68. Ocho Rios
Welcome to the Caribbean!
Before we get there, let me describe the trip over. Panama airport was huge. Gigantic. Enormous. There was over a kilometre of shops, which mostly sold the same items, but it definitely kept us busy until boarding time. Our favourite shops? The ones offering free alcohol tastings. Five rums, a scotch and an aged tequila later, (plus the free alcohol on the plane and a bottle of duty free gin) and we were ready to fully immerse ourselves in the chilled out, Caribbean lifestyle.
But it didn't really work out that way. Our first job was to take a bus to downtown Kingston. First impressions: poor, decrepit, disorganised, full of plain cement buildings or crumbling wooden shacks, overrun by pedestrians and street-sellers - it was more like a shanty town than a capital city. We didn't even know we had arrived at the centre as there were no skyscrapers, no ornate buildings, nothing to indicate that this section of the city was any different to the outskirts we had driven through.
Scenes of Kingston.
Once we had been dropped off at a bus terminal, we searched up and down looking for the bus to Ocho Rios. Eventually we asked for help from a local woman, who kindly walked us 10 minutes down the road to another bus stop. The bus was a minivan, designed to hold 18, maybe 20 people at a stretch. There were 35 in ours, crammed in five to a row. I was in the very middle with my heavy backpack on my lap. I couldn't move or see a thing for the entire two hour journey. I still had my sense of hearing though, and had no trouble understanding that at one point our bus had almost hit a truck (it was probably good that I couldn't see anything). The other passengers starting yelling at the driver, who shouted back at the passengers, and this arguing continued for about 10 minutes. It was nice to hear English again.
In Ocho Rios we had no idea where we were, but a local man offered to help. People were so friendly in this country! He walked us all the way to our hotel, before turning around and asking for a tip. We gave him some change, but then he requested more. And more. And more. It was a little unnerving, but we managed to escape inside the hotel without going broke. Maybe not everyone was as friendly as we first thought.
The hotel was old and run down, however our not-too-shabby room provided views of the pool and the sea. Usually we were lucky to have a window in our room, let alone something decent to look at. It was a welcome relief from the scenes outside. Being a hotel meant there was a distinct improvement in the quality of the accommodation we were staying in, but it also meant there was no kitchen available to us. It was time to brave the streets to find some dinner (hopefully without a guide).
View from the balcony.
Ocho Rios wasn't dissimilar to Kingston. Nothing fancy, nothing modern, a few American brands here and there. Every couple of minutes someone was offering us ganja, which we politely declined. One man even tried to buy me. Danny thought about it for a minute before turning down that proposal too.
We ate dinner at an Asian fast food restaurant, mostly because it looked like it wasn't about to give us food poisoning. The city felt safe enough to walk around but we were always on guard, ready to be ripped off at any moment. We didn't see a single other tourist in town. I guessed everyone else stayed in all-inclusive resorts, with no need to see this side of the country. So far, Jamaica wasn't exactly the paradise I was expecting.
The next day was slightly better. Waking up to the sound of the sea was always a good way to start the day. We ventured into Ocho Rios again, with the aim of heading out to Dunn River Falls. Route taxis were the public transport system of choice, which are regular cars or vans with red number plates that stick to one route. We must have asked 10 different drivers if they were going the way we wanted to go before finding one that, a) was going that way, and b) didn't want to charge us a fortune. I guess not many tourists organise their own tours.
The falls were beautiful. Numerous cascades of bright blue water, descending all the way from the forest down to the beach. Waterfalls and a beach in one? I was in water heaven. Tour group after tour group were climbing directly up the middle of the falls, something I wanted to have a go at. When we reached the bottom the guards informed us that we needed to wear special shoes if we wanted to climb, and that we weren't allowed to take bags with us. As the rental shoes and lockers cost money and we had already paid an exorbitant fee to enter the falls, we weren't willing to shell out more money.
While deciding what to do next (i.e. how to climb up the falls without the mandatory equipment) we took a dip in the sea, trying to forget what the outside world was like. In the end we ascended the steps on the side of the fall to the halfway point, where no guards were located. Danny carried my bag as I climbed barefooted, easily gripping onto the natural foot holes in the rocks. The cold water was a welcome refreshment from the muggy air. No one stopped me from reaching the top.
Climbing up the falls.
Waterfalls on the beach = great combination.
We caught a taxi back to town and hopped out where the cruise ships usually dock (there were none there today). Located around this area were dozens of shops only selling duty-free jewellery, alcohol and souvenirs. Of course we were obliged to taste a few rums, the coconut flavour being my favourite by far. Danny walked through multiple stores before finally buying a diving watch, an item he had wanted for a while. The saleslady was doing her best to persuade me to purchase a diamond ring and necklace. As I almost never wear jewellery, it would have been a complete waste of money. I don't part with that much cash so easily.
Nearby we found a restaurant selling vegetarian jerk, which I was keen to try. It tasted like oil with miscellaneous chewy bits. I could safely say I wasn't a fan. The 16.5% sales tax added to the bill didn't sit well with us either.
Diving was on our to-do list, so we headed towards the beach to talk to local dive operators. The only problem was that to reach the entrance of the dive shops we had to walk along the beach. To walk along the beach we needed to pay an entrance fee. Who charges entrance to a public beach? We gave up, bought supplies at the supermarket and made our way back to the hotel.
The locals on the street were no better during the day than they were last night. Every few steps someone was hassling us, walking along with us, or chatting to us, all trying to make money in some way (usually by asking where we wanted to go, offering to take us there and demanding a fee). All day we repeatedly heard "Where you from?" and we knew it was someone else we had to blow off. I tried the ignoring tactic, but Danny didn't follow suit and was constantly bailed up for a chat. As soon as they discovered we were Australian, the discussion naturally flowed to cricket. There are only so many times you can have exactly the same conversation. It was exhausting.
The manager at our hotel was lovely, happy to assist in any way. And assist he did, by calling a diving school for us to organise a trip the next day. With that sorted we could relax on our free beach at the hotel (even if it was the size of a shoebox). For dinner we didn't want to venture out on the streets again, so we prepare a salad in our room, with sub-par, store-bought jerk dressing. Going wild in Jamaica.
The diving trip was excellent. For a change we were taken out in a glass-bottomed boat, watching the shallow coral fly by underneath us. The divemaster was hilarious and extremely laid back, to the point where we wondered if he actually knew what he was doing. Once we were beneath the surface, our fears were put to rest, as he suddenly became professional and knowledgeable. The coral was average but the number and varieties of fish surrounding us made up for this. Some swam in schools, others hid behind rocks, and many of the species we hadn't seen before. The highlight was the spotted eagle rays, gliding along with a little baby ray by its side. Is there a baby animal in existence that isn't adorable?
After lunch we wandered around the shops in Ocho Rios, mesmerised yet again by a giant, modern supermarket. I hate shopping when I'm at home so I don't know why I spent so long walking up and down food aisles here. We also found another souvenir shop (which I only visited for the coconut rum), then we hit a bar for some local cocktails. The owner chatted to us for ages, and in the end he bought us a round of drinks. I wished we had found this place on our first night.