Jamaica is well known for being a tropical getaway with postcard-worthy beaches and sunsets.
The largest English-speaking island in the Caribbean, Jamaica has long been a destination for families, weddings, and couples on honeymoons. Unfortunately, like much of the Caribbean, few visitors consider Jamaica to be a country for the independent traveler, especially female travelers.
But after spending over nine months “pon di rock” as a female expat, I can guarantee to bust this myth!
If there is anything that I get asked about the most regarding travel in Jamaica, it is safety.
It is a well-known fact that Jamaica has an extremely high crime rate and massive incarceration numbers. That said, when it comes to being a traveler in Jamaica, most of those crimes will take place far from you, in areas you might not visit.
Violence against foreigners is almost non-existent, and after taking the usual necessary precautions against petty crime (theft, pickpocketing and the like), a visitor’s vulnerability to crime goes down greatly.
After living in Jamaica for nine months, I have been pickpocketed once at a taxi stand. Thinking back, I was not mitigating my risk and had opened myself up as a target, flashing more wealth than I should have. It’s never fun to lose a valuable, but it does happen, and I was not physically injured.
As a single, white female, street harassment is the most negative part of life in Jamaica and is something that is very difficult to avoid if you are out and about.
Whistling, catcalling, honking, hissing and comments are often experienced by women, especially those obviously not of African descent and therefore foreign.
Most of what I experienced was harmless, though extremely annoying and exhausting. All women handle this type of harassment differently, but in Jamaica I find the best way to deal with it is to not engage and just keep walking. This works for me.
The biggest draw for any traveler to Jamaica is its natural beauty, most famous of which are the island's beaches. Beyond the beaches are waterfalls, caves, jungles, hiking trails, rugged coastline and fascinating rivers - if you don’t mind getting dirty.
Of all the great places to see and things to experience in Jamaica, I admit I have some favorites.
The two regions I would recommend for travelers looking to get away from tour groups are the South Coast and Portland.
The South Coast, while not as famous as the white sandy beaches of the North Coast, is home to many deserted stretches of sand, laid back community-based tourism, and chilled out locals.
Treasure Beach is the main base for visitors on the South Coast. It has four different beaches perfect for a lazy morning stroll, as well as fantastic family-run accommodations and restaurants. But all is not lazy. You can take easy day trips to the beautiful 7-level YS Falls and to the Appleton Rum Estate, where a Rum Tour guide will regale you with the history and inner workings of rum - and many tastings!
An easy boat ride west from here is the Black River, where shallow boats ply the waters searching for a glimpse of resident crocodiles. After chasing the crocs, most boats stop at the Pelican Bar, a rickety wood shack on stilts located a mile offshore in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. Add a strong rum punch and lobster stew lunch and you won't be forgetting the Pelican Bar anytime soon.
Many Jamaicans will say that their favorite part of their own country is Portland, in the island's easternmost region. It has the most rugged, beautiful coastline with wicked waves for surfing and is the perfect place to storm watch. Though home to some great accommodation, Portland is not at all built up for tourism and remains authentic.
Portland jerk (the famous Jamaican spice and method of cooking chicken, pork, fish or even lobster) is arguably the island’s best. The Boston Bay jerk shops pull regular crowds, both local and foreigner, to munch on the fire-cooked specialty of the day. Leaving Jamaica without eating genuine jerk from a roadside stand would be a real shame!
Portland also boasts one of the best swimming spots in Jamaica, the Blue Lagoon. Known as one of the filming locations for the movie The Blue Lagoon, this lovely natural body of water protects swimmers from the crashing waves and current.
One unique place you shouldn't miss is the glistening waters in Falmouth, potentially a once-in-a-lifetime experience. These waters are a natural phenomenon in which microorganisms react to disturbance by lighting up a brilliant aquatic blue before fading again as the movement ends. Every night, boats leave the Luminous Lagoon dock to take visitors for a swim in the shallow waters, where they are lit up by the unique bioluminescence, an experience never to be forgotten.
If the Caribbean has been on your bucket list for some time, why not start with Jamaica?
Tourism has long been a major industry here: amenities, accommodation, transportation and services are all well developed. English is the national language so communication is typically easy, although Jamaicans often speak Patois, the local Creole dialect.
Accommodation is available in all ranges, from high-end resorts and boutique hotels to modest guesthouses and hostels, and AirBnB is strong in Jamaica. Not all accommodations appear on websites so if something interests you, email them and ask what room options they have in your price range (I regularly sleep in a ‘furnished tent’ that does not appear on the hotel website for example).
Despite its status as a developing nation, Jamaica is well stocked with most consumer goods. Import costs can be high and quality not always top-notch, so certain items are best brought from home if you’re sticking around more than a few days.
Here's how you can plan a trip to Jamaica wisely:
Like most places cruise ships visit, there is an infinite amount of souvenir shopping in centers like Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. Tourist shops with knickknacks, clothing, art and jewelry are everywhere! That said, in smaller areas there are craft markets where women have personal stalls and sell handmade items. The Treasure Beach Women’s Group is a craft collective with a shop open most weekdays where visitors can purchase beautiful things while contributing to local women’s economic empowerment.
Transportation around Jamaica is often something I'm asked about. There is one major coach line that is heavily geared towards tourists, The Knutsford Express. The Knutsford is the easiest and most comfortable way to get around Jamaica, though it is also the most expensive, the least flexible, and in my opinion, the most sterile. For independent travelers, the best way to truly experience a country like Jamaica is to move like the locals - which in Jamaica’s case is in overcrowded minivans or taxis.
Throw your ideas of personal space out the window if you plan to try Jamaican public transport. It's worth it and you'll see a whole other side of Jamaica, meet some friendly folks (especially among older women) and get to places off the beaten path where the Knutsford does not go. I have never felt unsafe on public transportation in Jamaica. Uncomfortable and hot, yes, but not unsafe. And without having relied on public transportation as much as I have, I would not have made it to half of the amazing places I have seen in this fantastic country.
The millions of foreigners who visit Jamaica every year unfortunately see and experience only small parts of the country.
Instead of a week at an all-inclusive resort, explore the island on your own terms and come face-to-face with a deep and rich culture, stunning landscapes, pristine environments and unforgettable moments that go beyond any guidebook or glossy brochure.
This guest post is by Emily Kydd, a Canadian solo female nomad and editor of the blog See Her Travel. Exploring this world to diverse countries such as Kyrgyzstan, St. Lucia, Nepal, Myanmar and Fiji, Emily loves discovering new cultures, meeting wonderful people and having a laugh while on the latest crazy adventure. Emily is currently based in Jamaica. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Google+.