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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Jamaica

Jamaica

Jamaica is a great place to visit. Sure, Kingston is dangerous and there are too many mass-market resorts, but you don't have to go there. If, like me, you want to get away from the depths of winter and relax at a low-population-density beach house in the tropics, then I highly recommend Katamah. It is without doubt the best location in Frenchman's Bay.

I also enjoyed our stay at the Windsor Research Centre, but this is not for everyone. It really is at the end of the road. If you like bugs and bats and snails and caves and jungle, them drop them a line.

Planning

Back in December, we decided to get out of Ottawa and go somewhere sunny in February. At that time a google search for flights from Ottawa showed a special result that listed non-stop flights, which is how we discovered Montego Bay. I'm writing this post in March, and that search result seems to have been replaced by google.ca/flights, which no longer shows MBJ as a non-stop destination.

Anyway, back in December, we booked the flight: depart Saturday, return Monday. I chose the depart/arrive days by searching one-way flights from Ottawa Sunday-Saturday, then searching one-way flights from MBJ Sunday-Saturday and picking the best time/cost combination. This showed that West Jet has non-stop flights YOW-MBJ saturdays and mondays and non-stop flights MBJ-YOW on mondays.

After booking the flight, Amanda did some research and suggested three bed & breakfasts (on the map below). I chose Katamah because it seemed to have the best beach/privacy/cost combination.

Our primary goal was relaxation, but I wanted to throw in some adventure, so I looked around at hiking options. great-adventures.com and jcdt.org.jm say there is good hiking in Blue Mountains and that Port Antonio is a good home base. But that is closer to Kingston which doesn't sound like a pleasant place.

Eventually I found the Jamaican Caves Organisation and the Windsor Research Centre which describe Cockpit Country, and I decided we'd spend two days there before continuing to Katamah.

Flights

Booked through expedia. Includes one checked bag and one carry-on each. Efficient customs and security at both airports. Didn't pay to select seats in advance. Did login 24hrs in advance to web-checkin and select good seats.

Ottawa (YOW) to Montego Bay (MBJ), Feb 16th 2013, 6:00am-10:34am, WestJet 2810
Montego Bay (MBJ) to Ottawa (YOW), Feb 25th 2013, 11:25am-3:38pm, WestJet 2811

West Jet allows online checkin 24hrs in advance. It requires your airport, name and booking code (provided by expedia, like ABCDEH). It also requires your names and passport details (but only for the departing flight, not the return flight). You get to select your seat. The default selection is near the back of the plane. You must specify how many bags you will check. You may print your boarding pass as a pdf document, or wait until you get to the airport. We did print it for the departing flight, but didn't for the return flight. You should print your bag tags at the airport kiosk before going to the counter. Several of the MBJ kiosks thought our passports were invalid. Trying a different kiosk fixed it. You should arrive at the airport 2hrs prior to the flight.

Cost

We booked the flights through expedia on December 1st (paid in full by visa). We booked Katamah on December 17th (paid in full by visa). We booked the Windsor Research Centre on December 19th (no payment in advance, US cash at arrival). In February, I bought $4600 Jamaican dollars (~$500 CAD) of which we spent almost all and $800 US (~$800 CAD) of which we spent $485. Only Windsor and the Taxis wanted US dollars. Restaurants and groceries for a week in Frenchman's Bay cost ~$300 CAD and (except for Jack Sprat Cafe) was paid in Jamaican Cash.

Flights for two people       1,439.20
Katamah (7 nights, $665 US )   673.29
Misc Gear (in advance)          61.73
Guide Book (in advance)         23.09
Ottawa Airport Breakfast        11.71
Jack Sprat Cafe                 36.01
MBJ Airport Lunch         35.01
MBJ Bottle of Rum         21.12
YOW Longterm Parking     107.00

Jamaican Cash ($4600)          499.39
 Mostly food, some gifts, some tips.

US Cash ($485)                 498.82
 Taxi MBJ-Windsor: $100
 Windsor Dinner: $15 x2
 Windsor Night: $45
 Windsor Breakfast: $7.50 x2
 Windsor Lunch: $7.50 x2
 Windsor meet-the-biologists-dinner/fieldtrip: $40 x2
 Windsor Breakfast: $7.50 x2
 Local Driver Windsor-Katamah: $140
 = 100+15*2+45*2+7.5*6+40*2+140
 (One way transit from/to MBJ was provided by Katamah at no cost)

Total: 1439.20+673.29+61.73+23.09+11.71+36.01+35.01+21.12+107.00+499.39+498.82
= $3,406.37

Days: 13.5/24 + 8 + 11.5/24 = 9
Cost/Day: 3406.37/9 = $378.49

Notes

travel.gc.ca says:

  • You should exercise a high degree of caution due to the high level of violent crime.
  • Montego Bay Consulate, 29 Gloucester Street, 876-952-6198.
  • Emergency, Ottawa, 1-800-276-2989.
  • Avoid some parts of Montego Bay: St. Clavers Ave and Hart Street, Flankers and Mount Salem (except for the resort areas).
  • Avoid visiting beaches or using buses at night.
  • Credit card and ABM fraud is increasing in Jamaica.
  • Driving in the interior is dangerous due to narrow, winding and poorly maintained roads.
  • Real taxis are identified by red-and-white “PP” licence plates and a lime green JUTA sticker on the window.
  • Since taxis are not metered, agree on the fare in advance.
Everyone we met treated us fairly. The Treasure Beach Area (where Katamah is located) was very safe. It was no problem walking on the beach or between towns at night. We did meet a girl who traveled in Kingston and whose friend had her necklace torn off her neck by a thief.

tripadvisor.ca says that your Canadian electronics will work, except for time keeping.

tripadvisor.ca says that the best place to exhange money is at cambios, and that your debit card will probably work at most ATMs. We never tried ours.

Our lonely planet guide book said that there are no ATMs in the Treasure Beach area. Not true. There is an ATM and a Cambio a short walk east of Katamah at the crossroads before Calabash Bay.

Cars

We decided not to rent a car. We rode with two unofficial taxis. Both very good and recommended by our accommodation. I did gather some car rental info.

budgetjamaica.com
Pick-Up at MBJ, Feb. 16th
Drop-Off at MBJ, Feb. 25th
No. of Drivers: 1
No. of Mobile Phones: 1	
Loss Damage Waiver (LDW): Yes
Selected Vehicle: Suzuki Swift
Rental Period 9 day(s): $264.00
Government Tax (16.5%): $43.56
Sub Total: $307.56
Loss Damage Wavier: $10.00
Mobile Phone Rental (1): $45.00
Total Estimated Base Rate & Government Tax*: $362.56 US (plus fuel)

Mike from the Windsor Research Centre suggested getting a taxi from MoBay to Windsor and expected the cost to be $60-$100. Katamah provides one-way transport from MoBay to Katamah and said the rate for the other one-way was $140.

We arrived at MoBay and the first taxi man had never heard of windsor. He asked the next guy who phoned his friend. Five guys later they found someone who was willing to take us for $100 US.

You would think that the leg from Windsor to MoBay to Katamah would cost $240, but Mike called a local guy and he agreed to do it for $130. I think as long as the local guys have a relationship with an accommodation, then you can trust them. Our guys were fair and responsible. The return from Katamah to MoBay was provided by Katamah.

The roads through the interior are very twisty and difficult to navigate. I suggest not renting a car. But if you're going from MoBay to Windsor, I'd get Mike to coordinate a local guy to pick you up from MoBay rather than hope an official taxi will be willing/able to take you.

Day Zero

Thursday after work I picked up Jamaican and US cash and some other gear for our trip. Friday night, I cleaned up the house and started packing. Amanda didn't get home from work until after eight. Finally we stacked our one checked bag and two little carry-ons at the front door and grabbed a little sleep.

Day One

The alarm rang at 3:30am Saturday morning and we were out the door by 3:45am and at the airport shortly after 4am. There were only short lines, so we checked in and had some breakfast at Tim Hortons before going through security. The flight was general boarding, so we were probably in our seats shortly after 5:30am, and I went straight to sleep with my face mask and neck pillow.

Some time later the whole plane seemed to wake up and bright sun streamed in the windows. They had little screens in the seat backs which could play one of four satellite TV channels which had already started playing movies. I watched the better part of Argo, which was quite good.

For the rest of the flight, I worked on my puzzle book. Then we got our first sight of Jamaica.

I changed into shorts and we proceeded to immigration. MBJ is very much like North American airports. The Immigration agent gave us a hassle over the entry form I filled out on the plane. He wanted the complete address of our destination, where I had only recorded name and town. Thinking Windsor would be difficult to explain, I had recorded Katamah, but since it wasn't our first destination, I didn't have its details handy, so I had to route through my bag, and I thought he was unnecessarily unhelpful.

Amanda was hungry, so we thought we'd get something in the airport before negotiating with the taxis, but it didn't look like there was food for sale in the exit part of the airport, and a taxi man was already on my case about where he could take me, so I asked how much to go to Windsor.

He'd never heard of the place. Mike had told us to say that it was three miles past Usain Bolt's family home at Sherwood Content. Being oblivious to sports, I didn't realize that Usain Bolt is the fastest person ever. Anyway, the first guy asked another guy who phoned a third guy. Then a fourth guy wandered over, all of them looking at my maps and none of them showing any interest in driving us. Finally a fifth guy appeared who had been to the Windsor Research Centre before and said he'd drive us for $100 US. I asked Amanda if she wanted to bargain but he shook his head and said $100 was his minimum. I told him we needed to stop somewhere for food and he said that would be included in the $100 so we agreed to go with him.

Shockingly he didn't have a car, but something like an eighteen-seater mini-bus, which seemed a bit excessive, but he was eager, so we continued. He asked what we wanted to eat and Amanda told him to take us to where he would go, so he drove to a Jerk Shack off the highway out of MoBay. I would never even have recognized it as a place that sells food. He ordered for us from a booth like at the cinema, and I paid in Jamaican dollars. The lady in the booth gave us a little ticket (again like the cinema) which you hand in at the other end of the shack in exchange for roast food wrapped in tinfoil.

I think he ordered a quarter chicken, a quarter pork, festival (deep fried bread), and a quarter bread fruit (delicious, like buttered potato). For the quarter chicken, the guy literally lifts of the sheet metal, pulls out a chicken, hacks a quarter off it with a cleaver and wraps it in tinfoil. We ate in the bus. It was great.

Our driver was friendly and told us about Jamaica and the immediate area as we drove. The road went from highway, to windy but paved, to bad pavement, to dirt track. He pointed out Usain Bolt's family home but seemed unsure of himself when the road ended at a T-junction where some guys were hanging out by a red shack. He asked them for directions which was my first exposure to Patois.

They said go left an then left, but he went left and then straight. We offered to walk but he wouldn't hear of it. He made an impossible many point turn to reverse direction and then an even more impossible many point turn to take the left-fork we had earlier passed, only to find that the Great House was only a hundred yards from the red shack.

The Great House is an old colonial mansion with the ruin of what might have been a military hospital. We stayed in the out-building which contains three separate accommodations. Ours had overhead lighting, two beds, a sink and a shower/tub, but no toilet and no hot water. Its windows weren't screened but had wood slats that could be closed. We used the toilet accessible from the front of the Great House which served the purpose but was dank and dingy. We drank the tap water from our room without incident. Their only electrical source is solar, so they ask you to turn of the lights when not using them.

The Windsor Research Centre is run by Mike and Susan, who I found to be friendly and interesting. We paid them cash up front and had all our meals with them on the balcony of the great house. A local guy named Sugar Belly walks in and prepares all the meals. He rings a bell when they're ready. Dinner is served around 7pm. We'd had a long day so we had a nap until dinner. Our plan was to have the dinner-with-the-researchers field-trip/lecture on the first night but it was rainy so we postponed it. We had roast pork loin for dinner which was excellent. Returning to our room in the dark, and turning on the light, a two inch cockroach skittered up the wall and out the window slat. Awesome.

Day Two

Sunday morning at 7am a local guy (Wayne) was going to guide us for a 5 hour hike through cockpit country, but it was still raining, so he didn't come. That was probably for the best because Amanda was still tired out. She basically slept and read all day while I mucked around in the jungle. There was lots to see.

I went on several excursions during breaks in the rain, which by the way was abnormal. They hadn't had rain since December. I tried to stay within a few hundred meters of the Great House since I was wandering without a trail. I climbed an extremely steep incline east of the Great House and sheltered from a burst of rain in a little cave.

There was an unbelievable Golden Silk Orb Weaver Spider in the workshop at the south end of our accommodation. Not including legs it was about two inches in length. The web was more than three feet in diameter.

After lunch, it looked like the rain had finished, so I decided to hike along the Troy-Windsor trail, where Wayne would have guided us. The T-junction at the red shack is actually a four-way and if you keep on straight it dead-ends at a fork of two trails. The left fork is the Troy-Windsor. I followed it as long as it followed the precipice, bypassing a fork in the trail. Eventually it struck out into forest, and I turned back, not wanting to get lost without the precipice as a guide.

I returned to the Great House and had a nap until dusk. Before dinner, Susan took us on a field trip to a bat cave. We hiked the same trail I had hiked earlier that day but turned of at a branch I hadn't noticed and followed an indistinct trail to the cave. These bats are a major part of her research. The bats from just that cave eat ~24 tonnes of insects each year. Cockpit country is threatened by bauxite mining, so they're trying to demonstrate the natural services provided by the area as competition to the bauxite value.

The bats poured out of the cave and zoomed around us for maybe twenty minutes while Susan told us about their habits and functions. I was surprised to learn that a female bat only has one child a year and nurses it very much like a human.

During our hike back, in the dark (we brought head lamps), it started to pour rain. Susan stopped to show us some giant snails. Later she pointed out some lizards that like to sleep on the tip of leaves so they notice if someone is sneaking along their branch to eat them.

A portion of the trail (for about 20 minutes of the hike) skirts a precipice, which while thick with jungle would probably kill you if you mis-stepped. It is treacherous in good conditions and more so at night in pouring rain. I loved it.

After our return, we changed into dry clothes and had a fried chicken dinner with some wine and rum. After dinner Mike gave a slideshow lecture about the area, its ecology and the threat of bauxite mining.

Day Three

Monday morning, Mike had arranged for a local guy to pick us up and drive us to Treasure Beach via MoBay. He had a station wagon with giant speakers in the back, and played Bob Marley as we drove. He'd never been to Treasure Beach before but knew his way to Black River which is near by. Somewhere in the interior we stopped to stretch our legs at a road-side restaurant, where he bought chicken soup. We were still full from breakfast at Windsor.

Closer to Black River we stopped at a road side fruit stand. The guy was really nice and sold us some bananas, sugar cane, and water coconut. Our driver slowed down at a bunch of road side places and drove us through the Black River market.

Somewhere after Black River our driver stopped at a road-side bar and drank a beer (while driving), which I think is a bad idea, but I let it slide, since we seemed to be in the middle of nowhere at slow speed. We followed the signs for Jack Sprat's at Treasure Beach, and then our map from the Lonely Planet guide book until we found Katamah.

Katamah has a great location. It is a large fenced yard, with the road on one side and the beach on the other. Their accommodation consists of separate small buildings in the centre of the yard, surrounded by flowering trees. The beach house and patio are shared space, including hammocks and beach chairs and a full kitchen. It's run by Moni and Andrew who live in the back part of the beach house. They are both friendly and helpful.

Our room was The Saida, which is in the middle of the bigger building. It had screened widows, a full bathroom and a walk in closet. We drank the tap water all week without incident. We found it very comfortable, but the first night were bothered by a water pump on the roof and small mosquitoes (despite the screened windows). The switch to turn off the water pump is around the back of the building, and the mosquitoes won't bother you if you turn on the provided fan.

We arrived around 1pm and unpacked, then headed to a diner a few minutes walk down the road that Andrew recommended. It was open and airy and sold local food (goat, pork, etc) for cheap. A coke, a beer and two meals for $1300 Jamaican dollars. I liked it.

While eating, a local guy sat next to us, introduced himself and said he was the guy who sells the ganja. In fact several people per day offered to sell to us. They weren't pushy except one guy who sometimes outright begged for money. Later on the beach there were some guys who wanted to sell wood carvings and they were a bit pushy but gave up after a few minutes.

There was also a tiny grocery store across the street so we picked up some breads and canned tuna and beer. Amanda went back to our room to read her book, and I explored the beach.

Before dusk we went for a swim. We met the other guests: some Canadians and a guy from a German part of Italy, who were all friendly and easy going. Actually it wasn't until then that we learned the beach house was shared space and distinguished the two dogs who actually lived at Katamah from the others that were just visiting. At the end of a long day, we had tuna sandwiches for dinner and played Scrabble before happily going to bed. Mind what I said about the water pump and mosquitoes.

Day Four

Tuesday morning I picked up some eggs and juice from the grocery store and Amanda made french toast for breakfast. She lay in a hammock and read her book while I want on a long hike, east down the coast. The coast is a series of bays and rocky outcrops, most of which are navigable. I had to take the road from Jack Sprat's to Calabash Bay, but remained on the coast for several beaches after that.

Eventually I had drank all my water and was sure I was burning, so I cut through a grassy area to a road and hiked back to Katamah. That's when I spotted the Treasure Beach Women’s Group Benevolent Society, and later the ATM and Cambio, and saw how to get to Jack Sprat's by road.

Jamaica is overflowing with adorable goats - who are all for eating. When I've had goat before, it had chunks of bone, and that was the case here. In fact, everything we had seemed to include chunks of bone, which surprised me.

When I returned we had fruit and breads for lunch and went swimming. We spent a lot of time playing in the surf. The bay seemed to constantly produce good body surfing waves. You had to be careful and avoid the ones that were too big, or you'd be slammed pretty hard into the sand. I also did some snorkeling, but there wasn't much to see, just a giant sandy expanse.

That evening, we walked along the un-lit road to Jack Sprat's which has outdoor tables and a nice view of the sunset. The guide book said they served amazing Jerk sausage pizza, but I didn't think it was anything special. I had brought our headlamp for the walk back but we decided we didn't need it. To keep with tradition we played Scrabble before bed.

Day Five

Wednesday morning we had cereal for breakfast and spent the day lounging and swimming. We'd been reading Artemis Fowl aloud, mostly in the shaded double hammock, and I think we finished it this day.

We'd heard that the next town to the west, Billy's Bay, had a restaurant shack called Strikey's run by a New York chef. The other Canadians had been there and said it was a long way but walk-able. They said it was in town just past a cook shop.

We struck out before dusk but were walking in full dark before we came to the town. There were lots of locals using the road but no other tourists. I was a bit nervous about this but no one gave us any trouble. Finally we found the cook shop (literally a building with a sign that says "cook shop"), and Strikey's just after. It's a small place with large tables. We took a seat and while waiting for our dinner a single newcomer asked if she could join us. She was from Switzerland and had lots of good travel stories. She was the one who told us about the necklace theft in Kingston.

Strikey's is a fun little place with good food and a friendly chef. You can seem him cooking from your table, and he dances while he cooks. The food was great and very affordable. We walked home in pitch dark without incident and played Scrabble before bed.

Day Six

We lounged and swam for most of Thursday, also I'd been working on a puzzle book since we'd finished Artemis. Amanda had cut through several books by this point.

We had lunch at a shack down the beach called Eggy's. There were little crabs everywhere on the beach and along the roads. But Eggy's juts so far into the beach that the crabs are underfoot. We had a chicken sandwich and vegetable stir fry. Fruit and vegetables are scarce in the Treasure Beach area, so it was extra delicious for want of having had any.

That evening we cooked pancakes for dinner, and played Scrabble before bed. One night we got up in the middle of the night and layed in the lounge chairs beside the beach house and watched the stars. There are a few town lights, but it still had the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere. We even saw some shooting stars.

Day Seven

Friday we spent all day lounging and swimming and ate at the nearby Diner again. One of these days we talked about the future and planned vacation for the rest of the year. I solved a lot of puzzles and we tried to avoid getting burned. To shake things up a bit we played Bogle before bed instead of Scrabble. It turns out we're fairly closely matched at Scrabble, but Amanda totally kills me at Bogle.

Day Eight

On Saturday we hiked east and went swimming at some of the beaches I'd found earlier in the week. We took the road most of the way but did some hiking along the coast. There are several small beaches, and some are totally deserted. While Amanda was laying in the sun at the farthest beach of the day, a herd of goats trotted past us.

On the way home we stopped in at the Treasure Beach Women’s Group Benevolent Society and bought some souvenirs and some used books, since Amanda was all out. Closer to home we stopped at Jake's for lunch. This place was shockingly American, so much so that I overheard one lady saying it was just like leaving Boston without leaving Boston. It was nice, with good food, but expensive, and didn't have a local feel.

Day Nine

Sunday morning we had breakfast at Smurf's, which is just a bit west of Katamah and was absolutely superb. Other than that we mostly lounged around and swam. I took a bunch of photos on the Katamah property, and while watching the sunset, we saw something like a cruise ship pass in front of it as it sank into the sea. Before bedtime we were all packed and ready for the return journey.

Day Ten

Monday morning we woke at 6:00am and departed at 6:30am. Andrew drove us north through the mountains. It was a different route than we took on the way there. It was very windy, and at parts very beautiful. We stopped at a few places on the way for short breaks. One of them was a crystal clear lake where I saw a foot long Plecostomus.

We arrived at the airport in good time. The lines were short and the flight was pleasant. Before departing we ate at a ridiculous themed restaurant in the airport. When we arrived in Ottawa the temperature was positive three, so I didn't have to sprint to the car. Two days later it snowed a foot. Happy Canada.