Sunday, January 4, 2015

Jamaica....Yeah Man!!

It is one of those spontaneous trips...booked a flight in the morning to travel in the evening. There is a huge sense of adventure filled in our stomachs as this is a total random selection and didn't research anything about this place. There is a bit of nervousness until we landed in Jamaica. There are two reasons to pick this place, it is one of the English speaking Caribbean islands and the tourist visa is not required for most of the nationalities. (be sure to check yours!!)  I put together all this information from my experiences so you can be prepared if you want to visit this paradise.

When can I go there? 

Jamaica is a beautiful island, the birth place of Reggae,  filled with turquoise green clear water white sand beaches, lush green mountains, gorgeous waterfalls, year round weather averaging in 80s with cool breezes in night, yummy food, rich tasting blue mountain coffee, world famous Appleton Rum and it has so much more to offer. It is one of those few destinations where you do not look for the best times to travel. Although, the busiest season to travel is in August as Jamaicans celebrate their Independence day, December is busy month due to holiday season, spring break season in
Beach along hip strip
March-April the beaches tend to get overcrowded with partying students. June to November is hurricane season and look out for any warnings if you plan to travel during this time. It can rain during any time of the day due to tropical climate for short periods of time, it may be wise to carry an umbrella along with you. 

Who live there?

Jamaica is mostly dominated by African descendants, but you do find people of color due to mix of settlers overtime from India, China, Germany and Syria/Lebanon.  Jamaicans are very friendly and very eager to help. You find them using the phrase "Yeah Man!!" while conversing with Jamaicans. 
Jamaican having beach fun near Dunn's River Falls
Do not hesitate to "BARGAIN" on anything or everything. :) In the tourist areas, some of them go above and beyond to help you or perform in front of you for a good tip. Keep in mind that Jamaicans openly oppose LGBT community.  Jamaicans are party lovers, you can hear loud boom boxes playing Reggae, pop music in a park or a street, people gather with kids and celebrations go on, vendors trying to sell beer, juices, sugarcane, fruits, roasted yam, Jamaican jerk chicken/pork pits roasted in a  cylindrical drum,... Jamaicans love "Ganja" (weed) but possession of weed is not legal in the island. 

What about currency?

US dollar is widely accepted as currency in Jamaica. Some merchants accept credit cards but most of them do not accept Amex. It is recommended to use cash instead of credit cards except at the trustworthy places. You get good exchange rate for currency conversion in Scotiabank ATM, or at the cambios sprinkled throughout in tourist areas but the FX at the airport does not give you a good rate.  Inform your credit card companies about your travel times, else the cards can get blocked due to suspicious activity. Check if your bank has an alliance with ScotiaBank, for example Bank of America does and hence you can avoid ATM fees but can withdraw money from any ScotiaBank ATMs spread through out with a 3% foreign transaction fee. This way you avoid carrying too much cash with you.  Jamaica is an expensive place to live. All the tourist attractions charge a hefty entrance fee for the tourists.

Safety and commute 

Montego Bay (Mobay as locals call it) and all the tourist areas nearby on the northern side of island is considered to be safer areas. Jamaica has unsafe areas close to Kingston and known for its crime rate. 119 is the number to call police in case of emergencies. You can get a prepaid calling card to have the flexibility to call. Area code for Jamaica starts with +1 876 followed by the seven digit number. 

There is no public transportation in Jamaica. You do not see trains as well. Once you land in the airport, to get to another city you can use Knutsford expresss, a safer affordable luxurious bus to travel. You can reserve the bus in advance for a discount. Once you arrive in your city, you have to rely on taxis to take you to your hotel/destination. Taxis have red color license plate. The ones labeled with JUTA (Jamaican Union of Travellers Association) tours are considered safer but they are a bit expensive too. Route taxis have red color license plate and can take you to your destination for half the price.  Locals commute using mini bus for economical travel and they can be found in a "Bus park".  The probability of minibus/vans stopping on the road is less as they start from bus park once it is filled up completely. I found the minibus a better way to travel as it gave me opportunity to chat with locals, safer as I am not travelling alone, inexpensive compared to other means of travel, but there will be no AC and you will be sitting shoulder to shoulder without any space. If you take a tour with any of the JUTA drivers, they will take you to the attraction and bring back but it is usually expensive unless you are a big group and can split the expenses.

Driving in Jamaica is tricky if you are used to driving on the right side and used to following the rules. Renting a car is a good option if you plan to travel far and to explore the countryside. I recommend renting a 4x4 as the roads are not that great inland.  Check the deductible on your insurance while renting. Driver seat is on the right side and people drive on the left side of the road. Usually, you can find rash drivers,stay on the main highway A1/A3 along the beach but if you want to explore inland, take necessary precautions. 

Love the Food 

Famous Jamaican Jerk Chicken
The national fruit of Jamaica is Ackee and you can found these trees anywhere you go. Salted fish with Ackee is the staple food of Jamaicans but the Jamaican jerk chicken is famous among the tourists. Scotchies is one of the best places to try Jerk chicken, heard from a local that Jerky's at fairview center in Montego Bay is the best but didn't get a chance to go there. Jamaican food is spicy and flavorful and served with rice and peas(beans), festival, bammy, roasted yam, coleslaw, Food is also inspired by Indians as you can find curried chicken/goat, served with roti and mango chutney. The dhabha like places you found along the highway can surprise you with amazing food with affordable prices. MVP smokehouse on the way to Reading on A1 highway offers yummy tasty food.  Due to Rastafarian movement, you can find Rasta restaurants serving strictly vegetarian food.  

Fruit stand on the street
Its a heaven for fruit lovers. Due to tropical climates, you can get fresh tasty fruits throughout the island. My personal favorite the the fresh sugarcane peeled out and sold, I just can't stop eating them. You can find delicious bananas, several varieties of custard apple, mangoes, jackfruit, juicy and sweet papayas, oh...the green round shiny coconuts, pineapples and much more....

What to do 

You can just lay down along the clear white sand beaches all day long reading a book, taking a swim and just sink in the sunshine watching the beautiful sunset. There is so much more to do if you want to get up and go. 

Trampolines at Margaritaville
If you stay in Montego Bay, "Hip Strip" is a touristy spot filled with shops trying to sell you Jamaican souvenirs, Black women inviting you give them a chance to braid your hair, parks and beaches, expensive Americanized restaurants,.. Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville on the hip street is a fun place to go, with lively music, during the day the admission is free, you can take the water slide, jump on the huge water  trampolines under the watch of a lifeguard or just enjoy the panoramic view from the top deck of the restaurant. Doctors cave beach and Cornwall beach are well maintained and have all the amenities like umbrella, chair, snorkeling gear, drinks with a paid admission. Rockland's bird sanctuary where you can hand feed the humming birds, Great house at Rose Hall, Croyden plandation at the bottom of Catadupa mountains for the coffee and pineapple plantation are the other nearby attractions in Montego Bay.

Falmouth is 30mins away from Mobay and is the home of the glistening waters on the Bay. While at Falmouth, during the day you can visit the bamboo rafting tour on the Martha Brae River as a family event or a romantic trip. At night, visit the glistening waters restaurant to go for a boat tour on the magical tour to witness the natural bio-luminescent phenomenon in the water. The micro-organisms in the mangrove bay emit light when you touch them and everything glows in the night, you can see the water surrounding your body light up when you swim in the beach, your hand lights up when you touch, fish lit up when they swim in water. Be sure to visit there during the new moon time when there is not much light in the sky to see this spectacle. The effect will be better when it gets darker without any natural/external lights. This is one of the four places in the entire world exhibiting this phenomenon. Falmouth, Jamaica is the biggest and brightest of all. Peurto Rico, Indonesia and Bahamas are among the other places. I have the best egg sandwich at the restaurant.

Ocho Rios is about 1hr 30mins towards east of Montego Bay and there are many things to do in Ochi.
Blue hole - Secret Falls
Dunn's River Falls is a popular attraction and is in the list of every traveller. Its so much fun hiking up the water falls and reach the top. Green Grotto caves are near by Dunns Falls and it is interesting to get a tour of these naturally formed limestone caves. Dolphin cove and mystic mountain is nearby. You get to swim, get a peck, dance with the dolphins at the dolphin cove. It is a life time opportunity to interact with these cute little bottle nosed dolphins from Cuba. At Mystic mountain, several tours are offered including bob sledding and canopy/zip lining. My favorite experience in Ocho Rios is the secret falls or Blue Hole. This place is not commercialized and hard to get to. You have to seek the help of locals for directions for every step of the way to make sure you are on the right path. Take the right on Exchange road and head down until you are past Irie river and then ask for directions at the junction, proceed left and then take right at JPS (Jamaican Public Service)...There is no admission fee as such but for a tour of this magical place, you need to pay a $10 fee for your guide.

Gorgeous sunset at Westside
Miles of white sand beaches can be found in Negril which is about an hour and 30 min towards west of Montego Bay. You can get the best view of sunset at the westside in Negril. Rick's cafe is the popular tourist spot to watch the sunset and see the acrobatics of the Jamaicans diving from the tree top on the cliff. My personal favorite spot to witness the sunset is the top of the light house, you may get lucky if the light house guide can let you watch from there. 

Negril Light house
Whether it is visiting Bob Marley museum for Reggae lovers, rum factory tour in Appleton estate, visiting the YS waterfalls, exquisite experience of visiting James bond beach where many of the James Bond novels are written by British author Ian Fleming,  bar in the middle of the ocean at Floyd's pelican bar, caves, castles, mineral springs, snorkeling, ATV tours, horseback riding in the ocean, plantation tours,,...there is so much to do, see and have fun for everyone. 

Stay warm, be safe and have fun!! Peace!!

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