How To Travel To The Cayman Islands On A Backpacker’s Budget

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.

beach with hammock and palm tree in the Caymans
Cayman Islands – yes, even on a backpackers budget

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 accommodation aren’t exactly cheap (ranging from a reasonable $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!

Just to check up on our history and geography, let’s introduce this stunning travel destination. The Cayman Islands are in the western Caribbean Sea, to the south of Cuba. The islands are in fact a British Overseas Territory, but they’re self-governed. Overall, there are three islands, Cayman Brac, Little Cayman, and Grand Cayman, that make up the Cayman Islands.

Accommodation
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 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. (To get the best deals on hotels, compare prices on booking.com.)

Getting Around
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. 

Here’s what Woman on the Road Shawn had to add…

Things to see: Hell (entertaining and super cheap entry) with its own ‘little devil’ if you can find him, Stingray City excursion (the most amazing thing I’ve done in my life and the stingrays are not caged or penned), the Turtle Farm, the Caribbean coffee place is awesome (in town) and Seven Mile Beach is amazing! Nicest sands these feet have ever stepped on… The water there is crystal clear, blue-turquoise and bathtub warm. 

Food
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.

Places to check out are Salty’s Sports Bar in 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, or dine at the Grand Old House in George Town. One of the islands fanciest restaurants, the Grand Old House was built back in 1908 when it was the Petra Plantation House (the sea views from the terrace are jaw-dropping).

The Cayman Islands have vibrant and well-spiced dishes and are especially known for their exquisite seafood. Some of the most popular dishes are conch stew which is a type of sea snail that is cooked up in a delicious stew or soup – it can even be added to fritters or a salad. If you’re visiting the Cayman Islands from November to April, you’ll see conch on most menus. A renowned restaurant, Over the Edge, on the North Side of the island serves up some of the best conch dishes!

Another must-try seafood dish is Cayman-style lobster. Freshly caught lobster with a plate of scotch bonnet peppers and a spicy sauce – how could you resist? Don’t leave the island without trying jerk chicken, johnny cake, and Cayman-style beef either.

Beach Access

No holiday in the Caribbean is complete without long hours spent soaking in the warm tropical sun and snorkeling in the turquoise Caribbean Sea. The Cayman Islands, small as they may be, spoiled us with white sand beaches and colorful marine life.

One of the most unique experiences available on Grand Cayman, the biggest of the islands, is night snorkeling in the Bioluminescent Bay. You’ll need to do it with a tour company that will take you on a short boat ride out into the water. From there, you can jump in and swim through the brightly lit up ocean, which sparkles electric blue as the bioluminescent plankton is disturbed. We went with George’s Watersports and absolutely loved every minute. The water wasn’t cold either, and you’ll be glad to hear there are no sharks in the Caymans.

If it’s sunbathing and reading your new holiday book that you’re interested in, 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!

Souvenirs
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.

The center is still going strong, and I can’t recommend spending an hour or two of stretching and letting out any pent-up tension enough. It was relaxing and rejuvenating and definitely got me in the mood for a holiday.

BodyWorks has a wellness center too. I didn’t get the chance to go as I was being a bit mindful of budgeting, but if you want to splash out on a pedicure, hot stone massage, reflexology sessions, or facial – then you should absolutely do it here. Massages start at around $55 for half an hour.

 

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?

Please don’t forget your travel insurance! Women on the Road recommends World Nomads if you’re under 66 (70 in some countries). If that birthday has come and gone, click here for travel insurance recommendations that cover you at any age.

CAYMAN ISLANDS BUDGET RESOURCES

If you’re looking for more information about the Caymans, these expat blogs by people who actually live there may help.

Although you can manage on a budget, this chart shows you the cost of living in the Cayman Islands, as does this one. Some things are affordable – some are NOT!

Guest Contribution by Stephanie Morillo.

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