Buses, Bananas & Ball Sandwiches: 5 Tips to Discover the Caribbean’s True Flavor

Anyone can book a Caribbean resort, pack a couple trashy novels, smear on sunscreen and sit beachside for a week. It takes guts to forgo the constant stream of piña coladas and travel the islands like the locals do. Once you break free, you’re bound to find a true Caribbean adventure: colorful, varied, stunning and sometimes, like any adventure, a little frustrating. All you need is your backpack, plane ticket, a sense of humor and time — it’s no secret that island life moves slowly.

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Some of the easiest and most varied terrain to travel lies within the Lesser Antilles. From Guadeloupe in the north to St. Lucia in the south sit a string of islands representing a mash of French, British and Creole culture. Locals typically speak their native version of Creole as well as either French or English, depending on the island.

Caribbean Sunset © Luz A. Villa

Within this group of diverse group of islands you won’t be pressed to find the stereotypical white sand beaches, clear waters and palm trees, but the true experience is found when you stumble upon a hidden sulfur spring, dine on authentic Creole cooking, trek into the heart of a volcano or stay the night in a bamboo hut. From one adventurer to another, below are some well-learned tips on traveling between and in the islands of St. Lucia, Martinique, Dominica, Guadeloupe and Guadeloupe’s Les Saintes and Marie-Galante.

#1: Don’t Miss the Testicle Sandwiches

Planes are expensive and let’s admit, rather unexciting after your fourth or fifth flight. A ferry on the other hand feels like a voyage. At certain ports the ferry company, L´Express des Iles even has a snack shop that serves testicle sandwiches. What’s not to love? Sandwich or not, the view as you leisurely exit one island’s port and enter another is one of a kind.

The view (and food delicacies) make the entire process worth it and yes, it can be a process. You must arrive an hour before departure to get in line for check-in, then get in another line for passport control and upon arrival you get to wait in yet another line for customs. After spending a lifetime in lines you must wait for the ferry to arrive ”¦ and unload ”¦ and reload, until finally, you’re on board!

While the ferry does keep you on your toes, it offers the chance to island hop for a good price. A one-way ticket typically costs 60 euros while a return is prices at about 100 euros. Prices and ferry times vary by destination and if you’re lucky enough to be under 26 years old expect a nice fare discount.

#2: Take the Crazy Bus

One of the coolest things about the Caribbean is the cheap and vastly entertaining public transportation. This is one hard to forget feature that is never seen by the average tourist. Taxi collectifs or buses are small, over-packed vans headed to different destinations across the island. Simply find one going your way, pay the driver your fare (typically the equivalent of $2), and jump inside.

If you tell the driver your destination in advance he’ll make a halting pit stop at your destination and wait patiently for you to clamber over your fellow riders for the exit. The more passengers on board the more money the driver makes, so don’t expect a lot of space, seat belts or any recognition of speed limits.

#3: Eat Local

Across the islands you’ll come across outdoor fruit and vegetable markets, spice markets, meat markets, craft markets and fresh fish markets. Rather than loading up on apples from Chile at the grocery store you can enjoy seasonal mangos picked that morning or the catch of the day. Prices are low, quality is high and the experience is unbeatable.

Meat, spice and craft markets can be found in medium to large cities while fresh fish markets are typically roadside in coastal fishing towns. The fruit and vegetable markets are plentiful and can be found in most towns or along the road. Stands loaded with the day’s in-season fruit and veggies ensure you never have to go too far without a bunch of ripe bananas or an enormous squash.

Pelicans on Island Time, Dos Mosquises © Márcio Cabral de Moura

#4: Sunday Hell

Island time is practically nonexistent. Buses leave when they want to, restaurants open when they’re ready (if at all) and holidays call for complete desolation. Unless you’re in a touristy part of the island most restaurants, shops and pharmacies will be closed on Sunday.

If you’re looking for a bus after 6 p.m. on any day of the week, you’re in trouble. Plan ahead and get to your destination in the morning or afternoon when the buses are plentiful. No one wants to pay for a very overpriced private taxi ride. If you’re looking to get somewhere on a Sunday then you’d better rent a car, Sundays are a day for lounging, not working.

#5: Nix the Resorts

It’s easy to get sucked into a resort or spend your time glued to the beach, but the Caribbean offers so many more unique (and exciting) options. Seek out environmental lodging, like rainforest tree houses in the Rosalie Forest of Dominica. Hunt for the black sand beaches of Martinique, the mineral baths of St. Lucia, or the volcanoes of Guadeloupe. There are plenty of things to do that don’t require stacks of money. If you run out of ideas, consult the locals as they are renowned for being friendly and accommodating. Just don’t tip them — too much.

  1. I love tips 1 & 2. Ball sandwiches? Also great advice about Sundays, I’m doing a trip to neighboring island Guadeloupe and was trying to finalize travel plans. Now I know, NO traveling on Sundays! Thanks mucho, Eve.

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