Tips for travelling to Jamaica
I’m the kind of girl who will jump at the chance to visit a new country if her friend has family, friends or other connections in said country and is willing to have me over to visit. From Gothenburg to Australia via Marseille, I’ve always had the best experiences with people who can show me the local life.
My dear friend Kristabel is one such person with that magic ‘foreign country’ connection – her grandparents live in Jamaica and this would be her third adult visit. I was definitely coming.
I knew nothing about Jamaica before our trip but both Kristabel and the experiences I had along the way taught me enough to create a guide to visiting Jamaica; whether that’s knowing the date that Jamaica became independent from Great Britain (August 6th 1962) or what a custard apple tastes like (slightly gritty banana custard).
I was actually quite nervous before leaving the UK for all the gang violence news and advice I’d heard about safety (or perceived lack thereof) but I was relieved to discover that I needn’t have worried at all. Sure, the amount of people hanging out on streets can feel intimidating at first, it’s still sensible not to flash your tech and a proportion of men will offer unwelcome ‘compliments’ about your appearance but by the end we were putting them back in their place with confidence and feeling at relative ease walking down streets.
Kristabel was integral to helping me with the practical things like getting internet the second I touched down and providing me with advice such as how much money to bring. There was more that we learnt once we were on the ground too.
Here’s a short guide of what I learnt about Jamaica that could be useful to you if you’re going there on holiday.
10 things I learnt about visiting Jamaica
1 – Music
If there’s one Jamaican song you should know, it’s the no.1 hit Fling Your Shoulder. Play it whilst packing, learn the dance moves and fling it real good. Well if it’s good enough for Usain Bolt…
2 – Internet
You’ll need a Jamaican SIM card to make calls and access the internet in Jamaica.
Get one at Flow in any town and ask for a Multi SIM plus a eTopUp of 3GB for 30 days. I also asked for a few minutes of call credit for contingency to call taxis and hotels. This all cost me £16.70 including tax and was all I needed for the 10 day trip when putting my phone in Airplane Mode in between browsing.
Flow will activate your plan for you but if you need to top up more credit again later, you’ll need to ensure that you activate the plan again when you top up online or over the phone. As for where to buy top up, most shacks will stock them but not necessarily large amounts.
Also note that if you have an iPhone, you may need to adjust your Carrier Services settings in Mobile Data in order to access the internet. Check this with Flow.
3 – The weather
Don’t look at the weather app on your phone in Port Antonio in the East, it’ll rain whenever it goddamn wants to (read: all the time).
4 – Island-wide transport
If you want to travel from one end of the island without a car like we did, it’s all about the Knutsford Express Coach. Reliable, affordable and easy to understand, it’s the best option, just expect ‘We regret to inform passengers that today there is no wifi‘ on every single service.
5 – Taxis
All taxi’s are privately owned by their drivers. There are two types of taxis in Jamaica:
Firstly, Uber Pool-style, multi-voyager called Robot taxis. They are so cheap but take longer and well, strangers.
The second type are chartered taxis which you can hail (riskier) or book via a hotel. Chartered taxis command up to 10x the price of robot taxis but you can barter).
6 – Buses
If you want to go even more authentic, there are buses, two types. The yellow state-owned which have formal timetables and crazy rowdy private ones which turn up whenever they want to. We didn’t catch either but they’re said to be an ‘experience’.
7 – Money
On the theme of pairs, there are two types of currency in Jamaica; US dollars and JA dollars.
The former more widely used in the highly touristic towns of Ocho Rios and Montego Bay or for higher value items. It’s advised you should take both. I packed £100 of each and also used my Starling Bank card (which lets you pay for and take out cash abroad for no extra charge) to pay for hotels and some meals. I took out money from a cash mash three times amounting to an extra £70 but didn’t realise that all of them charge per transaction.
The trouble with having two currencies is that most of the time no one really knows the true exchange rate so watch out for price differences. Download the XE app and ask for the price of something in both so that you don’t get ripped off.
(Sign up to Starling Bank using my referral code: J6N17SVX)
8 – Cheap meals
Street food meals from a tiny shack are the cheapest and (probably some of the) best you’ll have. In Claudia’s tiny, family-run shack in Drapers I had pork, rice and salad for £1.40.
Always visit a ‘Jerk Centre’ even if that centre looks more like a stall than a multiplex, they know what they’re doing.
NB a sustainability thought: You may notice that you’ll be served a meal in disposable take-away containers and with plastic cutlery, this is the norm when eating in shacks or centres. It is likely most cost-effective for small establishments to buy single-use plastic rather than investing in the maintenance and cleaning of crockery. Whilst it seemed wasteful for me as a privileged foreigner, I understood that this is less of a priority for a less economically developed country like Jamaica who is dealing with far larger issues politically and culturally. Despite it not being the easiest to do, you can still recycle some plastics on the island and this article shows there are efforts being made to make this more widespread, which is great to hear! Do your bit to nuh dutty up Jamaica!
9 – Jamaican food
Festival is a fat dough stick served as a side of most meals. They can range from dense and thin to super crispy, sweet and doughnut-like to light and springy. The best one I tasted was at Prendy’s at Hellshire Beach.
Plantain (fried) is the best and if you’re me, you’ll have it as a side for every meal.
Bammy is fried cassava flour but I saw it offered less frequently than the above.
Rice n peas is coconut rice with red kidney beans and will be your mainstay carb. Pile it high!
Patties are little pasties with minced meat. They’re a roadside or fast food staple.
Jerk is a seasoning made up of spices that were originally rubbed into meat in order to preserve it. It is sweet, smokey and spicy and somewhere between a dry and saucy coating. Sometimes the meat is accompanied by a sauce of some kind too (this is normally quite fiery!). My favourite jerk meat was pork but be sure to try them all and suss out the best jerk for you.
10 – Drinks
There’s only one beer and that’s Red Stripe. You’d know this anyway thanks to the abundance of sign-painted ads on the sides of shacks.
There’s only really one soda and that’s Ting. (Though it’s ironically made in the UK). Want cider? Well tough, you can’t. Use a local’s recipe – just mix the two aforementioned drinks together. It’s the best you’ll get.
As for spirits, there can only be one option – Wray & Nephew rum (hello 63% proof!). Splash it into a fresh coconut.
Most of all, have fun!
You will leave the country having learnt how to say ‘yeah mon’ and ‘wha gwan’ fluently, you’ll know your jerk from your jackfruit as well as having some of the best memories in your mind. Yes, be aware of your belongings and make wise decisions based on protecting your safety but equally don’t let them choke you. Go out there, chat to people, ask for recommendations, be open to plans not running to the timetable and enjoy yourself.
Thanks for reading my guide to visiting Jamaica. Stay tuned for lots more about what I got up to in or take a look at our hashtag!