6 Caribbean destinations where visitors should eat like the locals

Tourists usually come to the Caribbean for the white sand beaches, snorkeling, sailing, and golfing. With so much else to do, the native cuisine doesn’t always make it onto visitors’ to-do lists, and when they do eat, many restaurants cater to their American or European comfort zones. But visitors are doing themselves a disservice if they don’t sample the native flavor: Caribbean cuisine combines tastes and styles from all over the world with local ingredients and centuries of ingenuity. Read on about six of the dozens of destinations that will delight the gastronomically inclined traveler.  
  • Mexican flag
  • Cancun, Mexico

  • Like the rest of the surrounding Yucatan Peninsula, this Caribbean city’s cuisine is strongly influenced by its Mayan history and heritage. Leave the Hotel Zone and head downtown for a taste.

Cochinita pibil

This roasted pork dish is iconic in the Yucatan. Cochinita refers to the whole piglet that is traditionally cooked, while pibil is a Mayan word referring to the pit it’s cooked in. The finished pork is tender, with a bright orange hue and a strong citrus marinade. 


This dish superficially resembles a sope, but the tortilla that forms its base contains a surprise for the first-time eater: It’s actually been split and filled with refried beans. Panuchos are usually topped with shredded poultry, cabbage, tomatoes, and onions.

Sopa de lima

Another Yucatan special, sopa de lima takes familiar Mexican ingredients into a new setting by mixing fried tortilla strips and shredded chicken with chicken broth and fresh tangy lime juice (hence the name). This is perfect comfort food for the stressed-out traveler.

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  • Jamaican flag
  • Jamaica

  • Jamaica’s cuisine is defined both by the two European powers that once colonized it (Spain and Britain) and by the innovation of the locals, most of whom are descended from African slaves.

Ackee and saltfish

Contrary to popular belief, the country’s national dish isn’t jerk-spiced meats; it’s ackee and saltfish. Imported salt cod is combined with locally grown ackee, a fleshy fruit, and sautéed with onions, tomatoes, and pepper to create a dish that is at turns creamy and salty.

Jerk meat

They might not be the national dish, but jerk chicken and pork have made a name for themselves abroad. The special flavoring comes from a spicy pepper marinade and cooking on pimento (allspice) wood. Members may find it served with rice and “peas” (the Jamaican name for kidney beans).

Unusual fruits

A trip to Jamaica is a great opportunity for members to sample fruits they might not ever see at home:


  • Sweetsops: Creamy, looks like a big green raspberry
  • Soursops: Spiny and green with a musky acidic flavor
  • Guinep: Lime-like, with a pulpy inside akin to lychee
  • Gooseberries: Look like tomatillos, taste like grapes
  • Naseberries: Resemble potatoes, but extremely sweet

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  • Mexican flag
  • Dominican Republic

  • The second largest country in the Caribbean enjoys a cuisine influenced by Spanish colonists, African slaves, and the native Taino people. As in Spain, lunch is the most important meal of the day.


Named for the Spanish verb sancochar (“to parboil”), this hearty stew of vegetables and meats is the national dish of the Dominican Republic. The most decadent form of sancocho is sancocho de siete carnes—“sancocho with seven meats.”


As in the rest of the Caribbean, the banana-like plantain is a staple crop here. It may be served fresh, or sliced, fried, seasoned, and served as tostones or fritos verdes (plantain fritters) with a tasty garlic sauce called mojo.

La bandera

Lunch is a big deal in the Dominican, and this dish is the most popular. Featuring rice, red beans, and meat, la bandera (“the flag”) is so-named for its tri-color presentation. Another three-item plate is los tres golpes (“the three hits”), a breakfast of fried eggs, fried cheese, and salami.

Ready to dig into some hearty Dominican cooking?

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  • Barbadian flag
  • Barbados

  • Unlike many former colonies, Barbados stayed solely in British hands from the 1620s to 1966—explaining why such a strong British flavor has taken hold there.

Flying fish and cou-cou

The Barbadian national dish makes use of the flying fish, which is abundant in the surrounding Atlantic waters and is usually breaded and fried. (The fish is a frequent motif around the island, and it adorns the Barbadian $1 coin). The second part, cou-cou, is similar to polenta, combining cornmeal with okra.


At first glance, conkies appear to be tamales in banana leaves. But take a bite and you’ll discover that instead of corn masa and meat, conkies pack a delicious mix of sweet potatoes, cornmeal, pumpkin, coconut, raisins, and spices. Barbadians traditionally make conkies to celebrate the island’s Independence Day (November 30).

Black pudding and souse

Another popular Barbadian lunch dish is black pudding and souse. Similar to English black pudding, Barbadian black pudding is sometimes served in sausage casings. Looks are deceiving—these days, most Barbadian black pudding has no pork blood and is instead made with seasoned grated sweet potato. Souse is a stew with chicken or pork; traditionally made with parts like feet, ears, and snouts, most recipes now use standard cuts.

Ready to spread your flying fish wings in Barbados?

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  • Bahamian flag
  • The Bahamas

  • The Bahamas is made up of about 700 islands, with people living on the 30 largest ones. Originally home to Taino natives, the archipelago has also been a pirate haven, a British Crown colony, and a destination for liberated African slaves.


Foreign visitors are likely more familiar with the conch's ornate shell than the fleshy snail that lives inside, but in the Bahamas, the focus is on conch as food. Raw diced conch salad with lime juiuce, tomato, onion, and pepper is the most popular conch dish, but it can also be steamed, deep-fried, or mixed into a chowder.


Callaloo originated in West Africa and is popular across the Caribbean, and the Bahamas are no exception. Recipes vary: some steam the leafy greens and add just onions and salt, while others incorporate coconut milk, okra, and even seafood. It's usually served as a side with other dishes.

Sweet desserts

Dessert here shouldn't be skipped. If you're looking for a cool option on a warm night, rum-raisin ice cream is a popular treat. Other choices include guava duff (steamed bread pudding topped with guava sauce) and coconut tarts.

Ready to sample the many shores of the Bahamas?

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  • St. Lucian flag
  • St. Lucia

  • Saint Lucia is known as "the Helen of the West Indies" after France and Britain exchanged control of the island 14 times during the colonial period. Today, it's both a member of the British Commonwealth and the French Francophonie, with the cuisine to match.

Green fig and saltfish

Don't let the name or appearance fool you; "green fig" in St. Lucia actually refers to boiled green bananas, which look a lot like sliced avocado. As in Jamaica, salted cod makes an appearance in this national dish, which is often eaten on Creole Day in October.


St. Lucia adds another inspiration to the usual Caribbean influences: In the 19th century, Britain brought thousands of indentured servants from India to work plantations in St. Lucia, and their descendants have made East Indian food part of the St. Lucian kitchen. One example of this is roti—The Indian bread has been repurposed into a stuffed dish containing meat or curry.

Tamarind juice

Fresh juices accompany most meals on St. Lucia. There are plenty of good choices—guava, passionfruit, grapefruit, and mango among them—but a more distinctive choice is tamarind juice. It's made from the fruit of the tamarind tree, which resembles a peanut but is fleshy and much sweeter when ripe.

Ready to meet the "Helen of the West Indies"?

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Save during AAA's exclusive Tropical Days

Get great value with round-trip AAA vacation packages to select Caribbean resort destinations, or plan your own vacation with a AAA travel agent and savings.


1 Valid on new bookings made September 1 – October 31, 2017 for travel September 1, 2017 – June 30, 2018. Blackout dates apply December 21, 2017 – January 3, 2018. Requires round trip airfare from the U.S. and minimum 5 nights’ accommodation at a participating hotel or resort. Savings is per booking and is applied at time of booking.


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