Discovering Jamaica on a road trip means getting off the beaten path and explore its natural beauty – reggae, rum and jerk chicken are also included.
Although Jamaica seems to be a country where you can do a round trip in four to six days, in order to do it, you will have to basically drive nonstop and miss out most of the fun. This is the third largest island in the Caribbean and with several hidden gems along the road, planning to see the whole island would require more than 10 days and many kilometers to cover. Besides, Jamaica’s relax atmosphere offer travelers alternative activities where laying back and taking it easy are the first priority. Some friends and I visited Jamaica for one week and did a road trip around the western side of the country. This is what we saw, and these are some of the most particular places we crossed:
Ready for a road trip in the Caribbean?
Jamaica is an island situated in the Caribbean Sea. It is not far from its neighboring countries (145 km from Cuba, and 191 km from Hispaniola – the island containing the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), but at the same time it doesn’t belong to the usual route for cruise ships in the Caribbean.
Also, with several flight connections from cities of Europe and North America, Jamaica can get full during peak season and renting a car for planning a road trip is the right alternative if you want to get away from the beaten path and avoid tourist masses.
My trip started at the city of Montego Bay. Its airport is the most popular and busiest in the north coast of Jamaica and with connections from Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Brussels and London, this is the perfect spot to start a round trip either in the western side of the country or even whole Jamaica.
Jamaica can be as busy or as quiet as you want it and Montego Bay is the best example for that. This city is well known for party goers and cruise ships passengers looking for rum. And although, you might encounter many of these (specially at this city), Montego Bay´s outskirts offer quieter hotels with private beaches and the slow pace lifestyle you expect from Jamaica.
Read more: Jamaica, with a license to relax
For this road trip, the journey went right away from Sangster International Airport to the westernmost point of the island at the area surrounding Negril.
Negril: sun, sand and perfect sunsets
Located about an hour and fifteen minutes from Montego Bay´s airport, Negril is one of the most popular spots for travelers in Jamaica. The country’s western coastline is also famous for having the island’s most pristine white sand beaches and more than 10 kilometers of scenic cliffs.
Here, life slows down and the atmosphere is way more laid back than in Montego Bay or Ocho Rios. Negril´s beach is also popularly known as the “7-Mile Beach” and it’s a place worth to wake up early and walk along the coast in the mornings. Here you can witness Jamaica´s rose and magenta sunrises.
Although watching the sun rising was not possible while being in Negril, the dawn in each morning was its own natural spectacle and one of the best ways to start the day. That´s not all, Negril is well known for having some of the most beautiful sunsets in the Caribbean – around the golden hour, we drove along the coastline of Negril looking for a perfect spot to watch the sunset.
NOTE: Rick´s Café is considered by many as a must-visit attraction in Negril. It is known for its cliffside, where the bravest can take a leap and jump 15m into the refreshing waters of the Caribbean Sea. Rick’s Cafe is also known for having “the best sunset spot in the world” according to several magazines. However, while the location is pristine for a sunset, Rick’s Café gets extremely crowded every evening and I´m quite confident that when driving a little bit further, you would be able to find a quieter and more personal spot to see the sun going down.
20 km north from Negril and located right next to the sea, we visited the Rhodes Hall Plantation. This place is well known for horse-riding, as well for swimming with horses in the waters of the Caribbean Sea. Starting as a work to be done, cleaning the animals after horse-riding in the mud attracted the attention of visitors. This is when Rhodes Hall Plantation’s owner saw an opportunity to create a new and unusual activity.
After touring the plantation for 45 minutes, you can join the horses into the water while they are taking a quick bath not far from the coast. With the water levels going 2-3 meters deep, you will be literally holding on a horse swimming in the ocean. Quite a bizarre experience to brag about once back home and while some locals even say that the water you swim in has some healing powers, I would rather leave that opinion to you.
Isolation and peace at Treasure Beach
After leaving Negril and the swimming horses, we headed to the mountain area and visited the organic farm of Zimbali Retreat. Located in the middle of a tropical forest, Zimbali is the opposite of Negril or Montego Bay: there are no cocktails on the beach, sunsets next to the cliff or wild parties. This mountain farm opens its doors to visitors who want to learn more about the fauna and flora Jamaica has to offer.
Visitors can tour the area and see how locals grow exotic fruits like guava or vegetables they use on a daily basis. Travelers can also book a cooking class, in which a chef prepares a local dish with some of the ingredients they farm in Zimbali.
Lodging is also possible. You can book one of the six cottages the farm has to offer.
Zimbali is an excellent getaway while planning a road trip in Jamaica, as we were only able to reach the farm by private transportation or with our own vehicle. This makes the tropical retreat a great opportunity to relax and lay back in a very isolated environment.
From Zimbali we drove 90 km east to Treasure Beach, a fishing village which first appeared on the map 25 years ago and nowadays is known as a synonym of relaxation and simplicity.
Here the word “laid back” goes to a whole new different level, as the village has only a handful of modest guesthouses and a couple of bars, where locals, expats and visitors spend the night drinking the local beer Red Stripe, chatting and listening the ocean just some meters away.
Named as the coolest hotel in Jamaica by The Guardian, Jakes Hotel stands on treasure beach as the place to stay. With an appealing combination of luxury boutique hotel and simple traditional style cottages, I couldn´t find a better place in Jamaica for relaxing and at the same time one of my favorite travel actitivities at night: stargazing.
Read more: Stargazing in Jamaica
Days at Treasure Beach are slow. Beside the getaways and half-day trips, there is not much to do. However, that is the whole idea of Treasure Beach as a tourist destination: a place to relax and forget everything that might cause stress.
Not far from Treasure Beach and only reachable by boat, Floyd´s Pelican bar is in my personal opinion the most unique bar in Jamaica. Located offshore in the Caribbean Sea about 1,6 km from the coastline, beers, food and cocktails taste way different here.
This “out of the box” idea came 16 years ago when owner Floyd Forbes decided to build a bar that takes travelers completely out of routine and yes, he did. Constructed completely in wood and with a Caribbean hut style, this place is a must for travelers visiting Jamaica.
You can either come here with a private tour or simply take one of the daily transfers several times a day.
Day or Half-day tours stopping at Floyd’s Pelican bar start at US$ 100
Transfers to Floyd’s Pelican Bar
- Parottee Point US$10 – 10-minute boat ride
- Black River US$15 – 25-minute boat ride
- Treasure Beach US$35 – 25-minute boat ride
Rum and waterfalls at Jamaica’s western highlands
After leaving Jamaica’s little paradise we had to visit Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience. Named after the first female master rum blender, this is probably described by many as the happiest place in Jamaica. Here in the heart of the country, visitors can learn more about Appleton and the process of making rum in general.
Appleton Estate is also located between Treasure Beach and Montego Bay, making it the perfect stop while traveling within these two cities.
Driving through the mountainous region of the country gives you as well a different perspective of the natural diversity of Jamaica. We crossed rolling hills at Appleton Estate and had to stop several times at Cockpit Country to marvel the tropical forest growing up all around us.
Not far from the Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience, seven waterfalls and several natural pools turn the tropical mountains of Jamaica into a little oasis in the middle of nature. These are the YS Falls and are open every day to the public for visiting and even in some sections bathing.
NOTE: The YS Falls are managed by a private company, so expect to see a less natural landscape at the entrance, lifeguards, a cafeteria and changing rooms for visitors.
Montego Bay’s countryside
Back at Montego Bay, staying at the hotel was not an option, therefore we explored some of the outdoor activities Montego Bay has to offer.
First, we visited Martha Brae, a river located 35 km away from Montego Bay and one of the most popular day trip destinations for travelers staying in that area. Here, travelers can book the bamboo rafting tour and slowly navigate through its waters. It´s one of the most relaxing activities in Montego Bay and a wonderful way to spend the afternoon and calm down for a moment.
The bamboo boats don´t go faster than a person jogging and when closing your eyes, you can hear the fauna around you as well smell the trees and plants in the environment.
Once the sun goes down, some people go out and party in Montego Bay’s bars. However, for those you are looking for a last outdoor activity that simply fascinates, glistening waters is the right call.
We went to the glistening waters and visited one of the only five luminous lagoons in the world (there is also one in Vietnam and 3 more in Puerto Rico). Here tours depart every hour and take you through the lagoon in complete darkness. Once you are far away from the shore, you’ll be dazzled by the millions of illuminating microorganisms that bloom in the water.
NOTE: While there are hundreds of beautiful photographs in google how people swim around neon blue water, it is really not like that. The bioluminescent microorganisms in the lagoon can only glow for an instant when they are disturbed and when it’s done by yourself, it won´t glow enough for you to photograph with your smartphone.
At the same time, tour operators have photographers on board, that can take the picture you have seen on google – of course, for an exorbitant price.
Visiting a Rastafari village
Visiting Jamaica and not learning about the Rastafari community is missing big part of Jamaica´s culture. Travelers can explore one of the many Rastafari villages and learn more about their philosophy. This minority has been misrepresented a lot among western societies and we rarely hear what exactly their opinions about social and environmental matters are.
Visiting a Rastafari Village will not only help you understand their side of the story, but also learn about their traditions, music and what exactly does it mean to be a Rastafari. Travelers can also apply for a volunteering and stay with the community to support the spread of their ideals around Jamaica and the world.
After spending 7 days on a road trip in Jamaica we were able to explore its natural diversity. Having a vehicle to drive everywhere helped us save a lot of time, stop whenever we wanted and be flexible when we decided which activities we wanted to do.