Staying Safe in the Caribbean
Clean, sandy beaches and warm, sunny days make vacationing in the Caribbean popular with tourists. Largely a safe and pleasurable holiday destination, the Caribbean islands offer limitless opportunities for fun in the sun. All travellers, however, need to be aware of the possible dangers associated with foreign travel, and you should familiarize yourself with the basics before you begin to pack your bags.
The Caribbean refers to a group of islands situated between North and South America, ranging from Cuba to Barbados. Some of their more popular vacation destinations include Antigua, the Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica and The Virgin Islands. When choosing travel dates to this area, be aware that hurricane season runs from June through November. The biggest boom in travel to the Caribbean is from mid-December through mid-April, when the weather is idyllic.
If you choose to stay at one of the large resorts, you won't need to worry about exchanging your currency since most will accept foreign bills, and since most, if not all of your activities will be hosted right at the resort, you will not need to concern yourself with driving a rental car.
For more adventurous types preferring to explore the countryside, you should know that in most Caribbean countries you drive on the left side of the road. The only exceptions are Aruba, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Martinique, and the Netherlands Antilles. For safety's sake, be extra cautious as many of the roads are narrow, winding and have frequent hairpin turns!
Most of the crime that you will encounter while on a Caribbean vacation is of the petty variety - pick-pocketing and purse-snatching - although there are reported incidents of violent crimes against tourists. To protect yourself and your belongings, use common sense. Travel in daylight hours whenever possible and carry only as much cash as is necessary. Many large hotels offer safes; use them for your extra funds as well as for any expensive electronics that you may have bought along.
Foreign travellers often forget that they are not protected by the laws of their homeland and must be aware of the variances of not only the regulations, but also the sentencing policies of foreign countries. Law enforcement officials in Caribbean countries have a low tolerance for public drunkenness and disorderly behaviour. Additionally, most countries in the Caribbean have very strict laws against the use, possession, or sale of narcotics. Foreigners arrested for possession of even small amounts of marijuana or cocaine can be charged with international drug trafficing. In some Caribbean countries, there is no bail and there are long judicial delays where you can spend years awaiting trial.
For the most part, the things you'll need to be most concerned about, however, aren't pick-pockets or drug charges. You are far more likely to suffer a bad case of sunburn than you are to be a victim of crime. Pack a good sunscreen with a higher SPF factor than you usually use. Not only will you likely be spending a great deal of time outdoors, the combination of sun, sand, and water can be brutal.
Water sports are part of the fun of a Caribbean getaway, but use caution. If you are renting equipment, ask for recommendations from your hotel or resort. It is vital that all equipment be in good condition and up to quality safety standards. When swimming, stick to areas protected by a lifeguard and never dive into unfamiliar waters. Water depth can be deceptive--if you want to dive, use the swimming pool, not the natural waters!
If you find yourself in need of medical attention while in the Caribbean, whether from sunburn or something more serious, be aware that the hospital may not accept your medical insurance and will instead require that you pay upfront with cash for any treatment that you receive. If you have a medical condition that requires regular treatment, you should definitely check with your insurance company in advance.
Here are few additional tidbits that may be helpful when travelling in the Caribbean:
- Medical care is extremely limited in many Caribbean countries. For instance, in Antigua and Barbuda, there are no hyperbaric chambers; divers requiring treatment for decompression illness must be evacuated from the islands.
- In the Bahamas, be sure to have some cash on hand. There is a hotel room tax, an energy surtax, a 15% mandatory gratuity in restaurants. Also, there is a departure tax which must be paid in cash.
- Montserrat, an island in the British West Indies, has an active volcano, which can pose a danger to tourists. Because of this, access to the southern part of the island is restricted. Persons entering restricted areas without authorization are subject to fine and/or imprisonment.
- If your kids get into trouble in the Bahamas, note that everyone 16 and older is tried as an adult.