I took a one-week trip through Jamaica, attending a wedding at the Sandals Resort in Montego Bay and exploring many of the island’s cities, towns, and natural wonders, getting a “real Jamaica” experience.
Photo: Tucker, Montego Bay
Kingston to Port Antonio
From our Kingston AirBnb, we walked over to Hope Road and then quickly packed into a taxi with some locals to head to the Halfway Tree Bus Station, where we planned to catch a public bus to Port Antonio. I had read online that the Port Antonio bus was across the street from a Burger King so it was fairly easy to find, but it was very chaotic – with street vendors aggressively trying to sell things and tons of people milling about. Finally, we found the right area to wait and a bus soon pulled up, but we had to wait inside the bus for what seemed like an hour before it finally filled up and then departed (Jamaica’s public buses operate on this system, not a fixed time schedule).
The ride to Port Antonio took us back up through the bumpy but beautiful roads of the Blue Mountains. Our hotel was on the way into town so we were pleased that the bus was able to drop us off right in front of it. We had originally planned to Couchsurf in Port Antonio, but our hosts ghosted us so we had booked a hotel the night before with one very key requirement: it had to have AC. Most of the cheaper hotels didn’t, but the humidity was killing us and it was hard to sleep in such hot conditions. We ended up at Paradise Inn, which was not exactly paradise 😂 but a pretty nice, quiet hotel for only $70.
The Blue Lagoon
We planned to go bamboo rafting on the Rio Grande River so we stood by the side of the road and waited a few minutes before a taxi came and agreed to take us. Many locals in Port Antonio use taxis to get around (the typical fare is only about 75 U.S. cents) and there’s only one main road so it’s quite easy to hail one. We asked our driver if we could stop in Downtown Port Antonio to exchange money and get water and food, which ended up taking a while due to long lines. He kindly waited for us and while in Downtown found out for us that the bamboo rafts weren’t running on the river that day.
With our river plans washed away, we instead asked our driver to take us to our next Port Antonio destination: the famous Blue Lagoon, which was the setting of a Brooke Shields movie and is home to many celebrities’ vacation homes. He dropped us off next to a small, crowded dock and we walked around to a quiet area which we later found out was the remains of a restaurant that had burned down and put our stuff down before jumping into the water.
The Blue Lagoon is where mountain water meets ocean water and it is a truly unique bright blue color and amazingly fluctuates between warm and cool every few feet you swim. There was no one else in the water when we first got in, which freaked my shark-fearing friend out but made me very thankful to have such a wonderful place to ourselves.
A man on a bamboo raft came by and offered to take us for a ride. After a little haggling (I talked him down to $16 each), we got on and he took us a bit into the ocean alongside celebrity vacation homes, to a small rocky island, to a climbable tree in the deepest section of the lagoon (apparently it would take 7 minutes to dive to the bottom of it 😲), and finally to a natural spring where the mountain water entered the lagoon. Our driver took lots of photos and allowed us to get out and swim at each of the destinations so it was a wonderful experience.
The Free Beach, Veggie Burgers, and a Rooftop Bar
At the springs, which were actually quite cold, there were a few locals hanging out. Two of the women (who we later found out were our raft driver’s nieces) asked if they could join the last portion of our ride which we were cool with. We got to talking and found that they were 30-something and 16-year-old cousins who were visiting from Kingston. They were super nice and I asked if they wanted to go with us to Frenchman’s Cove, a nearby beach with an admission fee that I’d heard was nice. We found out that the beach closed at 4 (why do so many water-related things in Jamaica close at 4?!) and walked over to another beach that seemed public but the lifeguard asked for an admission fee. Our new Jamaican friends were sketched out by how quickly he agreed to lower the price, so we went to another nearby public beach that was actually free and super scenic.
We sat in the shallow water of the beach for a while and I noticed that a small school of grey and orange fish kept swimming really close to me and sometimes biting me. I moved a few feet away and they followed me! It kept happening until I finally went to an area so shallow that they gave up. My friends made no such fish friends, so I felt special and credited my fish popularity to my striped swim trunks and glowing personality 😉
We walked over to our bamboo raft driver’s home, where our new friends (his nieces) were staying for their trip. It was a very typical Jamaican neighborhood with a tiny bar and homes built up in the hills with only small paths to reach them. Our driver showed us a giant weed plant he’d grown which was the most weed I’d ever seen up close. We then walked over to Woody’s, a nearby burger spot that was supposed to have the best vegetarian burgers in the Caribbean! It was a really cute area with a bar, and a large round outdoor patio with a ping pong table. I chatted with Woody himself for a bit and ordered their famous veggie burger (which was a unique combination of spinach, tomato, and onions without an actual patty) and was super hearty and delicious.
After dinner, our friends took us into Downtown Port Antonio to a rooftop bar with views of the bay and a DJ spinning all of our favorite 90s and 00s hip hop songs. It was definitely a local hotspot that we wouldn’t have found on our own so we loved it. We didn’t stay too long since we had to be up early the next day for our long journey across the entire width of Jamaica to Montego Bay so we said our goodbyes and took a taxi back to our hotel to sleep.
Port Antonio to Montego Bay
For our final full day in Jamaica, we needed to head back to Montego Bay, where we were flying out of. Port Antonio is on the extreme eastern end of Jamaica’s North Coast while Montego Bay is on the western edge so it was our longest journey of the trip. We considered taking an air-conditioned express bus for $26, but it only left at 6am and we didn’t feel like getting up THAT early so we opted for the public bus. We took a taxi to Downtown Port Antonio and then waited in a bus for about 45 minutes until it filled up and took us on a quite nice (apparently recently repaved) road to Ocho Rios, where we had to hop on another bus to Montego Bay for the second half of the journey. As with all Jamaican buses, we had to pay for an extra seat for our luggage but it was still about one-third the price of the express bus for the entire day’s journey (~$10 total).
Surprising Montego Bay Couchsurfing
We were finally Couchsurfing for our final night in Montego Bay and our host had agreed to pick us up but I was nervous about getting a hold of him since neither of us were able to use our phones internationally. Luckily, a kind woman next to me on the bus agreed to let me use her phone and our host came to pick us up (I grabbed a Jamaican patty while waiting).
This was when things got weird – our host first stopped to show us a swimming hole and we stayed there for a little while even though we’d said we didn’t want to swim until later when we’d dropped off and changed. Then, he went to a rustic neighborhood and told us to wait while he played a round of poker. It was definitely a glimpse of real Jamaica to see local guys in such an extreme non-touristy area gambling, but we were there for over an hour and I was eager to take advantage of our last day so it was a bit frustrating.
Finally, our host took us to his home, which was up a hill along series of small paths past many other homes. It was a house unlike any I’d seen before – it appeared to be only partially constructed, had no sink or shower (other than a hose), and yet had quite nice tile floors and furniture. Our host gave us a tour of the neighborhood in which he said he’d grown up and we relaxed next to some of the local goats (one of which was extremely pregnant) before our host’s friend cut coconuts down from a palm tree and we drank coconut water (not my favorite but obviously much better than the store-bought stuff and my friend loved it).
The Luminous Lagoon & The Terrifying Night
We were excited to do one last activity in Jamaica: taking a boat ride at a place called Glistening Waters outside of Montego Bay into the Luminous Lagoon, a bay with glowing algae. We had some time to kill, so our host took us back to the swimming spot in the Barnett River we’d stopped at earlier in the day. It was a fairly strong, rushing river and a wonderfully cool, refreshing place to beat the heat.
We got back in the car and drove to Glistening Waters. It was a longer drive than I’d expected and we were running late so I was worried we’d miss the 7pm boat ride which is only once per day. To make matters worse, our host was lost and had to keep stopping to ask for directions. Luckily, we made it on time and paid $25 each, enjoying our first Jamaican dance show and a complimentary rum punch as we waited for the tour.
Right after it got dark, we piled onto a crowded boat with the most tourists we’d seen on our entire trip and the captain eventually told us that we were free to climb off the boat and swim. Once in the water, every stroke made with our hands and feet turned the water into a bright sky blue shade which seemed surreal. I couldn’t believe this was a natural thing! I was the first person off the boat and the last one back on – I didn’t want this cool experience to end.
After the ride, we sat and waited for our Couchsurfing host to pick us up. He was an hour late and had a cocktail in hand as he zoomed down the highway, racing other cars and generally being as unsafe as imaginable! I know the statistics about how dangerous driving is in general so I wasn’t happy about this, but we didn’t really have any choice as we were dependent on our host to get us back to his remote home.
I was hungry, so we stopped at a crowded fast casual restaurant, where I waited for a full 45 minutes to get my food. In following with the traditional of my final meal on international trips being disappointing, the food was actually quite gross and by far the worst thing I ate on the trip. Oh, well! I somehow fell asleep despite the extreme heat in our home for the night. The next morning, our host took us to Montego Bay’s Sangster Internaional Airport and my friend enjoyed a taste of heaven aka duty-free alcohol shopping before we said our goodbyes and flew home.
Click here to read my Jamaica blog from the beginning as I enjoy three days of sun-soaked and alcohol-infused bliss at the all-inclusive Sandals Resort in Montego Bay.
Click here to continue read about my time in Ocho Rios, Kingston, and the Blue Mountains as I climb a mile-long waterfall and am sketchily taken to a wonderful vegan restaurant.