Though we rave about Jamaica, perhaps there's no better introduction than a few words from national hero Bob Marley. As he sang, "Smile—you're in Jamaica." The Arawaks, the island's original inhabitants named this beautiful island Xayamaca meaning "Land of Wood and Water," which makes sense as Jamaica is blessed with sun-kissed beaches, verdant forests and turquoise waters.
We have come to appreciate the beauty of many islands of the Caribbean, but few match up to Jamaica on a natural and cultural level. In fact, Jamaican culture has been adopted by so many other tropical islands that it has almost become a brand name. Reggae music, a Jamaican invention, has become the unofficial soundtrack of island life throughout the world. Though the island's influence has spread around the globe, it all started here on this verdant mountainous island south of Cuba. Jamaica's fascinating history has shaped its modern culture; it was the import of thousands of African slaves by the British colonists that led to the rich cultural traditions still alive today. Combined with Europeans and immigrants from India and China, Jamaica has developed a dynamic contemporary culture. The wide range of religions on the island ranges from Baptists to Rastas to Muslims. In addition to reggae, Jamaica has bestowed several other musical genres upon the world such as ska, dancehall and ragga. Another valuable contribution is the diverse Jamaican cuisine that incorporates African recipes with Indian curries and Caribbean seasoning. Those in search of spice will bask in the heat of the delicious Jamaican jerk sauce.
Jamaica is full of activities for the active traveler, with mountain hikes, adventure sports, waterfalls and bird watching. But many come to the island to take advantage of the bodacious beaches, which pulse with reggae and Caribbean sun. The island has become dominated by high-class hotels, many of which offer all-inclusive deals including food and drinks, but for those looking to get off the beaten track, there are still unspoiled spots to choose from. A visit to the fishing village at Treasure Beach along the southern coast provides a more authentic glimpse into Jamaican culture. Montego Bay and Ocho Rios are two of the most popular resort towns, offering a wide range of activities for travelers of all ages. Out on the western tip of the island, Negril was once Jamaica's laid-back beach resort, but in recent years development has increased rapidly. Despite the growth, Negril still retains a laid-back charm and great nightlife.
Jamaica is a country beset with social issues and political tension, though many tourists holed up in their luxury hotels don't even notice. The presence of beach vendors irks many tourists, but the fact remains that most Jamaicans do not benefit from the country's most lucrative business: tourism. We urge travelers to travel beyond the gates of the hotel to explore some of this incredible island on their own. A visit to Bob Marley's birthplace in Nine Mile (St. Ann Parish) is an excellent way to appreciate the natural beauty of the central mountains while gaining valuable insight into the island's history. After all, what better way to understand a people than by visiting the birth place (and final resting place) of its national hero?
Jamaicans are full of local proverbs and sayings, one such proverb sums up our impression of this sun-swept tropical island: "A wan irie likkle place." Translation: "It's a very nice place."
This laid-back town on the western tip of the island is the perfect place to kick back and drift into island time. Though popularized by American hippies in the 60s, Negril is now a world-class tourist attraction, but still retains its laid-back charm. With great water sports, sunsets and a pulsing nightlife, Negril is tough to beat.
Being one of Jamaica's major resort towns, Montego Bay offers a wide range of accommodations, world-class restaurants and lively nightspots. The Rose Hall Great House, the former estate of an English sugar plantation, provides an interesting historical insight into the country's colonial past and nearby Doctor's Cave Beach, with its five miles of endless white sands, is one of our top-ranked beaches on the island.
Dunn's River Falls at Ocho Rios
Sure, everybody does it, but hiking up the cascades of these multi-layered waterfalls is still a fun trip, especially relaxing in the natural pools along the way. It's 600 feet to the top, so don't forget to bring footwear!
Bob Marley Birthplace and Museum
Everybody knows the reggae legend, but not many get the opportunity to see where he came from. His birthplace, located in Nine Mile, in St. Ann Parish, is a great place to get a feel for the natural beauty of the mountains and appreciate the meditative atmosphere the singer was exposed to. Marley's final resting place, his mausoleum, is also here. Meanwhile, his old home in Kingston is home to a fascinating museum, full of artifacts from his glorious career.
Rocklands Bird Sanctuary
Located in Montego Bay, this private reserve is Jamaica's premier bird watching locale. Feeding the birds by hand is allowed, which is a thrill for birders and non-birders of all ages.
This impressive mountain range boasts plenty of wildlife, accessible by a network of trails. For those looking for a naturalist experience, the five hour hike to the main summit is a pleasant, though somewhat challenging hike through lush vegetation with plenty of birdcalls along the way. Adrenaline junkies may prefer a downhill bicycle tour.
Green Grotto Caves
Located near Discovery Bay, this complex of caves was once used to hide fleeing slaves. Today, these limestone caves, full of stalagmites and stalactites, attract tourists who marvel in the silent splendor of these caverns and yes, there is a green grotto within.
It's only fitting that the home of reggae music has its share of nocturnal pleasures and here in Jamaica, there is no dearth of night-time activity. From the nightclubs in Ocho Rios to fancy hotel bars in Kingston to toga parties at high-end hotels and beach bars everywhere, there is plenty of island fun to be had by all.
Reggae Sunsplash and Sumfest
These two reggae festivals take place in July and August and bring many of the world's top reggae artists together every year for a true irie experience. There's no shortage of Red Stripe and plenty of smoke wafting through the air as well. For reggae fans, this is Mecca.
Jamaican People and Culture
Modern Jamaican culture is a direct result of the music, religion and history that has unfolded in the last few hundred years. Well into the eighteenth century, black Jamaicans were not welcomed into the church; they were denied schooling and participation in church activities. But the arrival of two ex-slaves from the states changed all of that. George Lisle and Moses Baker traded their slave manacles for Bibles and arrived in Jamaica as Baptist ministers. Their congregations grew quickly and soon the Baptists missionaries from England arrived as well—call it Biblical back-up. Reading the Bible, poor Jamaicans embraced the idea that Jesus died for their sins, which boosted their sense of self-worth. They could also see from the Bible that they weren't the only oppressed peoples the world had seen. Today, Jamaica remains mainly Christian and holds the world record for most churches per square capita. Today, the most popular sects are Pentecostals and Baptists, with a recent rise in fundamentalism with their fiery preachers and Amen-chanting gospel singers. In addition to Christianity, there are many other religions practiced in Jamaica. Spirit-based cults with African origins still exist, especially in the remote mountain areas that have resisted modernity. East Indians have brought Hinduism and immigrants from the Middle East have carried Islam with them.
But more than religion, music is Jamaica's major cultural identity, primarily due to the worldwide fascination with reggae, which originated here in the 1960s. The music itself can be traced back to the African music the slaves from Ghana brought when the Spanish threw them on slave ships. This music developed into mento folk music. When this music was blended with American soul music, adopting its inverted rhythms and heavy bass lines, the genre of reggae music came into being. Energized by socially-active lyrics, it quickly gained popularity on the street, especially among the ghetto dwellers in the city and the poor peasants in the countryside.
But it was the life of one artist in particular that changed the course of reggae forever. Robert Nesta Marley was born in 1945 and after gaining popularity in the streets of Kingston, he was signed to an international contract and as they say, the rest is history. Marley's music not only popularized reggae all over the world, but it spoke to oppressed (or as the Rastas say, "downpressed") people everywhere. This Third World Consciousness is what made Marley so much more than just another singer. In fact, due to his incessant cries for world peace, he has been viewed as a prophet by many. Though he passed away in 1981, his everyday presence in Jamaica is unmistakable.
Somewhere between the religious and musical aspects of Jamaican society lies the Rasta faith, which is a religious movement which hails Haile Selassie as a Black Messiah. Selassie, also known as Ras Tafari, was the emperor that came to power in Ethiopia in 1930. Due to his royal lineage, he was regarded as the "King of Kings." Meanwhile, half a world away, Marcus Garvey saw Selassie as the God incarnate that would lead the black masses to the promised land of emancipation and justice. Garvey was the Jamaican social activist that moved to America to establish the United Negro Improvement Association, which urged Jamaicans and Americans of African descent to return to the motherland of Africa to live in Ethiopia under their new prophet's protection. The Rasta faith gained popularity in Jamaica, especially after prominent reggae artists celebrated their allegiance to the religion. The Rastas wore dreadlocks, using Biblical references to explain the style that many trace back to Samson and his "locks." In addition to their vegetarian cuisine, known as ital, the Rasta spirituality is expressed through reggae, which they call nyahbingi music.
Though modern Jamaican culture is dominated by the more frenetic dancehall and ragga styles, roots reggae is still heard everywhere on the island. There also exists a degree of Jamaican folk culture still alive, primarily through the use of herbs and bush medicine, as well as the oral tradition of story-telling and use of proverbs and superstitions. Any visitor will hear a lot of new expressions that are native to the island. The local dialect patois is unintelligible for many visitors, but listening in for a little while and asking questions here and there facilitates comprehension. Asking Jamaicans to relay their favorite expressions turns out to be quite an entertaining activity. Our favorite? "Every day you goad donkey, one day him will kick you." We must admit, they've got a point.
As the famous reggae song goes, "The Arawaks was here first!" Well, not quite. Actually, Jamaica's original inhabitants were the Taíno people, which were often erroneoulsy referred to as Arawaks. Taíno culture was quite elaborate, led by a head chief (cacique) and his noble dignitaries. Below the chief there often existed smaller chiefdoms as well, with each regional chief overseeing the daily life of their community. Taíno agriculture was based on the use of conucos, which were dirt mounds built to improve drainage while their tubers were protected beneath the mounds. The Taíno were successful fishermen and used stone-tipped arrows to hunt birds, lizards and mammals. They built rectangular huts called caneye for their families, while their chiefs' homes were circular bohios. The Taíno worshipped their own gods, as evidenced by the zemis archaeologists have found left behind.
But the Taíno met a tragic, though predictable fate when the Spaniards arrived in 1494. When Columbus arrived nine years later on his fourth voyage to the Americas, he spent a year on the island while his boats were being repaired. Five years later, he appointed his son Diego as Governor of the Indies. In 1510, the Spanish built a small settlement with the usual amenities: fort, castle and church but it was later abandoned due to frequent pirate raids. Meanwhile, the Taíno people were decimated by disease and mistreatment at the hands of the Spanish. By 1598, their population had been cut in half.
During these years, the Spanish were being attacked from all sides by other European colonial powers, especially their perennial competitors: the English, French and Dutch. In 1655, the English gained control and the Spanish fled, but not before freeing the slaves who sought sanctuary in the hills. The British wanted to settle the island, so Cromwell proclaimed that any British citizen that made the journey would be rewarded with free land. As a result, over 1,600 bargain-hunter immigrants arrived and the colonization commenced. The economy soon flourished, due in large part to the success of the buccaneers. These pirates based themselves in Port Royal—a city of untold riches and sinful delights—and robbed the Spanish ships coming from South America which were laden with gold and silver. Soon though, the fun ended when a massive earthquake destroyed the city in 1692.
With piracy a bitter memory, the island's economy became dominated by the sugar plantations, which required a pool of labor that only slavery could provide. As in much of the Caribbean, Africans were imported to do the dirty work. Among the slaves imported were those from the Coromantee tribe. Said to be a very bold, brave and brawny bunch, these Coromantees from the Gold Coast of Africa would later lead Jamaica's slave revolts. Plenty of slaves escaped the English and many settled in the hills of the interior, joining the former slaves that had sought solace when the Spanish left. These Maroons, as they were called, fought an open rebellion against the English for four years. But despite this war, the island's economy was quite prosperous. With so much of Jamaica's land parceled into huge sugar plantations, Jamaica evolved into the most important of the British Caribbean colonies.
When slavery was abolished in the 1830s, planters encouraged other groups to emigrate to the island to work the fields, which led to the arrival of Europeans, Chinese and East Indians. But life for the Africans did not improve much. Though free villages and schools were established, many of the social inequalities persisted, which led to the Morant Bay Rebellion. Soon thereafter, the economy shifted to banana production, the capital was moved to Kingston and Jamaica came under direct Crown rule. During the early twentieth century, Jamaicans started leaving the island, some to work in the Panama Canal Zone and others to work plantations in neighboring countries. With the arrival of the Great Depression, social conditions worsened, which led to the creation of the workers' movement and the labor riots that ensued. The labor movement, led by Alexander Bustamente, gave birth to the right-wing Labour Party, while Norman Manley founded the left-leaning People's National Party. These two men led Jamaica towards independence, gaining their first victory when universal suffrage was granted in 1944. Though the Federation of the West Indies was established by the British in an attempt to hold on to their colonies, a referendum vote two years later resulted in the island's independence. On August 6th, 1962 the black, green and gold Jamaican flag was raised for the first time. Bustamante was named prime minister and his party held on to power until the radical socialist Michael Manley (Norman's son) and his PNP party won the election in 1972.
The political situation took a turn for the worse in 1979 when Manley and his radical PNP started developing relations with Cuba. The right-wing JLP received the backing of the US and amidst widespread political violence, Edward Seaga unseated Manley as Prime Minister. Seaga continued his pro-Washington stance, but could not rescue Jamaica from economic hardship. In '89, Manley returned to power, but P.J. Patterson took over the post as Manley's health deteriorated. The PNP has since moderated its platform, trading its socialist dogma of the past for free-market liberalization of the present. Patterson won again in '93 and has remained in power, despite continued electoral violence. The next major task Patterson faces is revamping the Jamaican constitution to create an elected head of state to replace the British monarch. This would formally put the divisive period of colonialism into the distant past, setting Jamaica on a fully independent course for the future.
For many visitors to Jamaica, walking amidst the palm trees lining the white sandy shore is the only nature activity they engage in. We cannot blame them—many of the beaches on this tropical island are blessed with sugary sands and towering coconut palms. The turquoise waters are ideal for snorkellers and scuba divers that want to catch a glimpse of the incredible array of submarine life here, such as the dolphins, stingrays, parrotfish and barracuda that call these waters home. With beaches like Doctor's Cave in Montego Bay and Seven Mile Beach in Negril, we'll admit it's easy to get sucked into the beachcomber lifestyle.
But though famous for her beautiful beaches and lively culture, Jamaica is also home to some natural gems. The island, which is 145 miles (235 km) long, is covered by two mountain ranges, the Blue and John Crow Mountains. The former are large rugged mountains with dramatic peaks, steep valleys and deeply gorged rivers. Blue Mountain Peak—the highest point in Jamaica—is twice as high as any peak in the John Crow range. Luckily, conservationists and the federal government have improved the national park system in recent years. These mountain parks are an excellent place to admire the impressive array of flora and fauna the island offers, especially amongst the tree-ferns and orchids found in the lush rainforest. Due to millions of years of geographic isolation, Jamaica is home to countless species only found in the Caribbean. But in addition to these unique species ranging from orchids, cacti, butterflies and reptiles, the island is also home to thousands of migratory birds, who just like so many human tourists, come down from North America to spend their summer months. Jamaica attracts birdwatchers from the world around who come to admire the delicately-beautiful Jamaican Mango hummingbirds, the Streamertail, the Jamaican Becard, as well as parrots and colorful butterflies.
In the island's west lies Cockpit Country, a series of small hills and valleys that is home to endemic birds, as well as the bulk of the Maroon population, which have descended from the Taíno Indians and descendants of African slaves. Fifty miles (80 km) off the southwest coast of the island lie the Pedro Banks, which are a cluster of islands so small they are referred to as "offshore banks." These cays are home to several marine habitats—such as coral reefs and deep sea reefs—and due to their geographical isolation, they are one of Jamaica's last thriving marine ecosystems.
Climate and Weather
"Me hope you like de heat." Yes, pure sunshine is one of Jamaica's natural resources, as temperatures on the coast hover between 80°F (27°C)and 86°F (30°C) year-round. A refreshing feature of the tropical maritime climate here are the trade winds that keep the air cool. Day breezes, referred to as "Doctor Breeze," blow onto shore while the night-time trade winds, "The Undertaker," blows off shore.
Being a tropical locale, Jamaica does not experience a lot of seasonal variation, though cool "Northers" bring cold fronts to the island from December until March. Cold fronts is a relative term though, as temperatures on the coast never get colder than 67°C (20°C). The rainy season runs from May until November or December, but even the most torrential of downpours are usually followed by hours of sunshine. October and May receive the heaviest rainfall, while December through April see extremely little. The southern coast is much dryer while the Blue Mountains in the island's interior receive much more rain, especially in the higher altitudes.
The mild sunny climate seems to rub everyone the right way here in Jamaica. Perhaps Bob Marley said it best: "Sun is shinin'—the weather is sweet, make ya wanna move your dancin' feet…"
Map and Location
Location: Caribbean Sea, 90 miles (145 km) south of Cuba and 100 miles (160 km) west of Haiti
Geographic coordinates: 18 15 N, 77 30 W
Time Zone: GMT/UTC -4
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