What It’s Like to Travel in the Caribbean — Locals and Travelers Weigh in

by Alejandro Bastidas

What It’s Like Series: Today we take you to the Caribbean, diving into travel insights from locals and visitors across the region

The colors of the Caribbean Sea leave a lifetime impression on those blessed to have seen it up close, redefining the possibilities of turquoise, and while similar tones can be found across the world’s seas, the same cannot be said about the cultures in the Caribbean. Between islands and coastal regions in the Americas, languages and accents and traditions flourish differently, but the experience of life at sea, in harmony with its creatures and corals, is shared by all. Stopping by the different ports and beaches reveals a region with unique stories that make compelling arguments for staying in the Caribbean—not for a week, not for one summer, but for the rest of your life.

While popular belief associates the Caribbean with relaxing on a beach with an assortment of cocktails in hand, places like Trinidad and Tobago defy this notion with a musical spirit that elevates party culture and festivals in a community. Traveler Jade Prevost-Manuel had the honor of attending J’ouvert, a celebration that showed her what pure freedom looks like, how transformation is possible under the spell of music. Her story “J’ouvert Morning” takes us through one of the most magical events in the Caribbean:

Trinidadians, or Trinis, call J’ouvert the happiest Monday of the year. Loosely described, it’s a street party. Beginning around 3 a.m. the Monday before Ash Wednesday, J’ouvert ‘masqueraders’ or party participants march through Port of Spain’s streets smearing strangers with mud and paint. Sometimes cocoa and oil. Fire-breathing blue men and daredevils balancing on 10-foot stilts dance among the band’s masqueraders, who follow trucks loaded with speakers blasting calypso music. J’ouvert’s name comes from a contraction of the French ‘Jour Ouvert’ meaning ‘daybreak’. That’s because the festival lasts well past dawn. It’s a celebration of life, liberty and the dissolution of class, they would say. The second your foot touches the pavement, your age, race and sex are dissolved by the reverberations of speaker-topped transport trucks. At J’ouvert, you’re a masquerader, and until daybreak each player is one and the same.”

J’ouvert being celebrated in Trinidad
Photo credit: Jade Prevost-Manuel

These experiences cannot be understood in documentaries or textbooks; they must be lived in the flesh, shared with the locals in reverence to their heritage. A wealth of cultural rituals awaits in the Caribbean, offering an opportunity for travelers to connect with the deepest parts of themselves and the land around them, as if they had known each other for ages. In that sense, traveling in the Caribbean feels like a homecoming.

Prevost-Manuel describes the embracing nature of the region, as reflected in J’ouvert:

The kinship I’d felt in J’ouvert far surpassed that of any celebration I’d taken part in before. It was spiritual and ran deep, far beneath a crafted exterior. It was a connection of souls. And we’d welcomed the start of carnival in its traditional, passionate, reckless way—through madness, revelry and unity.”

Rest and relaxation is still possible for weary travelers and spiritual adventurers alike. Costa Rica offers both the traditional approach, with its beautiful beaches and mountains, and also the more alternative route, in secluded areas with yogis. Traveler Hannah Hughes went for the latter, as described in her story “Pura Vida or Pure Crazy“:

“The yoga studio was located at the top of an empty road, an empty road that strayed off of a bigger empty road at the back of town. It was like the community didn’t want to be found, like they were only known through word of mouth, like only people truly dedicated to the art of finding themselves were allowed. The deserted-ness almost mystified the place. […] I entered the treehouse room in the yoga studio. The large window at the front overlooked tropical plants that twirled and twisted together, sprouting hot pink flowers and spiky green fruits. Past the trees and into the distance the Caribbean Sea was still, playing dead. Mountains backdropped the blue, growing fluffy moustache clouds on their faces. A Costa Rican paradise. In the treehouse, musical notes chimed through a speaker, echoey and trinkety, like some sort of unnerving pixie rain dance.

A sunset off the coast of Costa Rica
Photo credit: Hannah Hughes

The experience introduced her to the hardcore aspects of yoga, where relaxation isn’t an instant, guaranteed process for beginners, but to have attempted something out of one’s comfort zone is a memorable part of the traveling experience. So the quest for relaxation continues.

The Caribbean responds in its own language where relaxation and excitement are synonyms. Traveler Sydney Koeplin captured a close encounter with the local Bahamian wildlife in her story “Sharks and Shipwrecks,” describing how the two feelings harmonize:

“If you were careful, you could swim your way inside the hull of the ship, moving from compartment to compartment with the help of the high tide. Below me was a snorkeler’s dream; above me, the remnants of the boat seemed almost haunted. There was something eerie about seeing a ship stripped bare, failing its original and only purpose to float and instead settling on the ocean floor like an old dog too weak to walk anymore. […] My stomach leapt into my throat as I registered a flash of a dorsal fin.

Small, spotted, and uninterested in my sudden thrashing, the nurse shark glided past me, scanning the water for food that was mercifully not me. Mustache-like feelers swayed in the current as she snuffed along the seabed, searching for crustaceans. Deeming nothing up to her standards, the shark headed back from where she had come, disappearing into the depths of the wreck. I’d just had my first shark encounter of the day, but it wouldn’t be the last. Still somewhat in awe, I swam out from between the ship’s siding and into the light.

A shipwreck in the Bahamas
Photo credit: Sydney Koeplin

What happens after reaching that light? Travelers might glimpse the dockside fish markets and treat themselves to some local Bahamian delicacies. The problem is choosing what to eat, because options are abundant in the Bahamas, where each island in the archipelago has a distinct gastronomical style. Local fisherman Alan Brown showed Sonny Side from the Best Ever Food Review Show what makes Bahamian lobster stand out from the rest. Weighing between eight to nine pounds, the spiny lobster allows Bahamian chefs to demonstrate their creativity and resourcefulness, as no part of the lobster is wasted. Its sheer size enables large preparations paired with traditional Bahamian sides, such as roasted plantains with cinnamon and deep fried sweet potatoes. Local chef Elrod Munnings presented his unique twist on tamale: a Mesoamerican dish served inside a steamed corn leaf or banana leaf. Munnings stuffed his tamale with diced lobster, marinated with smoked paprika, garlic powder, cumin, and other spices, complemented by a portion of grits. He grilled the banana leaf and added mango sauce on top for a lifechanging culinary experience that cannot be found anywhere else in the word.  

In his story “Unequal,” traveler Jakob Sojun witnessed the reunion of strangers who, like him, found their way to Cartagena, Colombia, searching for the opportunity to live differently. He shared drinks with French and Venezuelan travelers, forming an improvised group of friends, as happens naturally in the Caribbean:

“As we left sobriety, we met more of Diego’s friends. Except for Sego (the French girl), they were all Venezuelans, some of whom had crossed the border only weeks ago. We drank with them, listened to their stories, listened to the music around the square. Beers followed more beers, and I heard about traveling by plane, bus, foot, and boat. About following loved ones, and about leaving others behind. We made jokes about the tourists who held their expensive cameras tightly against their hips, taking photographs of the Cartagena nightlife in the sweaty streets. We made jokes about dichotomy.”

Cartagena, Colombia by night
Photo credit: Jakob Sojun

Jakob was introduced to Sierra, also form Venezuela, who told him of her dream to become an architect and the difficulties of leaving her home country, and in turn he told her about his work in humanitarian aid. Coming from completely different worlds, they still found ways to relate to one another:

“Sierra and I talked about music, about hip hop, about old, heart-wrenching songs by Chavela Vargas, and about her favourite architects. We talked until our wells ran dry, until we still wanted more of each other but had exhausted time and words and simply sat, looking out at the sea, the sky above, and the lights of Cartagena in the distance.”

Colombian Andres Chaves was born and raised in Cartagena, where the Caribbean’s embrace reaches into the historical city and beyond, creating a rhythmic sway that seamlessly drives locals and tourists between the mainland and the vastness of the sea. Chaves recalls growing up in Cartagena as a taste of magical realism:

Walking through the walled city of Cartagena never gets old. It might have something to do with how timeless the city feels, with ancient ramparts and canons surrounding houses painted in lush colors, their colonial architecture preserved and blended into the city’s character, while modern buildings rise in the horizon. I live in one of those, and I have probably been to most of them at some point, considering that Cartagena is, on a spiritual level, a small town by the sea. Everyone knows who you are. Grandmothers in Cartagena are walking encyclopedias of the city’s families and their histories. Tell them one last name and they’ll probably give you the full family tree, with footnotes. Should you need to escape the social close quarters of the city, the Rosario Islands and Barú offer an idyllic Caribbean escapade, less than an hour away.”

Cartagena is as also a hotspot for the arts and cultural events. The world-renowned Hay Festival takes place in the city every January, hosting the most celebrated figures in literature and journalism, whose ideas and conversations are cherished by locals and tourists alike. Chaves also recalls attending the Cartagena International Film Festival after school and watching his old favorites like The Godfather on special screenings, then hearing contemporary directors and producers in conversation, sharing industry secrets and behind-the-scenes anecdotes that have stayed with him since. Cartagena is a city that exists outside of time, easy to remember for a lifetime, but difficult to replicate anywhere else in the world.

From close encounters with sharks spiking levels of adrenaline, to spiritual release through dance and celebration, and a recalibration of culinary preferences after having tasted the splendid gastronomy of the Caribbean, travelers surrender to the call of the turquoise sea. They carry the breeze, the skin-prickling heat, and the smiles of eager locals as reminders that paradise can be found in everyday life.

Cover photo credit

Our summer Travel Writing Workshops are coming up! Join us live online and learn how to uncover your best travel stories. Highly recommended for new and emerging travel writers.

You may also like


Contact Info