Jamaica is an island nation in the Caribbean, located to the south of Cuba and to the west of the island of Hispaniola.
With 2.8 million people, Jamaica is the third most populous anglophone country in the Americas, after the United States and Canada. It remains a Commonwealth realm and is a completely independent and sovereign nation.
Jamaica exports coffee, papaya, bauxite, gypsum, limestone and sugar cane.
Its motto and nickname for the country is called “Out of Many, One People”.
The Arawak and Taino indigenous people originating from South America settled on the island between 4000 and 1000 BC.
Christopher Columbus claimed Jamaica for Spain after landing there in 1494. Columbus’ probable landing point was Dry Harbour, now called Discovery Bay. St. Ann’s Bay was the “Saint Gloria” of Columbus who first sighted Jamaica at this point. The Spanish were forcibly evicted by the British at Ocho Rios in St. Ann and in 1655 the British took over the last Spanish fort in Jamaica. The Spanish colonists fled leaving a large number of African slaves. Rather than be re-enslaved by the English, they escaped into the hilly, mountainous regions of the island, joining those who had previously escaped from the Spanish to live with the Taínos. These runaway slaves, who became known as the Jamaican Maroons, fought the British during the 18th century. During the long years of slavery Maroons established free communities in the mountainous interior of Jamaica, maintaining their freedom and independence for generations.
During its first 200 years of British rule, Jamaica became one of the world’s leading sugar-exporting, slave-dependent nations. After the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the British imported Indian and Chinese workers as indentured servants to supplement the labour pool. Descendants of indentured servants of Indian and Chinese origin continue to reside in Jamaica today.
By the beginning of the 19th century, Jamaica’s heavy reliance on slavery resulted in blacks (Africans) outnumbering whites (Europeans) by a ratio of almost 20 to 1. Even though England had outlawed the importation of slaves, some were still smuggled into the colonies.
In the 1800s, the British established a number of botanical gardens. These included the Castleton Garden, set up in 1862 to replace the Bath Garden (created in 1779) which was subject to flooding. Bath Garden was the site for planting breadfruit brought to Jamaica from the Pacific by Captain William Bligh. Other gardens were the Cinchona Plantation founded in 1868 and the Hope Garden founded in 1874. In 1872, Kingston became the island’s capital.
Jamaica slowly gained increasing independence from the United Kingdom and in 1958, it became a province in the Federation of the West Indies before attaining full independence by leaving the federation in 1962.
The majority of Jamaicans are descended at least partially from the many Africans who were enslaved and transported to the island. Jamaica also has sizeable numbers of Whites and Mulattoes, persons of Syrian/Lebanese descent, and a large population of Chinese and East Indians, many of whom have intermixed throughout the generations. Mixed-race Jamaicans are the second largest racial group after Black Jamaicans.
Christianity is the major religion in the island, and the Rasta community, which Jamaica is known for internationally, has also featured prominently in its history. As in other Caribbean areas, West African religion and folk beliefs (locally called Obeah among other terms) are sometimes practised by some while being completely taboo for others. There are communities of Muslims and Hindus, together with a small but quite ancient Jewish community.
The climate in Jamaica is tropical, with hot and humid weather, although higher inland regions are more temperate. Some regions on the south coast are relatively dry rain-shadow areas. Jamaica lies in the hurricane belt of the Atlantic Ocean; as a result, the island sometimes experiences significant storm damage.
Jamaica supports diverse ecosystems with a wealth of plants and animals.
Jamaica’s plant life has changed considerably over the centuries. When the Spanish came here in 1494, except for small agricultural clearings, the country was deeply forested, but the European settlers cut down the great timber trees for building purposes and cleared the plains, savannas, and mountain slopes for cultivation. Many new plants were introduced including sugar cane, bananas, and citrus trees.
In the areas of heavy rainfall are stands of bamboo, ferns, ebony, mahogany, and rosewood. Cactus and similar dry-area plants are found along the south and southwest coastal area. Parts of the west and southwest consist of large grasslands, with scattered stands of trees.
Jamaican animal life is diverse and includes many endemic species found nowhere else on earth. As with other islands, non-human land mammals are made up almost entirely of bats. The only non-bat native mammal extant in Jamaica is the Jamaican hutia, locally known as the coney. Introduced mammals such as wild boar and the small Asian mongoose are also common. Jamaica is also home to many reptiles, the largest of which is the American crocodile (although it is found only in the Black River and a few other areas). Lizards from the colourful Anolis genus, iguanas and snakes such as racers and the Jamaica boa (the largest snake on the island) are common. None of Jamaica’s native snakes is dangerously venomous. Beautiful and exotic birds such as the Jamaican tody and the doctor bird (the national bird) can be found, among a large number of others. Insects and other invertebrates are abundant, including the world’s largest centipede, the Amazonian giant centipede, and the homerus swallowtail, the Western Hemisphere’s largest butterfly.
Jamaican waters contain considerable resources of fresh-and saltwater fish. The chief varieties of saltwater fish are kingfish, jack, mackerel, whiting, bonito, and tuna. Fish that occasionally enter freshwater include snook, jewfish, gray and black snapper, and mullet. Fish that spend the majority of their lives in Jamaica’s fresh waters include many species of live-bearers, killifish, freshwater gobies, the mountain mullet, and the American eel. Tilapia have been introduced from Africa for aquaculture, and are very common.
There are coral reefs offshore in some areas.
The authorities have designated some of the more fertile areas as ‘protected’, including the Cockpit Country, Hellshire Hills, and Litchfield forest reserves. In 1992, Jamaica’s first marine park, covering nearly 6 square miles (about 15 square km), was established in Montego Bay. The following year Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park was created on roughly 300 square miles (780 km²) of wilderness that supports thousands of tree and fern species and rare animals.
Citizens of the USA, including those visiting by cruise ship, require a passport, but no visa is required for a stay of up to six months. Passports can have expired, as long as they expired less than a year ago.
- Norman Manley International Airport (IATA: KIN) in Kingston.
- Donald Sangster International Airport (IATA: MBJ) in Montego Bay.
Both airports receive vast numbers of international flights daily. There are smaller airports in Negril and Ocho Rios as well as another smaller one in Kingston, which can be accessed by smaller, private aircraft.
Driving as a tourist in Jamaica is an adventure in and of itself.
Jamaican roads are not renowned for their upkeep nor are their drivers renowned for their caution. Roads in and around major cities and towns are generally congested, and rural roads tend to be narrow and somewhat dangerous, especially in inclement weather. Alert and courteous driving is advised at all times. There are very few north-south routes as well, so travel from the north to the south can involve treks on mountain roads. These trips can induce nausea in the more weak of stomach, so it is advisable that if you suffer from motion sickness to bring Dramamine or similar medication. Roads can be very narrow, and be especially alert when going around bends. Jamaican drivers do not slow down because of these twists and turns, so beware.
Jamaica, as a former British colony, drives on the left. Make note of this when driving, especially when turning, crossing the street, and yielding right of way.
There are relatively few traffic lights outside of urban centres; they are generally found in major city centres, such as Montego Bay, Falmouth, Kingston, Mandeville, Spanish Town and Ocho Rios. For towns where traffic lights are not installed, roundabouts are used.
Renting a car is easily done, and it is advised to go through an established major car rental company such as Island Car Rental, Hertz or Avis. Do your research before renting and driving.
It is not advised to travel by boat unless the service is operated by a hotel or tourism company. It is not a quick way to get around unless you want to tour the coastline. Many fishermen may offer this service to willing tourists but they may overcharge.
Don’t be afraid to take Jamaican local buses—they’re cheap and they’ll save you the headache of negotiating with tourist taxis. Be prepared to offer a tip to the luggage handlers that load your luggage into the bus. The ride is very different from what you are probably used to. Many resorts offer excursions by bus. Check with the resort’s office that is in charge of planning day trips for more information. Excursions by bus from Ocho Rios to Kingston and Blue mountain, can turn into a long bus ride without many stops. A visit to Kingston might consist of a stop at a shopping centre for lunch, a visit to Bob Marley’s home and a 2 minute stop in the Beverly Hills of Jamaica. The guided tour at the Blue Mountain coffee factory can be interesting and informative.
Local taxis (called “route taxis”) are an interesting way to get around and far cheaper than tourist taxis. For instance, it may cost JMD50 (less than a dollar) to travel 20 miles. It will just look like a local’s car, which is precisely what it is. The licensed ones usually have the taxi signs spray painted on their front fenders, although there seems to be little enforcement of things like business licenses in Jamaica. Seldom you will find one with a taxi sign on the top, because not many do this. The colour of the license plate will tell you. A red plate will tell you that it is for transportation, while a white plate will tell you it is a private vehicle. The yellow plate indicates a government vehicle (like a police car or ambulance) and the list continues. Although the route taxis generally run from the centre of one town to the centre of the next town, you can flag a taxi anywhere along the highway. Walk or stand on the side of the road and wave at passing cars and you’ll be surprised how quickly you get one.
Route taxis are often packed with people, but they are friendly folk and glad to have you with them. Route taxis are the primary mode of transportation for Jamaicans and serve the purpose that a bus system would in a large metropolitan city. This is how people get to work, kids get to school, etc.
Route taxis generally run between specific places, but if you’re in the central taxi hub for a town you’ll be able to find taxis going in any of the directions you need to go. Route taxis don’t run very far, so if you need to get half way across the island you’ll need to take it in stages. If worst comes to worst, just keep repeating your final destination to all the people who ask where you’re going and they’ll put you in the right car and send you on your way. You may have to wait until the taxi has enough passengers to make the trip worthwhile for the driver, and many route taxis travel with far more people in them than a Westerner would ever guess was possible. If you have luggage with you, you may have to pay an extra fare for your luggage since you’re taking up space that would otherwise be sold to another passenger.
- Jamaica Air Shuttle has several daily flights between Kingston Tinson Pen (closer to downtown than the main airport) and Montego Bay for around USD70. There are additional flights at weekends.
- Air Jamaica has a couple of daily flights between Montego Bay and Kingston for around USD75 each way. However, Air Jamaica was scheduled to be taken over by Caribbean Airlines in April 2010 and it was not clear whether these domestic flights would continue.
If money is no object, you can fly between the minor airports on the island on a small charter plane. There are a couple of companies that provide this service and you need to make an appointment at least a day in advance. A flight across the entire island (from Negril to Port Antonio, for instance) runs about USD600.
Jamaicans speak Jamaican Creole natively, also known locally as Patois (pronounced “patwa”). Its pronunciation and vocabulary are significantly different from English, despite it being based on English. Despite not being official, much of the population uses slang such as “Everyting is irie” to mean “Everything is all right.”
Although all Jamaicans can speak English, which is also the official language, they often have a very thick accent and foreigners may have trouble understanding them because of this. Some Jamaicans speak a little bit of the other popular languages, like Spanish.
You will usually hear Jamaicans say “Waah gwan?”, “Waah appen?”, or “what tah gwan”, the Creole variation of “What’s up?” or “What’s going on?” More formal greetings are usually “Good morning” or “Good evening.”
Visit Nine Mile where Bob Marley was born and now buried. The journey up into the mountains lets you experience the heart of the country. Spend a day at Negril 7 mile beach and finish off at Rick’s Cafe for a spectacular sunset and watch even more fantastic cliff diving.
Hiking, camping, snorkeling, zip-lining, horseback riding, backpacking, swimming, jet skiing, sleeping, scuba diving, kite surfing, visiting the Giddy house, drinking and swimming with dolphins.
Dunn’s River Falls is a must see and do if visiting Jamaica. It is located in Ocho Rios. The 600 feet cascading falls are gorgeous. You can actually climb right up the falls. It’s an amazing experience! Give it a try if you’re up for a breathtaking challenge.
Mystic Mountain has a bobsledding ride combined with options for ziplining, a waterslide and an aerial tram. The aerial tram is slower method to learn about the rainforest canopy.
Going zip-lining in the Jamaican jungle is incredibly exhilarating. Most touring companies as well as cruise liners will have companies that they work with regularly.
Over the past several decades, with the rapid growth of the tourism industry, “hotel marriages” have become a significant contributor to the total number of marriages occurring in the island. Hotel marriages are any marriage occurring in the island, performed by a certified marriage officer of the island.
The following is what you need to know or provide for your marriage in Jamaica:
- Proof of citizenship – certified copy of Birth Certificate, which includes father’s name.
- Parental consent (written) if under 18 years of age.
- Proof of divorce (if applicable) – original Certificate of Divorce.
- Certified copy of Death Certificate for widow or widower.
- French Canadians need a notarised, translated English copy of all documents and a photocopy of the original French documents.
- Italian nationals celebrating their marriage in Jamaica must notify their embassy for legalization and translation.
The currency of Jamaica is the Jamaican dollar ($, J$, JA$) with the unambiguous ISO 4217 currency code of JMD. It comes in notes of JMD50, 100, 500, 1,000 and 5,000. Coins in circulation are JMD20, 10, and 5 (with smaller coins being almost worthless).
Jamaica’s economy has not been well run and the Jamaican dollar has steadily depreciated from the rate of USD1 = JMD0.77 that obtained when it dropped the connection to the pound sterling upon decimalisation in 1968.
In September 2013, the exchange rate hovered around (a rather convenient for mental arithmetic) USD1 = JMD100
The US dollar is widely accepted in places most tourists visit. Indeed, all hotels, most restaurants, most shops, and almost all attractions in major cities will accept the US dollar. However, be aware that some places accept US dollars at a reduced rate (although it still may be a better rate than exchanging money beforehand). While it is possible for someone visiting only touristy places or for a few hours to not see the Jamaican currency at all, be advised that US dollars won’t be accepted at a lot of “local” shops on the outskirts of cities and in rural areas.
Always stay up-to-date on the exchange rate and carry a calculator. Some places might try to make you pay ten times as much if you pay in US dollars. The cost of living in Jamaica is comparable to the United States.
US dollars, Canadian dollars, UK pounds, and euros are easily converted to Jamaican dollars at forex cambios and commercial banks island wide.
Buy products made on the island as they are cheap and you are supporting the local economy.
Prices are usually higher in tourist areas like Negril and Ocho Rios. Shops in “tourist traps” usually have higher prices than native ones, and you’ll see the same items on offer in them.
Credit cards such as VISA, MasterCard and to a lesser extent American Express and Discover are accepted in many business establishments, such as supermarkets, pharmacies and restaurants in Kingston, Montego Bay, Portmore, Ocho Rios and Negril and most other major towns. A curious exception is petrol stations which mostly require cash. There are a few petrol stations in uptown Kingston that will accept a credit card, but most will not
Cash advances from your MasterCard, VISA, Discover or American Express credit card will be quickly available at commercial banks, credit unions or building societies during normal banking hours. For cash advances on a non-Jamaican bank issued MasterCard or VISA cards or any American Express or Discover card, be prepared to show your foreign issued passport or overseas driver’s license.
A bit of advice if you are paying for “fully inclusive” when you arrive or any other big ticket item such as tours, when you are there, take travellers cheques in USD. There is something like a 4% additional charge on a Visa or MasterCard transaction. Hotels and resorts usually charge the highest exchange rates.
ATMs are called ABMs in Jamaica and are widely available in every parish and almost all ABMs in Jamaica are linked to at least one overseas network such as Cirrus or Plus and sometimes both. Indeed, the safest way for a visitor to transact business in Jamaica is to use an ABM to withdraw your daily cash requirement directly from your overseas account in local currency, as flashing foreign currency, foreign credit cards or large quantities of cash might draw unwanted attention, and will almost certainly be disadvantageous when bargaining for the best price.
Don’t be alarmed if you go to an ATM and you find an armed guard as he is there to protect you.
Jamaican food is a mixture of Caribbean dishes with local dishes. Although Jamaican food gets a reputation for being spicy, local trends lean towards more versatile food variety. Some of the Caribbean dishes that you’ll see in other countries around the region are rice and peas (which is cooked with coconut milk) and patties (which are called empanadas in Spanish speaking countries). The national dish is Ackee and saltfish, and MUST be tried by anyone visiting the island. It is made with the local fruit called Ackee, which looks like scrambled eggs, but has a unique taste of its own and dried codfish mixed with onions and tomatoes. You probably won’t get a chance to try this food anywhere else, and if you really want to say that you did something uniquely Jamaican, then this is your chance. Freshly picked and prepared ackee is 100 times better than tinned ackee, but must be harvested only when the ackee fruits have ripened and their pods opened naturally on the large evergreen tree on which they grow: unripe ackee contains a potent toxin (hypoglycin A) which causes vomiting and hypoglycemia . Don’t worry. locals are expert at preparing ackee and will know how to pick it safely.
Another local food is called bammy, which was actually invented by the Arawak (Taino) Indians. It is a flat floury cassava pancake normally eaten during breakfast hours that kind of tastes like corn bread. There is also hard-dough bread (locally called hard dough bread), which comes in both sliced and unsliced varieties. Try toasting it, for when it is toasted, it tastes better than most bread you’ll ever eat. If you are looking for dishes with more meat in them, you can try the jerk flavoured foods. The most popular is jerk chicken, although jerk pork and jerk conch are also common. The jerk seasoning is a spice that is spread on the meat on the grill like barbecue sauce. Keep in mind that most Jamaicans eat their food well done, so expect the food to be a bit drier than you are accustomed to. There are also curries such as curried chicken and curried goat which are very popular in Jamaica. The best curried goat is made with male goats and if you see a menu with curried fish, try it.
You may even want to pick up a piece of sugar cane, slice off some pieces and suck on them.
Fruit and vegetables in Jamaica are plentiful, particularly between April and September, when most local fruits are in season. The many mango varieties are a ‘must have’ if you are visiting during the summer months. If you have not tasted the fruit ripened on the tree, then you are missing out. Fruit picked green and exported to other countries does not compare. Try drinking ‘coconut water’ straight out of the coconut. This is not the same as coconut milk. Coconut water is clear and refreshing, not to mention the fact that it has numerous health benefits. Pawpaws, star apples, guineps, pineapples, jackfruit, oranges, tangerines, ugli fruit, ortaniques are just some of the wonderful varieties of fruit available here.
Locally grown fruits and vegetables are inexpensive. Visitors may well find that imported produce such as American apples, strawberries, plums etc. tend to be more expensive than in their home country. Grapes in particular tend to be very expensive on the island.
Chinese food is available in many places from Chinese takeaway stores and has a distinct Jamaican taste.
It is recommended to sample the local fruit and vegetables. If unfamiliar with a particular fruit it can pay to ask a local about which parts can be eaten. Local and imported fruits are available from roadside vendors. If the fruit is to be eaten immediately the vendors can generally wash the fruit for you on request.
Finally, there is the category of “ital” food, the domain of practising Rastafarians, who abide by strict dietary guidelines. This type of food is prepared without the use of meat, oil or salt, but can still be tasty due to the creative use of other spices. Ital food is not generally on the printed menus in the upmarket tourist restaurants and can only be found by going to speciality restaurants. You may have to ask around to find an establishment that serves Ital food as it is not very common.
There are many drinks in Jamaica. Standards such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola can be found, but if you want to drink local soda, you can try Bigga Cola, Champagne cola or grapefruit soda called “Ting” and also Ginger beer. Also, try any soda by Desnoes & Geddes, typically labelled as “D&G.” “Cola champagne” and “pineapple” are popular flavours that you won’t find anywhere else. Since the turn of the century, the majority of soft drinks are bottled in plastic instead of glass. You can try the local lager called Red Stripe (which is exported to many countries in the west, so there is a good chance you have already tasted it) and Dragon Stout. Most beers can be found in Jamaican pubs and hotels. A local hard drink is Jamaican Rum, which is made from sugar cane. It normally tends to be overproof and drunk with cola or fruit juice. Drink with caution! It’s not designed for someone who is drinking it for the first time. It is not unheard of to have 75% proof Jamaican Rum. Since Jamaica was colonized by Britain, the drinking laws are 18 and over, but they don’t generally enforce it as strictly as it would be in the US. Guinness is popular and the export 7% proof has a kick.
Jamaica has the 5th highest murder rate in the world. As in any other country, should any emergency situation arise, after calling 119 for the police or 110 for the fire brigade or ambulance, you might want to contact your government’s embassy or consulate. Governments usually advise travellers staying in Jamaica for an extended period of time to notify their embassy or consulate so they can be contacted in the case of emergency.
If you are approached by a Jamaican looking to sell you drugs or anything else that you are not interested in buying, the conversation will most likely go like this: “Is this your first time on The Island?” Respond: “No, I’ve been here many times before” (even if it is not true or as he will less likely think you are gullible). Next, they will ask “Where are you staying?” Respond with a vague answer: for instance, if you are approached on Seven Mile Beach, respond by saying “Down the street”. If asked “Which resort?”, respond with another vague answer. They will see that you are not stupid nor ready to be taken advantage of. They will appear to be engaging in friendly conversation, but once you are marked a sucker (like “It’s my first time here” “I’m staying at Negril Gardens”), you will be harassed. If you are further pushed to buy drugs or something else, calmly tell them: “I’ve been to this island many times before: please don’t waste your time trying to sell me something. I’m not interested.” They should leave you alone, they may even say “Respect,” and pound your fist.
If in need of police, dial 119, just don’t expect them to show up on the spot.
September, October, and November have a lower number of tourists due to being hurricane season. As a result, the police are encouraged to take their vacation during this time. This reduction in the police force can cause areas like Montego Bay’s hip strip to be less safe than they normally are.
Many Jamaican people are very generous and warm. Returning this warmth and friendliness is a great way to show them you appreciate their country.
Chances are, you will be approached at one point or another during your travels in Jamaica for money. Do not feel pressured into giving money. A strong “I’m alright” and walking away is usually the best advice for instances such as this. This also applies in the infamous straw markets. The European method of just walking away does not work well. You will generally need to engage with someone in order to get away from them.
That being said, if you befriend or encounter one of the many wonderful Jamaican people and you wish to give a friendly gift, that is perfectly acceptable and welcome. Just exercise common sense when it comes to money.
Cultural respect is far more important. You are guests on their island. Please know also that when speaking to the elderly you should say, “Yes ma’am.” or “Yes, sir”.