Renting a Car in Jamaica, my Experience

In September of 2010 I decided that instead of dealing with charter taxis in Jamaica I would rent my own car.  Having a great deal of experience driving in Jamaica…4 miles in a van and maybe 300 miles on a scooter/motor bike I knew I was ready!  But…. I know how the roads are in rural locations so I knew in my heart I didn’t want a car but rather a SUV or Hummer!

rental 1

Shopping for a rental car: Shopping for a rental car over the internet is a challenge to say the least.  All of the cheap cars are mini sub compacts that hold maybe a small cat with limited luggage and their ground clearance will not allow me to combat the pot holes.  I really wanted a tank or at least a Hummer but neither were available….it’s a manly thing to have a big ride in case you didn’t know.  So my search was limited to a SUV (how humbling).  To make matters worse all of the SUV’s on the island are girly SUV’s!  After spending a few weeks looking around at the local and international rental places I decided for about the same money I would  go for the safe route and book with a company that I knew from the states (US.

Pick up and Delivery of my Rental Car: After sailing through the Jamaican customs and immigrations, I hit a giant roadblock picking up my rental SUV.  It was like time was running at a snails pace!  The normal 5 minute stuff lasted 40 minutes and when we got to additional drivers time just stood still.  I wanted to add a local friend of mine who just flew into Mobay a week ago and stopped by the rental place to provide his license.  At the time the rental clerk said everything was okay and they didn’t take a copy of his license.  When I showed up, not having a copy of the license was some sort of federal crime.  After another hour of pure fuckery I decided that I would be the only person driving and left to pick up my rental.

rental 2

Inspecting a Rental Car: In the pouring rain I had to follow my rental guy around my SUV at 100 mph agreeing that everything was perfect.  To his dislike, I slowed him down and took several pictures of scratches and such and forced him to mark on his card that every surface of the SUV had defects.  At first he was a little pissy but as I was taking more and more pictures he knew his opinion was not going to get me to sign out the car. In the end, I had a rental card that showed that every surface had defects without any details as to what the exact defects were.

Driving in Jamaica: Leaving the airport I hit one of the only round abouts on the island.  Being from Massachusetts, I’m an expert at them but seeing as how I’m driving on the other side of the road, my mind locked up.   I was only a few yards away from the circle when I knew I had to go left(east) and my mind was saying to go right but I knew I had to go left…..confused!  After maybe a minute I figured the whole thing out and overcame that mountain of a challenge.  A few miles down the road I was able to stop at my favorite gas station (overpriced convenience store) and at my favorite north coast Cambio.  I have to add that as a tourist getting out of a rental car a few miles from the airport, I smell like money to the dozen or so people hanging out in front of the cambio.  While walking inside, I knew in my mind that I left $5000 or so of camera equipment in the car along with cash and that I would be walking out with $100,000 or so in Jamaican money.  Needless to say, when I got out it was time to get the fuc out of dodge!

Over the next 60 miles I learned a few hundred times that my turn signal and my windshield wipers were on “the wrong side” compared to how they are at home.  Actually, over the next several days I proved to myself time and time again that I kept getting the controls confused….damn those English folks for making Jamaicans drive on the wrong side of the road and messing up where their controls are(kidding)!  Since I knew that I was driving on the north coast highway and it was the best highway on the island, I settled in and got use to driving.  Several times other drivers alerted me to radar traps and random police stops, after experiencing them before (machine guns and such) I kept my speed nice and slow and my mind on the wheel instead of on gin-n-juice or ganja.

After 90 minutes or so, I reached Ochi, the armpit of Jamaica when it comes to tourist and being harassed.  As much as I hate the town, it was only fitting that it rained like I have never seen it before.  The streets looked like rivers and random rocks and streams of sand made some streets a danger unless you drove a vehicle with very good ground clearance.  I drove around for 30 minutes or so to kill some time before I had to drop of wedding photographs that I took almost a year before to some friends of mine that got married over in Negril.   It was sort of a sucky meeting…’s your complete wedding on 3 DVD’s…we are getting soaked….have a good day.

rental 4

20 minutes later I was heading up to where my friends live in the hills above Runaway bay.  Finally roads that I knew like the back of my hand……or so I thought.  I got lost twice before I gave up and hired a local to show me  the way.  It cost me a $3.00US tip for a local to drive with me for 20 minutes and then he had  to walk back on his own even after my offer to drive him back.  My feeble attempt of being proud of my navigation skills died when my hosts claimed that locals called them several times to let them know about my route through the hills.  <–Locals like to forewarn people that foreign people are roaming about looking for them!

The next day my local friend and a couple of tag alongs loaded up and we were heading to Red Light, a town about 15 miles north of Kingston.  Looking at my new (and expensive map) I knew it should only take a few hours.  But….the maps show straight lines instead of all the hairpin turns!  It seemed like hours before we finally turned up into the mountains and from there it was turn after turn at 20-30 miles per hour.  It’s hard to describe how stressful the driving was with cliffs on one side and the other side of my SUV rubbing up against trees and such. Several times I offered my childhood friend (now  local) to drive but he kept reminding me that he was not on my rental insurance.  I think the real reason for him not driving is that I have over the years commented on how degrading the act of driving is.  “Nah, you drive, it’s so degrading for me to drive”….ah my word comes back to bite me!  After a couple of hours and several stop to provision for our stay in the Blue Mountains my friend’s (the navigator) and my memory of the mountains began to have a conflict.  I kept saying over and over the towns that we should past through and the towns that we were passing through were different.  Finally after reaching Kingston (never in our plans) I figured out that my navigator had a title that he did not deserve!  After several calls to our “resort” (Rafjam) and several somewhat heated debates we headed back into the mountains on another road.

Driving up into the Blue Mountains was a driving experience that is beyond description.  On one side you have a cliff that has a 1000 foot drop off and on the other side you have a mountain.  The road is just a series of 180 turns so 5 miles = 10,000 miles and the whole trip seems like a life of stress.  After getting lost several times and with thoughts of throwing my navigator over a cliff we reached our resort area.  The directions were turn right at “Redlight” until we reach the resort.  As soon as we made the first turn we knew it was a donkey trail at best.  Thank god I got the SUV because the the road was something out of a bad movie!  At one point a huge rock made a canopy above the rental SUV and the insurance thingy was ringing in my head.  It was a real relief that our resort owner drove us around the mountains in my SUV so I could enjoy a few days without stress….even though my insurance would not cover him.

rental 3

Driving south and out of the Blue Mountains was a more enjoyable experience!   I strapped a video camera on the front of the SUV to capture the sites, the sounds and the constant honking of the horns at every blind corner.  I would post the video but some ass clown stole my video camera…..$100 camera but I would pay 3 times that for just the SD card with my video.  Looking back, I’m glad that my cheap camera was stolen and not one of the other two I had with me or some of my lenses that cost more than my trip.

Once reaching Kingston, I knew I had to get out of town and to the west coast as soon as possible.  The heavy smoggy air and the traffic reminded me of bad places back at home.  For an hour we were stuck in traffic that lead up to a roadblock that the military set up.  Sitting in this type of traffic while it’s like an oven in the car forced me to turn on the AC and for several reasons using an AC in Jamaica is just wrong.  Like me expand on this thought, with the AC on and the windows up you can not hear what is going on outside of your car, you condition your body to 60 degree temps and every time you leave the car your body goes into a mild type of shock, you burn more gas and gas is expensive in Jamaica!  At one point a random guy started to wash my windshield and in my best Patois I yelled at him that we don’t want it washed and that I don’t have any money with me to give him a tip.  Over and over I stressed that he should back off but my message fell on deaf ears until it was time to pay up….those deaf ears washed my window for free since supporting a forced service sends the wrong message.

Looking at a map and comparing it to the north coast, the drive from Kingston to Negril should take a little under 3 hours…..wrong…wrong…wrong!  The drive takes about twice that time at a safe pace with a few stops.  The first half of our drive up to Mandeville was a pleasure even though the lack of roadsigns and the lack of skills on the part of my navigator caused a few detours and miles of backtracking when we missed turns.  Once passing through Mandeville, we got hit with a rain storm that flooded all of the roads.  In parts the two lane roads turned into one lane roads and it other parts you could not see the roads.  At this point I was really happy that our girly SUV had a good ground clearance so we did not hydroplane!

rental 5

Once we reached SAV the need for a car with high ground clearance was over.  The roads from SAV back to the north coast are in excellent shape during the day.  At night the lack of white and yellow lines on the roads combined with the lack of lights on the roads and the sun bleaching the roads makes driving a really awful experience for me.

A few tips for driving in Jamaica:

1.  Keep your gas tank at least half full since gas stations are not on every corner like at home.

2.  Tire or as they call them Tyre damage can and will happen because of the pot holes.  Be sure to inspect your tires, rims and your spare tire before you pay for a rental.

3.  The people in the center of a round about have the right of way unlike at home.

4.  Make sure your rental car has proof of an inspection, you have your license with you and you have bribe money if you wish to pay off the police instead of paying for a ticket.  Generally a $5-$10 ($500-$1000 Jamaican dollars) bribe is fine  but if you pull out a wad of money the fine will be more.  Hint, keep $500J in one location and $1000j in another location.

5.  Don’t transport ganja or other drugs!  It doesn’t matter if it’s a single joint/spliff or a giant bag, the police will ruin your day or at least your budget if they search your car and find drugs.  If you smoke just buy a bag/spliff when you stop for a break.  There is not a single place on the island where you can’t get a spliff….scream ” I need a spliff” and watch how many people will help you with your needs… don’t take a risk with a spliff in your car.

6.  Roadblocks, have your ID and paperwork ready and keep your hands where the fine people with machine guns can see them.  If you drive around the island you will be stopped 1-10 times (a luck and karma thing) at these horrible and stressful roadblocks.

7.  Drive slow on rural roads since the school kids have to walk on them to get to school, the random cows, broken down cars, dogs and such also share the same road with you.  One thing to note, goats for some reason are smarter than all of god’s other creations and they seldom get run over…everything else stains the pavement red so keep it slow so you don’t ruin your trip by running over a kid walking to school.

8.  Lock up your stuff in the trunk and keep anything worth stealing out of site!  Lock up your stuff in the trunk and keep anything worth stealing out of site!  Should I repeat it a third time?

9.  Park your rental car in secure locations.  With a rental car you are sort of marked as a rich tourist with money.  Keep this in mind whenever you leave your car.  In some rare cases this might require hiring someone to watch over your car but after a little while you will get a feel for the whole concept.

10.  There always has to be a number ten!  #10……just f’ing enjoy your trip, enjoy the sights, sounds, smells and culture.  Renting a car gives you the freedom to go where you want any time you want to go there, by renting a car you paid for this freedom so enjoy it!  Load up a few cold beverages, a good map, a clear head and explore the island!

I would like to thank the 100′s of Monday night quarterbacks on tripadvisor and who have never rented a car and warn people about renting them….not sure why I want to thank them but maybe they inspired me to write about my experiences?  Also a special thanks to Ohliz for sharing her car rental experience on several Jamaica sites and providing her views on the topic.


2 Comments on "Renting a Car in Jamaica, my Experience"

  1. Anton Kerr on Tue, 1st Mar 2011 4:48 pm 

    Great Site. Jamaica Travel Links offers to you the best and most reasonable transportation packages.
    With these packages you have young, experienced, informative and non-alcoholic chauffeurs. You are provided with effective, reliable and most roads worthy vehicles that are inspected and licensed by the authorized personnel’s representing the Government of Jamaica to ensure that all standards are met.

  2. Eco on Tue, 1st Mar 2011 5:40 pm 

    Anton, normally I delete spam links like yours but your link actually went to a good site. Spend some time learning how to leave blog comments WITH a link that do not get deleted. The forums over at digitalpoint are a start, you got the design part down but SEO takes time and spamming just wastes that time.

    “non-alcoholic chauffeurs.” How about drivers that do not partake in alcoholic beverages or ganja prior to or during their tours?

    “With these packages you have young…..” what does age have to do with anything? Are people really worried about an older driver passing away at the wheel? Plus young and experienced are not always perceived as going hand in hand.

    Good luck!

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