We have a big front yard: 1,063,000 square miles of beautiful crystal clear blue water splashing up against exotic lands and surrounding fabled islands. We call our front yard the Caribbean Sea, and a few weeks ago we took some time off from work to do a little exploring in it. Needing a break and a lot of rest, we wanted to go someplace new…Jamaica. We decided to go to Negril, which has a reputation for being relaxed, laid back and sensuous. Its seven miles of beaches, tropical rainforests and the promise of a new beach culture of Rasta and rum appealed to us.
Jamaica lies directly to the west of Playa Del Carmen. If your eyes were strong enough you could see it on a clear day. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get there from here. There are no direct flights to Jamaica from Playa. We had to fly to Miami and then to Jamaica, doing it in reverse on the way home. The funny and sad part was that each time we flew over Cuba, America’s nearest tropical neighbor. It seemed we could almost touch it as we flew by but were not allowed to stop for a visit. So strange.
We landed in Montego Bay and were met by the hotel manager Domaine and Ernie, the hotel driver (more on Ernie later). They whisked us off for the hour and a half drive to Negril. We chose Country Country Hotel for our stay, and they treated us like VIPs since we were fellow hotel owners. We certainly learned a lot about hospitality from them. We chose Country Country because it seemed in our research to be a lot like our own Luna Blue Hotel & Garden. Our choice was perfect. The hotel is situated in the center of the Seven Mile Beach. The property has a narrow, clean beach with chairs and umbrellas and then proceeds back through walkways and gardens. Nestled among the garden are cottages and buildings with multiple units. Some have porches, some have balconies. The cottages are all wooden with brightly painted exteriors. The rooms are large, well furnished and spotlessly clean. The staff couldn’t have been nicer or friendlier.
However our first impression of the famous Seven Mile Beach was one of disappointment. We have been spoiled by living next to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world here in Caribbean Mexico. Our white sand and clear water can’t be beat. So while Negril’s beaches were very pretty, they didn’t take our breath away. The sand is grittier and the beaches less well tended than the ones we were used to. Some beachfront properties rake the beach in the morning (nice) but then leave any small trash on the edge of the water to be washed away (not so nice). Still it is a beautiful tropical seashore.
As we walked along the beach we found it lined with hotels. The all-inclusives tend to be at the south end and the smaller places extend north from the central area. Just about every hotel had chairs and umbrellas for their guests to use and most had some sort of beach bar or restaurant. Even where there is a space with no hotel you will find bars, restaurants, and little shops. Sometimes the shops are well established with a permanent building, sometimes they are just a wooden lean-to, or even just a few planks of wood supported on chairs. And even when you are not by a “store” you won’t be far from the regular parade of locals walking the beach and hawking their wares, from juices, to massages, to cigarettes, and the ever present ganja.
We had heard about the heavy handed hustle of Jamaica and were prepared for an onslaught of various sales pitches from the locals. However, that turned out not to be the case. Certainly everybody wanted us to stop and “just look.” From our experiences in other third world countries we knew that honesty and directness was the right response. If we didn’t want to shop we would not ignore the person calling to us, but would stop, explain we weren’t buying today, wish them well, and then proceed. The response was always a polite “thank you.” We hear many people complain about the street hustle in Playa and other Latin/Caribbean countries as if it were a personal assault. The truth is, the people of the third world know with certainty that any vacationer from North America has more money and more luxury than those in the south will ever dream of having. The $10 dollar bracelet bought from a vendor will make an actual difference in the life of that local person. So we don’t mind being asked. We can always say no. And sometimes we can say yes.
The most common “sales” item was ganja, the legendary marijuana of Jamaica. Practically every local you pass on the beach quietly asks if you are interested. And each offer comes with the absolute guarantee that the seller has exclusive access to the best, purest and most potent “bud” on the island. As neither of us are smokers we couldn’t verify any of these claims, but from the smell the claims could easily be believed. Ganja smoke is everywhere is Negril. Cab drivers, tour guides, and shopkeepers will casually fire up a giant spliff without concern. The air in Negril is permeated by the smell of ganja. Even the most dedicated non-smoker ends up with a pleasant contact high.
Another popular souvenir for sale appeared to be…sex. We had heard the stories about “Rent a Rasta” or “Rastatutes:” local men who would offer companionship and sex to foreign women travelers in exchange for financial favors or gifts. We did see a number of middle aged and older single white women in the company of young, black local men. And in fact, near us in the hotel were two older, somewhat dowdy looking American women who would each night return to the hotel with a different young local man. They would then proceed to drink, smoke and laugh on their porch until the three of them retired for the night. After a few days, we began to refer to them as “the Stellas” (as in “gets her groove back.”). Apparently the Jamaican steel industry has not suffered a recession.
In addition to being the place to buy sex, drugs and pre-fab “handicrafts,” the beach is also where you go to eat, drink and be entertained. Food at the restaurants in Negril ranged from basic Americanized tourist food to fantastic jerk (smoked and spiced chicken and pork). The tourist stuff could be pretty bad with food which was bland versions of basic chain restaurant menus at three times the price. It’s not all bad. The burgers are pretty good at Margaritaville and the Jimmy’s Perfect Margarita is a killer. But those are the exceptions.
We are huge Jimmy Buffett fans. Parrotheads and proud of it. We listen to the CD’s, read the books, wear the t-shirts and go to the concerts. And of course we stay tuned to the internet radio station. We even like some of the Margaritaville restaurants. The one in New Orleans is a French Quarter hangout for us. However, the Negril Margaritaville had not much personality and nothing to make you feel you were in Jamaica as opposed to Orlando. We sat in Margaritaville and asked ourselves “If Jimmy had a day to hang out in a beach bar in Negril, assuming no one knew who he was, would he go to Negril Margaritaville? Or would he look for a spot with more local color and feeling? We decided to do just that.
Down the beach was a bar called Bourbon Beach. It had a funky thatched roof bar, a few chairs beachfront, a big stage area for nighttime music and best of all, in the back, a giant smokehouse where they turned out the spiciest, most tender jerk chicken you could ever find. A couple of bucks got you a half a chicken, and a pile of fries. Throw in a couple of Red Stripe beers and you had a feast. Fitzroy did the cooking and Omar “the Steel Man” (don’t ask) poured the beers. Sitting in the sand licking jerk spices off your fingers and watching the sun set over the Caribbean is a pretty nice way to end the day. And once or twice a week they have live reggae music. The night we were there it was just two or three bands doing Bob Marley covers, but after an hour of two of second hand ganja smoke and some Appleton rum, you would swear you were down in Trenchtown hearing the man himself.
After a few days of swimming and napping in the sun we were anxious to see a little more of Jamaica. Unfortunately that’s not easy to do in Negril. There is no central town or shopping area. The beach hotels and restaurants are backed by a main road which travels the coast up in to the cliffs. It’s not easy to walk anywhere because of traffic, and even if you could, it’s discouraged because of crime. We had no problems ourselves, but there is a pervasive attitude of concern in Jamaica. Every time we left the hotel to walk down the beach or to head down to a restaurant or go shopping, the hotel staff would stop us and ask us to check in with them first, let them know where we were going, etc. The security measures were nice, but it made us feel a little uneasy about being out away from the hotel.
For our last couple of days we decided we needed to get out and see more of the country. We talked with Ernie, the driver who had picked us up from the airport, and asked him if he could drive us around so we could see a little bit of the “real” Jamaica. It took him a few minutes to figure out we didn’t want to go on some tour but just wanted to cruise the back roads and see a bit of the countryside. He responded with the Jamaican national motto, “Yah, mon. No problem mon.” So off we went, along the southern coast and then cutting inland into rural Jamaica.
It took a little while to get used to the fact that Ernie sat on the right side of the car as he drove on the left side of the road. And, Jamaicans in general seem to drive as if they were all very high. Duh! But we saw no accidents, and Ernie managed to always swerve out of the way of the ongoing trucks, the guy pushing a cart full of bananas and coconuts and schools kids running everywhere. With Ernie driving, we were free to watch the world go by. It was a world of extreme opposites. The interior of Jamaica is extraordinarily beautiful. It is lush and green and so thick with overlapping trees, bushes and plant life as to appear from a distance to be like a layer of green velvet. However, set among this green velvet are small towns and villages of heartbreaking poverty. Homes everywhere seemed to be made of wooden planks pounded together. Some were well kept and brightly painted; others were not. We saw many homes in the countryside with a grave or two in the front yard. Ernie explained that poor people had to bury their family where they lived, and that they actually liked it that way, keeping their loved ones near.
Alternating with the clapboard homes, we also saw very nice, sometimes palatial, concrete homes. Ernie explained that the concrete homes were built when the homeowner also owned the property on which the house sat. If they only rented the property, the wooden homes, called board houses, were built so that they could be easily moved when the owner changed properties. What we did not see were neighborhoods of rich and neighborhoods of poor. The poor and the rich live side by side.
We also saw in the people of Jamaica a literal rainbow of colors. It is a small island whose population has descended from conquerors, slaves and shipwrecked sailors. Some Jamaicans are very black, some light brown and some white. Ernie told us he could take us to a town where, as he put it, “The people look like you and talk like me.”
We wandered mile after mile past towns with names that reflected Jamaica’s English heritage: Sheffield, Amity Cross, Petersfield, Ferris Cross, Bluefields Bay and many more. We drifted through greenery that would part sometimes on the left to show us mist covered mountains and sometimes on the right to show us the turquoise Caribbean. Eventually we stopped for lunch at what appeared to be a tiny abandoned wooden shack. It turned out to be a restaurant. Walking around the side we found half a dozen men sitting and eating their lunch. Inside the shack a man with a weathered mocha colored face stood over various pots sitting on steel wheel rims to hold them over smoking fires. Ernie explained that the restaurant had no name, but he introduced us to the owner/chef whose name was Indian. Indian, we were told, made the best jerk pork in the area. In a few minutes we had plates heaping with steaming, tender spiced pork and mounds of rice and beans. It was an incredible meal. It was here that Tony tried JB rum for the first time. The famous rum of Jamaica is of course Appleton, which is served everywhere. However, JB is the people’s drink. It is raw cane rum. It is not aged, probably because it would eat its way through any barrel it was put it in. It is 65% alcohol, and the first taste is probably what lighter fluid tastes like if you were dumb enough to take a swallow. According to Tony, it grows on you. The JB is supposedly initials for Jamican patois slang words meaning a buzzard’s butt. This is a drink for refined gentlemen of taste….NOT!
Ernie also took us to the caves at Roaring River Park. Like our own Yucatan, Jamaica has a lot of limestone and, like here in Mexico, over the centuries rain soaking through the limestone has carved out caverns which are sometimes filled with water. At Roaring River, we explored some of those caves. They were mysterious and beautiful, but the differences between the caves in Jamaica and the cenotes in Mexico once again struck us. In Mexico, cenotes are protected and revered. Guides are knowledgeable, and people’s contact with the caves and the limestone which creates them is limited. In Jamaica, the cave interiors were covered in graffiti and carvings. The guide who took us through the caves was friendly but had no hesitation about touching the cave walls or the growing limestone stalactites. Neither was he shy about lighting up a giant spliff in the middle of the caves.
We did get to go swimming in a couple of the caves. One was like a natural jacuzzi, a small pool big enough for two or three people to sit with clear water pouring into the pool like natural jets. It was a little colder than most jacuzzis and very invigorating. We also walked through the cave to a very deep water hole—basically a giant well hidden within the cave. We climbed down a long straight metal ladder into the water far below us. A little freaky but still fun.
Ernie also took us down on a long drive along the seashore heading east in the direction of Kingston. We stopped in a small town and tried okra punch—a blenderized thick shake made of okra, peanuts and oatmeal. It sounds pretty strange, but it actually tasted really good, almost like a chocolate peanut milkshake. Then we were off to Parrotee, a tiny little town (and that’s being generous) on the edge of the Caribbean Sea. We stopped at a building on the water’s edge where several men sat around smoking ganja (of course). We hired one to take us in a wooden boat of questionable floatability out to a small dot on the horizon, far from the land’s end. That, we were told, was the Pelican Bar.
It took us about 15 minutes to skim over the waves for a couple of miles out to our destination. The Pelican Bar is a small hut made entirely of driftwood and stuck on poles over a sand bar in the middle of the Caribbean. Each day the owners haul ice chests full of beer and alcohol out to serve patrons who show up by boat. The thatched roof is half gone, due to Hurricane Dean. However, they’ve covered the holes with tarps. A nearby “room” where the owner once stayed was also swallowed up by Dean, leaving nothing but two or three poles sticking up out of the water. However, the garden of marijuana plants growing out of tin cans still survives on the back dock.
We pulled up to the bar and climbed up the driftwood-made ladder onto the floor, which had as many openings and gaps as it did planks. We ordered a couple of Red Stripes, pulled off our shirts and jumped into the sea, swimming around the sand bar (depth of about four to six feet), and then climbed back out to sip our beer. Within a few moments it became one of our favorite bars in the world. That was the way we ended our Jamaica vacation.
After that, it was a race through the misty mountains from the south side of the island to the north side to barely make our plane at the airport in Montego Bay. The road through the mountain once again took us through incredible vistas of luxuriant jungle valleys and small colorful towns of abject poverty.
Jamaica left us with mixed emotions. Truthfully, as a vacation spot it pales beside our own Playa del Carmen. The beaches, restaurants, shopping and sightseeing are all substantially better along Mexico’s Caribbean coast. However, traveling is not only about what is the best vacation spot. Jamaica touched us with its extremes: its beautiful countryside, its poverty stricken people, and its incredible hustle for a dollar alongside its laid back “no problem mon” attitude. Jamaica is a mystery that’s worth further exploration. We loved our hotel, enjoyed the company of the people we met, and were intrigued by this island. We will probably return.