Jamaica was a dream destination long before COVID-19 hung all hopes of summer travel in the Caribbean. Visitors are drawn to the island’s reputed rhythm, which builds with every lapping wave and swaying banana palm, every shot of rum and espresso, and every patois word, then crescendos in Jamaica’s packed, sweaty dance halls.
Clubs may be out of the question this summer, but Jamaica can still be the island escape travelers need, now more than ever. Even Americans are invited. Although temporary travel requirements pose challenges for quick trips, Jamaica has opened up its most coveted coastline for the summer 2020 holiday. Here’s everything you need to know to enjoy it.
Before you go and getting there
Jamaica began reopening to international travelers last month, designating a “coronavirus-resilient” tourist zone on the north coast from Negril to Port Antonio. All travelers are required to apply for a travel authorization within 72 hours of their trip and will be asked to present their authorization at the airport prior to boarding. Travelers from high-risk areas are required to submit a negative COVID-19 test taken within 10 days of their departure date. From July 15, this includes US tourists from Florida, New York, Arizona, and Texas.
Air travelers will also be screened upon arrival. All passengers will be interviewed and have their health assessed at the airport. Those deemed high-risk may be asked to take a COVID-19 test, after which they’ll be required to quarantine at their accommodation pending the results. Travelers who test positive will be put in isolation at their hotel or a designated facility.
COVID-19 safety measures on the island
Tourists are restricted to the Resilient Corridor for the duration of their stay, per the current Stay in Zone order. Tourism operators in this zone must receive COVID-19 resiliency certificates before they’re permitted to open. Among the protocols outlined in the 120-page document shared by the Jamaica Tourist Board are health and hygiene mandates for accommodations like resorts and Airbnbs; transportation; beaches; and social activities.
Visitors are expected to do their part, as well. Travelers are required to practice social distancing and wear face masks in communal areas. Other safety precautions may be in place, as well, such as venues or transportation operating at limited capacity, or restaurants in town serving only takeout. Until July 31, there’s also an island-wide curfew from 11:00 PM to 5:00 AM.
Where to stay in the Resilient Corridor
Although Jamaica is not entirely open to travelers, the resorts that travelers overwhelmingly favored pre-pandemic are in the Resilient Corridor.
Montego Bay is Jamaica’s all-inclusive capital. Hyatt, Hilton, Holiday Inn, and other big names have claimed the blindingly white shoreline, carving out oceanfront real estate for resort guests. Sandals Montego Bay’s private beach is said to be one of the finest stretches.
Another of the island’s most popular towns, Ocho Rios, sits smack in the center of the northern coast. A big port for cruisers, it also has a rugged side. If the normally lively dining and nightlife scenes are operating at limited capacity or stunted by safety precautions, travelers can keep busy with zip lines and hikes to the Dunn’s River, Konoko, and Island Guy Falls instead.
In Negril, the western border of the tourist zone, adventure travelers can keep a safe social distance with activities like horseback riding, ATV riding, scuba diving, cliff jumping, and relaxing at Seven Mile Beach, which has been called Jamaica’s most beautiful. Everyone’s welcome: A former hippy colony, Negril now houses all-inclusives, luxury boutique hotels, and a range of affordable stays.
Port Antonio marks the eastern border of the tourist zone, yet it feels worlds away from the resortland to the west. The speed here is set by Blue Mountains hikes and bamboo rafting excursions down the Rio Grande. A couple of pricey hotels remind visitors of Port Antonio’s past as a 1940s A-lister getaway, but most stays now are modest and affordable.
Though the Resilient Corridor is funneling travelers very much onto the beaten path, there are some 150 miles between Negril and Port Antonio, with smaller towns like Falmouth and Runaway Bay breaking up the big resorts. That’s a fair trade for a travel zone that helps make COVID-19 easier to manage and trace for everyone’s safety.
How to enjoy the Jamaican outdoors while social distancing
With indoor activities limited, Jamaica’s outdoor adventure is more important than ever. Even fresh air sans excitement is key: Sunbathing can be socially distanced, after all.
When they’re not splayed out in the sand, travelers have their pick of beachy fun. Snorkeling is possible almost everywhere. Negril and Montego Bay are known to have reliably vibrant off-beach reefs, with Montego Bay sites like Marley’s Garden and Coyaba Reef snagging the advantage for snorkelers. Runaway Bay, located roughly 10 miles west of Ocho Rios, also opens to some excellent snorkeling, including at the Runaway Bay Wall.
Where Negril gets the advantage is scuba sites, from the 40-foot-deep Throne Room with its swim-through caves to the drift at The Arches, a max 70-foot dive site featuring the wreck of an intentionally sunken plane. Montego Bay and Ocho Rios have roughly a dozen dive sites of their own, while Port Antonio’s Alligator Reef is broken up into five sites of varying difficulty.
Falmouth, located midway between Montego and Runaway Bay, offers a different aquatic draw: the Luminous Lagoon. Here, travelers can take in the best of Jamaica’s bioluminescence with a nightly glow-in-the-dark lights show. Falmouth visitors can also try rafting on the Martha Brae River, much as they can on the Rio Grande in the Portland Parish.
Under normal circumstances, the 180-foot-tall, 600-foot-long Dunn’s River Falls outside of Ocho Rios is reason enough to visit Jamaica. The rare travertine waterfall network is one of the most-visited attractions in the entire Caribbean, offering both wet and dry climbs. Yet with great popularity comes great crowds. This particular trip, travelers may prefer the many runners-up in Ocho Rios, including the Turtle River, Konoko, and Kwame Falls. About 20 minutes away, visitors will also find Jamaica’s famous Blue Hole, which is fed by several smaller falls.
Then there are the Blue Mountains, where it’s nearly impossible to avoid social distancing. Head east toward Port Antonio if you like to hike. There are cascades here too, such as Reach Falls in Montane Forest, plus the range’s remote northern foothills nearby. Many of the trails cut through Port Antonio’s prolific banana plantations, including the three- to four-hour Golden Vale route and gentle walk up to the Watch Hill Lookout. Either will impress.