance that your change will be given in the same currency or, if in Jamaican dollars, at a decent exchange rate. It’s a good idea to always carry some Jamaican dollars to pay for small things like snacks, drinks, tips and taxi fares.
The easiest way to access funds in Jamaica is by using your ATM card; machines are widespread, at some shopping malls and petrol stations as well as banks. Before you leave home, check with your bank that your card is cleared to use abroad, and find out what the fees for overseas withdrawals are. Some can be quite high, so you may want to make one large withdrawal rather than several small ones. ATMs dispense local cash and, in large resorts, US dollars. Major credit cards – American Express, Visa, MasterCard – are widely accepted in the larger tourist hotels, but smaller hotels and restaurants may not take them.
Banking hours in Jamaica are generally Monday to Thursday 9am to 2pm and Friday 9am to 3pm or 4pm, and will often have a separate queue for foreign exchange. Given their limited hours, though, you’ll probably find you make more use of cambios, ubiquitous in the resorts and also within many supermarkets. They usually offer a better exchange rate than the banks, particularly when the currency is fluctuating wildly, as well as opening longer hours. A firm favourite, with consistently good rates, are the islandwide branches of FX Trader, often conveniently situated within supermarkets and shopping malls; you can find out the location of the nearest office by calling toll-free on t 1 888 398 7233. Exchange bureaux at the main airports offer rates slightly lower than the banks, and at hotels, the rate is invariably significantly lower – it’s only worth changing money at hotels if you have no other choice.
Jamaican offices are normally open for business between 8.30am and 4.30 or 5pm Monday to Friday, often closing for an hour at lunch, while shops are typically open from 8am to 5pm Monday to Saturday, although supermarkets tend to open until 8 or 9pm, as well as on Sundays. Museums normally close for one day a week, either Sunday or Monday, while most other places you’ll want to visit – private beaches, waterfalls, gardens, churches and so on – are generally open daily.
If you have a tri-band mobile phone, you can use it in Jamaica by way of roaming. You’ll pay a lot less for local and international calls if you buy a local SIM card from any of the innumerable outlets islandwide (around US$15). You’re given a local number, and you can top up your credit at shops, bars, petrol stations and restaurants islandwide.
Another cheap way to make international calls from hotel phones or private landlines is to use pre-paid WorldTalk phonecards, widely available from hotels, post offices, gift shops and supermarkets.
Jamaica is made for pretty pictures, though over-exposure can also be a problem: watch out for the glare from sea and sand, and try to take pictures early or late in the day when the sun is less bright. When photographing people (or their homes and property), always ask permission – some like it, others don’t – and anticipate a request for a donation.
Jamaica is on Eastern Standard Time and does not adjust for Daylight Saving Time. Accordingly, it’s on the same time as New York (one hour behind from spring to autumn) and five hours behind London (six hours from spring to autumn).
Though Jamaica spends a great deal on lavish advertising campaigns, the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) isn’t a user-friendly source of information on the island. Offices in Jamaica – in Montego Bay, Kingston and Port Antonio– aren’t really geared up to deal with enquiries from visitors, though they can answer basic questions. The internet is a far better source of information; start off at the JTB’s website, visitjamaica.com, which has a regularly updated calendar of events, plus accommodation, resort and attraction listings and hoards of local information. Other good general sites include jamaicans.com, a huge site with everything from language and culture to cookery and tourist info, plus busy message boards; and go-jamaica.com “Jamaica’s portal to the world” that lists everything from career opportunities to online dating, events and links to news.
Jamaica has no entertainment listings’ magazine, so to find out what’s going on, you have to rely on the radio (particularly Irie FM), newspapers and – the usual way of announcing forthcoming events – flyers and banners posted up all around the towns. There are also a host of websites dedicated to entertainment listings; try cometojamaica.com, partyhaad.com, yardflex.com, keepitjiggy.com and digjamaica.com.
Large- to medium-sized hotels, and most of the big all-inclusive chains, have ramps or lifts on their properties, though Jamaica isn’t particularly geared toward people with disabilities – expect accessibility to be a recurrent problem. However, though facilities are poor, you’ll find that most people are quick to help out should you have mobility issues. The Combined Disabilities Association of Jamaica, 18 Ripon Rd, Kingston (t 929 1177) may be able to help with further advice; you could also visit the US-based website sath.org/disability-travel-websites.
Pellucid seas, gently shelving beaches, no serious health risks and an indulgent attitude towards kids make Jamaica an ideal destination if you’re travelling with children. Though some larger hotels (the Sandals chain in particular) operate under a couples-only policy, most welcome families, and some all-inclusive properties are specially geared for families, with extensive facilities, daily events and personal nannies: best are the Beaches resorts in Negril, Boscobel and Sandy Bay (beaches.com), Hilton Rose Hall (rosehallresort.com) in Montego Bay, the Royalton (royaltonresorts.com) in Falmouth and the Franklyn D. Resort in Runaway Bay (fdrholidays.com). There are also many hotels with kids’ clubs that offer parents an afternoon off. Equally, it’s usually easy to arrange babysitting through your hotel.
The main national holidays, when virtually all shops and offices close, are as follows:
New Year’s Day (January 1)
Labour Day (May 23)
Emancipation Day (August 1)
Independence Day (first Mon in August)
National Heroes Day (third Mon in October)
Christmas Day(December 25)
Boxing Day (December 26)
No tip is necessary at any restaurant that imposes an automatic service charge (although obviously you can leave one if service is good); ten to fifteen percent is the norm anywhere else. Tip taxi drivers at your discretion; route – or shared – taxi drivers do not expect a tip. A small consideration for services rendered, from minding your car to carrying your bag to your room, is the norm for most Jamaicans, and will always be appreciated, as will leaving something for your hotel chambermaid at the end of your stay.