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 4x4. 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
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