I’ve spent the last 5 weeks hopping around the South Caribbean islands and loving the relaxing lifestyle. Despite each island being so close in proximity, they each have their own unique identity and culture. In this post, I’m going to share with you some of my favorite experiences, as well as provide you with tips and helpful knowledge that you’ll need before planning a trip to one of the most beautiful regions on earth – the South Caribbean.
The only other time I had been to the Caribbean prior to this trip was back in 2005, when I was on a family cruise to the Bahamas, St. Maarten and Haiti. I was young, naïve and clueless at that time, and therefore I didn’t remember much about what to expect.
So, how did I prepare to visit the Caribbean this time around?
Well…. I didn’t.
Just like how I rarely prepare for other trips — I prefer to show up with an open mind and a strong desire to learn about some new places. And then, go wherever the wind takes me!
The countries I visited, in order, were:
- Trinidad and Tobago
- St. Lucia
- St. Vincent
I realize that both Suriname and Guyana are technically part of South America, but they share a similar culture and lifestyle as the Caribbean islands, so I have included them in this list. Feel free to read more about my amazing trip to Suriname in this blog post, but for the remainder of this post, I’m specifically referring to the South Caribbean islands of Barbados, St. Lucia, Dominica, St. Vincent, and Grenada.
The South Caribbean – General Info
All the island countries in the South Caribbean are very small, each with a population from 70K – 1.5 million. They are often referred to as the “chain of islands” in the Lesser Antilles — starting with Dominica and bending southward until Trinidad and Tobago.
Due to the small population of each island, you won’t find any “big cities” — but rather, small towns and even smaller villages.
What does this mean?
It means that everyone knows each other (more or less), and there are really tight communities. For example, every time I was riding in a shared minivan to get around town, I noticed the driver honking and waving at everyone on the streets. I also saw many people on the streets waving (or recognizing) each other.
Speaking of shared minivans (also known as collectivos or marshrutkas in former Soviet countries) — these are the major public transportation vehicles to get from point A to B. They usually cover all the big points across each country – and they are cheap (usually $1-2 USD per person per ride). Shared minivans do not run on a specific time schedule, but rather, they go whenever the bus fills up. Basically, it’s a first come, first serve basis — which is exactly why nobody is ever in a hurry in the Caribbean.
And now for a brief history lesson on the region… Most (if not all) of the South Caribbean islands were colonized by either the British, French, Spanish or Dutch explorers at some point from the 15th to 20th Centuries. Many of the islands, like Dominica and St. Lucia, were in possession by several of these European countries before finally being taken over by one (in the case of Dominica & St. Lucia, it was the British.)
When the South Caribbean was controlled by Europeans, they brought over a significant number of slaves from West Africa to work on plantations, etc., which is why a large majority of the population in the Caribbean today remains of African heritage. There is also a population of Indian, Caucasian, Indigenous and Asian people, depending on which country or region you visit.
For your curiosity, here is a breakdown of which country ruled (or still rules) which Caribbean island:
The Dutch Caribbean – ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao), St. Maarten and Suriname
The Spanish Caribbean – Mexico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Anguilla, Jamaica, Cayman Islands, among more.
The British Caribbean – Belize, Dominica, Bermuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos, BVI, The Bahamas, Barbados, among more.
The French Caribbean – Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, among more.
As you may imagine, each European settlement brought over influences from their country (such as religion, language, cuisine) to the islands, and they remain this way in modern society. That’s why you’ll notice people speaking French in Martinique, see people driving on the left size of the road in St. Lucia, and see cricket as the most popular sport in the British Caribbean islands.
What language do they speak in the South Caribbean?
Almost everyone can speak or understand English fluently, and each country has their own dialect of pidgin English and/or creole. Pidgin English like a simplified version of English with combined words and shorter phrases, and creole is developed from a mixture of languages (Indigenous/African/European dialects). I could hardly understand locals when they were speaking pidgin or creole with each other, but I thought it was fascinating to hear!
Regardless of race or ethnicity, I found almost everyone in the Caribbean to be friendly and laid-back. Not once did I feel unwelcomed by anyone, which is a HUGE positive and makes me want to come back again. I spent as many days in small villages as I did in major towns, and people always smiled and said “hello” to me on the street and made sure I was doing okay. I love this!
Oh, and the kids are adorable! I randomly visited several schools and brought the kids candy and enjoyed their smiling faces 🙂
No matter where you go in the Caribbean, one thing is for sure – it’s an extremely relaxing lifestyle.
What do I mean by this?
Instead of saying “Hello” – many people will just say “Yah Mon.” You can wear flip flops and a swimsuit to most bars, as they are on the sea, and you can always jam to Caribbean-style music (more on that below). If you aren’t staying in a main town (i.e. a village), than expect the power and/or water to frequently cut out. It happened to me in Dominica when I didn’t have water for 2 days, so I had to shower in the river. It also happened to me again during Tropical Storm Matthew in St. Lucia. My point is — don’t expect to get anywhere in a hurry.
Caribbean-style music is heard everywhere, and it’s a cross between hip hop and reggae. Trust me – everyone listens to it and you cannot escape it (not that you’d want to). Some famous artists that are from the Caribbean are Bob Marley, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Shaggy, Billy Ocean, Wyclef Jean — you get the idea of the kind of music!
Don’t be intimidated when you see lots of men with long dreadlocks, because it’s the style in the Caribbean! Oh, and if you couldn’t take the hint yet, a lot of people regularly smoke weed and it’s available anywhere you go. Yah mon!
When to visit the South Caribbean?
I went during the month of September, which is the off-season (AKA Hurricane season). This means that cruise ships don’t regularly run and most scuba dive places, resorts, etc were closed down. There were pros and cons to traveling in September (it was nice to be away from tourists), but if I did the trip over again, I’d rather go during peak season (November-March) when the culture is thriving, weather is nicer, and hotels/restaurants are busier.
When I was in St. Lucia on September 29, 2016, a massive tropical storm/hurricane named Matthew swept the island and it was the most powerful storm I’ve ever experienced. Heavy wind, heavier rain, flooded streets and we were without power or electricity for 24 hours. It was very scary. Another reason to avoid traveling here in September.
Prices in the South Caribbean
Nothing is cheap… Shopping at the supermarket is about 3X the price of the USA.
Some countries are more expensive than others (i.e. Barbados), but generally speaking, it’s nearly impossible to travel around the South Caribbean on a tight budget. Put it this way, the amount of money I spent in 5 weeks in the South Caribbean is the same amount I spend in 4 months in Southeast Asia (living the same lifestyle).
Everything from taxis, to food, to accommodations are absurdly expensive. This is mostly due to the fact that these countries don’t produce much, and heavily rely on importing goods from the U.S. and Europe, and there is a big import tax on things coming in.
The currency used across most of the South Caribbean (7 Countries to be exact) is called the East Caribbean Dollar. When I was there in Sept.’16, the exchange rate was $1USD = $2.7 EC. However, it’s good to note that every country in the South Caribbean accepts U.S. Dollars and most of them accept Euros. So, if you want to avoid ATM fees or exchange desk fees, then bring a lot of U.S. dollars with you. Credit/Debit cards are widely accepted in restaurants, hotels and cafes.
If you’re not traveling via cruise ship, then most islands are tough to get to.
There are only 2 airlines that serve the majority of the Caribbean – LIAT and Caribbean Air (unless you are flying directly to/from the U.S., then you can find many big airlines such as United, Air Canada or JetBlue).
LIAT Air is one of the worst airlines I’ve ever flown, because all of my flights were delayed 2-3 hours, and flight cancellations/ lost baggage happen often. Just remember, LIAT = Leave Island Any Time or Luggage in Another Terminal….
Caribbean Air was decent actually, so I’d recommend using them if they offer routes to your desired country.
One-way flight tickets on both LIAT and Caribbean range from $100-$150 if you book 1-4 weeks in advance, but if you book 4-8 weeks out, then you can find better deals as low as $50. Therefore, I highly recommend booking all of your flights 4+ weeks in advance, so you can save money.
Surprisingly, you cannot take ferries from country to country (with the exception of Dominica to St. Lucia). The only way to get around is by taking an organized cruise ship, chartering a private boat, or flying.
Once you are on any given island, you can take a minivan (shared car) to get around as I discussed above. It’s cheap, and easy – and they usually blast Caribbean music inside!
Food/Drink in the South Caribbean
The cuisines around the Caribbean varies by country, largely because of the ethnic background of the population. For example, there are a lot of East Indian people living in Trinidad, so you can find a large assortment of Indian food (you have to try doubles!)
That being said, almost all countries have amazing seafood (obviously) and locally grown, tropical vegetables/fruit. I am eating a mini banana as I am writing this in Dominica and it’s so fresh and so good!
The most notorious “local cuisine” is creole food, which consists of rice, plantains, beans, cassava, cilantro, bell peppers, chickpeas, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, coconuts and any variation of local meats such as beef, pork, chicken and fish.
Rum is the alcoholic beverage of choice, as each Caribbean island has it’s own Rum factory. It’s funny, because I always asked the locals about their country’s Rum, and they ALWAYS claim theirs to be the best in the Caribbean. From my experience, I thought the one in Barbados called Mount Gay was the tastiest. It’s also the oldest Rum distillery on earth.
Each country has it’s own domestic beer, which were all tasty. My favorite was Kubuli in Dominica. Piton was also delicious in St. Lucia!
Where to Stay?
Given that some islands are more developed & touristy than others, the variations of hotels/apartments/guesthouses may differ. For example, St. Lucia and Barbados are two of the most touristy islands, so they have many resorts and fancy hotels. In Dominica, there are few hotels.
I personally stayed at Air Bnbs in each country, and I highly recommend it. Air Bnb makes it very easy to find local places for an affordable price, and it’s also nice to meet locals who can share tips and advice about their country. Some of my Air Bnb guests gave me free tours around their island!
Things to do
If you are a scuba diver, like myself, then you might be in heaven as there are world-class diving sites in almost every island. I dived with Dair Fair Helen in St. Lucia, and they were fantastic to work with!
If you go to St. Lucia, then I highly recommend Dive Fair Helen as they also do kayaking tours, and organize customized group tours around the island. All of their tours focus on the same goal – to experience the local culture. They took us all around the island, visiting local schools, tasting local foods and getting a feel for the lifestyle on the island. On their scuba dive tours, they cook local creole food for you to taste and enjoy. They are simply the best!
Most islands have places to hike and trek, if you are into those sorts of outdoor activities. Also, zip lining is a common sport around, as you will find some of the most intense zip lines in the world (especially in St Lucia!) Other than that, soak up the sun at one of the thousand beaches 🙂
Or go kayaking, if you want some exercise!
For the remainder of this blog post, I am going to give you the top 5 highlights of my trip.
My top 5 Highlights in the South Caribbean
1. Scuba Diving & Pitons in St. Lucia – It’s a tie between scuba diving and seeing the Piton mountains for my favorite memories in the South Caribbean! Both activities were arranged by my good friends at Dive Fair Helen – they really put on the best tours on the island!
I went on 4 dives in St. Lucia and saw a large variety of sea life including moral eels, turtles, giant lobsters, lion fish, puffer fish, sea horse and dozens of species of fish. My favorite dive was the ship wreck just off the shore, where I could swim into the pitch black rooms of the boat and see some amazing corals/fish living inside the former boat.
On the other hand, the Piton mountains (a UNESCO site) are two mountainous volcanic spires about 2,500 ft. high that are located directly on the sea. We hiked a trail in between the two pitons and got some incredible views, but I would recommend to do the 4-hour hike up to the top if you get the chance!
2. Chasing Waterfalls in Dominica – I spent a week in Dominica, one of the least touristic islands in the Caribbean, and it FAR blew away my expectations. This island has everything you can imagine– mountains, rainforests, beaches, cliffs, jungle, wildlife and more. The best part? The population is only 70,000, which means untouched natural beauty and a culture without a lot of Western influence.
One day, we went on a full day tour, visiting the famous Trafalgar Falls as well as about 5 more natural falls. Unreal!
3. Beachin’ it in Trinidad – Regrettably, I only visited Trinidad for 8 hours during a layover from Suriname to Barbados. Despite the short visit, I went on an amazing day tour with Island Experiences TT – and we covered more ground than I would have covered on my own in 3 days!
We spent a few hours at a lovely beach called Maracas Beach, where the palm trees in the white sand were bending over the bright blue sea. We also got “bake and shark” at a famous place called Richards Bake & Shark. It’s a well known Trinidadian dish with fried shark in a bun and a whole lot of toppings!
4. Sunset Beaches in Barbados – I spent a week in Barbados, and enjoyed every minute of it. I stayed at a great Air Bnb that was away from all the touristy beaches and resorts, so I felt like I had an authentic experience. Click this link to see the Air Bnb that I stayed at, with Kim as the amazing host!
Barbados is a flat country, unlike it’s neighbors of Dominica and St. Lucia, so there aren’t many “nature” things to do — no waterfalls, jungle treks, or a variety of wildlife. However, Barbados does have stunning beaches surrounding the entire island, that are impossible to miss!
This was my favorite beach on the island, Batts Rock Beach, which was walking distance from our Air bnb. Check out that sunset!
5. Pop up Street Party in St. Lucia – The best nightlife that I found on my trip was in St. Lucia. Every single Friday night, rain or shine, there are massive street parties around the island where the police block off the streets and people drink and dance until the wee hours of the morning. You can find street vendors selling grilled fish (so good!) and hundreds of pop-up bars selling Piton beer & rum punch that’ll make you feeling good. The music is an upbeat mix of Caribbean style hip-hop/reggae, and you’ll a nice mix of locals and foreigners shaking their booties all night long. The biggest street party is in Gros Islet in the north part of the island. You cannot miss out on Street Parties in St. Lucia!
So that pretty much wraps up my 5 weeks in the South Caribbean! Please comment below if you have any questions about traveling in the region. Have fun 🙂