As part of this blog’s quest to prove the Caribbean is more than just a pretty beach, I will be chatting about independent travel, starting with Jamaica. Jamaica is a real place, where real people live real lives. So naturally, there is a lot more to experience than swim up bars and cruise ship terminals. The antidote to ensure you don’t get stuck in a tourist ghetto and to actually get deeper into the beautiful country? Independent travel and transport!
Jamaica, like many of the Caribbean islands, is a major destination for cruise ships and is home to what feels like a million all-inclusive resorts. I personally know 3 couples who have come to Jamaica to get married. It’s also where Stella Got Her Groove Back.
But if I’m going to be real, which I always am on See Her Travel, there is a ton more to Jamaica than Taye Diggs’s chest and kitschy tourist shops. Nothing against Taye Diggs’s chest of course…
Independent Travel in Jamaica
What often scares people about independent travel in general is the unknown. If a country, like Jamaica is known very much for a certain kind of travel, like all-inclusive resorts and cruising, there may be ideas that you can’t even go to those countries as an independent traveler. Can you even get around? Are there places to stay where you don’t have to wear a wristband and drink bottomless daiquiris? Will I get stolen?
For the record, the answers to those three questions for most countries on earth and Jamaica in particular are: Yes, Yes, and No /probably not.
For this post, I will focus on the first of those questions in the case of Jamaica: How do you get around Jamaica independently?
Arriving in Jamaica
Unless you sail in via fancy yacht, you will arrive in Jamaica at either the Montego Bay or Kingston International Airports. Neither are large places, but they have healthy duty free stores. Public city buses run to and from the Kingston airport or you can take a registered taxi into the city. In Montego Bay, they also have registered taxis, but I suggest leaving the airport on foot and walking 200 meters out the driveway to hail a taxi out there. The price will be exactly half the price of the registered taxis.
How Do I Get Around Jamaica?
Jamaica, like all countries, has roads. Cars, taxis, and buses go on these roads. Since Jamaica is a developing country, many Jamaicans depend on taxis and buses to go everywhere. Consequently, independent travellers can get to every corner of Jamaica, no matter how remote, and normally, on the cheap.
The cheapest way to get around, and really get down with Jamaican life is to ride public transport. Public transport in Jamaica comes in two forms: route taxis and buses.
Public Transport in Jamaica
Buses range from vans (maybe 16 seats) to mid-sized buses (approximately 25 seats). Route taxis are cars that run along a specific course, either within towns or between towns. Depending on the route, there will be either taxis or busses, or both, plying the path. Buses tend to be slightly cheaper, but for either a taxi or a bus you will need to wait until the vehicle fills up. Mathematically speaking, one may deduce that the 5 seats of a car will fill up faster than a 16-seat van. But as with public transport the world over, we the consumers don’t always get to choose our preferences.
Here is an example of travel in Jamaica on public transport:
I live in Mandeville, which is in Manchester Parish along the South Coast. I wanted to go to Ocho Rios, which is in St. Ann’s Parish, on the North Coast. To do so, I went to the Mandeville taxi stand and to take a route taxi to Spalding. At this point, I would recommend keeping an eye on your belongings while in taxi stands as to not be pickpocketed and have your mobile phone stolen #regrets #truestory.
The route taxi to Spalding had 9 people in it and I paid $2USD for the 30-minute trip.
In Spalding, I then switched to different route taxi, waited 2 minutes for another passenger to fill up the cab. The taxi then took me the 25 minutes to Cave Valley. Another $2. In Cave Valley, I switched to yet a different $2 taxi, waited for 2 more minutes for a final passenger, and all together we proceeded to Brown’s Town.
In Brown’s Town, I was mauled by 5 dudes all wanting me to come and get in to their buses. I randomly picked one of the guys and joined a few other passengers on his bus. I ate peanuts and waited for the rest of the van to fill up. 10 minutes and an empty peanut bag later, we were off with a full van for the last 45-minutes chunk of my trip to Ocho Rios. In Ocho, I spotted the sign for my hostel on the main road, tapped the driver on the shoulder and hopped out.
All in, the trip took about 2.5 hours and cost me $8. I really couldn’t have travelled there much cheaper or faster even if I had had my own car.
Now of course not everywhere you go in Jamaica is going to be that complicated of a route with so many transfers. From the major centres, direct taxis and buses are the norm. From Kingston and Montego Bay, there are direct buses going out to the parishes and to the major hubs like Ocho Rios, Mandeville, Negril, and Spanish Town. You may have bad luck and have to wait a while for the van to fill up, but more often than not, things move pretty fast and you’re on your way quickly.
I will always contend that travelling by public transportation is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in local culture and find out how the country actually lives. You will hear the language, interact with locals, probably hear some funny stories (and find some of your own) and learn about the country in a whole different light. My favourite transport stories are when feisty women passengers bitch out jerky drivers/fellow passengers. I also enjoy playing with random babies on buses.
The Knutsford Express
Your other alternative in the realm of public ground transportation is the Knutsford Express, the Jamaican equivalent to the Greyhound. The Knutsford buses ply the major routes between hubs and tourist destinations. They are large 60 seat buses like a Greyhound, with onboard bathrooms, air conditioning and WIFI. You can buy your tickets online with a credit card. The Knutsford is indisputably far more comfortable than public transport and you will generally feel safe on it.
My 2 issues with the Knutsford are:
1 – They are not cheap. For example, taking the Knutsford from Mandeville to Ocho Rios would run me around $27 USD. Compared to the $8 I paid.
2 – They run on schedules (this can be both good and bad) that are not always terribly convenient. Again for example, the Knutsford from Mandeville to Ocho Rios only runs at very specific times, tops twice per day. It also goes through Kingston, which means the trip will probably take longer my 2.5 hours hopping around on taxis.
What you do get with the Knutsford is a very clear time of when you are leaving and when you are arriving. You get a bottle of water. You know you will not have a small child on your lap. And you know you will not be one of 9 adults crammed into a Toyota Corolla. But my question to you is: Where is the adventure in that?!
Riding a Motorcycle in Jamaica
Motorcycles are huge in Jamaica, especially with young men of a certain age. If you are an experienced rider, and not to nervous about the road conditions, buying or renting a motorbike or scooter may be a good bet for you. As for helmets, they are the law in Jamaica, but unfortunately it is a law that is often ignored. You should wear one though, seriously. Buying a helmet in Jamaica will be more expensive, and rental agencies will have them but… euw. Your best bet will be to check out the best motorcycle helmet for you at a motorcycle parts store before you leave home and bring it with you.
Renting a Car in Jamaica
If you have a few people travelling together, another alternative for getting around Jamaica is to rent your own car. We did this when my parents came and visited and it worked really well and we were thrilled to do it. We paid $50 a day for some sort of 4-door sedan that I drove around just fine. This was slightly more expensive than public transport for 3 may have been, but the convenience and the independence made up for the cost differential. Plus it meant my Dad didn’t have to carry their backpack very far at a time.
Driving a Car in Jamaica
There are some things to know about driving a car in Jamaica though…
Driving in Jamaica is… casual yet aggressive. Be prepared to be cut off, to be passed dangerously on blind corners, and to potentially have oncoming traffic in your lane far too close for comfort. Even the guidebooks talk about the odd werewolf like transformation that occurs with many Jamaicans when they get behind the wheel: normal, polite, chilled out folks become impatient speedway racers on very dangerous roads. Nerve-wracking to many, driving in Jamaica is not for everyone.
Also to note, driving is on the left hand side of the road, therefore as the driver you will sit on the right hand side of the car.
Roads in Jamaica vary from a brand new freeway to what appears to be bombed out trenches leading to the final scenes of Apocalypse Now. Don’t worry, these roads will not guide you to Colonel Kurtz, they will actually take you to beautiful and remote villages, but getting there may make your Mothers back break every time you inadvertently hit a pothole. Driving at night on these back roads is… hazardous. I only drove at night if I knew the road or if I knew the road to be decent. Meaning, I didn’t really drive at night. Between the potholes, the darkly clad pedestrians, dogs, low hanging branches, and general unpredictability of other drivers, nighttime driving for visitors in Jamaica is fraught with disaster.
Besides the other drivers and the potholes, driving in Jamaica is full of other fun surprises, like goats on the road, dogs chasing cars, pedestrians randomly strolling along the non-existent shoulder, and overgrown blind corners. You must be very aware, at all times.
For everyones safety, I advise only driving in Jamaica as a visitor if you are comfortable driving on the left hand side of the road and if you can adapt and focus on the many road variables.
Also, on a personal note, only drive people with whom you have a good enough relationship to say “YOU BOTH NEED TO STOP RIGHT NOW” when the backseat driving gets a bit too much to handle. I will turn this car around…
But renting a car really does give you every bit of the independence you may be looking for. Depending on the size of your group, it can prove cheaper and will more than likely save time in almost every situation.
Flying within Jamaica
The only domestic flights within Jamaica are between Montego Bay and Kingston. The flight takes exactly 35 minutes once per day in each direction. The cheapest price for this flight that I have seen is around $60USD with InterCaribbean Airways.
Hitchhiking in Jamaica
Jamaicans don’t really hitch. Taxis and busses are everywhere and so cheap that it’s not really necessary. So no real need for travellers to do it either!
Independent Travel in Jamaica
To sum up, independent travel in Jamaica, either as a solo traveler or in a small group is so incredibly feasible it shocks me that more people don’t do it. I have heard that resorts really discourage tourists from taking public transport or taxis, which is actually rather fraudulent in my opinion. Making tourists think they have to take a $20 private taxi when they could get to the same place for $1 is bullshit. Public transport is perfectly safe, most routes have set prices so you will likely not get conned on price (just pay the same price as the person beside you!). Sure some taxi drivers may treat the route like their own personal Mario Kart course and you may think you’re going to die every so often, but just close your eyes, that’s what I do!
Not only can you get around Jamaica, but you should! There is so much going on in Jamaica beyond the typical tourist haunts. Breaking out independently has brought me to natural wonders, cultural events, hidden beaches, fascinating places to stay and most importantly the experiences of everyday life with the wonderful people who call this island home.
Michelle Obama Update
On a completely unrelated note: My cat, Michelle Obama, was spayed last Thursday. I am happy to report that she is 4 days post-op and coming along swimmingly. She hates her head cone, which is basically a plastic red Solo cup, but she is a tough trooper and just as sassy as ever! Here is Michelle O, napping in her recovery house: