(Latest update: 17/1/2023)
- Where are you going this summer?
- To Haiti
- Wow, so cool!!!
- … Well… yeah…
- Where is it, Polynesia?
- Ah no, no. That’s Tahiti. I go to Haiti. The poorest country in the American continent.
- What… wait… The earthquake one?
- … Ah…
Tourism off the beaten path has been very fashionable in the last few years. Alternative locations, untouched nature, no crowd nor queues, discovery of the real local life are becoming more and more attractive activities.
I haven’t done any of this kind of tourism off the beaten path during my stay in Haiti. My time on the island has been a bit of an edgy touristic experience in between working time. But I still consider it a touristic adventure fairly extreme!
Is tourism possible in Haiti?
I went to Haiti for a volunteering trip. I’ve written my experience and my thought about the island in a post that I called “Haiti is no country for old men“, because this is the country with the shortest life expectancy in the entire American continent.
During those days I’ve found a Caribbean island rich in both potential and contradictions, that left me with a bit of a bitter-sweet feeling. This is why I want now suggest it as a touristic destination for those that are in the Caribbeans or, even better, on the same island, on the other side of the border, in the much more known Dominican Republic.
With most EU nationalities, it’s possible to get the visa directly at the airport/border. But you can also ask for it at the Haitian embassy before leaving, saving yourselves some last minute stress.
4 places to visit in Haiti
The common question about tourism in Haiti is: do I find anything interesting, besides poverty, earthquake ruins and cholera?
And the answer is: of course! Tourism, especially international tourism, in Haiti is uncommon but alive! Here are a few ideas.
1. It’s a Caribbean island: let’s go to the beach!
The coastline of the Republic of Haiti is often not as taken care of as those of the nearby islands. You need to get to specific areas. For instance, most of the hotels and resorts have access to private beaches which are kept clean and safe.
I’ve been to the Ocean View resort: it’s small, with a swimming pool, an indoor restaurant, shaded areas, a couple of tennis courts and, obviously, the beach and access to the sea.
As in many other hotels, you can enter the resort for a daily fee and enjoy all the comforts.
On the south coast, there’s a beautiful colonial town, a UNESCO world heritage site. Jacmel is known for its typical “gingerbread” architecture. Some of these colourful houses were built in the XIX century, even though a fire destroyed many of them at the end of that century.
Jacmel has been nicknamed “City of Light” because it was the first Caribbean town reached by electricity in 1925.
There are bars and restaurants and a pretty promenade facing the sea. I’d rather advise against public beaches because they tend to be fairly dirty. There are plenty of resorts and hotels with good access to the coast, to choose from.
The 2010 earthquake partially destroyed Jacmel. Sadly it has not been completely reconstructed (more earthquakes in recent years didn’t help the situation!), some buildings are still unsafe and left in ruins. Nonetheless, I consider this town one of the prettiest in all Haiti and the most likely to be able to welcome a tourist wave.
3. The Bassin Bleu
Besides the Caribbean sea, another natural beauty is Bassin Bleu. It consists of a series of freshwater ponds connected by waterfalls, in a flourishing forest.
There’s an entrance fee to pay and you’re more or less forced into hiring a guide that leads you into the woods. It’s actually not mandatory and they only ask for a tip at the end of the tour, but they are so insistent that it’s really hard to avoid them. The path to follow it’s fairly simple, even though there are just a couple of passages where the help of these guides actually might become handy.
Bassin Bleu is visited mostly by Haitian tourists, maybe because it’s not very easy to reach. It’s fairly close to Jacmel but the roads that lead to it are only partially paved, in what seems to be a random pattern. Here is paved, then it’s not, then yes again, ah no, now not anymore…
4. Port-au-Prince: traffic, supermarkets and colourful houses
The capital of the country, Port-au-Prince, is a town of almost 1 million inhabitants, half of them living in barracks. The traffic is crazy, between unpaved streets, the almost total absence of traffic lights and an insane amount of various vehicles.
I’ve added it to this list because I think it’s a unique experience. There actually are a couple of tourist attractions, but I believe the most interesting part of visiting it, is to “live” the mad atmosphere.
Book a driver (I advise against driving yourself!) and have a tour around. Ask to be taken to a local supermarket, for instance. Goods are displayed with double prices: Haitian gourde and Haitian dollars (which don’t exist in reality!), but you can also pay in American dollars. Genius.
There are entire neighbourhoods, such as Jalousie, of colourful little “houses” perched on the hills. There’s the expats and rich Haitians neighbourhood, with villas and western shops. There are barracks and street markets, lots of markets everywhere.
5. The fortress of Cap-Haitien
To the north of the country, sits Cap-Haitien, also called Le Cap, the biggest city in the region. I’ve never been there, but I want to mention it because close by there’s the Citadelle Leferrière, which is a UNESCO site since 1982.
It is located about thirty km from Cap-Haitien, and it’s the largest fortress in the American continent. It was built in the early 19th century at an altitude of 900 meters and it has been of fundamental importance in maintaining the newly proclaimed independence from France. It was equipped with more than 30 cannons and containers to supply 500 men for at least a full year.
Art and souvenirs
Outside the hotels you can often find street vendors waiting for someone to walk in or out of the gate. Downtown Port-au-Prince, close to the Musee du Pantheon National Haitien, Haiti history museum, there’s an entire market selling local handicrafts.
All the vendors sell pretty much the same things. I was told there’s an organization that organizes the artists in groups and helps them to sell and promote their goods. I don’t know what are the terms of the deal, just I hoped there would not be too much speculation going on.
Still, I loved the coconuts and wooden handicraft. You can find kitchen tools, statues, jewellery, frames…
Likewise the Dominican Republic, art naive is the main painting style. The paintings show almost always stylized and colourful persons. I find them adorable. They are not all beautiful, but there are so many of them, it’s impossible not to find something you like.
Mass tourism is difficult in Haiti partially because of its reputation and the western TV/news bad propaganda.
It is true, though, that white skin is instantly connected with richness and, often, naivety. Tourists become easy prays. But like for many other countries in the world, you just need to be smart and careful. Hotels usually have guards at the gates. If you want to go around, stay in a group and/or hire a driver, Avoid showing off cameras, cellphones, jewellery and wallets, like you would do in any dodgy neighbourhood in the world.
Said that, enjoy!