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Introduction to Jamaica

Jamaica Flag

Ever since Errol Flynn cavorted here with his Hollywood pals in the 1930s and 40s, travellers have regarded Jamaica as one of the most alluring of the Caribbean islands. Its beaches, mountains and carnal red sunsets regularly appear in the sort of tourist brochures that promise paradise.

Unlike other nearby islands, it caters to all comers: you can choose a private villa with your own private beach; laugh your vacation away at a party-hearty resort; throw yourself into the thick of the island's life, or concentrate on experiencing the three Rs: reggae, reefers and rum.

Jamaica's character arises from its complex culture, which aspires to be African in defiance of both the island's geography and its colonial history. Jamaicans may have a quick wit and a ready smile, but this is not the happy-go-lucky island of Bacardi adverts and Harry Belafonte tunes. The island's sombre history is rooted in the sugar-plantation economy, and the slave era still weighs heavily on the national psyche. Rastafarianism may mean easy skankin' to some, but its confused expression of love, hope, anger and social discontent encapsulates modern Jamaica - a densely populated, poverty-ridden country that is struggling to escape dependency and debt.

Traveler Facts

  • Time Zone: GMT/UTC -6
  • Dialling Code: 876
  • Electricity: 110V ,50Hz
  • Weights & measures: Imperial
  • Currency: Jamaican Dollar (JMD or J$)

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Popular Cities in Jamaica - Compare Hotel Prices
Clarendon Park Discovery Bay Falmouth Mandeville Lucea
Montego Bay Negril Ocho Rios Port Antonio Rio Bueno
Runaway Bay Saint Elizabeth SaintMary St. Ann's Bay Westmoreland
Whitehouse
Top Attractions

Kingston

Jamaica's teeming capital city suffers from a negative image that, though partly deserved, belies its charms. At first neither welcoming nor beautiful, the city is diminished by squalor, and its culture can be darned right intimidating. Seething tensions simmer below the surface and often boil over.

But although there are places visitors are advised to steer well clear of, Kingston is the vibrant heartbeat of Jamaica and its centre of commerce and culture. It hustles, it bustles, and it merits a visit, especially during one of the annual festivals.

Montego Bay

Jamaica's northwestern node is the thriving port city of MoBay. This is resort Jamaica at its purest and most puerile, where a crowded tourist mishmash of one-way streets full of honking cars and pedestrians almost obscures the reasons people come.

These include scintillating beaches, the golf courses, the historic houses and the mountain-village life going on behind the narrow coastal strip. Despite MoBay's reputation as a hustlers' city, there are attractions that make it worth being asked 'Hey, Jake! Smoke? Coke?' every few steps.

Negril

Negril, west of Montego Bay, is Jamaica's fastest growing resort and the vortex around which Jamaica's fun-in-the-sun vacation life whirls. Despite phenomenal growth in recent years, it's still more laidback than anywhere else in Jamaica, and one of the few places where you can tan the whole booty.

You'll probably interact with locals more here than in other resort areas given that woodcarvers hawk their crafts on the beach, makeshift stalls selling health foods and jerk-pork line the roads and mellow greetings are proffered freely by locals.

Ocho Rios

Ocho Rios, east of Montego Bay, is in a deep bowl backed by green hills and fronted by wide, scalloped Turtle Beach and a reef-sheltered harbour. The town is popular with cruise ships, which disgorge 400,000 passengers a year into Ochi's compact, charmless streets.

If the garish pleasures of Turtle Beach get too much, there are less built-up swimming options nearby to the east. Fern Gully, a couple of miles inland, zigzags through the canyon of an old watercourse. Trees form a canopy overhead, filtering the subaqueous light. Early-morning visits are best.

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Best time to Visit

Temperatures in Jamaica
Coastal temperatures average a near -constant 80 degrees to 86 degree F year-round. Temperatures fall steadily with increasing altitude for even in the Blue Mountains average 65 degree F or more. Monthly temperatures vary less than 6 degree F, with February and March usually the coolest by warm trade winds - known as 'doctor breeze'. A less noticeable nocturnal offshore breezed is known locally as 'the undertaker'. Cool 'northers' can also blow December to March, when cold fronts that bring freezing conditions to Florida can affect Jamaica (on extreme occasions, temperatures may drop near 50 degree).

Hurricane Season in Jamaica
Although Jamaica lies in the Caribbean 'hurricane belt', relatively few touch Jamaica. The last great storm to hit the island was Hurricane Gilbert, which roared ashore in 1988, causing immense damage and killing 45 people. The two giant storms of 1998 - Hurricanes George and Mitch - were both near misses. Officially the hurricane season lasts from June 1 to November 30; August and September are peak months. (All the hurricanes that have struck Jamaica this century have done so before mid-September). A traditional rhyme is 'June too son, July stand by, August prepare you must, September remember, October all over'

Caution: Weather pattern can change quickly, especially during hurricane season.

Weather Hotlines

  • North Coast: (876)-924-0760
  • South Coast: (876)-924-8055

Peak Season: Mid December to Mid April (Watch your pocket!)

  • Hotel prices will be highest
  • This is the driest season, so the 'snowbirds' from Canada and the USA flock south
  • Some hotels are booked solid during Christmas and Easter, when may charge 'peak season' rates.

Off-Peak Season: Remainder of the Year

  • You can save wads of money (40$ or more at some hotels).
  • You will find fewer foreign visitors.
  • Most Jamaicans will take their vacation during this season

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Costs / Approx. Spending

Meals

Budget: J$120-300

Mid-range: J$300-800

High: J$800-1200

Deluxe: J$1200+

Lodging

Budget: J$900-1500

Mid-range: J$1500-2000

High: J$2000-3600

Deluxe: J$3600+

Jamaica is relatively inexpensive compared to other Caribbean islands, though how much you spend depends largely on the style in which you travel. Budget travelers will need around US$20-30 per day, while those staying in comfortable hotels and eating at tourist restaurants will need at least US$75 per day - add another US$50 per day if you hire a car. Rates at all-inclusive resorts begin at $300.

The Jamaican dollar is the only legal tender, though prices are often quoted in US dollars, which are widely accepted. European currencies are generally frowned upon so it's best to have US dollar traveler's checks. All major brands of traveler's checks and credit cards are accepted in Jamaica. You can exchange money at banks, licensed exchange bureaus or hotels, though the rate at hotels is usually 2% to 5% below the bank rate. Plenty of Jamaicans will approach you to change Jamaican dollars on the black market. This is illegal and the black market rate is usually only 5% to 10% better than the bank rate so it's not worth the risk of falling for a scam.

The government charges a 15% General Consumption Tax on hotel and restaurant bills and most purchases from shops. Most hotels add an additional 10% service charge. A 10% tip is considered normal in most hotels and restaurants, though some restaurants add a 10% to 15% service charge, in which case there's no need to leave an additional tip. Most prices in shops are fixed but bargaining (higgling) at street stalls and markets is expected. Bargaining occasionally gets a bit brusque so do your best to keep things good natured.

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Events

Jamaica hosts a full calendar of musical, artistic, cultural and sporting events. Reggae Sunsplash and Reggae Sumfest are the biggest funfests on the island, held about one week apart in July/August. Sunsplash is held near Ocho Rios, Sumfest in Montego Bay. Both are frenetic beachy music festivals, with A-rated fun and X-rated dancing. Carnival the week after Easter in March/April, takes place on the university campus in Kingston and at various other places around Jamaica. It's a big blow-out, mainly for Jamaicans, with reggae, calypso and dancehall soca the main booty-shakers, but it's also a tourist attraction in its own right.

There are a number of yacht races on the calendar: the Pineapple Cup Yacht Race, held each February, starts in Miami and finishes in Montego Bay. Cricket matches are held from laneway to lawn throughout the year. In April, the West Indies team takes on an international challenger in the Kingston Test Match. Jonkanoo is a traditional Christmas celebration in which revellers parade through the streets dressed in masquerade. The festivity has its origins among West African secret societies and was once the major celebration on the slave calendar.

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