No matter where you go in Haiti, you’re bound to hear the phrase, “pa gen pwoblem.” Directly translated, it means, “no have problem,” and represents how Haitians, despite a long history of struggles and natural disasters, possess an uncanny ability to enjoy life even when facing adversity.
|Size||10,710 square miles (27,750 square kilometers)|
|Population (2016)||10,900,000 (95% Black, 5% other)|
|Official language(s)||French, Haitian Creole|
|GDP per capita (2017)||$719|
|Electricity||US standard two-prong|
|Driving||on the right|
Discovered by Christopher Columbus on December 6, 1492, Haiti was originally named Hispaniola. Although the Spanish maintained its presence, the western third of the island was ceded to French rule in 1697. Thanks to sugar and coffee plantations, the French colony of Saint-Dominique quickly became one of the wealthiest cities in the Caribbean. But these two crops required intense labor, and when the demand for sugar and coffee around the world increased exponentially, Haiti’s slave force, one of the largest in existence, revolted against their foreign plantation owners. This 13-year rebellion ultimately led to the establishment of a black republic in 1804.
It’s well known that Haiti has had its share of challenges, but even though their past is plagued by slavery, violence, and military coups, the people and the natural beauty of this country has held the world’s attention for centuries. Beautiful mountains and sandy beaches, combined with an impressive and dynamic culture that features art, music, dance, literature, cuisine and architecture, makes Haiti an unforgettable Caribbean destination.
- 5 great facts About Haiti, by Haiti Tourism Inc.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cASHvrgsJa8
Haiti shares an island with the Dominican Republic. Situated just to the east of Cuba, it is fairly easy to reach by commercial air. There are two international airports – the main one being Aéroport Toussaint L’Ouverture near the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. Major airlines offer direct service from New York, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Panama City, as well as connections from all over the world. It takes only about fifteen-minutes to drive into the city center, and thanks to a dense population, there are many transportation options to choose from.
Haiti’s other international airport is all the way to the north near the city of Cap-Haitien. This also services direct flights from the United States but is used less frequently because it’s about a 6-hour drive from Port-au-Prince. There are several regional airports throughout the country, but many, like Jacmel, don’t maintain regular flight schedules. Domestic air travel is relatively affordable. Passengers can expect to pay 125-132 USD roundtrip.
Due to the size and proximity to the mainland, Santo Domingo International Airport (SDQ) located in the Dominican Republic offers even more options for direct flights from the United States. Those who are interested in visiting both countries, will find that ground transportation into Haiti is not only affordable, but readily available. It will take about 7 hours to make the journey, but you’ll be seeing a great deal of Dominican Republic along the way. Caribe Tours runs daily from Santo Domingo for about USD40 each-way. As with all ground transportation, you’ll either need to walk for find additional transportation to get to your lodgings once you arrive in Port-au-Prince. There are options to drive through the northern border passing from Dajabon to Ouanaminthe in Haiti. For those planning to drive between countries, it’s important to do some research. The border is not open 24-hours a day and there are several fees that might require different currencies. However, for those interested in a bit of an adventure, ground transportation offers a less traditional means of visiting Haiti.
Although Haiti is still recovering from the devastating effects of Hurricane Matthew, there are plenty of ways to get around once you’re there. Chauffers, taxis, tap-taps, and car rental agencies have not let damaged roads keep visitors from seeing and experiencing their country. As with most Caribbean Islands, even when roads are in good condition, they are still fairly dangerous to navigate. You should only consider driving yourself if you’re comfortable with narrow roads, mountain passages, a lack of signage and few street lights.
While they’re on the more expensive side of the spectrum, hiring a chauffeur offers the added benefit of having your own personal guide. Unlike the fancy chauffeurs you find in big cities, Haitian chauffeurs will often interpret for you, recommend places to eat or visit, and drive you safely in their 4-wheel drive vehicle anywhere you want to go. As they’re used to catering to tourists, you will usually get a peek into everyday life through their eyes and enjoy listening to stories throughout your journey. Your hotel will help make arrangements for a driver.
The major car rental agencies, such as Hertz or Avis, are available within the city, but again, it’s important to stress that driving in Haiti is a different experience than most are used to. There are many considerations to take into account when renting a vehicle. On the other-hand, halfway between a rental car and a chauffeur is the taxi service. This is more of a direct, one-way method of getting where you need to go, but it’s quite affordable and offers more comfort than buses or tap-taps.
Busses and tap-taps. The most adventurous way to travel through Haiti. They are neither luxurious, nor extremely reliable, but they are a great way to travel like the locals. Tap-taps are like a car, truck, bus, and church pew all in one. The seating area is nothing more than a canopy-covered series of benches. They can get quite crowded, but unlike traditional busses, you can jump on and jump off anywhere along the route. This means they’re likely to empty out as you continue along your journey.
Things to explore
- Citadelle Laferrière – Probably more than any other feature of the island, Citadelle Laferrière is a physical representation of Haiti’s indominable spirit and determination to live as a free nation. Upon gaining independence from the French, Haiti’s first king and former slave, Henri Christophe, ordered the construction of the Citadelle to protect his new republic from potential attacks or efforts to reclaim the country. Set atop the mountain Bonnet a L’Eveque near the city of Cap-Haitien, it’s impressive vantage point at an altitude of 3,000 feet (900m), allows you to see the eastern coast of Cuba on a clear day. It took twenty years to build, but it was a labor of love for most of the 20,000 free citizens who helped construct its 12-foot (4m) thick walls that stretch as high as 130-feet (40m). It’s a virtual city and was designed to protect 5,000 people for up to a year. One can make the seven-mile hike that’s nearly all uphill, but you can also find a willing horse or vehicle to get you to the top. Even if you aren’t a military or history buff, considering it was built in the early 1800’s it’s an incredible feat of engineering.
- A view of Citadelle, by Haiti Tourism Inc.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iw-YA9TvISM
- Grand Rue Artists – For those visitors looking to pull back the veneer of Haiti’s tourist industry, Grand Rue Artists is a place experience art that is not only a commentary on Haiti’s culture and economic saga, but to witness the industry of young sculptors who have found a way to make their voices heard through art despite the lack of resources. Located at the southern end of Grand Rue, which is a main street that runs through Port-au-Prince, is the run-down area known as the car repair district. It seems an unlikely place to find such formidable art considering the number of world-renowned museums located within the city. Since Haiti’s tourism has slowly been diminishing over the years, what was once used to create handicrafts has been turned into an unexpected place for sculptors and installation artists. It is impossible to define what you’ll find in this former junkyard, but whatever it is will be made of recycled car parts and other found materials that have been repurposed into life-sized statues and sculptures.
- Bassin Bleu – Just 45-minutes away from Jacmel regional airport, tucked within a lush mountain are three pools known for their natural beauty. Seemingly carved from the rock face specifically for the purpose of swimming, each of the four pools, Cheval, Yes, Palmiste, and Clair, are linked by a series of waterfalls, and bear their own distinct characteristics. Named for their stunning cobalt hue, they are easily accessible both by car and by foot, though it should be noted the trek gets more challenging as you go. The first basin, Cheval, is a shallow pool that is safe for children of all ages to enjoy. From there, the basins get deeper, while the climb gets steeper. Bassin Yes is 15 ft deep and can be enjoyed by those up for a little more of a hike. At Bassin Palmiste, you can dive off of nearby rocks into the 57-foot waters, or lounge at some of the sitting areas and concrete tables that make the journey worth the effort. The crowning jewel of the bassins, however, is Clair. At one point, you’ll repel down a 10-foot rock to reach the 75-foot deep swimming hole. You’re sure to see dare-devils jumping from the high cliffs into the pristine waters at the last Bassin Bleu.
- Île-à-Rat – Just a small bump of perfect white sand with a concentration of trees that could be considered a micro-forest, Île-à-Rat is a perfect way to spend a day relaxing in the sun. A simple water taxi will take you round trip for about US$40, and a seafood lunch can be added for US$15 more. Bring snorkeling gear to see old cannons and anchors that have been sitting on the sea bottom for hundreds of years or take the short walk around the island and imagine what it must have been like for Christopher Columbus when he stopped here five hundred years ago. You’ll often see fishermen just off the coast who will be happy to show you how to catch lobster and crabs. Bring some cocktails but be careful with consuming alcohol while engaging in water sports.
- Sans Souci – One needs only their imagination to fill in the missing parts of Sans Souci to see how majestic this palace once was. It was built by King Henri Christophe in concert with Citadelle Laferrière shortly after Haiti became an independent republic. The irony of course, is that King Henri I intentionally designed Sans Souci to rival the palace Versailles of their former French rulers. Situated down the mountain from the Citadelle, Sans Souci, which means “without worry,” was intended to be the administrative center of the new kingdom. It was also the location of a printing press, a school and army barracks for hundreds of troops. It fell to ruin during an earthquake in 1842 and has continued to decay since then. It’s worth a walk around the grounds, however, as one can’t help but get a sense of the pride the newly liberated slave nation felt at the height of its glory.
- Musée du Panthéon National –Those who accidentally wander onto the grounds of his modern history museum might, at first, think it’s just a few sculptures. But walking around to the far side of the circular garden, you’ll find the entrance to a subterranean exhibit hall full of relics and stories about Haiti’s history. From the Taínos, who were the islands original inhabitants, to the modern era of politics and natural disasters plus everything in between, visitors can view artifacts such as pottery, the rusted anchor of Christopher Columbus’ flags ship, the Santa María, and the horrific Code Noir that governed the slavers plantations. One can also view King Henri Christophe’s revolver, that housed the silver bullet he allegedly shot himself with, the overtly ornate crown worn by Haiti’s emperor and military commander, Faustin Soulouque, and the black hat and cane ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier was known for during his presidency that lasted from 1957 until he died in 1971.
- Barbancourt Rum Distillery – One of the most famous rum distilleries in the world, Barbancourt was founded in 1862 by a Dupre who emigrated to Haiti after a successful career making cognac in the French region of Charente. Barbancourt was run as a local distillery until 1952 when production for export increased. What makes this rum unique is that it’s made directly from sugarcane, as opposed to most other rum which is distilled from molasses, the dark syrupy by-product of sugarcane. Located in the northern region outside of Port-au-Prince you can visit the distillery on Fridays from November to May. Of particular note, the company’s CEO is sixth generation Barbancourt.
Being located one of the larger islands in the Caribbean, Haiti has a diverse selection of hotels and lodging to choose from. Experiencing a resurgence of tourism for the first time since several natural disasters devastated the nation, Haiti has used the opportunity to expand accommodations in and around the capital. Hotels such as the Hilton, Marriott and Best Western are appearing on a regular basis and several large resorts are now open for business. Within the city, an excellent choice is Le Plaza, with a restaurant famous for its daily buffet and a staff which is largely fluent in English. Another great option for English speakers is Visa Lodge near the airport. Along with their own restaurant and swimming pool, the hotel accepts American money and credit cards. The Oloffson hotel was once a French plantation owner’s home and is among one of the colonial buildings not to be missed in Haiti. The city of Cap Haitian up to the north is not as large as the capital, so popular hotel companies, such as the Hilton and Marriott, do not as of yet have a presence there. This is not to say that you can’t find excellent accommodations. Roi Henri Christophe Hotel, Habitation Joussaint, and Mont Joli Hotel make the list of places to stay.
Guest houses and campgrounds are also available throughout most of Haiti, but guest houses are rarely advertised online and so therefore are difficult to reserve unless you’re already in the country. And while camping is available in many of Haiti’s national parks, it’s highly recommended to have a good understanding of where you’re staying and what to expect.
Food and Restaurants
Good food is not hard to find in Haiti. With all the hardships, eating has remained a way of celebrating life. Haitians are generous when it comes to sharing food with visitors and view the unique aspects of their cuisine to be one of the greatest things their country has to offer.
Like many Caribbean nations, Haiti’s history of French rule had some advantages when it comes to cuisine. Equally influenced by African cultures brought over with the original slaves, you’ll experience a variety of flavors ranging from Spanish to Creole with intense spices and savory ingredients. In addition to fresh seafood caught daily by local fisherman on, some of the more unique Haitian dishes include roasted goat referred to as kabrit, fried pork called griot, poulet creole, which is chicken covered in Creole sauce, and wild mushrooms mixed with rice, known as du riz jonjon.
Haiti has its own source of fresh fruit, which can be found almost everywhere – guava, pineapple, banana, melons and breadfruit. The two not to be missed, however, are mangoes and sugarcane that is cut and peeled right on the street. Other foods typical to the region, such as plantain, yams, and rice are staples of nearly every meal. It is important to take precautions against food that may not have been properly washed or prepared, and best to choose fruits that must be peeled. And sadly, to no fault of their own, the water in Haiti is not safe to drink. Earthquakes and hurricanes have caused major damage to sewage systems and water plants.
Definitely don’t plan on going to bed too early when you visit Haiti. There are few things Haitians love more than to celebrate throughout the night. Walking along Grand Rue in Port-au-Prince, it’s not uncommon to encounter spontaneous live music out on the street or in a courtyard. Djoumbala is a venue where they play live music as well as compas, Haitian dance music modern meringue with roots in the African culture. It’s been popular since 1955. On Tuesday night in the center of Pétion Ville you can sing karaoke at Zest. If you like Mexican food, in particular taco’s, whole chickens, alcohol and wild parties, visit Tito’s Tacos. You’ll be surprised. And for more upscale cocktails and ambience, Karibe Hôtel’s rooftop lounge, called Asú, is where you’ll find Port-au-Prince’s jet setters.
If you’re not in the nation’s capital, don’t fear. Haiti’s bright spirt can be found everywhere. In Cap-Haïtien, you can get breakfast spaghetti or a burger while enjoying a stunning view of the bay at pirate-themed, Boukanye along the waterfront. Akenssa Plaza is a place to drink, dance, and eat Creole food. Jacmel visitors can salsa dance at La Taverne between the best rum sours to be found anywhere, and Belle Epoque Barak, a house and hip-hop music venue.
The legal drinking age is 16. And most places serve popular alcoholic Haitian drinks, such as Prestige beer, Cremas, made with coconut milk, Barbancourt Rum, and Clairin, a unique firewater made from sugarcane that comes in a variety of flavors.
Sports and Adventure
There is no shortage of outdoor adventures to be had in and around Haiti. From dense rainforest covered mountains, to white sandy beaches and tropical sunsets, you can spend a majority of your time in Haiti outside. In fact, many of the things to see around Haiti do double-duty for this category, including Bassin Bleu, Citadelle Laferrière, and Île-à-Rat.
- La Côte Des Arcadins – This beach resort area an hour-and-a-half north of Port-au-Prince is a one-stop shop for the outdoor adventurist wanting to play in the sand, the sea, or hike in the mountains. La Côte Des Arcadins was built up by a collection of resorts specifically to increase tourism. There are many companies that offer fishing charters, scuba diving and snorkeling excursions, such as Marina Blue Haiti. Moulin Sur Mer Beach Resort has packages that include lodging, food, beverage and water sports. Areas for water exploration include, Troufonban, Anse a Pirogue, La Gonave and Sant Marc, while les Chemins de Montrouis, Marchant Dessalines, and Kay Piat are popular land destinations.
- Hiking – While staying in Côte Des Arcadins, consider hiking Kay Piat in Montrouis. The only tradeoff for the incredible views is the strenuous and challenging hike. Even for those who are most experienced, it can be perilous. Jacmel to Mere Rouge is an interesting route that requires a 4-wheel vehicle for some of the journey, whereas climbing Pic la Selle will give you a view like no other, given that you’ll be at an altitude of 8,793 feet – the highest point of the island. Surprisingly, this is a fairly easy three-hour trek from the drop-off point. Don’t be surprised when you see pine trees. Yes, you’re still in the Caribbean.
- Ziplining – A popular activity on every adventurer’s list, the zipline in Labadee is the longest zipline over water that exists anywhere in the world. You’ll soar over white beaches and blue waters while taking in the incredible views around you.
Safety and Security
Haiti is a dangerous place with a high risk for demonstrations. There have been several occasions where foreigners have been evacuated or discouraged from traveling there at all. There is also a trend of violent crime, including armed robbery and in some serious cases, kidnapping. Most visitors never experience any danger, but be aware that local law enforcement, including ambulances and medical care, can be sparse. Take normal precautions and always be on the look-out. Avoid excessive travel at night, carrying large amounts of money or visiting ATMs after hours, and visiting areas of the city known to be dangerous.
Outside of the city, it is always recommended that you hire a professional guide to help you navigate remote regions and lead you through dense jungle. At the beaches, be careful not to mix alcohol with water-sports. If you’re planning to scuba dive, ensure you have a certified diver with you at all times.
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