Pulsating reggae and dancehall beats aside, Jamaica’s natural beauty – gorgeous beaches, jungle-covered mountains, tropical waterfalls – and world-renowned culinary scene is what sets it apart from other islands in the Caribbean.
That said, the island’s fame as a musical powerhouse goes hand-in-hand (at times) with its reputation for gang violence. As someone who worked in Jamaica for a year as a paralegal for an NGO, spending much time in Kingston’s neighborhoods and prisons, there are many things I wish I’d known before arriving.
Learning the nation’s unspoken rules and etiquette goes a long way toward helping you understand what makes Jamaica such a remarkable place. Here are our top tips to help you make the most of your visit.
Immerse yourself in the best experiences the world has to offer with our email newsletter delivered weekly into your inbox. Montego Bay is home to the annual Reggae Sumfest festival © Shelby Soblick / Getty Images
Planning your trip to Jamaica
Which part of the island is best for me?
Jamaica is one of the largest islands in the Caribbean, so where you decide to stay depends on what you’re into. For beaches and water sports, Negril and the north coast are your best bets.
Montego Bay and Ocho Rios combine excellent dining scenes with proximity to natural attractions and buzzy nightlife, though when it comes to the Jamaican music scene, Kingston – the capital – is king.
Treasure Beach (south coast) and Port Antonio (north coast) offer a taste of low-key, laid-back Jamaica, while those interested in traditional Maroon culture can reach the two Maroon towns from the west coast and the north coast. Hiking up Blue Mountain peak and trekking in remote Cockpit Country is best organized from Kingston or Falmouth, respectively.
Bring a mosquito net (just in case)
Jamaican mosquitoes do not carry malaria but there are occasional outbreaks of dengue fever. Some of the guesthouses and hotels don’t provide mosquito nets, so bring your own. A net can cost between USD$23–60.
The best repellent for no-see-ums (midges) – tiny biting insects that live near water, whose bites are extremely itchy – is Avon Skin So Soft.
Choose between public transportation and hiring a car
The main towns in Jamaica are served by a combination of comfortable, air-conditioned buses, crowded minibusses and route taxis.
It’s entirely possible to get around Jamaica using public transportation, though for exploring remoter destinations, you’ll need either ample time and patience, or your own set of wheels. Car hire is available at airports in Kingston and Montego Bay.
Carry a few Jamaican dollars
In upmarket hotels, shops and restaurants credit cards are almost universally accepted. Elsewhere in Jamaica, cash (Jamaican dollars) is king, though in touristy destinations you can largely get by with US dollars.
ATMs and currency exchanges are plentiful in Montego Bay, Kingston and Ocho Rios. Currency exchanges (cambios) give you the best rates. Airport rates are not great, and you’ll get hit with ATM charges if you withdraw cash. You’ll want small change for buying from street vendors and for using public transport.
You can travel during hurricane season
Jamaica is vulnerable to hurricanes during the Atlantic hurricane season (early June to late November); most storms occur between August and October. Travel to Jamaica is possible during hurricane season if you follow a few basic rules:
- Take out travel insurance that covers hurricanes
- Download a hurricane tracker app
- Decide (as soon as possible) whether you’ll try to catch an early flight home (which may be expensive/difficult) or hunker down in case of a hurricane
- Find out whether your hotel/guesthouse has a hurricane shelter, and whether it’s likely to be affected by flooding or landslides, bearing in mind that only hotels with private generators are unlikely to get hit by power outages
- Charge your electronics and make sure you have a flashlight, first aid kit and a supply of food and water
- Comply with evacuation orders
- Consider relocating closer to the airport in Kingston or Montego Bay to make it easier to get help/get out after a hurricane
- If Jamaica is hit by a hurricane, have plenty of patience and be prepared to extend your trip
Experience the very best of Jamaica’s nightlife by letting loose and joining in © iStockphoto / Getty Images
Etiquette in Jamaica
Feel free to let loose on a night out
Casual summer wear is perfectly acceptable for most occasions, though some upscale resorts and pricier restaurants expect smart-casual attire.
At nightclubs in Kingston and Montego Bay, “batty riders” (skin-tight shorts) and similarly figure-hugging tops are a popular choice for women, while men tend to wear jeans and shirts. Remember, clothing doesn’t define a person, so staring or judging is unacceptable.
If something more casual and low-key is more your fashion speed, come as you are. It’s a party after all.
If you’re a newcomer to the dancehall scene, it can be a real eye-opener. The dancing is very explicit and locals try to outdo each other when it comes to “whining” – gyrating one’s hips/body in a sensual manner.
You’re likely to get pushed into the melee, and then it’s sink or swim time! You’ll get a lot of good-natured remarks from regulars if you give the dancing your best shot, and they might even offer to teach you to dance properly!
Stay up for the nightlife
Jamaica never sleeps. At least, that’s true for Kingston, Negril, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. Negril is best for beach parties while Kingston has the slickest nightclubs, the best music events and street dances.
Things rarely get going before midnight and revelers party until sunrise. Overnight reggae and dancehall concerts involve at least a dozen performers, with the audience expressing their enthusiasm with shouts of “bullet bullet”, and two-finger gun salutes. It’s raucous, but typically all in good fun.
Do talk to strangers
Unlike London and New York City, where striking up conversations with strangers is a massive faux pas, in Jamaica, the opposite is true.
Some Jamaicans will strike up conversations with you in the hopes of doing business (see “How to handle hustling and harassment”), but many are genuinely interested in learning more about you, and find standoffishness offensive.
You’ll find yourself saying “good morning”, “good afternoon” and “good night” (in greeting as well as farewell) a whole lot. Elders are treated with extra respect. An exchange of friendly banter with vendors trying to sell you fruit or souvenirs is infinitely preferable to coldly ignoring people just trying to make a living.
Around 1% of Jamaicans practice Rastafarianism – a religious and political movement that combines Biblical teachings with seeing Ethiopia as the Promised Land, using ganja in order to commune with Jah (God) and living a “natural” lifestyle involving I-tal food (natural free from artificial additives), and the growing of locs and beards for men.
Some Rastafarians live in small, secluded and self-sustaining communities; outsiders may only visit if they contact the elders in advance to request permission. The Rastafari Indigenous Village outside Montego Bay is a more accessible (and much more touristy) experience.
Gentle negotiating at markets is expected, but elsewhere you need to pay the price © iStockphoto / Getty Images
Is bargaining acceptable?
Gentle haggling is common and expected when you’re buying souvenirs from individual sellers, or shopping in local markets. Elsewhere, you’re expected to pay the stated price.
Is Jamaica an LGBTIQ+-friendly country?
Derogatory references to battyman (gay men) pepper dancehall lyrics, angry Kingstonians boycotted a cinema in Kingston for screening Brokeback Mountain (2005), and sexual acts between men are illegal and punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Jamaican society is largely homophobic and the gay scene in Kingston is firmly underground, with public displays of affection between gay couples strongly inadvisable.
That said, in popular tourist destinations, there are hotels (including some all-inclusives) that welcome gay travelers.
Health and safety in Jamaica
What you should know about public bathrooms
Shopping malls, cafes and restaurants charge for the use of their facilities, which don’t always meet basic hygiene standards, and woe betide you if you need the bathroom away from the hospitality sector.
Is Jamaican tap water drinkable?
Jamaica’s tap water is generally safe to drink in most parts of the island. Avoid faucet water in far-flung rural areas, and steer clear of ice, sold at street stands as “bellywash”, “snocones” or “skyjuice” (shaved-ice cones sweetened with fruit juice). While bottled water is readily available, recycling plastic is an issue, so it’s best to bring reusable flasks with you.
Is Jamaica a vegetarian-/vegan-friendly destination?
Plant-based I-tal (“vital”) food, an essential tenet of Rastafarianism, is widely available and delicious. Expect freshly squeezed fruit juices, plantain fritters, steamed callaloo (Jamaica’s answer to spinach), tropical fruit and much more. In non-Rasta eateries, rice ‘n’ peas (rice with kidney beans) is the most common accompaniment to most dishes.
How to handle hustling and harassment
Travelers are extremely likely to encounter constant sales pitches from hustlers, particularly around the major tourist centers or Montego Bay, Negril and Ocho Rios. Some may be aggressively persistent in the hopes that you’ll buy whatever it is they’re selling just tobe left alone; be firm yet polite in your refusals.
Common scams involve young men offering transportation to a popular tourist attraction (waterfall, swimming hole) and then claiming that you only paid a one-way fee. Self-appointed “guides” may come up with various add-ons at the end of tours, so in both cases, be absolutely clear as what the agreed-upon fee covers before accepting their services.
What’s Jamaica like for solo women travelers?
If you’re a single woman, you may well find yourself on the receiving end of anything from flirting to blunt propositioning.
Some women tourists come to Jamaica (Negril in particular) to engage in a “likkle love beneat’ de palms” with “Rastitutes” or “rent-a-dreads” – young men happy to have flings with tourists in exchange for being wined and dined – but if that’s not your intention, constant come-ons can be wearying. Be polite yet firm if not interested.
There have been a number of assaults on female tourists by staff at some of Jamaica’s top beach resorts over the years, with the allegations mishandled, covered up or with trips refunded in exchange for signing of non-disclosure agreements.
Does crime affect tourists?
Organized crime in Jamaica revolves around gang violence. In the 1970s, Jamaica’s two rival political parties armed their supporters in Kingston’s neighborhoods and set in motion deadly feuds lasting generations.
Residents of PNP-affiliated neighborhoods may not safely set foot in JLP-affiliated neighborhoods and vice versa. Today, neighborhoods are controlled by local dons who are no longer reliant on politicians for guns or money, since much of their funds come from the international drug trade, and gang members are often better-armed than the police.
Government support for the poorest sectors of the population is minimal. For young men growing up in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty, an elementary school education and few employment opportunities mean becoming foot soldiers for the dons – often the most lucrative prospect.
Gang violence does not target visitors, unless you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Opportunistic muggings and pickpocketing do occur, however, so it’s best to take common sense precautions (taking a taxi back at night, carrying as little cash as possible) do apply.
Is ganja (weed) legal?
Smoking “di holy herb” is an integral part of life not just for the Rastafari but also for a substantial number of Jamaicans. Weed is ubiquitous and cheap, and you are very likely to be approached by vendors selling joints.
Since 2015, ganja has been decriminalized, and while smoking weed in public is still illegal and punishable with a fine of J$500, you may have up to two ounces for personal use without it going on your criminal record.
Exceptions are made for religious and medical purposes. Several medical dispensaries have opened up around the country (in Kingston, St Ann’s Bay, Falmouth and Montego Bay) where visitors may legally purchase marijuana with a doctor’s prescription, and make use of on-site smoking rooms.
But if you try to take some ganja home at the end of your vacation, you’ll find your Jamaica stay extended by two years in Fort Augusta prison (for women) or Spanish Town prison (for men).
Other drugs and law enforcement
Besides ganja, cocaine is also widely available (Jamaica is a major trans-shipment point for the Colombia–US route), along with hallucinogenic “tea” made from wild mushrooms.
The global drugs trade helps to fuel gang violence (particularly in Kingston and Montego Bay) and penalties for possession of hard drugs are severe.
You may encounter roadblocks and random car searches, performed by police in combat gear; occasional extortion to supplement wages is not unheard of. Don’t accept drinks from strangers in nightclubs since date rape drugs are a concern.
Driving in Jamaica is not for the faint-hearted
In contrast to their typical laid-back attitude, many Jamaicans drive hard and fast, especially around cities and along winding mountain roads.
Watch out for drivers overtaking around blind corners and swerving onto the opposite side of the road to avoid ubiquitous potholes. Drive on the left, and perhaps avoid Kingston and Montego Bay if you’re a first-timer.