You read a lot of warnings about driving in some countries (and Jamaica is one of them).
While I never drove a car during my travels in Central and South America, I certainly recognized that I preferred to be in a bus or a taxi than dealing with the insanity. But with the Jamaica trip, I was traveling with a companion. The cost of private transfer for two people was the same cost as renting a car. And the added benefit of having the freedom to visit nearby sights on our own schedule made it an easy decision.
The truth is that the drive from the airport in Montego Bay a seemingly small distance of 100 kilometers to Treasure Beach was quite possibly the most stressful experience of my life.
And I wasn’t even the one driving!
I write this post 1) as a warning so that you know what you are getting into and 2) to share some tips if you do decide to take on the challenge of driving in Jamaica.
Tips for Driving in Jamaica
#1 – Car rental insurance
When you rent a car, insurance is probably not covered by your credit card… unless you have Discover.
Check this out before you rent of course. The owner of Katamah clued me in on this, and I found it to be true renting through Island Car Rentals. This can save you HALF the price of a car rental.
#2 – Consider splurging on the mini-SUV
I suggest not renting the cheapest compact car because the pothole situation is out of control.
I’m cheap, so I rented the cheapest car. The car had zip ties on the hub caps. We thought it was so that nobody stole them or so that the company would know if you changed the tire. Turns out it is because the hub caps fall off because of the pot holes.
It was a rough ride. Go as slow as you need to until you get used to how to handle the potholes.
And if it rains, you’re screwed because the roads will fill with water quickly, and you won’t be able to see the potholes. The locals may know the roads well enough to avoid the potholes, so try to follow their lead. If nobody is in front of you, drive slow and pray.
#3 – If you don’t drive on the left side of the road at home, don’t assume it is easy.
It is strange to get used to oncoming traffic on your right side. It is hard to gauge how close you are to the left and right side of the lane when you’re driving from the right side of the car.
And the thing that is most likely to get you killed is a left-hand turn because your natural instinct will lead you into the right lane, which is oncoming traffic. I say this from experience.
#4 – Drive like you’re in a video game.
You may encounter goats, dogs, cows, people, carts… drive like it’s a video game (avoiding obstacles and making decisive moves, not the racing part). But keep in mind, you don’t have multiple lives.
#5 – Get an app for navigation.
Roads are poorly marked. For navigation, download an app that can use your smartphone GPS without a cellular network or wifi. We used Mapfactor Navigator. Before you leave, download the pack of maps for your destination.
#6 – Don’t just rely on navigation apps. Ask a local.
Both Google Maps and the navigation app indicated three routes between Treasure Beach and Montego Bay that all seemed to be on main roads and roughly the same distance. We asked at the rental car company, and they recommended the coastal route. On the way back to the airport, we thought we would try one of the other routes.
Less than a mile in, we decided to turn around because the road was not just filled with potholes. It was more like the road was one giant pothole, and calling it a road was quite a stretch. It could have gotten better in a mile, or if could have been several more miles creeping through torn up concrete.
#7 – Because of 2 through 5, I highly recommend a “driving assistant.”
After that first terrifying experience from Montego Bay to Treasure Beach, I had a better grasp on the challenges and instead of screeching and closing my eyes, I realized how to help the driver.
I held the GPS and kept an eye out for upcoming turns and was even able to give warning when there were windy turns ahead. I kept an eye out for obstacles and called them out for the driver.
Goat! Pothole! Cow! Pedestrian!
(you get the idea)