How to Travel the Cayman Islands on a Backpacker’s Budget
by Stephanie Morillo
(New York, NY, United States)
Having had lived in Southeast Asia for over a year and traveling throughout the region, I have finally made peace with the fact that one cannot travel as cheaply and easily as one does in Southeast Asia anywhere else in the world. Now back in my hometown, New York City, I find myself reminiscing of those times and also in need of a vacation away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
When I was offered the opportunity to travel to the Cayman Islands with my friend Jill, I was excited yet hesitant – the Caribbean isn’t known for being backpacker-friendly, in fact, it is in many ways the antithesis of backpacker’s paradise: all-inclusive resorts, luaus and dance numbers performed by hotel staff being the equivalent to cultural excursions, and guided tours (!!!!!!). Yet I knew that there had to be a way to do the Caymans cheaply, and I knew I’d find a way.
The Caymans use the Caymanian dollar (KYD), pegged at around $1.20 KYD to $1.00 USD, but USD is readily accepted along with KYD. Food and accomodation aren’t exactly cheap (ranging from a reasoneable $170 a night to an exorbitant $1,000 a night) and meals, priced in USD, can leave you shelling over $20-$30 USD a meal with tip included – and that’s at a lower end spot. But there are ways to live lavishly and enjoy the sun every bit as much as any woman staying at the Ritz!
I elected to try booking a room on Airbnb for two reasons: 1. For a cheaper priced room and 2. To be able to stay with locals, who can give you the lowdown on prices, places to visit, things to do. I found a lovely room on Airbnb (here’s the listing) off of South Sound, just a 10 minute walk to Smith Barcadere Cove, a hidden gem of a beach that a lot of local residents frequent. For just $85 a night, Jill and I stayed in a private room with attached bath and had access to Wi-Fi, a washer/dryer and a full kitchen. Our hosts, Ronette and Katrina, were extremely helpful – they took us grocery shopping (which saved us money on breakfast and most lunches) and they would occasionally drop me off in town when they were headed in that direction.
Thinking back now, it was crazy but Jill and I mostly walked. Smith Barcadere Cove is a ten minute walk; Sunset House, a restaurant and hotel for divers, is a half hour walk away; downtown George Town, another 45 minutes, and Seven Mile Beach, where all of the hotels are located, a full hour and thirty minutes. On two occasions, too tired to walk back, we asked the owner of a restaurant if hitchhiking for women was safe to which he said unequivocally that it was. Within a minute of putting up our thumbs we were picked up by very concerned Caymanians who drove us to our home. If you’d like to discover the world beyond George Town, West Bay and South Sound, renting a car is highly recommended and won’t be necessary for more than a day (if touring the entire island) – according to Ronette, the entirety of Grand Cayman has 36 miles of road going around the island. Check out Andy’s Car Rental next to Coconut Joe’s for rates.
For breakfast and lunch, Jill and I went to Kirk’s Supermarket and stocked up on necessary items – yogurt, fruit, oatmeal, and the works – and prepared our breakfast and lunch meals ourselves, leaving the rest of our food budget went to dinner meals and cocktails. Places to check out are Hammerheads in downtown George Town, Sunset House near the South Sound, and Coconut Joe’s on Seven Mile Beach. For those looking for high-end eats, check out any of the restaurants on the picturesque Camana Bay near Seven Mile Beach.
Beach access is free and open to the public on both Smith Barcadere and Seven Mile Beach. There are tons of signposts on Seven Mile warning beachgoers not to sit on beach chairs – For Residents and their Guests Only! – but Jill and I managed to walk over to a beach chair and coolly act like we were guests. It worked, and we lounged all day, for free!
Steer clear of the souvenir shops near the port in downtown George Town – those cater mainly to tourists from the many cruise ships that dock at George Town daily. Instead, check out Pure Art Gallery and Gifts on South Church Road (it’s on the way to Sunset House from Smith Barcadere Cove)
Fitness and Relaxation
My host Katrina let me bum a ride off of her to her Saturday morning yoga session at BodyWorks which set me back $20 USD (mat rental included in the price). BodyWorks also offers a number of spa services if you need some relaxation after your yoga session.
Best Time to Go
The best time to visit the Caymans are during the winter season (January through April), after Christmas and before Spring Break. The weather is very comfortable (hovering in the low to mid 80s) and flights are cheaper as well (between $400 - $600 including tax if booked in advance).
In all, I spent $140 on accommodation (the total was $280 including Airbnb fees, and Jill and I split the bill) and less than $300 on food, souvenirs, and my yoga class. A great way to travel the Caribbean, wouldn't you agree?