Backpackers Guide to Montego Bay
Updated: Nov 8, 2019
Montego Bay has a reputation of being a resort city filled with all inclusive hotels. Backpackers really have not been able to get a handle on what makes this city tick so in many ways it does not feel like real Jamaica to the average outsider. What alot of people dont understand is that Montego bay is a peculiar city in jamaica in that it is built almost entirely around tourism and is still evolving as a city with a balanced social structure. In basic terms Montego Bay has a very small middle class for a city of its size approximately (120,000). There are enclaves of extreme wealth which the budget traveller will likely never see. What one is sure to see is poverty and most of this poverty comes from migrants from poor rural areas. This has resulted in numerous unplanned settlements mainly in the surrounding hills.
City Center - Downtown
The city center of Montego Bay is a key commercial center for ordinary citizens and people from all over the region come to do business there. So the center of the city is extremely lively and chaotic. It is also very compact and one can easily walk the streets in a day to get a feel of the bustling and congested city. It is the walkability that gives the city its charm and also the character of the people who are friendly, confident and at times boisterous. Dancehall, Reggae and Gospel Music blare through the streets and quite often from cars. Jamaicans are music lovers in general and it is not common to hear a Celene Dion or Mariah Carey song thumping from a sound system. Within this seeming chaos there is street food, chinese owned haberdasherries and wholesale supermarkets and every type of independent entrepeneur and hustler that you can imagine. The smell of ganja is everywhere and you can buy almost any amount cheaply and easily from practically every corner. Ganja in Jamaica is viewed by many, not as a drug, but as a herb that promotes calmness and wisdom. This outlook is borrowed from Rastafarians.
Montego Bay is a historic city and was an important part of the colonial and plantation economies of the past. The center of the city highlights some of this heritage. Sam Sharpe square is a very important place in Jamaica's history and it is most notably the place where National Hero Sam Sharpe was executed as punshement for leading one of the most rampant slave rebellions in Jamaica's history. The statues of Sharpe and his followers are still on display with a plaque signifiying the heroics of the man who sacrificied his life for freedom and dignity. Also, in the square is the Montego Bay civic center, which is fine example of colonial architecture and also houses the National Gallery West (which houses some of jamaicas finest artworks). Around other parts of the city center fine examples of colnial architecture still exist with old churches and other buildings dotted around. When in Montego Bay go to the Sam Sharpe square sit down and people watch. You will get a feel for the pulse and pace of the city and you will no doubt be charmed if not entertained by Jamaicans who hang out and passersby.
Dead End Beach
This is the beach you fly over when you are landing in Montego Bay it is white and sandy with turqouise blue waters. It is on the road side and is free to access. The beach itself is not the finest but the combination low flying planes and vibrant local life especially on a Sunday makes this beach a very social spot. There are vendors and there is a bar right there across the street. The street is on a dead end road as the name suggests and its well worth a visit.
The Hip Strip
This is a walkable stretch along Gloucester Avenue which has been promoted as a lively zone for clubs restaurants and beaches. The strip has seen better days, however there are alot of new developments which are making it come back stronger than ever. Here are a few spots to see;
Usain Bolts Tracks and Records
The sports bar themed after the icon himself. It has a statue of Usain Bolt outside made with bolts. Inside is a brand new restaurant and bar with a large wraparound LED screed right infront the bar. This is the perfect spot to watch a big game. This bar is a bit pricey so if your on a backpacker budget you dont want to get too crazy in here . The spot is worth checking out anyways if it is even to get a picture with the statue.
A little further west you will find this lovely beach. It is definitely one of the best beaches in jamaica. It is a private members club which allows paid access to the public. One of the things that makes this beach special is a natural spring that runs underground through the nearby rocks. The mineral water is said to have therapeutic value and many people make it a ritual to swim there. The cost of beach entry is not cheap at us$6 for the day, however the facilities are superb including a very clean restroom and showers along with lockers. There is a seperate fee for renting deck chairs and umbrellas. There are a number of nice restaurants on the beach also. The beach opens daily between the hours of 8:30am to sunset.
Bar and restaurant by day and party hotspot by night. This place has a local and tourist vibe depending on when you go. During the days there are often Cruise ship tourists visiting but there is a cool water slide and you can swim out in the sea and have fun on the water trampoline. We suggest you buy a drink as a token at least and then go ahead a swim. In the nights the place turns into a nightclub and venue. Local promoters often have dancehall styled events there and the club has some of Jamaica's best resident DJ's. Drinks here are a bit pricey and there is a cover charge if you go after a certain time so if you want to party on a budget work out your strategy before.
One Man beach
100 meters west of Margaritaville you will find this free beach which is next to the old hospital beach park. The beach itself is decent and frequented by locals. You can relax here with a few drinks, bring your own food and enjoy. There are often young locals playing football so if you would like to join in just ask.
Along the Bay and further West
Dump up beach is free and a favourite with locals it is situated on large expanse of public land infront of the city center. The sand is white and the beach itself is quite scenic. The beach is unregulated and can be lonely in the evenings. Caution is advised visiting the beach during lonely periods. Sundays and Saturdays however are quite crowded. Due to the proximity to the city center we don't recommend visiting this beach just after heavy rains.
The famous bar and restaurant on the bay. The place is quite literally located on a pier just next to the Knutsford Express bus station. This spot is a venue for many events and is a favourite with locals. The views of the ocean and bay from this open air bar are lovely and the ambiance is great. The drinks and food are not as pricey as at Margaritaville and the quality is great. There are events practically every night including live music. This is definitely a spot to check out.
Catherine Hall Sports Complex
This mini stadium hosts numerous first division club football games and schoolboy football (which is huge in Jamaica btw). Western Jamaica has a reputation of producing some of Jamaicas finest football talent much of it can be seen here. There are also major track meets hosted here as well as food festivals and other major events.
Yeah its a part of the American franchise but it does have a nice beach and pool. Its also a venue for events and can be enjoyed night and day for some beachside fun. Naturally you will need to buy a drink or two but the facilities are great and the beach is relaxed and the pool is cool too.
This fine dining restaurant is a favourite with Montego Bay's more affluent citizens. It is located along the Montego Bay Freeport on a house boat floating in a lagoon. The food is fantastic and if you have a special occassion to celebrate and you are looking for a lovely place to enjoy a special dinner this is your spot.
This is a must for people who want to experience the rastafarian way of life. This village is a commune where Rasta culture is promoted and shared with vistiors. There are cultural events here from time to time also.
On the outskirts of the city you will find many other interesting sites and experiences.
Glistening Waters otherwise known as the Luminous Lagoon is a biolumiscent lagoon which has glowing water at night. It is about 30 minutes drive from the city center and to swim there on a a perfect night (no moonlight and no rainfall from the day before) is an unforgetable exerperience!
Greenwood Great House
Great example of a plantation era great house with antique furniture and colonial artifacts.
Rose Hall Great House
Famously reputed to be haunted. There are tours daily and the story of the White Witch of Rose Hall, Annie Palmer is of Jamaica's most legendary tales.
Montego Bay has a disappointing lack of vegan and mid ranged food options generally but cheap street food abounds. You can get a chicken and rice dish for as little as us$2 in downtown. There are numerous small restaurants all over the city and most of them offer tasty local dishes. For a cheap snack try a Jamaican patty which is a pastry with a meat or veggie filling. Also, jerk chicken and grilled fish is openly cooked and sold on the streets. They are cheap and delicious!
There are wide range of local bars particularly in the city center. You can get a shot of white rum (65% overproof Jamaican rum) for about us$1 and a local beer will set you back us$1.5 - 2. You can buy cigarettes by the single and these bars usually have a lively crowd often playing dominoes or pool and reggae and dancehall music on a soundsystem. Walking in downtown Montego Bay you will come across many of these places. Sometimes these bars will host raunchy late night street parties in Dancehall Reggae style.
Montego Bay has been in the news lately as a city with major crime issues. A government imposed state of emergency is in effect until October 2018. This measure was taken to stem the gang related violence that flared up last year. The results have been positive and the city center is more secure than ever. The victims of violent crime in Montego Bay as with Jamaica in general are mainly gang related or due to domestic disputes.
Risk of robbery and theft is mitigated significantly if you dont walk in lonely places after dark. Also, be very discreet with your mobile phone and other valuables like jewellery and cash. It is best to leave your travel documents at your hotel.
Jamaica has a bad reputation where this is concerned also but this is not unique to Jamaica and our best advice is to disengage from the harasser. This means that when you are approached simply acknowledge, politely and firmly decline what you are being offered and then ignore the person completely. Do not even protest that you are not interested just disengage completely. Just keep walking.
We say yes to Montego Bay
Montego Bay is in many ways an underappreciated city for the independent traveller it is a great base to further your Jamaican adventures and is really the commercial center of western Jamaica. From here you will likely transit a few times while travelling but the City itself has rich local life mainly in the city center and it is well worth checking out. This article is just an idea of what you can enjoy during your stay in this intriguing and vibrant city.
Feel free to contact us for more information and of course we would be happy to show you around. Our new hostel in Montego Bay is located in the heart of the city and puts you in the heart of the local life there!
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