Cruising down roads flanked by beaches. Bouncing along winding country lanes on buses artfully circumventing potholes despite their girth. Piling into minivans sharing half a jump seat, music blaring.
There is a variety of transport experiences in Barbados and depending on how game you are they can all be quite fun.
The saying goes that the pear-drop shaped island of Barbados is so small you can get from one end to the other in a day. As the island is only 21 miles long and 14 miles wide that is technically true, but there is a lot to see and do in this tropical paradise and there are a few different options for travelling around.
Buses in Barbados are quite an experience. Speakers in the ceiling pump soca music to the passengers, who pile into the narrow aisles and hold each other’s bags when the seats are full. The potholed roads and speeding drivers have done a number on the suspension of the reconditioned vehicles, which are usually imported from Japan or Brazil and often have signage that indicate their origin.
Bells to let the driver know to stop are found above the windows, or in some cases there is a wire running along the ceiling to pull, although Bajans still love to yell “Bus Stop!”
There are four bus stations in Bridgetown — Cheapside for minivans and minibuses heading north; Princess Alice for buses heading north; Constitution River for minivans and minibuses heading south and east; and Fairchild Street for buses heading in all directions. There are also bus terminals in Speightstown and Oistins.
There are three types of vehicles plying the main routes on the island.
Services run by the Transport Board are identified by large blue coach-style buses. These buses are infrequent, tending to operate hourly at morning and evening peak times on major routes. Some only run at 6:30am on weekdays. The routes and schedules are listed on the Transport Board website.
Bajans like to express scepticism at the idea of “taking the bus”, knowing that it’s a long wait to spot one. The elderly tend to wait for them, even for hours in the heat or the dark, because they are entitled to free travel. Standard fares are BBD$3.50 in exact cash only, paid to the driver on exiting the bus. The fare is also a source of angst for Bajans, as it increased from BBD$2.25 in 2019 among a raft of price increases for services introduced by the new government.
The other type of bus is a privately-owned fleet of yellow minibuses, which run more frequently and are more likely what you’ll be getting when you take the bus. The routes are listed here, but there is no official timetable.
Yellow buses often have a conductor who comes around to collect the BBD$3.50 fare, and is able to give cash — although keep in mind a BBD$20 bill is about the largest they will take. If there is no conductor then pay the driver on exiting.
Minivans / route taxis
The privately-run white vans — also known as ZRs because of the designation on their number plates — are infamous for their blaring music, high speeds on winding roads and conductors competing with other vans to cram in passengers like sardines.
Some Bajans refuse to get in them — my great aunt says she hasn’t ridden in one since 1967 after a particularly uncomfortable journey — but they’re part of the Barbados experience. The vans operate on designated routes, listed here.
They tend to run every few minutes on the busiest routes, leaving their terminals in town when they’re almost full and picking up more passengers as others leave. Keen to collect as many fares as possible on the way to town, drivers will sometimes take detours around the block to look for more passengers and will wait for people to come down from side streets, so don’t be concerned you’re on the wrong route and leave plenty of time for your journey!
The fare is the same as the buses — BBD$3.50, paid to the conductor during the journey or to the driver on exiting. Conductors will give change but prefer smaller denominations. At a pinch the driver will stop another van driver on the other side of the road to get change.
Taxi cars are identified by a Z and vans by ZM on their number plates. Fares depend on the distance but are not metered, so negotiate a price in advance. There is a desk at the airport outside the arrivals area where representatives arrange taxi pickups and standard fares are listed for key tourist locations. The highest fare is BBD$83 to areas north of Speightstown.
Drivers may be less familiar with non-tourist areas but are game to stop for directions and Bajans are generally happy to help. Drivers will usually have contact cards and offer day rates for island tours, and will offer suggestions for things to do during your stay.
There are taxis in Bridgetown at the port and along Broad Street; in Holetown around First and Second Streets; in Oistins, particularly at the Fish Fry on Friday nights; and other locations. There are several services listed online, or in the phone directory. Hotels and guesthouses will also be able to help with bookings. There are no app-based services like Uber, etc.
Executive Car Rentals and Suntours are among the companies offering luxury car and chauffeur-driven limousine services.
Many visitors opt to rent a car to make the most of their time on the island. All the major car rental companies have offices at the airport to the left outside the arrivals area. Cars can also be picked up from the cruise ship port, or the company will arrange delivery to hotels/villas/apartments anywhere on the island. Car rental prices tend to be quoted in US$ and start at around $50 per day.
Drivers with licences from other countries require a visitor’s permit, which costs US$5/BBD$10 for two months or US$50/$BBD100 for one year, and can be issued by an approved car rental company or obtained from Licensing Authority offices. There are offices at The Pine in St. Michael, Oistins, and Holetown. Drivers with licences in languages other than English are required to hold an International Driving Permit.
The most popular rental companies include M.A.H Rentals, Stoutes Car Rental, Courtesy Rent-A-Car and Drive-A-Matic. The terms of hire vary by company, but most specify that drivers must be between 21 and 80, with drivers over 70 required to provide a medical certificate. Most companies require drivers to have held their licence for at least two or even five years. But Holetown Cars will rent cars to drivers holding a licence for less than two years if you agree to double the insurance excess.
Rental companies offer compact cars, usually Suzuki Swift, Kia Picanto or Nissan Note models; sedans, such as Toyato Yaris or Subaru Impreza; SUVs and jeeps including Suzuki Jimny and Nissan XTrail; and Toyota station wagons. The cars usually have automatic rather than manual gears.
Optional extras include child seats, GPS units, in-car WiFi, surfboard racks and local mobile phone SIM cards. The companies provide 24-hour roadside assistance in the event of a breakdown.
Rental cars are identified by an H on the number plate, which locals understand to mean you may not be as familiar with the roads. UK visitors are at an advantage because cars are driven on the left.
Visitors short on time and looking for an organised option can take a bus or coach tour to parts of the island.
There are several tour operators offering coach trips ranging from Harrison’s Cave and the Mount Gay rum distillery to full days visiting plantation houses, wildlife reserves and beaches. Prices range from US$20 to US$180. They also offer customisable private tours to a range of locations across the island.
The #1 Bajan Bus offers group and private tours in vintage open-sided Bedford buses with a party atmosphere. The red, yellow and green buses are installed with fully-stocked bars and sound systems and provide commentary with their beach and heritage tours.
However you choose to get around, be sure to explore the sights and heritage this beautiful island has to offer!