Jamaica is renowned for its natural beauty, pristine beaches, sparkling blue ocean, and rainforests — its laid-back culture, Rastafarians, and musical heritage. The Island of One Love was the birthplace of Bob Marley, in addition to reggae, ska, dub, and dancehall tunes.
But, there’s no getting away from the fact Jamaica also has a bad rep. There are areas plagued by gang and gun-related violence, and it’s a hub for drug trafficking—hardly surprising given the shit ton of weed that’s grown and smoked there as well as exported.
On the whole, though, if you’re street smart and savvy, keep your wits about you, and don’t dabble in the drug world, you likely won’t suffer any bad experiences. That said, tourists can fall prey to petty theft and pickpocketing — as is the case throughout the entire developing world. In addition to many cities in the so-called developed world too — looking at you Barcelona!)
If you’re hankering for some Jamaican vibes, and you’re willing to allow the many positives to outweigh the potential negatives, then dive right in. It’s a fascinating and exhilarating country to explore and enjoy. So, go Jamaica! And keep safe with our top travel tips.
**At the time of posting, there is a level 4 advisory warning against travel to Jamaica due to COVID infection rates. You can read it here. Meanwhile, let’s all just look forward to the future when we can once again roam free (finances permitting, natch!)**
Location, location, location
As any realtor will tell you, it’s all about location. And that definitely applies to Jamaica. Picking the right places to visit and stay in is essential to maximize enjoyment opportunities and minimize danger possibilities.
When an area is hit with a crime wave, the Jamaican government implements a “state of emergency,” and well, it’s a given that you should stay the hell away from those places when that occurs.
A good guideline to stick to is to stay inside the boundaries of towns and cities. The further you travel into rural areas, the more likely you are to encounter potential dangers. Extreme poverty’s often a massive factor in crime — as does accidentally stumbling upon a drug baron’s ganja growing operation.
Contrary to that rule, though, it’s wise to be wary of Kingston. The Jamaican capital is packed full of culture, with incredible, engaging, and authentic experiences to enjoy in addition to vibrant street art and beautiful colonial architecture. But it’s also jam-packed with people and has the highest crime rate in the country. The beleaguered city is subject to insanely high levels of gang activity, robberies, and gun violence. If you do go, then try to stick to daytime visits and steer completely clear of the Grants Pen and Cassava Piece neighborhoods —seriously. They’re kind of the equivalent of South Central LA back in the late 1970s and ’80s, and definitely not somewhere a tourist should be roaming around. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Montego Bay is stunning. It boasts a wealth of gated, luxury, all-inclusive hotel resorts, golf courses, and budget hostels. So it’s no surprise that it’s also brimming with tourists. Any area full of (comparatively, or perceived to be) wealthy foreigners will be a magnet for pickpockets, hustlers, and con artists alike. So, although it’s worth considering a brief trip to soak up the striking scenery, outside of resorts, you should keep your wits about you at all times, especially at night.
Negril’s a divisive destination. It has a whopping seven miles of pristine beach fringed with swaying palm trees, and it’s undoubtedly an area of outstanding natural beauty. But, it’s also jammed with all-inclusive resorts. So, it’s inevitably packed with tourists — usually on the wealthier end of the scale. It’s crowded, expensive, and full of hustlers relentlessly harassing you to buy their wares — or (usually really shitty) weed. Give Negril a swerve and head to Port Antonio or Winnifred Beach instead.
Winnifred Beach is one of Jamaica’s ever-increasingly rare free public beaches. The sands are every bit as golden, the sea is equally as warm and sparkling, and there are just as many lush green palms dancing in the breeze. But it’s way less hectic than Negril — and way more authentic and laid back. There are a bunch of cool little beach bars where locals outnumber the tourists, and the people selling trinkets and handicrafts will hardly bother you, let alone incessantly hound you until you lose the will to live.
Port Antonio is a safe, low-crime beach town on the northeastern tip of Jamaica. It’s a quiet and tranquil haven with a legitimately local vibe. In addition to its many uncrowded, stunning, and secluded beach coves, the area’s a gateway to a wealth of natural wonders. Spectacular mountains, waterfalls, equatorial jungles, a sprawling former plantation, and the unforgettable Blue Lagoon are nearby. The tropical paradise used to be the go-to getaway for the rich and famous. Evidence of those days still remains, courtesy of the gorgeous homes dotted all over. Port Antonio is also renowned for having one of the most vibrant music scenes in the world. Harry Styles, Florence and the Machine, and Drake are among the slew of songful superstars who’ve drawn lyrical inspiration from the area.
Keep it humble
Wherever you are as a tourist, you should scale back on gratuitous displays of wealth. It causes you to stand out from the crowd and makes you a prime target for robbery or pickpocketing — and look like a total asshole. But, it’s especially the case whenever you’re traveling in the developing world. There’s really no place, or justification, for sporting a Birkin bag, Rolex watch, or giant sparkler when you’re in a country where the majority of people survive on $1 a day.
So yeah, leave the flash shit and fancy frocks at home. In somewhere like Jamaica, it’s even a good idea to replace a rucksack with a good old black plastic carrier bag from a local store, no less. (Gasp! The horror!)
When it comes to phones, the best thing to do is channel Stringer Bell and buy a burner. As for photos, go with disposable cameras or the cheapest, least ostentatious one you can find. Sure, you won’t get Insta-perfect pics, but, hey, plus side! You’ll still have your extortionately expensive smartphone when you get home. If you feel you really can’t survive without your $1,200 iPhone 12 Pro Max, then at the very least, don’t constantly hold it and wave it around or (duh!) carry it in your back pocket.
Honestly, it pains me to say this, but it’s worth considering buying a money belt to wear under clothing. If you just can’t bear it (and hands up, I admit, I so can’t), then carry “mugging money” to hand over in the unlikely event you’re robbed. Keep the equivalent of $20 US of local bills and coins in your pocket/purse/wherever, and then squirrel away any extra cash and or a credit card in your bra, undies, or down the side of your boot. It’s not foolproof because nothing’s really foolproof. Still, it offers pretty good odds of safely getting out of any sticky situations. (Worked at least twice for me back in the day #MaidstoneTough).
The vast majority of Jamaican tourists stay in one of the many gated, heavily guarded, all-inclusive resorts. Most of them don’t even venture outside of the gates throughout their entire stay — aside from perhaps embarking on a coach trip or two. So, not surprisingly, the resorts have been described as “islands themselves, deliberately separate from the life of the tiny nation.”
Equally unsurprising is that resorts are a massive bone of contention for Jamaicans. Sure, the (mainly USA-based) corporations who own them employ locals (for an average of 7,000 JMD a week — which equates to just under $50 US). But aside from that and the (limited) taxes, they pay to the government, Jamaicans receive jack shit.
Guests rarely venture to restaurants, bars, and clubs outside of the resort. They don’t shop at local stores or use taxis and buses. So, most tourist dollars just bolster the pockets of US corporate fat cats and Jamaican government officials. Plus, the gated segregation feeds into the “them and us” dynamic, fueling resentment and anger towards “rich” foreigners.
So yeah, don’t be an all-inclusive Karen.
Stay at locally owned hotels and guesthouses — funnily enough, they don’t need the insane security measures that accompany the all-inclusive resorts — for a reason. You also get to experience the real Jamaica, actually, add to the economy and welfare of its citizens, spend time with them and hang. Plus, despite the negative press and crime stats, Jamaicans are really chill and friendly. You’ll get a wealth of advice on all the best local places to eat, visit, and party. Hey, you might even make some friends — shudder!
Be a (wo)man with a plan
One of the biggest mistakes tourists make is to just roam around aimlessly. Checking their phone, or pulling out a map for directions, and unintentionally wandering into sketchy areas. Nothing spells out a “potential target” like somebody who looks lost, totally out of place, or uneasy.
Plan where you’re going before you head out. Make sure you know the directions or the bus route to where you’re going or take a taxi. If you happen to end up lost for some reason, then just “fake it till you make it.” At least look like you’re a (wo)man with a plan, and if you need help, directions, or to order a cab, then stop for a drink or a coffee at a local joint. Chat to the server, ask for their assistance — and then make sure you leave a good tip.
Just say no
Jamaican farmers grow 37,000 acres (15,000 hectares) of weed a year. Rastafarian culture is deeply rooted in smoking the sacred herb, and in February 2015, the government decriminalized it.
However, although ganja has been decriminalized, possession of it is still illegal. If you’re found with up to 2 ounces, it won’t result in a criminal record, but it’s still ruled to be a “petty offense.” If you have over 2 ounces, then you’re going to be bundled into a cop car. So good luck with that.
As in many global drug hotspots, Jamaican tourists can be subjected to stings — where undercover cops sell them weed, then bust them for possession. Also, there are police roadblocks throughout the country that can result in car and personal searches. So, yeah, don’t be an idiot — go to Amsterdam if you want to get stoned off your noggin’.
Also, don’t fuck up by taking photos of “super cool” fields of ganja if you happen to stumble across them. The pics might go down well with your mates back home, but the field’s owner definitely won’t be impressed or pleased, to say the least.
It’s worth noting, all other drugs are totally illegal in Jamaica — so yeah, just say no, folks — unless you’re hankering to appear in a future episode of “Locked-up Abroad.” Oh, and make sure you can handle your drink if you’re planning on a big night out. Few things make you more vulnerable and an easy target than staggering around totally wasted. Know your limit, don’t get messy.
Embrace the vibe, enjoy and chillax…….repeat…
Life’s too short to live in worry and fear. It’s a vast and incredible, diverse, and wondrous world — so get out there. Go to Jamaica. Do your due diligence, plan, and research. Engage your street smarts. Look everybody in the eye, acknowledge them, and smile. Be respectful, open, and non-judgemental. Embrace the vibe, enjoy and chillax — repeat, repeat, repeat.