If you want to truly understand how important Bob Marley is to Jamaica, you have to go there. From the moment you arrive on the island, the reggae superstar’s influence — as the country’s greatest musician, key spiritual icon and righteous revolutionary leader — is unmistakable. Throughout the country, his music booms from car stereos, sound systems and storefronts; bands covering the Wailers catalog appear at virtually every resort. You’ll see Marley’s likeness painted on the sides of rum shacks, graffitied onto walls, emblazoned on T-shirts and sweatpants, and looming larger than life on posters at the airport.
Shrines to Marley appear everywhere he spent time: his childhood countryside village of Nine Mile, the Trench Town slum in Kingston where he got his start, the mansion at 56 Hope Road where he lived as a star. Outside of those well-known places, clues to Marley’s life and music can be found scattered all over the country — from his favorite beaches to a secret temple of impossibly rare reggae vinyl to a stunner of a waterfall just outside Kingston.
Sadly, too many visitors never venture far enough afield to really experience Marley’s Jamaica. Don’t make that mistake. If you want to get to know this great island nation, you could do a lot worse than spending a few days on the Marley trail — keeping your eyes, ears and mind open to whatever you might discover. Here are some tips to help you find your way.
The first stop for any Marley fan, from the slums of Trench Town to the stately mansion where he spent his last years
Sprawling from the harbor up into the Blue Mountains to the northeast, Jamaica’s capital and chief port is one of the biggest cities in the Caribbean — a crazy quilt of glass office towers, fortified mansions, vast shantytowns and everything in between. It’s also the natural place to either begin or end your Marley journey, with daily flights arriving at Norman Manley International Airport from New York, Miami and other North American cities. For the Marley pilgrim, Kingston is unmissable: It’s home to three of the most important Marley sites and is the place that he called home for most of his life. It’s the city where Jamaica’s great modern sounds of reggae and ska were born, and it’s still home to the island’s top record labels, studios and sound systems.
Kingston is also a city very few tourists make time for, in part because of its reputation for violence. (This is not a totally unreasonable fear: Just a few years ago, the city’s poorest districts experienced near-war-zone conditions. As of this writing, it’s much safer — but it’s always worth checking the State Department’s travel advisories before you go.)
The truth is that as long as you approach Kingston the same way you would any large city, you’ll be fine. The places suggested in this guide, certainly, are well-visited tourist attractions. As a general tip, taxis are plentiful, affordable and well-regulated — when you arrive at the airport, just hop one to your hotel. (Make sure it has a red license plate that marks regulated taxis; if you like your driver, definitely ask for his card — a good taxi driver is one of the keys to exploring Jamaica.) Once you’re situated, begin your Marley odyssey with these spots.
The Bob Marley Museum
From 1975 until his death in 1981, this stately Georgian mansion — just down the block from the governor’s and mayor’s residences in the ritziest part of Kingston’s uptown neighborhood — was Marley’s home and headquarters. It was also the site of one of his darkest chapters: You can still see the bullet holes left by the 1976 assassination attempt on Marley’s life, which came at a time when he was trying to quell the political violence that was tearing Jamaica apart. Today, the building is a museum devoted to Marley’s life and work, filled with instruments (his famous Les Paul guitar), clothes (including his iconic denim work shirt), rare photos, gold -records and tons more. The most powerful space is Marley’s surprisingly monastic bedroom — preserved as it was at the time of his death, with a simple bed and his favorite star-shaped acoustic guitar within arm’s reach. The old Tuff Gong studio, where Marley recorded 1979’s Survival and 1980’s Uprising, has been converted into a multimedia hall, where the tour concludes with a film. Keep your eyes peeled: The house is still owned by the Marley family, and there’s always the possibility of running into a relative.
56 Hope Road, Kingston 6; (876) 630-1588; BobMarleyMuseum.com
Tuff Gong International
After Marley’s death, his family moved Tuff Gong from 56 Hope Road to this location. The studio is packed with gear Marley used on classic Wailers recordings, including a vintage mixing console and a Hammond B3 organ. Tuff Gong remains one of the top recording spots in Kingston — it’s in regular use by Marley’s sons Ziggy, Stephen and Damian, major dancehall acts like Bounty Killer and Vybz Kartel, and visiting international stars including Lauryn Hill, Snoop Dogg and Diplo. “Being there was something I never thought would happen,” says Kenny Chesney, a huge Marley fan who recorded with members of the Wailers at Tuff Gong last year. “So much of the music that we all listen to originated in that room.” If a session happens to be in progress when you visit, there’s a good chance you’ll get to watch. If not, you can even book the room for your own project. Highlights include the vinyl pressing plant (where you can see how the 45-rpm singles that fueled the Jamaican music boom of the 1960s were made) and an excellent record store, where you can pick up rare CDs and vinyl.
220 Marcus Garvey Dr., Kingston; (876) 630-1588; TuffGongDistribution.com
Trench Town and the Culture Yard Museum
Immortalized in the lyrics of Marley classics including “Trench Town Rock,” “Natty Dread” and “No Woman, No Cry,” this rough shantytown neighborhood is where Marley spent his formative years after arriving in the capital from the countryside as a young teen. An urban zone of tin-roof shacks and public housing — the reason Marley refers to his home as a “government yard” in “No Woman, No Cry” — it’s had an outsize influence on popular music: In addition to the young Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, it’s been home to major artists including Toots and the Maytals, the Abyssinians and Joe Higgs. You’ll definitely want a cab driver to bring you here, and you don’t want to come at night — but in the daytime it’s safe and a key stop on the Marley trail. Tour guides, who are typically local residents, will meet you at the gate and show you the home of Marley’s youth and other key attractions. There’s also a small museum devoted to the neighborhood’s history. If you have the time, it’s worth asking your guide to take you around the neighborhood a bit — this is a Jamaica that most tourists never see, and it will give you a much better sense of the world that Marley’s revolutionary music sprung from.
Trench Town Culture Yard Museum, 6 & 8 Lower 1st St., Kingston; (876) 803-1509
Rockers International Records
Downtown Kingston’s formerly grand boulevard of Orange Street was the syncopated heart of the Jamaican music industry, home to dozens of record stores, studios and sound systems — with mythic names like Duke Reid’s Trojan and Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s. “We called it Beat Street, because it’s where the beat was,” Marley’s friend Jimmy Cliff told me when he took me on a tour a few years ago. Not much of this history remains, with the exception of Rockers International Records, a killer vinyl spot — packed with impossible-to-find 45s and LPs — which used to be owned by dub great Augustus Pablo, and which is still run by his family. It’s basically a store-size time machine back to the Marley era.
135 Orange St., Downtown Kingston; (876) 365-6179
Get out of Kingston to see the tiny mountain village where Marley grew up and his favorite waterfall and beaches
Kingston is full of key sites from Marley’s life, but truly adventurous travelers can find even more outside the city limits. Sixty-two miles to the northwest, along narrow mountain roads that snake dizzyingly through the hills, is the village of Nine Mile, where Marley was born; guides offer walking tours through the dense rainforest, small family farms and bright-green ganja fields. Elsewhere on the island, you’ll find places of remarkable natural beauty where Marley got away from the crush of city life.
The Nine Mile Museum and Bob Marley Mausoleum
Marley was born in this tiny mountain village in 1945, and he lived here until he moved to Kingston as a teen. Nine Mile is also his final resting place. The town has become a shrine to its most famous resident — the local Rastafarian tour guides will show you Marley’s tiny one-room childhood house, the Rasta-painted “rock pillow” where he’d lie in the sun soaking up inspiration and the mausoleum that he shares with his half-brother. (The two-hour drive from Kingston will cost about $100 by taxi; no photos are allowed inside the buildings.) Expect to experience the basics of Rastafarian philosophy, less-known stories from Marley’s life and impromptu performances of his songs. Hearing them here, it’s impossible not to understand Marley’s world and
inspirations more clearly.
Nine Mile, St. Ann Parish; (876) 843-0498
Cane River Falls
Less touristed than Dunn’s River Falls, but nearly as beautiful, Cane River Falls was one of Marley’s favorite spots to unwind, meditate and take a natural Rasta shower. (On 1983’s “Trench Town,” he sings, “Up a Cane River to wash my dreads/Upon a rock I rest my head.”) Besides the roar of the crystal-clear water, which spills from the Blue Mountains down into a perfect swimming hole at the bottom, Cane River Falls is a quiet, contemplative escape from the noise and traffic of the capital. A small bar and restaurant make this a pleasant place to grab lunch, but a picnic is an even better move. Look out for Three Finger Jack Cave, named for a famous rebel slave who used it as a hideaway. And look around: The views of the rain forest that surrounds you are just as spectacular as the falls themselves.
Near Bull Bay, St. Andrew Parish
Marley loved going to the beach, and this sugar-sand paradise outside Kingston was a favorite place to jog and play soccer. Unlike many of the island’s beaches, which are controlled by resorts and cater to tourists, Hellshire is public, and a popular spot for Kingston residents of all ages and classes. It’s also a seafood paradise — fish shacks line the beach, serving up fresh-caught lobster, snapper and parrotfish with frosty Red Stripes for reasonable prices. Extreme activities including Jet Skis are also available, and on weekends titanically loud sound-system parties rock until dawn on the beach.
Portmore, St. Catherine Parish
In Marley’s day, Negril, on the island’s far west side, was a prime destination for a rock & roll jet set that included the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Marley himself. The beaches are world-class stunning, the sunsets are psychedelically beautiful, and some of the smaller hotels still deliver a taste of the early-Negril vibe. But most of the town is now sadly overrun with rampaging spring-breakers, cheesy bars and aggro trinket vendors. Better to seek out the sleepy fishing village of Little Bay, 10 miles away, where you’ll find one of the least-visited spots on the Marley trail: the former site of the star’s beach house, which he built in the 1970s. Although it was badly damaged by a hurricane a few years ago, visitors can still see where the house stood. (Just ask around town — you’ll easily find a guide for a small fee.) Little Bay has photo-perfect beaches, a mineral spring that Marley loved to bathe in, excellent seafood and a range of accommodations. Interested in primo herb? You’re in luck: The nearby sinsemilla fields are considered to be the best on the island. The whole experience is as close as you can get to the Negril of the early 1970s, and Little Bay is still a place where it seems likely Marley would feel at home.