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Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Tourists who are unsettled by grinding poverty probably should visit elsewhere. However, for those with patience and an open mind, Haiti reveals a rich culture that is unique among post-colonial nations.
It is extremely helpful when traveling in Haiti to have a local contact, through a church, a hotel, or just through making friends with someone. Experiences like dining locally, riding on a tap-tap, or strolling through one of the insanely crowded outdoor markets are great fun and very worth doing, but much safer and easier if you have a trusted Haitian to go along as a guide and interpreter.
Tropical; semiarid where mountains in the east cut off trade winds. Haiti lies in the middle of the hurricane belt and is subject to severe storms from June to November. Experiences occasional flooding, earthquakes and droughts.
Mostly mountainous, with a wide, flat central plain to the north. The highest point is Chaine de la Selle at 2,777m.
Haiti was inhabited by the native Taino Indians when Christopher Columbus landed on December 6th 1492 at Mole St Nicholas. Columbus named the island Hispaniola. The Taino were a branch of the Arawak Indians,a peaceful tribe that was weakened by frequent violent invasions by the cannibalistic Carib Indians. Later, Spanish settlers brought smallpox and other European diseases to which the Taino had no immunity. In short order, the native Taino were virtually annihilated. There is no discernible trace of Taino blood on Haiti today. The current inhabitants have exclusively African and/or European roots. In the early 17th century, the French established a presence on Hispaniola and in 1697 Spain ceded the western third of the island to France. Through the development of sugar and coffee plantations, the French colony of Saint-Domingue flourished, becoming one of the wealthiest in the Caribbean. Enslaved Africans were brought to Haiti to work on these French plantations. Work conditions for slaves on Haiti were the harshest imaginable, as sugar and coffee plantations required intensive labor. The French imported an enormous slave labor force, which ultimately vastly outnumbered the French planters 10 to 1. In August 1791, Saint-Domingue's nearly 500,000 slaves revolted, burning every plantation to the ground and killing all the Frenchmen they could find. After a bloody 13 year struggle, the former slaves ousted the French and created Haiti - the first black republic - in 1804. Since its revolution, Haiti has not had a stable government. It has had 32 coups over the centuries - a series of military dominations that focused on maintaining power and extracting wealth from a large peasant base. A lack of government and civil unrest led to the American occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934. While order was brought about and much infrastructure was developed in Haiti by the United States, Haitians resented the occupation of their country. The withdrawal of Americans by President Roosevelt in 1934 left a power vacuum that was filled by Haitian military elite. The Forbes Commission in 1930 accurately noted that "the social forces that created [instability] still remain--poverty, ignorance, and the lack of a tradition or desire for orderly free government." The following 20 years saw ruthless struggles for power that ended with the ascension of François (Papa Doc) Duvalier. Duvalier's brutal dictatorship lasted nearly thirty years, with his son, Jean-Claude (Bébé Doc) Duvalier assuming power after Papa Doc's death in 1971. Bébé Doc was ousted in 1986, followed by more bloodshed and military rule that culminated in a new Constitution in 1987 and the election of former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president in 1990. After a coup d'etat, Aristide went into exile. Most of his term was usurped by a military takeover, but he returned to office in 1994 after Haitian General Raoul Cedras asked the United States to intervine, negotiating the departure of Haiti's military leaders and paving the way for the return of Aristide. His former prime minister, René Préval, became president in 1996. Aristide won a second term as president in 2000, and took office early in 2001. However, accusations of corruption were followed by a paramilitary coup that ousted Aristide in 2004. Since then, Haiti has been occupied by U.N. peacekeeping troupes (MINUSTAH) and has once again elected René Préval as head of state in February 2006.
Visas are only required by citizens of China, Colombia, Dominican Republic and Panama. Citizens of other countries can stay 3 months.
International travelers will arrive in Haiti at Port-au-Prince (PAP) at the Aéroport Toussaint L'Ouverture Airport or Aéroport International Cap-Haïtien in the North. The plane tickets can be purchased via many online ticketing sites and agencies. There are intra-Haiti flights available as well. Prices on these flights can fluctuate from time to time due to inflation but, depending on the airline, are usually between USD125-132 return from and to Port-au-Prince - though cheaper between Port-au-Prince and Jacmel. In addition to avoiding rather dangerous and inadequate public transportation system by bus and tap-taps, flights offer a safe passage into and out of Port-au-Prince from other parts in Haiti.
Airlines such as American Airlines, Delta and Spirit serve Port-au-Prince from the US. Air Canada, Air France and Caribair, among others, also offer international flights to and from Port-au-Prince. Lynx Air flies from Fort Lauderdale and Miami to Cap-Haïtien . MFI (Missionary Flights International) fly to Cap also from Florida, but only registered non-Catholic Christian missionaries are welcome aboard. Other international airlines serving Cap-Haïtien include Sky King, Turks and Caicos Air and Pine-apple Air.
There is a crowded border crossing between Dominican Republic and Haiti in Dajabón/Ouanaminthe. The border is open only during the day. From here you can catch local transport to Cap-Haïtien.
Cars may be rented through Hertz, Avis, etc. Taxis in Haiti are usually in the form of SUVs or trucks, as most of the roads are long overdue for repairs, in addition to plethora of unpaved roads one faces while travelling in Haiti. The price is often fair (i.e., 450 Haitian Gourdes, or $11.53 at 39 Gourdes to a dollar, from PAP to Leogane), but offers safety and comfort that cannot be found in riding tap-taps or buses.
The people of Haiti call their forms of public taxis a "tap-tap" and they're often modified trucks or vans, usually with a raised wooden canopy-like cabin over the truck bed. Wood benches are attached to the bed and serve as seats. Tap-Taps are usually painted bright colors, and often bear a religious slogan, such as Jesus vous aime ("Jesus loves you").
Tap-taps are the most economical way to travel in Haiti with the ticket prices usually under a dollar. They are also quite convenient as they will stop along the route wherever you request. However, they are sometimes over packed and can be quite dangerous to ride in the mountain roads where the road conditions are less than ideal. First time travellers who do not speak conversational Creole are advised not to travel by tap-tap without assistance. There are also bus versions of tap-taps used for longer voyages. The prices are often expensive due to the distance traveled.
The official languages of Haiti are French and Haitian Creole (Kreyòl Ayisien), which is a French-based creole language, with 92 % of the vocabulary being derived from French. Haitian Creole is the native language of the masses, while French is the administrative language, even though only 15 % of Haitians can speak it, and only about 2% can speak it well. Even though Creole is a real language it is still mutually intelligible with French, so the competent French speaker should be fine. Many Haitians are very appreciative if you take the trouble to learn a little bit of one of the official languages (preferably Creole), rather than using an interpreter or expecting them to speak English. Haitians working in tourist areas usually speak English well enough for conversation.
You could go to visit Champs-de-Mars, once the most beautiful park in Haiti, but now covered in tents housing people made homeless by the earthquake. It was a public place where people went to relax, before the quake. It is located near the National Palace—which is not in a better condition either, as it's completely a collapsed ruin now.
The Haitian gourde, pronounced goud in Creole, is the currency of Haiti. It's notionally divided into 100 centimes, but as the exchange rate (as of July 2009) hovers around 40 gourdes to the dollar, you're unlikely to see these. Haiti has become famous for its very informal yet interesting bustling marketplace. Everything is sold here ranging from the curiously appealing to the dullest of objects for rather inexpensive prices. Haggling is wise and recommended and not doing so may cost you precious dollars. There are various large retail supermarkets in the capital that offer a variety of items. Haiti is a world of crafts waiting to be sought after.
Although by law, merchants are required to quote prices in gourde, rarely do they do so. Instead, virtually everything is priced in "dollars" -- not USD but Haitian dollars which are equivalent to 5 gourdes. This practice is a holdover from the US occupation of Haiti in the early 20th century, during which the gourde was pegged at 5 gourdes to the US dollar.
Haitian cuisine is typical of Caribbean métissage - a wonderful mix of French and African sensibilities. It is similar to its Spanish Caribbean neighbors yet unique in its strong presence of spices. Roast goat called 'kabrit', morsels of fried pork 'griot', poultry with a Creole sauce 'poulet creole', rice with wild mushroom 'du riz jonjon' are all wonderful and tasty dishes. Along the coast fish, lobster and conch are readily available. Haiti has a very fine collection of fruit including guava, pineapple, mango (Haiti's most prized fruit), banana, melons, breadfruit, as well as mouth watering sugarcane cut and peeled to order on the streets. Restaurants in the bigger cities provide safe and delicious meals, and precautions are taken with the food and water to keep things safe. However, even in resorts with purified water, it is not always safe to assume that raw vegetables (such as lettuce and tomatoes) have been properly washed. In smaller or more humble venues make sure to eat fruit and vegetables that can be skinned or peeled, drink bottled drinks only, make sure any ice is from a clean water source, and make sure any meat is well cooked.
When bottled water or boiled water is not available, a freshly opened coconut provides water and electrolytes with minimal health risk.
Haitian rum is well-known. 'Barbancourt 5 star' is a top drawer drink. 'Clairin' is the local firewater made from sugarcane that can be bought on the street, often flavored with various herbs that can be seen stuffed into the bottle. 'Prestige' is the most popular beer, and is of good quality and excellent taste. Also be sure to try the 'Papye' drink, a sort of papaya milk shake that is deliciously refreshing beyond words on a hot day. Cremas is a tasty, creamy alcoholic beverage that is derived from coconut milk.
There are many guest houses throughout Haiti. However, these are quite hard to find while overseas. Many of these guest houses run about 25 to 35 dollars a night and include 2 to 3 meals during the day. Sometimes these houses are associated with orphanages (e.g., Saint Joseph's Home for Boys).
Saint Joseph's Home for Boys is in Delmas 91, near Pétionville.
Fondwa Guest House is at the bottom of the hill from Anbatonèl (a small village 1/2 way between Léogane and Jacmel).
Camping is a high-risk activity in certain parts of Haiti and is not recommended.
Haiti's illiteracy rate is around 49%
Haiti's unemployment rate is the highest in the Western Hemisphere - over 80%.
Since the earthquake on January 12, 2010, many are still living on the streets in makeshift shelters. There have been a number of protests and an increase in criminal activity. Older advice is as follows: it is important that you use proper judgment when traveling in Haiti. Overall, do exercise a heightened level of caution based on common sense. Do not carry huge loads of cash around, or walk late at night in dark streets.
Sanitary conditions in Haiti are poor. Tap water should be avoided. Drink bottled water only. Health care, while well below the standards of that in developed countries, is available in all large towns and cities. Many smaller towns and villages also have health clinics. However, medical equipment and a wide variety of medicines may be in meager supply.
The biggest concern in Haiti for travellers is malaria, and dehydration. One should make an appointment with a travel clinic for anti-malarial prophylaxis. Hydration requirements can be fulfilled by preparing one of the many water purifying systems as if one were going camping or by buying bottled water once in Haiti which is widely available and inexpensive by western standards. Washing oneself with water from places such as creeks or lakes is not recommended due to the risk of water-borne diseases.
Depending on your itinerary, you may have to walk a lot. Comfortable footwear is crucial for avoiding blisters. Hiking boots are recommended as well as comfortable sandals.
One thing a missionary or other visitor to Haiti learns very quickly is that the Haitians are a very dignified people; they have their pride, despite all they have had to endure. There are some beggars and peddlars in the cities, but they are the exception, not the rule. Don't expect kow-towing. Impoverished Haitians will always accept gifts, but they will almost always stand straight, look you in the eye, and repay you with a sincere "Mesi". Haiti is a nation of fairly conservative norms. Modest dress when exploring Haiti's cities is advised, especially for women. The smart visitor should look people in the eye, wave hello, and treat them with friendship and respect, as equals, no matter how poor or desperate their living conditions may seem. Try to learn some basic words of Haitian Creole. Ask permission before taking pictures of locals (don't be surprised if they ask you for money). Don’t walk about sticking your camera in people’s faces or taking pictures randomly. Do not solely take pictures of the piles of trash you may see in some of the bigger cities (such as Cap-Haïtien or Port au Prince), as it is offensive - or anything else that Haitians are not proud of. However, people have no problem with foreigners taking pictures of beautiful scenery, cultural events or historical sites. Carry a few gourdes in your pockets for the kids who carry your luggage/shine your shoes/hail your tap-tap at the airport (but be alert for pick-pockets). Sometimes visitors to Haiti walk about handing out candy or dollar bills. While many people, especially children, will accept your offering, this is offensive to most people as it compromises the dignity of Haitians. Carry an extra water bottle and food to share with your driver/guide/interpreter.
Be patient. Nothing moves fast in Haiti. Most people will find your whining amusing at best and severely insulting at worst.
Carry a few photos of the area where you live, your workplace, or your family to share with friends you make. These are the things that transform you from just another tourist into a real person. More often than not, the people will return the favor, and you might just find a friend.
Your emotions are real. It is okay to feel overwhelmed if you have not experienced this type of culture difference before. If you are easily affected by signs of poverty, Haiti is not for you. Be polite but not intrusive. It is OK to ask questions of the locals. Remember that you are a guest in their country. Don't expect to be treated as a king or a queen (though you might get some extra privileges) because you're foreign. Though with respect, Haitians are warm and helpful people.
The people on the Island of LaGonave have quite possibly less contact with Americans than say those Haitians in PAP. The children shout "blan, blan, blan" as you walk by. The children on the saline flats will readily walk with you, show you how to skip stones off the water and try very hard to communicate with you. They may try to charge you for picking up a shell from the flats, and up to 6 american dollars to take a picture of their donkey. You don't have to pay, but out of respect do not take the picture. They appreciate being asked if it is OK to take their picture. Woman should not walk alone on the island. The number of people that fled to the island after the earthquake is unknown, but the atmosphere on the island has changed some. Even when walking with men, the Haitian men may still utter remarks. They are not afraid to maintain eye contact, and their staires may make one uneasy. It is best to be polite, but engaged in your immediate group.