Barbados is an island in the Caribbean region, but which lies out in the Atlantic many miles east of the Caribbean Sea. Its nearest neighbours, some 100 miles west, are Saint Vincent and Saint Lucia, part of the arc of the Lesser Antilles that separate Atlantic and Caribbean. Those islands look like and are a partly-submerged chain of mountains. By contrast Barbados has formed from deposits of coral and has a gentler landscape. It's fertile, and is sometimes called "Bimshire" or the "Little Britain" of the Caribbean because of its long and uniquely unbroken history of British colonisation and settlement. It became independent in 1966 and tourism is nowadays its main industry.
The first known inhabitants of Barbados were the Saladoid-Barrancoid people who arrived by canoe from Venezuela's Orinoco Valley around 350 AD. Second were the Arawaks, arriving from South America around 800 AD; they called the place Ichirouganaim meaning "teeth", referring to the island's reefs. In the 13th C the Caribs arrived from South America and displaced the previous populations. For the next few centuries, they lived in isolation here.
In 1536 the Portuguese explorer Pedro Campos called the island "Os Barbados" ("The Bearded Ones") because the long hanging aerial roots of the island's fig trees resembled beards. Later, Spanish conquistadors seized many Caribs on Barbados to use as slaves, and many other Caribs fled from the island. However neither Spain nor Portugal settled here. The first Europeans to do so were the British from 1627 and, unlike other Caribbean islands, Barbados never passed into the control of other nations as the later centuries' wars played out.
Early crops were of cotton, tobacco, ginger and indigo, worked by indentured labourers, mostly English and Irish. Their conditions were harsh but not slavery, and after several years labour (if they survived), they were awarded freedom, money and land - so a colony evolved. But those crops suffered competition as North American production grew. Sugarcane was introduced in 1640 and proved more profitable and reliable, but demanded heavy labour. Enslaved Africans were shipped in to meet this need, many being Igbo from what is now Nigeria. For two centuries Barbados was a slave colony, as the plantations grew and grew and bought out the other settlers. From 1833 there was gradual emancipation, through a combination of rebellions, anti-slavery movements and laws, and changing economics. The island had been utterly wrecked by the hurricane of 1831 so this was a time of re-building, leading to a pleasant harmony of style in the buildings seen today.
Barbados remained heavily dependent on sugar, rum and molasses through most of the 20th C; the labour was still hard, and employment conditions were repressive. By now 90% of the island's people were of African descent, 10% were a British-descended squirearchy that clung onto all the wealth and positions of power, and ethnic Caribs were very few. But from the 1930s an educated black middle class fought for universal adult suffrage and gradually gained power. Unlike many other Caribbean islands, Barbados never received indentured Indian labourers, though a community of Gujarati Muslim merchants would eventually settle on the island, and their descendants today form the majority of Barbados' Muslim community.
Post-war saw social and political reforms, and mass emigration as England drew in Caribbean labour to run its hospitals and transport: London's Hammersmith and Brixton became the new Bimshire. A "wind of change" blew through Britain's colonies, and the first attempt at independence was to form a Federation of the West Indies. This was quarrelsome and short-lived, so it was as a separate nation that Barbados achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1966. In the 1980s, tourism and manufacturing overtook the sugar industry in economic importance. Barbados has developed into a stable democracy with one of the highest rates of literacy in the Western Hemisphere. It does however have an uncomfortable level of sovereign debt: in 2018 the newly-elected government uncovered shady national accounting, with the true debt being over 1.7 times the country's GDP. Your tourist spending, however modest, will be appreciated.
Locals refer to themselves as Bajans and things Barbadian as Bajan.
Citizens of the following countries do not need visas to enter Barbados:
- North America & Caribbean: Canada, USA, Mexico, Antigua & Barbuda, Bahamas, Belize, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Panama, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent & the Grenadines, and Trinidad & Tobago.
- European Union countries plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and United Kingdom.
- Other European countries: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, North Macedonia, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.
- Other countries: Australia, Bangladesh, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei, Chile, China, Colombia, Eritrea, Eswatini, Fiji, Gambia, Ghana, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kiribati, Kyrgyzstan, Lesotho, Macau, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Mauritius, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Samoa, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Tonga, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, Uganda, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
See embassy website for visa application process & fees. Beware commercial websites that will charge extra for less reliable information.
Sir Grantley Adams International AirportBy air is the main way in and out of Barbados, so the airport has good connections to North America, Europe especially Britain and Germany, and the Caribbean region. Many long-haul flights are by package tour operators eg TUI and Virgin Atlantic, but these also offer flight-only tickets. Regional short hops are operated by LIAT and others. Departing, the check-in area is a semi-open-air triangle with a couple of small cafes and free rest-rooms. After check-in, emigration comes before security, as there are no domestic flights. Airside has a large retail mall with cafes but the exchange desk charges 5 B$ minimum fee so it's not the best option for leftover small amounts of B$. Arriving, you may use the duty-free shop before immigration. You have to fill in a landing card for immigration, and you're told to keep the counterfoil for departure, but no-one will ever look at it.
Public buses and minibuses run from a stop just outside the airport. They ply to the south coast hotel strip, Bridgetown, and up the west coast as far as Holetown and Speightstown for B$2 per person, but a taxi is the most convenient way to get to your hotel on arrival. Across the road is a little collection of bars and eating places.
There are no ferries between Barbados and the other Caribbean islands. A ferry to Grenada ran 2011-2016 but was discontinued, and there are no plans to restart.
Many cruise ships dock in Bridgetown deep water harbour - check company itineraries to see if a point-to-point sailing to Barbados is possible. The terminal is served by an army of taxis, as well as shuttle "buses" to/from downtown Bridgetown for B$2 each way per person. There are separate arrangements to enable cruise passengers to transit between ship and airport without going through immigration.
Private moorings are available around the island. It's strictly forbidden to drop anchor on the coral reefs, with stiff penalties.
There are also more than enough taxis to take you wherever you need to go on the island for reasonable prices. They do not use meters and it is best to negotiate the price before you get in. However, most taxi drivers are honest and you are unlikely to be overcharged. Be sure to ask the management of the hotel or the friendly locals what the going rate is for a cab ride to your destination.
Renting a car is expensive. If you are driving, be aware that the roads on the island are generally quite narrow, with the exception of the ABC highway, which also has several long sections towards the west coast that is under large scale construction to expand the road to accommodate additional lanes. It is advisable to be extra cautious as many roads on the island have sharp turns, steep inclines, and are generally quite bumpy, although most are paved.
Many of these "highways" do not have sidewalks, so there can be pedestrians on the street sharing the road. Many bus stops are also on the side of roads where there are no sidewalks. Additionally, beware of impromptu passing lanes as slow drivers are often passed by others behind them when on two lane roads. Road signs can be fairly confusing (they often indicate the nearest two towns/villages in opposite order - i.e. furthest listed first), so be prepared to get lost: just ask the way as people are always eager to help.
At most all of the local car rental agencies, a full collision damage waiver policy is automatically included with the rental, except for any damage incurred to the car tires, a testament to the poor condition of the smaller roads and tendency of foreign drivers to miscalculate driving lanes and hit curbs.
Mopeds and bikes can also be rented to explore sites not easily reached by cars. This is not recommended however due to the poor condition of many of the secondary and residential roads. Except for the main highway, all the other roads provide a hazardous journey to the moped or bike rider due to the lack of sidewalks, frequent pot holes, sharp corners and speeding local buses.
Another fun way to get around is to rent a moke (open top car/buggy) available from any number of local car rental agencies.
The official language in Barbados is English, but the pronunciation may be high, fast and hard to follow. When speaking with each other, locals may slide between English and Bajan, which is a creole language based on English, Irish and West African Igbo vocabulary and expressions. Look baffled and they'll slow down for you, if they judge it helpful for you to understand. A good start is always to say "good morning", "good evening" etc, even to strangers on the sidewalk.
At Harrison's Cave there are many different things one can do. From the Tram Tour through the caves where you can learn more about the cave's history, as well as learning more about the natural structures found within it, to the Eco-Adventure Tour where you can walk through the cave itself, crawling on your hands and knees. Prices do vary, with the Eco-adventure Tour costing more, and requiring you to book in advance. However they also offer Walk-In Cave Tours on the last Saturday of every month. The Walk-In Cave Tours are exactly the same as the Eco-Adventure Tours, and do not require prior booking, and are also cheaper if you want to go with a small group of people.
- See main article: Diving in Barbados.
The local currency is the Bajan dollar, officially denoted as "Bds$" (ISO code: BBD) but usually just as B$ on local signage (and hence in these pages). US dollars are accepted in almost all shops and restaurants. The exchange rate is fixed at 2 Bajan dollars to the US dollar, but hotel exchanges may scalp you for an extra 5% or so.
Just as anywhere else, your prime considerations are "Do I actually want this stuff?" and "What feels like a fair price?" Anything else is secondary.
Bridgetown's main street hosts numerous jewellers, e.g., Colombian Emeralds and Diamonds International. Cave Shepherd department store offers a wide range of mercantile, while Harrison's offers premium gifts, leathers and cosmetics. There are large supermarkets on the edge of Bridgetown. Smaller stores offer virtually everything a visitor or resident might need. The mall at the harbour has a good selection but is pricier than elsewhere.
Barbados has a great variety of street vendors. Haggle vigorously. Don't stop until you are at about a third of the original price.
Duty-free pricing is available for luxury items such as watches and jewellery, cosmetics, clothing, tobacco, alcohol and electronic gadgets. The shop may call itself duty-free but it's the individual item that you need to check: the price tag should state DF and the amount in US$ or B$. If it states LP, that's "local price" with duty paid. (Of course they may have a cute definition of the local price, to make out you're getting a bargain.) The duty is specifically the import tax that the vendors paid on that item, that they recoup when the goods leave the country. So there's no duty-free reduction for things like food that are home-produced or that don't incur import tax. You need your passport and departure schedule in writing; for most items you take the goods away and drop off a counterfoil at the port of exit. For alcohol you pick up the goods at the port of exit, though surely you wouldn't have been tempted to drink it while still in Barbados.
Business hoursAlmost everything used to shut down on weekends, and visitors had to plan ahead especially if self-catering. This is no longer the case. Clothing and gift stores open until 4PM or so (Sheraton Mall shops until 9PM) on Saturdays; very few are open on Sunday. Many supermarkets island-wide are open on Saturday and Sunday.
On bank holidays (such as Christmas, New Year's Day, Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Easter Monday), most if not all stores and banks and business houses will be closed. But stores attached to gas stations will have limited availability of basic items, and shops at the deep water harbour will be open if cruise ships are visiting. There are a few small family run groceries across the island that will open on bank holidays (or have a side door open) to serve their community.
- Flying fish, the icon of the islands, appear on coins, bills, and menus. The fish are usually lightly breaded and fried, with a yellow sauce. (This sauce consists of very hot Scotch Bonnet peppers with onions in a mustard sauce.) Or the fish is steamed with lime juice, spices, and vegetables. It's often served over coo-coo, a polenta-like cornmeal and okra porridge.
- Pepperpot is a pork stew in a spicy dark brown sauce.
- Cutters are sandwiches made from Salt Bread (crusty outside, fluffy inside, but not salty; go figure). Popular fillings are flying fish, ham or cheese; "Bread and two" is a cutter with two fish cakes.
Where to eat? See each region's "Sleep" as well as "Eat" listings, as many hotels have good restaurants open to non-residents, both a la carte and buffet-style.
- Street vendors offer snacks like fish cakes, BBQ pig tails, fresh coconut, and roasted peanuts.
- Every Friday night on the south coast the place to be is Oistins for the fish fry. This is a town market where you buy fresh fish cooked to local recipes. Bajans dance and party there until the early hours.
- For fast food, Chefette are a chain virtually unknown outside Barbados, but found all over the island. They've largely kept out the western chains, though KFC and Subway have a presence.
Rum and rum-based drinks are featured at every bar. For tours of a rum distillery, see Bridgetown#Do for Mount Gay (the brand leader) and Southern Barbados#Do for the less-known Four Square. The third distillery, which produces Malibu, is not open for visits.
Small rum shops can be found all everywhere. Here local men (and rather few women) foregather to shoot the breeze and put the world to rights.
Banks Beer is Barbados' own brew; it's distinctly hoppy, like a traditional English bitter. See Southern Barbados#Do for tours of their brewery.
10 Saints is the first craft beer to be brewed in Barbados. This is a lager aged for 90 days in Mount Gay "Special Reserve" rum casks, for a unique finish. It's widely available throughout the island.
Barbados offers everything from inexpensive guest houses with bed and breakfast from under US $40 daily for a single in the summer to luxury accommodations at some of the world's best hotels at $1,600 in the prime season.
Barbados apartments and apartment hotels offer the comfort of a hotel room combined with the convenience of your own cooking facilities. Most are located on or near the beach and are especially suitable for families.
There is a wide selection of luxury villas and cottages available for rent throughout Barbados. Many of these villas and cottages are located on or near the beach.
Privately owned vacation rentals are often rented at much lower costs than hotel or resort rooms. There is a wide selection of these holiday properties available throughout Barbados and many are located on or near the beach. Vacation properties range from beach houses to condos and apartments.
See regional articles for listings. Generally, south coast hotels are midrange to expensive, the west coast north of Bridgetown is expensive up to Speightstown, then there are simpler guesthouses further north. There's little in Bridgetown.
- Bellairs Research Institute is a teaching and research facility operated by Montreal's McGill University focusing on marine biology and environmental studies.
- Barbados Hospitality Institute operates The Hotel Pommarine near Rockley Beach, Southern Barbados.
- Barbados Community College
- The University of the West Indies - Cave Hill Campus
Barbados remains much safer than many other Caribbean islands, but there has been an increase in crime here. Be wary of secluded beaches and non-tourist residential districts away from main roads. Solo tourists, especially women, are most at risk. The commonest crimes against tourists include taxi fraud, robbery, and shortchanging; rape and assaults are becoming more common.
Drugs are strictly illegal, sternly prosecuted, and vigorously marketed: marijuana and cocaine being the main stuff on sale. Sellers roam the beaches peddling aloe vera and other innocuous goods as a pretext to strike up a conversation about "ganja", "smoke" or "bad habits". As a result, many hotels and resorts ban the use of aloe vera, claiming that it "stains the towels".
Homosexual acts between consenting adults are punishable by life imprisonment in Barbados, but western package operators seek all customers including LGBT. So there's a degree of ambiguity and "look the other way" by local hotel management, and attitudes out in the street and bars may be less than friendly.
Camouflage clothing is forbidden for non-military personnel in Barbados, even kiddy outfits or anglers' floppy hats that couldn't possibly be mistaken for army camo.
Your biggest risks are road safety, safety in the sea, and alcohol especially when combined with those.
WeatherBeware of the sun, Barbados is only 13 degrees north of the equator and you can burn very easily even if it's cloudy and the sea breeze is keeping you cool. Temperatures can easily hit 31 degrees Celsius (around 88 degrees Fahrenheit) and it can happen within what seems to be a matter of minutes. Seek the shade (eg use a umbrella), wear a wide-brimmed hat and long clothing, and slap on high-factor sun-block: you're aiming for the zinc-nosed cricketer look. Try to avoid going out in the sun unprotected from 12-3 pm, as that is usually when the sun is at its brightest, and the temperature is the highest. Another factor that needs to be taken into consideration is humidity. Barbados is a tropical island, and as such the humidity will usually be pretty high. While humidity varies from day to day, it can still spike to as high as 90, or even 100 percent humidity, and if you aren't used to high humidity, even 60 percent can feel horrible. Remember to drink plenty of water during humid days, and try to stay in the shade as much as possible, as your sweat will not evaporate as quickly during humid days, and you won't be able to cool down as quickly.
HeatstrokeWhile heatstroke is a fairly rare occurrence for locals and tourists alike, if you aren't used to very high temperatures and humidity, or the temperature suddenly soars it can creep up on you without you even knowing. Heat stroke occurs when your body starts to overheat and usually happens because of prolonged exposure to high temperatures. The symptoms of heat stroke may include;
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rapid breathing
- Racing heartbeat
- High body temperature (40 C/ 105 F)
- Flushed skin
- Changed mental and physical state of mind (confusion, agitation, irritability and at worse, seizures and coma)
If you, or anyone around you is experiencing these symptoms, or you think someone around you is experiencing a heatstroke, immediately contact emergency ambulance services by dialing +511. While waiting for these services move the individual into a shaded area and immediately try to cool the individual down by whatever means. Heatstroke can be very serious, so take precautions against it by staying as cool as possible.
MosquitoesMosquitoes are more of a nuisance than a danger: it's very rare for them to carry serious tropical disease such as malaria, but it is still best to take precautions. Dengue Fever is the most common one found, though even it is in stark decline. Only a few cases of Zika have been discovered, as well as a limited number of cases related to Chikungunya Virus. The mozzies are especially busy after sundown, so spray on a repellent before heading out for al fresco dining.
WaterBarbados water is pure and safe to drink, as it's naturally filtered by the island limestone. You'll see limestone drip-buckets in all the old plantation houses, pre-dating the mains supply.
Alcohol poisoningWhile this may seem like a given to be careful about, when many people come to Barbados for the first time they often drink, sometimes too much. Its hard to know your limit, or even remember what your limit is when your having a blast at a party either at land or sea. Coupled with an increase in temperature and humidity compared to what you may be used to and it might spell doom. In a more humid environment it is a lot easier to become dehydrated, and as alcohol is a diuretic it exacerbates the problem. While your limit in a temperature country might be at one level, when coming to a humid environment if you don't drink enough water you can quickly become dehydrated, and the same amount of alcohol can make you feel more drunk. Alcohol Poisoning occurs when you intake a lot of alcohol in a short period of time, the symptoms are as follows:
- Passing out
- Slow breathing
- Irregular breathing
- Low body temperature
- pale or blue-tinged skin
If you suspect that you, or anyone around you has alcohol poisoning it is best to call the emergency ambulance services (+511). If they are passed out do not leave them alone, and if they are vomiting help them to sit up to prevent choking.
Bajans are particularly sensitive to manners and saying "Good morning" to people, even strangers, goes a long way to earning their respect.
When meeting a Bajan, try not to discuss politics or racial issues. Talk is also important because Barbadians speak fairly fast when speaking in Creole (or Bajan, as it is called).
The use of the "N" word is a no-no, but when talking to friends words such a "B" (which is short for "bro") and "dawg" are used to describe or refer to a friend. These words should not be used unless you know the person well.
Most Bajans are fun-loving and love to go out and have fun, as is noted by the large number of young people found in the clubs and on the Southern Coast of the island. Try not to stare at people without good cause. If you happen to bump into someone in a club, you should immediately apologise to the person.
Bajans are very protective of family, and insults to a person's family are taken very seriously. This also relates to their views on issues such as homosexuality, which most Bajans do not approve of.
Using your mobile in Barbados will hit you with international charges. You can buy a local SIM card at the airport, cruise ship terminal, or any tourist strip.
Mobile 4G/Wi-Fi is good in Bridgetown, on the south and west coasts, and along the main highways, so that Bajan motorists can yap to each other about how it should be made illegal while driving. There is patchy coverage out in central and eastern parts, so either use the hotel or cafe connection, or put the damn thing away and have a holiday instead.
It means flying, as there are no ferry services. Barbados' closest neighbours, all with frequent flights of 30-50 min duration from BGI, couldn't be more different from each other:
- Saint Lucia is very mountainous, one hell of a place to try to run a plantation, but brilliant for scenery and smelly volcanic springs.
- Saint Vincent is also mountainous and scenic, yet barely developed for tourism, so very much away-from-it-all.
- Grenada is good all-round for amenities and attractions, a sound first choice for a Caribbean holiday. Its smaller island of Carriacou has good diving but little else.
The chain of islands continues north through Martinique, Dominica and Guadeloupe. To the south are Trinidad & Tobago, and mainland Venezuela.