The island of Jamaica is the third largest in the Caribbean. It is ideally located, capturing trade winds that assist in maintaining a near constant temperature between 77 and 82 degrees and which bless the mountainous island’s northeast coast with abundant rain. Jamaica supports a wide diversity of plant and animal life. More than half the island is higher than 800 feet above sea level. The economy depends heavily on the tourism business, and some of the Caribbean’s finest resorts and elegant boutique hotels are found on the beaches of Jamaica.
But Jamaica offers more than lovely beaches and crystal clear water. As wonderful as those things are, they are in plentiful supply in the Caribbean. Jamaica is more – much more. Jamaica is deep emerald green rainforests, waterfalls and mountain streams. Jamaica is an array of birds – colorful parrots, macaws, and hummingbirds with tails that curl three times their body length. Jamaica is reggae and intricate wood carving. Jamaica’s culture does not lurk around its edges. You do not have to go looking for it in museums. Jamaica’s culture permeates the island. It drifts through every breeze and wafts through every moment on the island, whether in the smell of roadside food preparation or in the rhythm and sound of the music present everywhere. Jamaica dances and invites you to dance with it. The Jamaican culture has endured slavery, oppression and bad times. Its culture, like its people, not only survives, not only endures, but thrives.
The island is not without its scars. There is poverty and the street and beach merchants can be aggressive in plying their trade. However, the population as a whole possesses a warmth and a humor that is characteristically Jamaican and visitors miss a real opportunity for adventure if they fail to engage the people beyond the boundaries of the hotels and resorts.
History and Culture
The English wrested Jamaica away from the Spanish in the mid-1600s and used the island as a base throughout the Caribbean. They permitted pirates to hold sway over some areas of the island like Port Royal to continue to threaten Spanish interests in the rest of the Caribbean. Sugarcane and banana plantations, worked by slaves, became the economic base of early Jamaica. But in the mountainous interior, free and runaway slaves, known as Maroons, lived and routinely attacked the British. Two great slave rebellions finally ended the ignoble institution of slavery.
Thus, the cultural heritage of the island has its origins in the slave trade. As the slaves learned the language of their colonial masters, they melded and mixed it with their own. African dialect and English flowed between Spanish and French to find expression in “patois” spoken with the distinctly Jamaican accent mimicked by so many but found only here.
The general consensus is that Jamaica has more churches per square mile than any other place in the world. Every denomination finds a home here, as well as Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Rastafarians. The latter group, the Rastafarians, first appeared in the 1930s, and worships the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. The dreadlocks worn by the group is indicative of their belief that hair should not cut or combed. It is well known, and overly emphasized, that Rastifarians use marijuana as a sacrament, but the focus of the religion is on inward spiritual development.
The arts, woodcarving, music, and dance of Jamaica are uniquely distinctive and immediately recognizable. Reggae has found an audience worldwide, its beat a fusion of African and Caribbean rhythms. Its most famous artist, Bob Marley, achieved international fame and remains an influence many years after his death. Jamaican religions have greatly colored the folk music, and the lyrics express the deep spirituality of the people.
Jamaican cuisine is likewise unique and richly flavored with the fusions of tastes both familiar and strange. Jerk marinade, created from island spices, is added to fish, pork, chicken and beef. Seafood, breads and native fruits are island specialties: ackee and saltfish with roast breadfruit, peas and rice, escoveitched fish, and bammy, a pancake shaped, deep-fried cassava bread.
Surrounded by crystal blue and green waters with high mountain peaks and a lush jungle, visitors find much to do and see – layer on top the country’s thick culture of food and music, and the temptation to shoot off in any direction in search of the authentic Jamaica is strong. Vacationers have the option of commanding their own transportation for day-trips to see the countryside up close and personal.
Driving in Jamaica can be challenging, especially in rural areas. The roads are narrow and winding, often pitted with potholes half the size of the tire of any 4X4. Washouts and rockslides are not uncommon, and at night, the roads are pitch black in the countryside. Close encounters with pigs, cows and chickens are common. But the drive is worthwhile, especially through the Blue Mountains. The tropical rain forests of African tulips and the mango and breadfruit trees are amazing to behold.
If you decide to self-drive the island, ask your travel agent to rent a vehicle that is dependable in all circumstances, such as a good SUV 4×4. A U.S. or Canadian driver’s license is valid in Jamaica, but the driver must be at least 21 years old to drive and 25 to rent a vehicle. Driving is on the left-hand side of the road in the British fashion. The speed limit is 30 MPH in towns and 50 MPH on highways. Drivers should proceed with caution and drive slowly until they get the rhythm of traffic flow.
For the most part, traffic in rural areas is light, but local drivers are fearless, so most visitors find it best to cede the right of way to others to be on the safe side. Cars frequently stop for pedestrians, animals or to hold a conversation, so drivers should travel slowly and be prepared for frequent interruptions and stops. Horn-honking is not unusual and is typically either a greeting or a warning of an upcoming traffic problem.
Rental car offices are common, and rentals can typically be arranged in advance. The local companies may be less expensive, but larger franchise operations will offer roadside assistance and other services to assist visitors, as well as more locations throughout the island for greater flexibility in returning the vehicle. You can anticipate a relatively large security deposit if you do not take out insurance. For driving directions, obtain a copy of the Jamaica Tourist Board’s “Discover Jamaica” map. Finally, remember that many of the petrol stations in rural areas will accept only cash â?? no credit cards, so be prepared.
Of course, automobiles are not your only option. Renting a bicycle or motorbike provides a fun, easy way to explore. Jamaica requires the use of a helmet on motor bikes, and given some road conditions and the ever-present hazard of free-roaming livestock, this is a good idea in any event. Many vendors rent both bicycles and motorbikes at excellent rates.
In addition to driving, most resorts and hotels will arrange for guided drives around the island. It is a great way to get off of the beaten path, see the real Jamaica, and to slowly acclimate to a side of the island not found behind the gates. A visit to Jamaica stays with a traveler. Unlike other islands, the experience of Jamaica is somehow deeper and more transfixing. A longing develops deep inside that is curable only by way of a return visit.
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