Everyone wants to visit Jamaica—even you. Admit it. You know it’s true. When you think of the warm sunshine, the cool island breeze, crystal clear water, and the beauty of the evergreen tropics, why wouldn’t you want to visit? But, as with everything else in life, the more knowledge you have at your disposal, the better poised you are to have not just a good time but a great time.
With that in mind, here are a few things you should know before heading to Jamaica. These tips will save you time and money, while sparing you from the bad experiences ignorance may have otherwise cursed you with.
1. Travel in the Off-Season
If you live in North America, flying to Jamaica is inexpensive compared to flying to countries like Australia, France, Thailand, or Brazil. However, the cost of accommodation can eat through most of your vacation budget if you’re not careful. The best way to avoid those hefty hotel bills is to travel during the off-season.
As an example, let’s take a look at one of the most beautiful hotels on the island of Jamaica, the Rockhouse Hotel. A quick scan of the rates below will tell you that fall is the least expensive time to visit.
|ROOM TYPE||FALL RATES||WINTER RATES||SUMMER RATES|
If you’re wondering why spring is missing from the table and how the hotel calculates its rates, according to the company’s website, seasons are calculated as follows.
- Winter Season: December 21st – April 14th
- Summer Season: April 15th – August 14th
- Fall Season: August 15th – December 20th
Naturally, each hotel sets their own rates and may calculate their own seasons differently, so it’s always a good idea to shop around. In general, however, September to early December is the least expensive time to visit Jamaica, which is a great time to be in the tropics, anyway. Wouldn’t you agree?
2. Leave Your Hotel
What I’m about to say might sound counter-intuitive, but hear me out.
Once you find a great hotel for an awesome price, the next thing you need to do is leave the hotel. Yes; leave your suitcase in the room and go exploring. Here’s why. When I was in college, as a sociology student I learned that tourism accounted for 80 percent of the country’s economy. I doubt this has changed. If anything, tourism only continues to grow in importance for Jamaica and neighbouring islands.
I also learned that 90 cents of every dollar earned in foreign hotels based in Jamaica, are repatriated back to the owners’ home countries. When you stay in all-inclusive hotels, the loss for us is even worse, since you may never spend a dime elsewhere. “Foreign hotels” include the likes of Iberostar, Grand Palladium, and Riu. They are beautiful without a doubt, but please consider our equally beautiful Sandals Resorts, and our smaller but more unique hotels, like the rooms carved into the cliffs at the aforementioned Rockhouse in Negril.
If you’re worried about staying safe in a Third World country when going out, rely on basic common sense as a traveller. Stay within or close to tourist areas, and take advantage of tours often organised by hotels and adventure companies. For safe independent travel around the island, I highly recommend Knutsford Express.
3. Maintain Personal Space
Jamaicans are very friendly, but we maintain personal space from strangers. We will shake hands, and may give a loose hug, but we do not kiss strangers on the cheeks or hands. If you come from a culture where people greet each other by kissing and touching, you will want to dispense with that here.
Men especially do not often show physical affection with each other beyond a handshake. If you invade that space, Jamaican men will be deeply offended. They will either believe you are gay, or worse, that you assumed they are gay. This may be taken as an attack on their manhood and they may retaliate.
If you decide to save your more intimate greetings for women, then please take a moment to reconsider. If she is the wife, girlfriend, or date of a Jamaican man, you may find yourself in trouble. Be friendly—very friendly, in fact—but maintain a safe physical distance until and unless you are invited to do otherwise.
4. Pay Attention to Hygiene
Personal hygiene is a big deal in Jamaica. Island breeze or no, it’s hot and people are sweaty. Because of this, the natural expectation is that everyone will bathe at least once per day, and again before going out.
It is normal for people to wear baby powder to stay cool, especially if they plan to do a lot of walking or if they take public transportation. You will see a lot of people with the powder all the way up to their chins. While this is not considered a classy thing to do, inner-city and countryside Jamaicans often do this as “evidence” that they have tended to their hygiene—at least, that’s my own speculation as to their reasons.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that we do not wash our hair or brush our teeth in the kitchen, as many Americans and Europeans do. If you plan to stay with locals, please refrain from doing this, or it will be the last time you receive an invitation to their homes.
5. Accent? No Problem!
If you have an accent, no worries. Most Jamaicans in Montego Bay, Negril, and Ocho Rios are used to hearing accents from all over the world, because these are tourist destinations. However, you may have a harder time being understood in Kingston.
As I have mentioned in the past, however, remember that Jamaicans do not always use English words to mean what you think it means. When it comes to important things like directions, commerce, and making plans, always verify what is said to ensure you’re on the same page.
You may find these articles on Jamaican Patois useful to read before your trip:
- 14 English Words & Phrases that Mean Something TOTALLY Different in Jamaican Patois
- 16 MORE English Words & Phrases that Mean Something Totally Different in Jamaican Patois
- 15 English Words Jamaicans Just Can’t Seem to Get Right!
6. Stick to Your Own Culture
They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. I believe this is true of Americans and the French, as they expect people to conform and speak their language upon arrival. Jamaicans do not fall into this category. We are never as amused by a traveller’s failed attempts to speak patois as we pretend to be.
While we smile and sip our rum, we are probably imagining breaking the bottle over your head or shoving you off the dock. Our culture is ours. You don’t get to show up and appropriate it, so you can show off to your friends with “Yeah mon!” and “No problem, mon!” Some Jamaicans do genuinely find it hilarious, but I would say the vast majority of us do not.
We are far more appreciative of people who ask us what certain phrases mean or how to say something in patois. However, just because we try to teach you how to say it doesn’t mean you should go wandering off to another group of Jamaicans to try your luck.
We also love hearing about other people’s cultures. If you have met Jamaicans in your country or know where a large group of them live, we want to hear all about it. In short, be yourself, and instead of trying to kidnap our culture for laughs, share some of your own with us.
7. More British Than American
Our national language is English—no matter what Wikipedia says! In fact, the full term for the language is Standard Jamaican English, often abbreviated as S.J.E. in academic and linguistic circles. Like most other Commonwealth nations, our English is closer to the UK than the US, and many of us know the differences and can code-switch between them.
Some Jamaicans do struggle to speak proper English, but 99 percent of us understand it perfectly. To assume or imply otherwise might offend a Jamaican, even if it is true. Because English is our language of instruction, it is tied to levels of education. Thus, generally speaking, the more educated a person is, the better their English. So, if you imply or state that a Jamaican speaks poor English, you can imagine what else you will be implying and how they might take it.
British influence also dictates many of the words we use in Jamaica, with some tampering by the US. For instance, even though we say glove compartment (US) instead of glove box (UK), we say bonnet (UK) of a car instead of hood (US). And, while we’re on the subject of cars, like most Commonwealth nations, we drive on the LEFT side of the road.
British influence is also seen in our table manners, as in Jamaica we eat with the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right at all times. This is opposite to Americans who hold the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right to cut their food, only to then set down the knife facing inwards on the plate, switch the fork to the right hand and eat. Sophisticated Jamaicans will think you just escaped from either prison or the jungle if you do this.
8. Know Where to Go and Why
Jamaica is a beautiful country, but as in all countries, some parts are better not seen or ever visited—even by locals. There are also some areas that are better for some activities or types of travellers than others. Here are a few of the top visited locations in Jamaica and why you should or should not go there.
This is my home city, so naturally I’m going to tell you it’s the best place in the world and you should make sure you stop here first. However, it’s not all bias. I have lived in six of our fourteen parishes and Montego Bay, Saint James will always be my favourite city.
Visit Mo-Bay if the following things are true.
- You want to be close to the airport.
- You love swimming, boating, and yachts.
- You plan to eat and drink to your heart’s content.
- You prefer a near First-World standard of living, even when on vacation.
Mo-Bay is also the best place to meet locals, since we hang out at the same spot as tourists and expatriates. Even though Mo-Bay is considered the tourist capital of the island, it is also the second-city prompting many Montegonians to brag (and rightly so!) on social media: I live where you vacation.
When it comes to snorkelling, I must confess that Negril offers the best on the island as far as I’ve seen. Yes, I dare to say, even better than Mo-Bay. You don’t have to venture far to see crabs, stingrays, eels, and colourful fish. The water is shallow here, so if you have small children or you’re not a strong swimmer, these beaches are best for you.
The night life in Negril is a lot more crazy than Montego Bay, so if you’re not a veteran of the club scene, proceed with caution.
Ocho Rios is a tiny town compared to the city of Montego Bay. You won’t find as much to do in terms of night life, but the benefit of Ocho Rios is that it’s strategically located to many of the island’s best attractions. These include Dolphin Cove, Mystic Mountain, Blue Hole, and Dunns River Falls. If you’re travelling as a family with smaller children and teens, this is probably the best place to be.
Tourists usually end up in Falmouth by way of cruise ships. This is not a place that ranks very high on anyone’s list as a tourist destination. However, Good Hope Beach in Falmouth is exactly where you want to be if you enjoy kite-surfing and wind-surfing. There is also some river rafting and a paint gun arcade. In short, Falmouth is best for the adventurous people who plan to spend their days outdoors and on the water.
Boston Bay/ Long Beach
Boston Bay and Long Beach are in the parish of Portland on the south-eastern end of the island. The beaches here are beautiful, but are more ideal for surfing than swimming or snorkelling. Even further in from the coast, Portland is still very beautiful. Hike up the Blue Mountain or go river rafting. This part of the island also makes the absolute best jerk.
This is a quiet and less developed part of the island, so if you’re not a seasoned traveller, accessibility might be a problem. However, probably for this very reason, Portland is the safest parish on the island.
If you don’t absolutely need to be in Kingston, don’t be. It is the smallest parish, yet half the island’s population lives there because it is the capital of Jamaica. There are no beaches and no beautiful rivers to go rafting on. Its only appeal to tourists is the Strawberry Hill hotel, a route up the Blue Mountain, and a very active club scene.
For the most part, Kingston is where you go for business. My sociology classes dubbed it “the least tourist-friendly city on the island”. Escape to Montego Bay, as soon as you can!
9. Weed is Decriminalized, Not Legal
Special thanks to Bob Marley, people have been associating Jamaica with weed for decades. However, don’t be an ignorant tourist. Always research the rules of the island before visiting.
Weed was illegal in Jamaica all the way up until 2015, shortly before I left the island. What happened? Canada happened. We have been on excellent terms with Canada for some time, now. They come to Jamaica, do us nice little favours, and generally do not interfere in our politics or bully us around.
So, naturally, when Canada comes running to us in tears and batting its pretty eyelashes, begging us to sell them some weed for medical purposes, it is very hard to say no. In fact, Canada had been working its charms on us for a while, explaining that it was just too expensive to grow marijuana in Canada.
Jamaica took a long time to deliberate over this and to consider what implications it would have for the country. In the end, we chose to decriminalize it and offered licenses for those who wish to grow it commercially. Naturally, selling drugs on the side of the street is still illegal and so is purchasing from those who do. Being caught with more than 2 oz could mean jail-time for you, so always check the laws, or just don’t smoke at all.
10. Out of Many, One People
As a child, I spent my summer and winter breaks in America. During this time, I often played with many American children at the playground. Even then, my accent fluctuated between something flat and something British.
Most American children didn’t notice, but every so often I would be asked where I was from. I remember quite clearly the first time I was asked by a little girl named Robin. When I told her I was from Jamaica, she laughed and called me a liar.
“You can’t come from Jamaica!” she teased me. “You’re not dark enough!”
I still get those comments, today—and most often from adults. It’s even worse for my Jamaican friends who are of White, Chinese, Indian and/or bi-racial ancestry. If you ever find yourself doubting a blue-eyed blonde who looks you dead in the eyes and says, “Me come from Jamaica!” remember that our motto is Out of Many, One People.
Don’t believe me? I grew up with those blue-eyed Jamaicans in a place called “German Town”. Though Montego Bay is my home city, “German Town” is my home town. You may find the video below interesting.
If you come across a non-Black Jamaican and question their nationality, the men especially will take offence to it, so never assume!
Jamaica is a beautiful country with a unique culture. While this does make us stand out in the global arena as a tropical paradise, it also creates the possibilities of faux-pas and culture clashes for foreigners.
If you want to stay holed up in your hotel all day (please don’t; I will never forgive you for it!) then our culture means very little at the end of the day. But, if you plan to get out, rub shoulders with the locals, drink with us, talk with us, laugh with us, then I hope you enjoyed this post and that you’ll put it to good use, soon!
Have you ever been to Jamaica? What else should other tourists know about the island? Jamaicans, I know you’ll be reading this, too, so feel free to share your advice in the comments.
And, to all the Kingstonians who will be mad about my remarks regarding your city: unnuh gweh! @_@
PHOTO CREDIT: The Featured Image for this post was provided by fellow Jamaican lifestyle blogger, Rochelle Knight. She is a med student who somehow makes the time to travel around the island and
make me jealous dazzle us all with her pictures and her adventures.
This post was accidentally published while I was working on it, on the 31st of August. To everyone who saw that post, loved it even in its raw state, and asked me where it had gone to, I hope this was worth the wait!