TRAVELING VEGAN IN JAMAICA

I’ve been traveling for as long as I can remember- whether it was for work or pleasure, it’s one of the things I crave most in life.

As a plant-based vegan, I always get asked how the whole “being vegan & traveling” thing works. For some, the idea seems intimidating- or even “impossible”. 

But the good news is that it’s neither of the above 😀

The truth is that you need to travel with a very open mind and expect a few things to happen. You’ll either be in for a real treat- especially in this time & age, where you can get superb options at vegan-friendly destinations (ex: Ethiopia, Canada, California, the Middle East, etc) Or you may need to be a little creative, meaning you may settle for a lunch that’s made of many side dishes instead of one entree 😀 And at times, you’ll have to be really basic and snack on new amazing fruits you’ve never tasted before, nuts, juices, etc.

My experience has usually been a juggling act of all three scenarios in any given trip. Which I personally don’t mind. Travel is meant to take you out of your routine and comfort zone. 

With that said, I figured I’d put together a recollection of my first trip to Jamaica, in 2013, which was my first “experiment in veganism”. While I had certainly started cutting down on meat at the time, I wasn’t 100% vegan yet. However, I committed to a self-imposed vegan test- and stuck to it for the entire week- in the land of jerk chicken, curry goat & escovitch fish. What a fabulous idea, lol.

Since I’m sitting on a TON of pictures from that trip, I felt it would be nice to share my experience in this beautiful island that I returned to seven times, and that eventually became home for the last three years.

No- I never had a boyfriend here FYI. I was coming back for other reasons.

P.S: I forgot to mention, this recollection should defy many stereotypes about travel in Jamaica. 

For starters, I honestly knew nothing about the island. Other than Bob Marley, I had no idea what to expect. I just knew it was a short three hour flight for me and was a warm getaway from the gruesome winter I had just endured. Oh- and after some research, I had heard of “Ital food”- a form of vegetarianism Rastas practice.

I came to Jamaica the first time as a couchsurfer- prior to the website turning into a creep fest. While I had travelled solo, I decided to meet up with a Lebanese couchsurfer and do the trip with him. A stranger who eventually became my travel buddy. It was an awesome experience.

My trip starts in Cooreville Gardens- a community situated along a main boulevard in Kingston. We were welcomed by our AMAZING hosts, a couple who were these incredible running & biking aficionados completing all sorts of semi and full marathons. They were super friendly and definitely set the tone for the rest of my trip! 

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We had arrived in the evening and our hosts decided to show us a bit of Kingston that same night.

We went to Devon House, the famous ice-cream parlour, situated at the former residence of George Stiebel, Jamaica’s first black millionaire. I skipped ice-cream that night (as I was uncertain by what options were vegan or sorbet)- but mostly because I was distracted by my surroundings.

In fact, I was distracted by Yohan Blake, whom I recognized at the bakery right next door.

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What a great start to this trip, I thought to myself! That same moment, I overheard a few people point at me and call me “whitey”- which didn’t bother me at all. I just found it curious- to then eventually realize that Jamaicans are very descriptive in their language. Now that I’m always under the sun, I get called “brownin’ “- but I also get “straight nose” or “H’Indian“. It’s nothing to take personally- in 99% of all cases, it’s simply a way to describe a person. Like say for example “that tall person with blue eyes and long black hair”.

We stuck around in Kingston for about two days. I wasn’t very interested in the typical touristy things and didn’t go to places like the Bob Marley Museum for instance.

I got to see Coronation market, which I was told is supposedly the largest produce market in the Caribbean (I’m unsure of this, but so I was told. This may be true for Caribbean islands specifically, but unlikely for the region). 

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Flash forward and today, it’s become one of my regular spots. In fact, it’s become one of my favourite places in Kingston. The colours, the odours, the characters… I love Coronation market!

As a curious vegan, obviously markets are always my favourite part of traveling. I get to explore new ingredients that I may have never seen before. For instance, that’s where I found out about ackee, the delicious fatty fruit cooked in savory dishes, that makes up the country’s national dish: ackee & saltfish (fret not though, there are countless vegan ways to enjoy ackee too!)

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It’s one interesting fruit that I have grown to LOVE and that I’ve featured countless times on the ‘gram. There were also all the stories of it being poisonous- I got at least 10 different stories around which part was poisonous. If you want to find out more, the amazing Amazing Ackee breaks it down pretty well here. Also for the record, Ackee comes from West Africa, and it is said the seed came to Jamaica on a slave ship in 1778.

Ackee was also featured for breakfast one day at our host’s home. Except I skipped it and stuck to a simple breakfast of “hardo bread” (the local staple- something of a very soft, pillowy, satisfying sandwich bread), callaloo (I developed a serious love affair with these leafy greens aka amaranth greens), and boiled green banana.

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The bread may had contained dairy or eggs- but when traveling, the truth is that there will be situations where you are just never going to know. It doesn’t make you a bad person making bad decisions- it’s just the reality of the situation. You aren’t in control of every single detail while traveling. And you have culture to also navigate around- which is something to be sensitive to.

That same morning, after explaining my love for food & culture, my lovely host allowed me to look around in her kitchen as I wanted to see what interesting things make up a typical Jamaican kitchen.

There was a basket of “ground provisions”- usually consisting of yam, banana, sweet potatoes & other. There was also a coconut- a good reminder that we are now in the tropics and coconut milk makes its way through many local dishes

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I found some Jerk Seasoning in the fridge (yes, I’m curious like that- but I also ask before opening someone’s fridge lol). We are in Jamaica, after all, and condiments, rubs & pepper sauces play a very important role around here.

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And then I discovered some more interesting things. One thing I learned is that Jamaica is the land of “tea”. Technically, it’s herbal tea we are talking about- black or green tea is not as popular here. If you walk into any supermarket, you’ll find aisles with a large selection of teas such as turmeric, ginger, fevergrass (lemongrass), peppermint, or cinnamon tea. On the other spectrum, there’s the extremely healthy- but terrifyingly bitter- cerassee or bissy tea, that are known to cleanse and purify the blood. Obviously, to someone fascinated by all things natural, this is a real treat for plant-based vegans like myself.

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At this home, I discovered soursop leaves too! Soursop is a common fruit in Jamaica- and you may have been coming across its anti-cancer properties as of late. Nature is truly a magical space.

Another interesting concoction I spotted was a container with rum & guinea hen weed, something my host would “sniff” to naturally decongest her stuffy nose. Ah yes- we are also on a rum island… rum, a liquor with 101 uses 🙂

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I then help my host to wash some callaloo. Known as “amaranth greens” in other parts of the world, callaloo is THE staple green in Jamaica and it is cooked in it’s own unique way, usually with tomatoes, ginger, thyme, scallion (or onions)…maybe a hot scotch bonnet in there too…and usually always in coconut oil. It’s incredibly healthy & delicious. I tried to eat it everyday 🙂

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So far, I definitely haven’t starved to death as a vegan in Jamaica lol 🙂

In fact, I was quite ready for what would come next: a hike to the peak of the Blue Mountains!

But what you don’t know, is that this hike starts at 1AM! I had never woken up in the middle of the night to hike a mountain, but Jamaica is ALWAYS full of surprises like that!

We had to leave Kingston and head out to the quaint Whitfield Hall- our starting point for the hike.

Roydel was our ride to make our way through the mountains to our base.

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We arrived early afternoon and were told that there was no electricity in the residence, so it’s light outs for a quick “nap” before the 1AM hike.

So I made sure to enjoy those short hours of daylight as much as I could.

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Part of the plan was to have an early dinner. I had indicated that I was vegan- no meat, dairy or eggs for me please.

Nonetheless, I spent time in the kitchen with Everton, in charge of our meal, and decided I’d help him wash the veggies. Cooking is a communal activity and it is the best way to bond with other humans. It’s teamwork at it’s best. We both made sure everything was ready before sunset- after that, it’s all oil lamps & gas stoves.

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After an early dinner, I cuddled into my fleece sweater (it’s cold up in the mountains) ready for my 1AM wake-up call.

And boy, when I stepped out to see a hazy moon, I thought to myself…. what on earth did I agree to?! Why am I out here in the middle of the night to hike a mountain?!

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But there’s no giving up. I ain’t a quitter and with the years, I especially have grown to appreciate physical & mental challenges.

I was told that at the peak, we’d get the most stunning view – and that we’d even see Cuba from the peak! Except that four hours later of steep climbing, we reached the peak and all I saw was this:

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P.S: I did the Blue Mountain peak hike again on New Year’s Eve in 2017, but this time from Mavis Bank, and still never saw Cuba 😀 But I have friends who have snapped some STUNNING views from up there. 

I felt this really great sense of achievement as this was my first BIG hike, let alone one that started in pitch dark, and one on a vegan diet. Oh- there was also a water-refilling point along the way, with the freshest, crispest and cleanest spring water you can get on the island.

On the way down, I snacked on the peanuts, nuts & dried fruit mixes that I had packed with me (peanut & nut based snacks are well common in Jamaica FYI).

I had interesting conversations with Paul, our hike guide pictured below, who climbed up like it was second nature (he’s done this trail countless times).

In day light, I also got to soak in more views.

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The air was so clean up here and the surroundings magnificent to say the least. I thought I’d be exhausted at this point, but somehow, a resurgence of energy crept in.

And the freshly brewed coffee that waited for us at Whitfield Hall (our base) only added to that 😀 Jamaica is renown to have some of the most exquisite coffee in the world, so it was the best way to wrap up this hike- along with lots of fruits to replenish. The oranges were picked from the yard, and there were some very unripe mountain peaches too 😀 Peaches are somewhat rare in Jamaica, but can be found if you know where to look.

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After this wonderful experience, it’s time to head back to Kingston. The views were magnificent and there was also some interesting hand painted signage and imagery along the way- something that had always intrigued me throughout all my trips, and that eventually led to Paint Jamaica, a street art initiative I spearheaded in 2014.

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At this point however, I’m starving and I NEED to eat something before I become uncontrollably hangry!

We’re dropped off at the busy & central Half Way Tree to catch a ride to Port Antonio- known for it’s postcard dreamy beaches and natural vibes. A nice change of scenery from Kingston.

But I need to eat. My travel buddy stopped at the Burger King and I went to the Ital cookshop right across the road “Bravo Ital”. This eatery is covered with all sorts of Rasta, Afrocentric hand painted imagery- it’s very cool.

I had something called “veggie chunks” for the first time ever, with rice & peas, some grated veggies and a generous side of my favourite: callaloo! The veggie chunks were definitely interesting to say the least- it very much emulated a meaty taste & texture. I don’t eat much faux-meat type foods, so this was a first. Later on, I found out veggie chunks is made of textured vegetable protein (aka “TVP”) and is a very common vegan option in Jamaica.

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My belly is well full, and we’re off to another adventure!

After a three hour ride, squeezed into an overpacked coaster bus blasting Celine Dion (and passengers singing along to what turns out is a favourite superstar singer around here), we’ve arrived to the beautiful Port Antonio. We’re also couch surfing here and I’m making the most of all the gorgeous beaches and the stunning Blue Lagoon here.

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Everything was so beautiful. I also found out there was a whole interesting surf culture at Boston Beach- a favourite of surfers all over the island. People were super friendly, I never once felt unsafe and no one ever stole a dollar. The men can be persistent yes, but I never felt unsafe. It may have also been the part of the island I chose to stay at. Port Antonio is no Negril or Montego Bay…

In fact, I came across many friendly faces (and more interesting hand painted surfaces) in between my fresh fruit, coconut water or banana chip snacks!

Update: I am now an avid salted plantain & cassava chips lover!

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We were also told to check out the luxury boutique hotel: The Trident. At the time, it had just recently opened, so we stopped by real quick and I had a fruit smoothie. If you’re a fan of reggae, you will recognize The Trident (the castle however) in Damian “Jr.Gong” Marley’s recent video clip.

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There were also some nice little food spots where I managed to enjoy some pretty good food.

One is Woody’s, a really colourful burger joint that oozes with joy, and walls covered with ten handfuls of sayings that make you stop and think for a minute. The owner, Cherry, is also part of the great experience there. She also makes a superbly flavourful jerk seasoning that she sells in glass bottles. Oh and how did I forget, there are vegan options too- namely the callaloo burger!

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Near the water, there are also two restaurants side by side with a completely opposite vibe. Survival Beach is an Ital Rasta food-shack-ish type of place where the chef decides on the daily menu, where you need LOTS of patience until he cooks it up for you, but you’re soothed by the priceless view of the sea- and if you’re there for dinner, most likely a stunning sunset too. It is the chillest vibe in the world- is how I would sum up Survival Beach. And I ALWAYS ate real well there- and met some local characters along the way.

Right next door is Anna Banana, a bit more of a “fancier” place- with slightly higher prices- and more traditional fare, cooked in all those intense spices that make up the West Indies. I had a delicious vegetable curry, and again, that stunning sunset as my backdrop.

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I also munched on lots of delicious tropical fruits like mango and naseberry- but also soursop, which I particularly enjoyed eating straight off the spoon! A woman on Winnifred beach also gave me some aloe vera from her yard, to soothe my skin after all these sunny days lounging at the beach. I thought that was very kind of her! 🙂 In fact, my many trips later, I became fascinated with all these natural treatments that grow in people’s back yards, here in Jamaica. It’s pretty cool to have all these things within hands reach- and everyone has a story about the multiple ways they use all these magical plants. It’s one of my favourite topics to explore with locals!

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Port Antonio was really dreamy and as I was told, indeed far less touristy then other parts of the island (which is what I wanted). But all good things come to an end- and my trip ends back where it started: in Kingston. I have one last day to do something before catching my flight- and I want to go to Trench Town. I wanted to see the community more than anything else- which flash forward three trips later- became a place where I started a crowdfund to help fix an old age home for the blind that I had come across.

In that same visit, I also saw more Ital kitchens and freshly made beetroot & carrot juices. The natural fruit juice culture is quite fascinating in Jamaica by the way- and the further you go out of your way, the more you come across real interesting concoctions. In “country” (what locals allude to as anything outside of Kingston), you’ll meet people who talk about pumpkin juice and breadfruit punch. There’s also often ginger or turmeric or other interesting spices spiked into these juices- for that extra zing as a reminder that we are in the West Indies, a well kept secret & cradle of spices in itself.

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I had met incredible people, seen beautiful things, soaked in lots of sunshine and was surrounded by so much chlorophyll eye candy- all while surviving in Jamaica as a vegan. It was quite easy- and in fact, it continued all the way to my boarding gate, at the airport.

Back then, there was this heaven-sent “healthy foods” kiosk at the Norman Manley airport that sold some amazing juices, fresh fruit and baked vegan patties. I relished the last bit of tropical tastes with a callaloo patty, a fresh cucumber-ginger juice, some sweet honey-tasting papaya and a bag of peanuts. Unfortunately, this shop is no longer there 😦

My trip had come to an end, my vegan experiment was a success, and this trip was only the beginning to a much longer story I had to continue with- and in- Jamaica.

Today, I blog out of my small kitchen in Kingston and still inspired by this mystical & magical island that I’ve made my home.

If you’d like to repost or share this article, please, please have the courtesy to contact me first. I took all the pictures you see here. Thank you for taking the time to read through all of this!

Also! If you’re curious to know where all the good vegan eats are in Jamaica, I put this directory together a while back. Click HERE for more! 

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