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Most visitors already have a mental picture of this English-speaking nation before they arrive: its boisterous culture of reggae and Rastafarianism, and its sandy beaches, lush foliage, rivers, mountains, and clear waterfalls. Jamaica's art and cuisine are also remarkable.

Jamaica can be a tranquil and intriguing island, but there's no denying that it's plagued by crime and drugs. There is also palpable racial tension here. But many visitors are unaffected; they're escorted from the airport to their hotel grounds and venture out only on expensive organized tours. These vacationers are largely sheltered from the less predictable and sometimes dangerous side of Jamaica. Those who want to see "the real Jamaica," or at least to see the island in greater depth, should be prepared for some hassle. Vendors on the beaches and in the markets can be particularly aggressive.

Most Jamaicans, in spite of their hard times, have unrelenting good humor and genuinely welcome visitors to the island. Others, certainly a minority, harm the tourism business, so that many visitors vow never to return. Jamaica's appealing aspects have to be weighed against its poverty and problems, the legacy of traumatic political upheavals that have characterized the island in past decades, beginning in the 1970s.

So should you go? By all means, yes. Be prudent and cautious -- just as if you were visiting New York, Miami, or Los Angeles. But Jamaica is worth it. The island has fine hotels and terrific food. It's well-geared to couples who come to tie the knot or celebrate their honeymoon. As for sports, Jamaica boasts the best golf courses in the West Indies, and its landscape affords visitors a lot of activities that just aren't available on other islands, such as rafting and serious hiking. The island also has some of the finest diving waters in the world.

Did You Know?

  • Jamaica is the third largest of the 51 inhabited islands in the Caribbean -- only Cuba and Hispaniola are bigger.
  • Ackee, though cooked and used as a vegetable, is actually a fruit that is poisonous until it bursts open and its gases escape. It is part of Jamaica's national dish, ackee and salt fish.
  • Blue Mountain coffee, grown on the slopes of Jamaica's loftiest mountain, is among the tastiest and most sought-after coffees in the world.
  • From 1503 to 1504, Christopher Columbus spent about a year off the North Coast of Jamaica because his worm-eaten vessels weren't seaworthy.
  • In the 17th century, the notorious privateer Henry Morgan presided over Jamaica's Port Royal, known as the "wickedest city on earth."
  • On August 6, 1962, England's Princess Margaret and U.S. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson watched as the British Union Jack was lowered and a new flag was raised as Jamaica attained independence. The new flag featured a gold cross on a black-and-green background.
  • Rastafarians, a Jamaican religious group, venerate the late Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie.
  • Some Jamaicans regard ganja (marijuana) as a sacred plant and testify to its healing power.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.