Let’s Talk Logistics
Can you tell that I’m trying to become a bit of a Jamaica expert? Even though I’ve visited a few times and spent approximately 62 days on the island, it’s taken me quite a bit of time to figure out how things work.
It’s also a very interesting experience being an undetectable tourist until I start speaking (no matter how much I try, my patois comes out Irish) and getting used to the Jamaican way of doing things. Bringing extra homegrown mangoes into work on a Monday? Don’t mind if I do!
This post will include a few tips just in case you’re curious about the DIY approach. It’s the only way I can see myself exploring Jamaica in future and a great way to get your bearings. I understand that not everyone will have the experience that I’m able to have but there are definitely clever ways to see more of this stunning destination.
Read on for our Airbnb encounters, favourite foods and practical tips for getting around the island on a budget.
How to plan your trip
Firstly, identify the places you’d like to visit and see how far they are from the two main airports, Kingston Norman Manley and Sangster International in Montego Bay. The island is small, so even though most places can technically be reached in a few hours, it doesn’t make sense to book a day excursion to the Bob Marley Museum if you’re based in Negril as you’ll spend so much time in the car.
I’d recommend breaking up journeys and spending 2-4 days in a couple of different areas. If you’re taking the coach, then try to follow the route (so Kingston > Ocho Rios > Montego Bay > Kingston or Kingston > Port Antonio > Ocho Rios > Kingston like we did) but factor in the timetable, as some only leave destinations at awkward times. Some journeys may seem straightforward on a map but there may be cliffside sections or bad roads that make your arrival times hard to predict.
For someone who is a major cheapskate and used to getting public transport everywhere, I was freaking out a little bit about our ambitious plans. Although I’m lucky to have family who can help me out occasionally, I couldn’t expect my cousin to drive us halfway across the country and hiring a driver would break the budget.
If you’re not able to hire a car, then I’d stick to the Knutsford Express coach service for long distance journeys. They’re affordable, air-conditioned and claim to have wifi (though this never worked for us). Most of our journeys cost around £10-£12 each way and it can be cheaper than getting a transfer from the airport to your hotel.
Once you’re in your destination, you’ll probably need to get a taxi to your accomodation. I’d prearrange this for peace of mind. Charter taxis can seem expensive but are the safest option, as they are licensed and insured. Running costs tend to be higher as the roads are not always maintained and repairs are constant.
Other transport options are local buses, route and robot taxis. I’ve only ever taken a route taxi with family and the risk is that it may take a while to get to your destination, as the driver will be picking up and dropping people off along the way (think of it as Uberpool in a heatwave).
Look out for red numberplates on official taxis as well as the ‘PP’ sign. I’d advise against local buses (unless you’re with someone very experienced) or illegal robot taxis, even if they seem like a bargain.
Where To Stay
In terms of accommodation you’ll find everything from luxurious treehouses to shiny all-inclusives and fledgling Airbnbs. We partnered with i-escape for our stay at the Hotel Mockingbird Hill, which has a great edit of boutique hotels all over the world. A lot of individual websites can be dated or tricky to navigate, so it’s nice to find key details easily and see practical reviews (we were warned that our hotel owners had dogs).
Airbnb is also relatively new to Jamaica and gives the opportunity for ordinary people to make extra money and create a unique experience for tourists. It seemed like our Ocho Rios apartment would be a good option with a pool outside, nearby jerk centre and plenty of security. However when we arrived, we soon realised that our vision of making breakfasts would be tricky with no hob, limited cutlery and only two mugs.
If you are going to go down this route, then triple-check what facilities there will be in terms of kitchens, locks and security. It may also be worth looking at Expedia et al to see if you can get a hotel for a similar price that may include breakfast. Remember to consider how far away your hotel is from the nearest town, just so you don’t have to rely on taxis for dinner or exploring all the time.
It’s typical that we met a lovely realtor named Sarah on our last day in Ocho who seemed aghast when we explained that we were eating cereal from mugs. She pointed us in the direction of her sea-view apartment, which would have been a far better option.
Get £25 off your first Airbnb booking via this link!
This is the section to read if you’re concerned about your smartphone connection (don’t spend £50 on five minutes of Internet like I did). Of course most hotels and larger restaurants will have wifi, but as a heavy data user I always tend to buy a local SIM when I travel for peace of mind. Digicel and FLOW are the two mobile networks of Jamaica and most residents have a SIM for each so that they can get the best deals.
If you’re visiting on holiday, then you’ll probably want a SIM card activated with a prepaid data plan. It’s best to sort this out in person at one of their branches (bring along a passport) as the system works a little differently to the UK.
Basically top-up vouchers are like gold. You can buy them pretty much anywhere (look out for the signs on random shacks) and either use the balance to pay as you go or activate a plan. The latter is the best option as it makes your money go further but you must activate it beforehand and receive a text confirmation. Again, don’t be like me and use all your credit up within half an hour.
I signed up with FLOW and mainly used their 3GB Lyf data plan, which cost around £12 including tax (I also topped up with around $200 JA extra for any emergency calls). Just be aware that using your phone as a personal hotspot will drain your balance. It’s best to stick to airplane mode when you’re not using your phone and limit things like apps refreshing in the background.
You may have noticed that I’ve quoted prices in both Jamaican (JMD) or U.S dollars (USD), since both currencies are used around the island. When I was younger I first realised the disparity in tourist shops when I’d hand over my 20 Jamaican dollars to pay for something and get told that I had the equivalent of 11p.
It can be confusing to constantly switch and some businesses have their own random exchange rate going on (such as the restaurant that wanted us to pay 15% more in USD). Make sure you download the XE currency app and double-check prices beforehand.
I did find it tricky to budget for the trip as a lot of websites don’t have updated prices and you can only find out how much taxis cost once you’re there. If you eat at cookshops and jerk centres though, food can be a bargain (ask hotel staff for local recommendations). Whilst it’s not cheap, Jamaica can be an affordable destination if you plan your day strategically or split certain costs with a friend.
Now here’s the biggie. Before I left I’d read every advice post going to reassure Lucy, but many of them seemed to contradict each other. Every place I’d planned to visit was the most unsafe and my grandparents apparently lived in the worst area.
It goes without saying that Jamaica is a third-world country and you should have your wits about you. It’s also important to understand the context (this article explains a bit about the financial crisis). Although tourism is important here, the money doesn’t always flow through into the community. From what I understand, a lot of the violence can be down to rival gangs in certain communities and there’s no real reason why you would end up there, if you’re at the usual tourist places.
We were always on our guard but I’m usually like this in London to a slightly lesser degree. Don’t flash your valuables, leave them unattended (Lucy had a great purse belt) and use your common sense. I was always over-cautious but felt reassured when a pineapple-seller explained that I’d accidentally given him $500 instead of $50. The majority of our interactions were positive and there were so many heartwarming moments I’ll never forget.
We did experience a fair bit of catcalling, which veered from mildly amusing to annoying (I was taking pictures of Lucy at Hellshire beach and a guy kept calling me ‘A beautiful princess’). It was definitely a bit of a testing situation as I don’t deal with this well in the UK, but I usually ignored them or tried to come back with a suitable quip.
You can achieve a kind of independence here, but we did rely on family recommendations, hotels, Airbnb and restaurant staff in terms of booking transport. We did meet some undeterred German tourists who’d hired a car and were exploring by themselves plus backpacker sites like Real Jamaica champion local transport. Hopefully I’ll be able to report on what local buses are really like after my next trip.
All The Things You Should Eat
Unfamiliar with a few of the dishes I’ve mentioned? Here’s some things I’m always excited to eat once I’m on Jamaican soil.
Jerk – Ah my beloved jerk! As I explained in my Port Antonio post, this method of preserving meat involves rubbing a blend of herbs and spices deep into the flesh and grilling over pimento wood fires. I always stock up on Walkerswood Jerk seasoning to try and recreate the taste back home.
Patties – If you need a quick snack on the go, then a patty is probably your best option. It’s a savoury pastry filled with spicy meat, fish or vegetables. My favourites ate from Juici, Tastee or Devon House.
Festival – This is a deep fried dumpling that tastes a little bit like a doughnut and is often served alongside jerk chicken.
Ackee & Saltfish – Ackee is the national fruit of Jamaica and a key part of this national dish, which is often eaten for breakfast. The yellow flesh doesn’t really taste of much, but it’s a great tofu-like component to flavour in vegetarian dishes. Just note that it’s poisonous when eaten raw.
Ital – I know that it may seem pretty meat/fish heavy here, but if you are veggie or vegan, then it may be worth researching plantbased Ital cuisine. It originates from the belief system of Rastafarianism, ‘which dictates that its followers should eat food grown from the earth around them.’
Until the next time…
After having a bit of an epiphany on the plane and feeling a sense of belonging before I’d even touched down in Kingston, I feel like I was meant to go to Jamaica at this point in my life. There’s always such a complicated mixture of emotions, connecting with my grandparents, understanding my heritage and getting used to the way things are done. It’s definitely inspired me to create travel content from a balanced, respectful perspective and I want to understand more about the effects of tourism.
As always let me know if you have any questions! I’ve still got a lot to learn when it comes to the South Coast and I want to keep adding to these posts as I discover more. Time to start saving…
Catch up on my posts
What we wore