The Other Side of the Caribbean

As the morning light begins to strike the cool white sand giving it a warm golden glow there is a peace on the island. Ambient light hanging from lamps over the pale sand-paved streets provides a comfortable contrast to the heavy blue clouds on the horizon. It is gentle, peaceful and possibly even poetic. It is paradise. But at further inspection there is something else going on in the Caribbean, something that people don’t feel comfortable talking about, or choose to avoid: the other side of the Caribbean.

The other side of the Caribbean is one of poverty. It isn’t often that people venture to the other side of their islands from their resorts to the towns and villages where even the most basic necessities are often left unmet. I’m not sure that there is anywhere in the world where the divide between those who have those who have nothing is so evident, yet at the same time so perfectly hidden from plain sight.

Caye Caulker

Beautiful Scene in Caye Caulker… Man passed out on the pier…. click to enlarge

The other side of the Caribbean is one of drug abuse and alcoholism. Tourists laugh and joke about the fact that each island has its “crazy man/woman” who people try to avoid, or seek out in exchange for a laugh. But when those passing through leave the problem does not. Alcoholism and drug abuse, however, may not be the disease but rather the symptom of a greater social issue. Throughout the world, indigenous and isolated populations all suffer from the disease of boredom and narrowed opportunities for societal growth.

Caye Caulker Man

To the tourists he was the “crazy man” but after a bit of convo he proved to be a great guy, with some issues… click to enlarge.

The other side of the Caribbean is one of violence and abuse. When we think of Jamaica we may think of rum, beautiful beaches, Bob Marley, and smooth talking Rastas living by a carefree mantra. However, the other side of Jamaica is one whose capital city has one of the highest murder rates in the world. The other side is one where drug lords rule from the hills while their pawns die on the streets carrying out their dirty work. You see, the other side of the Caribbean includes nearly as many toe tags as the resorts see wristbands.

The other side of the Caribbean is one that lacks opportunities for young people to flourish. Those who do not wish to conform to the tourism dependant economies rarely have many options; they can leave their home for the mainland, or struggle to find their own way. Sure many people in the region have done fantastic things, but it would be over ambitious to claim that the opportunities on the islands are anywhere near that of larger cities, more developed economies and more connected regions.

San Andres, Colombia

In San Andres, Colombia: A house beaten by a hurricane and then abandoned.

For generations the Caribbean has been seen as a servant to the world’s elite while at the same time struggling with internal issues. As tourists we are partly responsible; not for causing drug abuse, alcoholism, violence and poverty but for turning a blind eye to it. Not many people who have travelled to the beautiful resorts scattered around the region can say they didn’t also see the other side of the Caribbean. However, for too long we have classified these issues under the heading of “things not to be discussed on vacation.”

The Caribbean is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Its see-through waters are so still that they seem to be man made swimming pools yearning for us to swim in them. The soft white sand that coats them is so fine that it fills the lines in our feet as we step softly along them while watching the sun set through a coconut studded palm tree. But the Caribbean isn’t paradise, not for the residents who live on the other side anyways. And until their side is told the Caribbean story will not have been told in the truest of justice.

Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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  1. Agree 100% and I really experienced the other side while on my last trip to the Caribbean, however tourism is a necessity for the islanders and most tourists are trying to escape reality when they visit “Paradise.” So, I’m not really sure how the light can be shown on the reality of life there?

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  2. Brendan,
    Congratulations for taking the courage to explore the other side of the Caribbean. I am from Puerto Rico and understand perfectly what you are exposing in this post.

    As you mentioned, many tourists and travelers are not interested in taking a look at the life of common people or at the issues they have to confront every day.

    Tourism not necessarily benefits everybody in the islands. That is a fact. However, I think some islands are trying to offer experiences that get visitors closer to the people. I have seen a lot of offerings that did not exist in the past. Hopefully, visitors would be interested in taking a chance to learn more about “the other Caribbean”. Becuase the Caribbean is a magical place but the people are wonderful too.

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    • @Ruth, I’m glad that we could get your perspective as well. And you’re right, I think that a lot of people are starting to look for more “real” experiences as they grow tired of sitting on a beach getting sun burnt and sun stroke.

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  3. I must disagree with the rich-poor vision being stronger in the Caribbean than elsewhere. Nearly everywhere outside of Europe and North America, the difference between rich and poor is night and day.

    Even in Argentina, a developed country that is barely considered third world, I can walk two blocks and go from stunning luxury to stunning poverty; From backyard pools, to no running water.

    It is a complicated issue and I admire the journalists, photographers, and writers who attack these issue and show them to us.

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    • I agree with you, Jeff. Places like Sao Paulo and Mexico City are prime examples. I guess my point is that you hear of poverty and crime in these regions, we have those stereotypes all too often. However, it goes the complete other way with the Caribbean, you rarely if ever hear about the poverty, crime, and other social issues. All you ever hear about are the beaches and water. That’s the point I was trying to get across :D.

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  4. it’s a shame really. it’s a bit of a conundrum, because without tourism, a large chunk of the economy is lost, making it an even worse off place to live. i really liked the line “But the Caribbean isn’t paradise, not for the residents who live on the other side anyways.”

    great sentiment and message. really great photos and color too.

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    • Thanks for your comment Mack… Tourism is often seen as a solution when really sometimes it blinds economies into becoming narrow minded and one-dimensional doesn’t it?

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  5. Great point, Brendan. I experience a similar feeling every time I go to Brazil. The things I see make me so sad, and I feel helpless. The only solution I find is to give more to charity. Hopefully, this post and other sources of information about “the other side” will encourage people to do what they can to help the poor around the world.
    btw, I love your photo of the man and the caption you wrote about him.

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  6. Tourists will always be tourists, but then there are the people like yourself who will go the extra mile to find out what the Caribbean is REALLY like. Bravo. Your photo/caption of the “crazy man” are one example of how misconceptions (or lack of conception at all) keep foreigners in fear and/or denial. I find that’s a pretty American thing, too, this institutionally/socially imposed fear of the “other.” Many Americans will do anything to not have to find out how great most people, especially those of other countries and classes, really are. Bah!

    Thanks for a great read, and a great blog. Cheers.

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    • @Jenna – Thanks for the comment. I agree that Americans can be bad, and as a Canadian I`d love to take a shot at Americans. HOWEVER, it`s not just the Americans, I have seen this across the board from western countries. Americans, Canadians, Brits, Aussies, Spaniards… we are all guilty. I think it maybe just that the Americans are a little bit more `loud` about it.

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  7. My brother would love an experience like this! He has a tendency of gravitating to the rougher side of the island. One time he took my uncle along with him and the two of them ended up having lunch in one of the locals house. The family had no glass on their windows and a donkey in their living room. He gets to see the authentic side of the destination.

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    • @Elle… you’ve never really travelled unless you’ve had dinner sharing company with a donkey hahaha

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  8. Great post Brendan.

    In 2001, I went on a vacation in Kenya. I was staying with my family in a 5 star resort, but on the other side of the street from the resort, people were living in cardboard houses. on the beach side of the resort, (black) guards armed with sticks, kept the local population from getting too close to the guests. The beach was amazing, but it was empty. On the first day I found out why, when I wanted to go for a swim in the ocean. When I was halfway to the water, I was literally swarmed with locals trying to sell me something. A friend of mine who went to the Dominican Republic, told me that they were not even allowed to go outside of their resort…
    Today, living in Brazil, I see this kind of thing all over the place too. More in the north than in the south, but I guess it is a worldwide problem, and as you say: “not to be discussed when on vacation.”

    Even the big cities in Europe or the US have their “other side of the island”, no?

    Again… Great post.

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    • thanks for the comment Raf… hopefully we can start discussing these things on vacation no?

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  9. Hi, On the Flipside Jacob is now booze free and no longer the “Crazy Guy” !!!! He is my partner and a fantastic guy at that. I met Jacob when he drank and saw him a year later after he had quit and made a business proposition and the rest is history. Jacob is almost one year booze free…… And with Gods help remain that way till the day he dies. And if I can help I will. The best friend God could give you…..He can be found on Front Street in Caye Caulker selling Jewelry and T-shirts. Thanks, Steve Johnson

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  10. If people adopted people like this on Vacation and started small businesses or partnerships the world would be a better place………

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  11. One more thought….. To show his pic on here after he has stopped drinking is not a good idea and not fair to him or his family. Just Saying……

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  12. Very good article and reflection.

    I actually met the same rasta man in the photo above in Caye Caulker Belize. He definitely had character. I wonder what his life story is.

    We as tourist goto island paradise while there is poverty on the backside of the island. It’s true.


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  13. On behalf of Jacob, I request that you remove his picture.

    Thank you,


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  14. Jacob is my partner in a jewelry business and wishes to leave this in his past. Jacob is a good man with a bright future now and has support to help him get there.

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  15. You can help Jacob by buying his goods on Front St in Caye Caulker, Belize.

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