Trench Town Culture Yard

Discover the Caribbean: Jamaica

Sandra Rosenau Last Updated: Friday 13 March 2020 Jamaica Leave a Comment

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Did you know that Jamaica, a Commonwealth country, was a Spanish colony up until the mid 17th century? While the Spanish managed to wipe out the indigenous Taíno population and introduced big sugar plantations and slavery, they weren’t very focused on defending their colony. Starting with the battle at Rio Nuevo (more on that below), Jamaica ended up being an easy catch for the British, and it remained a British colony until its independence in 1962.

First impressions

Continuing our trip around the Caribbean in an anticlockwise direction, we flew to Jamaica from Dominica, with an overnight stay in St John’s, capital of Antigua and Barbuda.

The Norman Manley International Airport is situated on a peninsula across the bay from Jamaica’s capital Kingston (next to the remnants of its old capital Port Royal). We took bus number 98 into Kingston (JMD100 per person), changing at North Parade to catch the bus to our short-term rental accommodation in the suburb of New Kingston.

I remember the lady at the airport tourism information booth asking us to stay safe when I inquired where the bus stop was (it’s to the left as you step outside the terminal, about 50m or so away from the exit on the other side of the road). Were the purported dangers of this country that bad that the tourism officials warn you upon arrival?

Riding the bus into Kingston, it immediately felt different to other Caribbean islands (with the exception maybe of Port of Spain in Trinidad). The journey takes you through the suburbs of Kingston, through streets littered with rubbish and past derelict buildings. The first things you notice are the walls topped with barbed wire, the gated communities and the omnipresence of security personnel. Having travelled around Africa, it reminded me more of an African city, and the hustle and bustle around the Parade (a market area and main bus interchange) reminded me of the chaos in Calcutta.

Entrance to Bob Marley Museum
Entrance to Bob Marley Museum

What did we get up to?

As we wanted to leave the Caribbean before the hurricane season starts in earnest, we decided to spend (only) eleven nights in Jamaica. As with Dominica and St Lucia, we spent time in different parts of the island: three nights each in Kingston (in the south), Port Antonio (in the north-east) and Ocho Rios (in the north), and two nights in Montego Bay (in the north-west), knowing our flight to Cuba would depart from there.

While route taxis and minibuses connect the whole island for very little, the vehicles are generally packed to the rafters (including four adults on the backbench and people in the boot of a station wagon). We did use them, but only for shorter trips up to 30km. For our long-distance trips across the island, we preferred the air-conditioned comfort of the Knutsford Express buses. At USD45 per person in total for the three trips from Kingston to Port Antonio, Port Antonio to Ocho Rios and Ocho Rios to Montego Bay it was still very reasonable.

Bob Marleys House now a Museum
Bob Marley's house is now a museum run by his family

Kingston

One of the reasons why we chose to visit Jamaica was its music history. When people think of Jamaica, they think of Reggae, and when asked to name famous Reggae musicians, pretty much everyone knows Bob Marley. No surprise then that we would visit places associated with the great son of Reggae.

Robert Nesta Marley was born in Nine Mile in the northern Jamaican parish of St Ann. He is also buried there (together with his mother, Cedella Booker, who was a great influence in his life). You can visit Nine Mile but we decided not to after having visited two other, more formative places: Trenchtown and the Bob Marley Museum at 56 Hope Road.

Trenchtown

Bob moved here with his mum a bit over a year after his father died in 1955. He was about 12 years old at the time they moved from the village in St Ann to the big city of Kingston. A unit in the Government Yard of Trenchtown (a council flat) was all his mum could afford.

The yard was built in the 1940s and consisted of different types of housing, but essentially all of them had some form of communal space that was shared:

  • U blocks consisted of two single level houses facing each other in a courtyard. Each house accommodated four families (two rooms per family) and had two bathrooms and two kitchens that were shared between the families.
  • S blocks had two storeys. Three houses, each accommodating four families, surrounded a courtyard. Each house had one bathroom shared between the families, but each unit had its own kitchen.
Trench Town house | Photo by rajarajaraja
Trench Town house | Photo by rajarajaraja

Bob and his mum lived in an S block on 2nd Street. Bob and his wife, Rita later lived in a U block on 1st Street. The same U block now houses the Culture Yard Museum. The museum offers three different tours: one of the museum only (USD12 per person), one of the museum and a guided walking tour around 1st and 2nd Street (USD18 per person) and one that encompasses the museum and a guided walking tour of the whole neighbourhood up to 7th Street (USD30 per person). While not cheap, we did the latter, and we would highly recommend it.

House that Bob Marley grew up in at Trench Town
House that Bob Marley grew up in at Trench Town

Walking through Trenchtown with one of its inhabitants (our guide Blacky lives with his mum and brother down the road from the Culture Yard) felt a little like walking around Soweto. It’s raw. It’s neglected. You feel the pride of its people but also their despair. Back in the 1940s, the yard houses may have been state-of-the-art. But the government has not invested (much) since. More people live in these run-down houses than they were ever built for. Trenchtown (the buildings and inhabitants alike) seems forgotten…

But Trenchtown is very much alive. Small shops are selling everyday items. Children play on the streets and in the zinc-clad alleyways between the houses. The Rita and Bob Marley foundation helped build a home for the elderly. Garfield Williams, a Jamaican who grew up in Canada, runs the Ceramics and Art Centre next to the home, providing a creative outlet for both the local youth and the elderly (and a means to earn a living).

Colourful street art in Trench Town
Colourful street art in Trench Town

Trenchtown is forever remembered in Bob Marley’s songs Trenchtown Rock and No Woman No Cry. But Trenchtown bore not only Bob Marley, The Wailers and Peter Tosh. Countless musicians, sportsmen and other people that would play a role in Jamaica’s recent history have come from here.

Trenchtown left a deep mark on us. We watched the documentary Trenchtown: Forgotten Land afterwards to learn more about its history. I wish we had watched it before we visited. Trenchtown was a war zone up until only a few years ago. A no man’s land had been created between 5th and 7th Street to put a buffer between the rival gangs. I had seen a sign ‘Don RIP’ and hadn’t received a response from our guide when I asked about it. It all made so much more sense after watching the documentaries. And it brought up even more questions.

If you plan to visit make sure you watch the documentary before you go. And make sure you take your time there, speak to locals, get a feel for the place. It’s truly eye-opening.

Bob Marley Museum

While equally pricey (USD25 per person), visiting this museum in a more upmarket part of town was a different experience.

The museum is in the former home of Bob and Rita at 56 Hope Road. It’s also the house where Bob, Rita and Bob’s manager Don Taylor were shot at in 1976. You can still see the holes in the wall in one of the rooms at the back of the house. You can also see Bob and Rita’s bedroom, the kitchen and the studio Bob had installed after buying the house from his producer, Chris Blackwell.

While interesting and entertaining, thanks to our guides (who were both born after Bob Marley’s death), it lacked the character and atmosphere as well as the impact we felt in Trenchtown.

Mural at Bob Marley Museum
Mural at Bob Marley Museum

Port Antonio

We didn’t stay right in Port Antonio but a small village between Boston Bay and Long Bay, about 30km east of Port Antonio. We had chosen the location as it was between some of the places we wanted to check out. It also gave us the chance to experience true Jamaican village life, taste the local Jerk specialities and even roast our breadfruit, fresh from our host’s garden.

Unfortunately, the rainy weather from Dominica had followed us to Jamaica (it turned into tropical storm Cindy over the Gulf of Mexico). It rained almost constantly while we visited the east coast, so we ended up renting a car for a day to make exploring the area a little easier.

Reach Falls was high up on our list, and we were not disappointed. It is truly beautiful, and being far away from Montego Bay and Ocho Rios (the main tourist centres in Jamaica), there were fortunately far fewer tourists than at notoriously overcrowded Dunn’s River Falls. While we were there, in fact, there was only us two, another couple and the lifeguards.

Sandra enjoying Reach Falls, Jamaica
Sandra enjoying Reach Falls, Jamaica

Just around the corner from us was a nice little beach: Boston Beach.

We also checked out the Blue Lagoon. We ended up paying a guy with a fishing boat JMD3,000, and he skippered us around the bay, passing expensive-looking waterfront mansions and Monkey Island (there are no monkeys anymore), before dropping us in the lagoon. You can do it all for free (as we found out afterwards) if you wade through the water to the right of the lagoon jetty, cross the old helipad and keep walking. At the end of the path is a gorgeous freshwater pool.

The swim in the lagoon itself is out of this world. The water is emerald green, and you can feel the various layers of cold and warm water. A strange feeling…

We also checked out the Blue Lagoon. We ended up paying a guy with a fishing boat JMD3,000, and he skippered us around the bay, passing expensive-looking waterfront mansions and Monkey Island (there are no monkeys anymore), before dropping us in the lagoon. You can do it all for free (as we found out afterwards) if you wade through the water to the right of the lagoon jetty, cross the old helipad and keep walking. At the end of the path is a gorgeous freshwater pool.

The swim in the lagoon itself is out of this world. The water is emerald green, and you can feel the various layers of cold and warm water. A strange feeling…

Finally, if you’ve got some time to kill in Port Antonio itself, we can recommend Bikini Beach next to Errol Flynn Marina (we even saw a lionfish at the jetty) or a walk around the bay (there is a Devon House I-Scream ice cream parlour opposite the marina).

Sandra playing on swing at Port Antonio

Ocho Rios

Ochi (as it’s also called) would have been a good spot from which to visit Nine Mile and Dunn’s River Falls but we decided against both… We had seen beautiful, unspoilt waterfalls in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, and were dreading the thought of hundreds of tourists (and a matching number of touts). After having visited Trenchtown and the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, we also felt that we didn’t need to see more.

Instead, we spent a relaxing afternoon at James Bond Beach in Oracabessa, about 20km to the east of Ochi. Scenes of Dr No were filmed on the said beach. The local international airport is named after Ian Fleming, and the author built his GoldenEye House which is now a boutique hotel, just up the road. Something for every 007 aficionadi to check out…

Sandra swimming at James Bond Beach
Sandra swimming at James Bond Beach

By sheer coincidence, we visited the Rio Nuevo Battlefield Memorial, where effectively the end of Jamaica as a Spanish colony was sealed. There is a small museum on-site, and you can see/walk down to the beach and the river mouth where it all happened. It’s not much left but it was still interesting to visit and learn a bit about Jamaica’s less well-known history (entry is by donation, make sure you call ahead so someone is there to let you in – we found the phone number on Google Maps).

Rio Nuevo Battle Site
Rio Nuevo Battle Site

Ochi itself wasn’t really our thing… but we did have lunch at Usain Bolt’s newly opened Track and Records Sports Bar. The food was yummy and good value… not an overpriced tourist trap.

We could have almost met Usain in person… We missed his farewell track meet, the JN-Racers Grand Prix, in Kingston by just two days, unfortunately.

Usain Bolts Track and Records Restaurant
Usain Bolts Track and Records Restaurant

Montego Bay

The further west we travelled the bigger all-inclusive resorts we encountered. Similar to Ochi, Montego Bay (called locally Mobay) didn’t do it for us. With a mafia-style execution involving AK47s at a busy intersection near our bus stop at lunchtime just 24 hours before we arrived, and the worst short-term rental experience we have had to date, we couldn’t wait to get out of there.

The only thing we can recommend in Mobay is the FXTrader Money Exchange at the Blue Diamond Shopping Centre. Their rates were even better than the official interbank rates.

Our verdict

Out of all the Caribbean islands, we visited, Jamaica (on par only with Trinidad and Tobago) felt least inviting to us.

Don’t get me wrong… Jamaica has some of the nicest people and most stunning natural beauty we have encountered on our trip around the Caribbean. Out of the places we visited, the east coast was my favourite. Here, it felt like real Jamaica, without the mass tourism, touts and big divide between rich and poor. Villages are weathered by storms. Roads are narrow and full of potholes. People here live simple lives and go about their business. They are genuinely friendly, and you can have conversations with locals without being accosted.

We had some eye-opening conversations, not only with our guide in Trenchtown but also our short-term rental accommodation hosts in Kingston and Ochi. Jamaica is a very class-oriented society, and the discrepancy between the haves and have-nots is huge. The middle and upper class has no idea (nor seem to give a damn) how people live who are less fortunate and would never set foot in places like Trenchtown.

We stopped counting the walled-in, all-inclusive resorts between Ochi and Mobay… There are too many. Right outside the gates of these monstrous temples of luxury, people live in tin shacks. Holidaymakers fly to Mobay for their week of vacation or stop for a day on their cruise ship tour. I wonder how much they see of this side of Jamaica… and how much they care.

Our costs for Jamaica were USD52.08 per person per day which was neither the cheapest nor the most expensive of the Caribbean Islands.

If you’ve been to Jamaica I’d be super curious what you thought. Please leave a comment below.

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How much does it cost to explore Jamaica? Have you ever wondered whether you could afford to visit the Caribbean? Check out how much it cost us to explore Jamaica.

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