Travel Haiti: A Guide to Port-au-Prince and Cote de Arcadins
I fell in love with Haïti; every single inch of it (that I saw). I fell in love with the people, the culture, the food, and the landscapes. It is unusual for me to fall in love with a travel destination so quickly, but there I was, my second day in Haïti, and falling hard. So hard that I ached over the fact that I was only in the country for a week. Clearly, I need to return, stay longer, and see more.
Haïti is magic.
Maybe it is the voodoo? Hhhmmm…
Haïti is a country rich with pride and passion. It is a country that has survived political upheavals and a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake (2010). Haïti is home to sandy beaches and robin’s egg blue waters. It’s home to mountains smothered with vegetation. It’s home to small villages, interesting people, and delicious food. In a nutshell, Haïti is captivating no matter where you go.
**I was invited to Haïti by Air Transat and Dîner en Blanc Haïti, and while I loved my week of exploration, there is still so much to see and experience in Haïti, and with each trip (hoping for a return!) this post will be updated. Yay!
During the day this capital city is packed with people, cars, trucks, and tap taps (colourful covered trucks with benches inside for transporting people). Children walk to and from school in uniforms, the girls with ribbons in their hair. Women and men sell birds, fruit, vegetables, shoes, clothing, car supplies, and voodoo on the side of the road. When the sun is high and hot, colourful square concrete houses seem to pop out of the mountainside.
Boutique hotels, hidden behind large walls, are popular spots for those wishing to escape the chaos in the streets outside and enjoy a meal or drink in a quiet and serene setting. Some of the hotels even offer live music performances. These hotels are also the only place in the city where you can hail a ‘taxi’. Otherwise you will need to walk, hitch a ride with a local, or take a Tap Tap. All of which I have done and enjoyed.
Aside from driving around the city and soak in the vibe, making time to go up to the Observitoire is highly recommended. Perched on a mountain, 900m from sea level, the Observitoire offers sweeping views of Port-au-Prince. Take note, the clouds move very quickly and the view can go from clear to foggy in 5 minutes, then clear again 10 minutes later.
Musée du Panthéon National Haitien (MUPANAH) is one of the more interesting museums in the city. It’s small, and has a beautifully curated art collection of works by local artists, but that is not all, MUPANAH is also the best place in the city to go and learn about the history of Haïti – from Christopher Columbus to the brutality of the Spanish to Africans being brought over for slavery to voodoo to independence. [Open daily: Mon – Thurs 8am to 4pm, Fri 8am to 5pm Sat 12pm to 5pm, Sun 10am to 4pm. Guided tours available in French and English. Admission is about $2 USD]
If you’re into voodoo, or voodoo curious a visit to L’hôtel Oloffson is highly recommended. A gorgeous white colonial hotel, L’hôtel Oloffson is accented with numerous voodoo statues and figures. This is not a kitschy display – The hotel is owned by a voodoo priest (who also has his own rock band called RAM Haiti).
One of my favourite things to do while travelling is visit local markets. While many locals sell things on the sidewalks, I recommend visiting Marché de Fer as well. The market has two buildings. One houses artisans selling everything from voodoo supplies to paintings to beads to wooden souvenirs. The other building houses locals selling spices, fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, as well as live turtles, bunnies, doves, and kittens.
FOOD & DRINK
It is easy to eat only at your hotel, and while the food is usually on the gourmet side and quite delicious, and prices are similar to those in Canada and the US for dining out (Plan for $20 – $40 USD for a meal and drinks at a hotel). That being said, if you are looking for gourmet food in a fun or exciting setting, then be sure to visit restaurants like La Reserve – nothing quite like a gourmet dinner outside overlooking the dance floor, and possibly listening to a church revival. I love the randomness of Haïti.
When walking or driving through the city you will come across locals selling BBQ chicken, rice, and other delightful dishes. I always recommend buying street food when travelling as it is a great way to experience ‘home cooking’. The rules for street food are similar to those of a greasy spoon. Look for places that are popular with locals and follow suit.
At night Port-au-Prince feels like a bit of a ghost town. There are very few people walking around and cars, trucks, and Tap Taps seem to disappear, but don’t be fooled. There is a thriving nightlife in Port-au-Prince. The trick is to know where to find the party! Quartier Latin is THE PLACE for live latin music and dancing. I fell in love with this place, the signatures covering the walls (yes, you grab a marker and sign the walls!), cozy corners for eating and drinking, copper pots and cooking utensils hanging from the ceiling, Haitian artwork. Quartier Latin has a truly exciting vibe.
Presse Café is another nighttime hotspot. From the outside it looks like the café is closed, but don’t be fooled, on the inside there is live music, dancing, and enough local flavor to guarantee you have an interesting night. They charge a $15 USD cover.
POSSIBLE COUNTRY GETAWAY: Located about an hour (or two to three hours, depending on traffic) is Ranch le Montcel, an ecological hotel that rests on 60 acres of land in the mountains. I visited part of Ranch le Montcel during Dîner en Blanc Haïti and was gob-smacked by the beauty of the landscapes that surrounded me, not only at the ranch, but on the drive from the city, and through the mountains.
COTE DE ARCADINS
Located about 80 kilometers from Port-au-Prince are boutique resorts, sandy (and sometimes stony) beaches, clear blue water, fishing villages, and sunsets unlike any other. The drive seems long and tedious until towns give way to country views. On one side of the highway are tall mountains and small villages, the other side the ocean, with waves gently lapping against the shore. The exciting chaos of Port-au-Prince is gone, and days filled with peace and serenity is ahead.
This is what vacation dreams are made of.
In Haïti resort vacations are not all-inclusive. It is important to know that and be prepared for it. In many instances meals are included, but drink are not. That applies to everything except water. The resorts will take Haitian Goudes, but all prices will be in US dollars.
Touris Lakay gives a tour called Les chemin de Montrouis that I absolutely loved. This two-hour walking tour take you on a journey of the flora and fauna of the area, but also through fields where locals are harvesting everything from rice to wheat to coconuts. This tour is a non-intrusive way to see local life. You will visit historical voodoo sites, watering holes where locals bathe and wash their clothing, through small communities, the beach, and finally into Montrouis where you will walk through the food market. This tour costs $30 USD per person. Tip: the market is very crowded, and very intense. Smile, and be friendly. Soak in the culture, and never take a photo of someone or their stall without asking first.
Most people who stay in Côte de Arcadins are there to enjoy the ocean and beach, and all of the resorts will offer rentals for things like snorkeling gear, kayaks, and so on. At Mounlin Sur Mer they also have a diving school, Marina Blue Haiti, that can get you PADI certified, or if you are already certified, can take you out on excursions. Marina Blue Haiti offers diving, as well as excursions. If you are not keen on diving, consider going on one of their excursions: swimming and snorkeling in the ocean, or hiking up to Kay Piat (the watercress gardens).
If you missed the museum in Port-au-Prince, or if you want to learn more about the history of Haïti, take time to visit Musée Ogier-Fombrun. The museum was reconstructed by architect Gerard Fombrun (owner of Moulin Sur Mer), and is housed on the site of an old sugar cane plantation. When visiting, ask for a guide. Most will speak French and fairly good English. Walking through and looking at the impressive displays of guns, colonial furniture, and Columbian helmets are cool, but having a guide with you brings those objects (and Haïti’s history) to life. I highly recommend Lindsay, he is both knowledgeable and passionate.
FOOD & DRINK
For the most part you will eat and drink at your resort. Meals will sometimes be included in your package, but drink will not. Moulin Sur Mer is a quiet laidback resort with mostly a Haitïan menu. If you are staying at Club Indigo (a former Club Med property) the buffet is quite large and usually features international cuisine, with Haitïan dishes being offered once a week (maybe more, it all depends on their chef).
CHOOSING A RESORT
There are a couple notable resorts in Côte de Arcadins, and each are different.
Moulin Sur Mer is quiet, laidback, and usually has an older clientele. If you want peace and quiet, this is the resort for you! Heck, the bar closes at like 8 or 9pm if nobody is around.
Club Indigo is a former Club Med property. The property is sprawling and feels very much like an all-inclusive resort, which it is not. The buffet is impressive and soft drinks are FREE during meals at the buffet. Outside of the buffet soft drinks are not free. Rooms are small and sparse, but the hotel is working on improving the property. Overall the hotel has a fun vibe and is definitely livelier than that of Moulin Sur Mer.
Wahoo Bay Beach Resort is one of the older properties. It is not super fancy, but if you are a party animal and need to be with like-minded people, then this is the resort for you! Trust. This is where the crazy loud people stay.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Port-au-Prince was once a thriving capital city with a busy downtown business district, luxury colonial hotels, and sprawling markets. However when the earthquake hit in 2010 things changed a little, the busy downtown business district shut down, and many of the city’s residents who were left homeless by the earthquake moved into the downtown area, which has become one of the poorest areas in the city.
Driving through downtown Port-au-Prince can be difficult, especially in the more poor areas where Haïtians are still living in makeshift shacks and tents. Many locals sit by the side of the road selling fruit, vegetables, grains, clothing, voodoo supplies, and car fluids, anything that will make them a little money. The streets are crammed with Tap Taps (colourful trucks similar to seong taws in Thailand), trucks, and cars. It’s chaos.
But there is beauty amongst the chaos.
The streets of Haïti are filled with life, as hard as it may be, and interacting with the locals can be a lot of fun. I loved watching women walking down the street, carrying everything from baskets of fruit to propane tanks to pails of live chickens on their heads. I loved watching the children play. I loved saying ‘Bonjour or Bon Soirée’ and watching faces light up.
Photographing locals is always a favourite pastime for travellers, but it is important to understand the local customs and viewpoints before taking out your camera and snapping a photo.
Haïtians are a proud and passionate people, particularly the women. They take pride in how they look. Always mindful of those around them. In 2010 many women lost everything; their house, belongings, family. And in the midst of their grief and sadness foreign photographers were eagerly taking their photos, and publishing them so the whole world could see what these women had lost, the despair of their situation. It’s not hard to understand why many Haitians believe that having their photo taken is in essence stealing their soul. They have the right (as do we all) to be portrayed fairly and truthfully, and when they are not, it is as though someone has replaced their soul with something horribly fake and in some cases, repulsive.
For the first two years after the earthquake Haïtians were not receptive to having their photo taken. That is slowly changing. In some areas it will be difficult to find someone who will say yes to being photographed, but there some areas where someone will say yes, and the moment they smile your heart melts, and you fall in love with Haïti and little more.
Here are a couple of tips for taking photos in Haïti:
- ALWAYS ask (In French as many Haïtians do not speak English) before taking a photo of a local in Haïti. If they say no, thank them and move on. Do not try to sneak a photo anyway
- Ask a child’s parent before taking their photo. It is common courtesy.
- Never hide behind something to snap a picture of a local. If you’re not comfortable asking, then don’t take the picture.
- Once the photo has been taken, show them. In most cases they will be happy with the image, but in some cases they will ask you to try again. Making them happy with whom they are is of the upmost importance.
Respecting the wishes of locals, no matter where you are, is not just good manners; it is also an essential part of foreign relations.
MONEY & OTHER USEFUL TIPS
My number one tip for travel for Haïti is to bring USD with you as it can be very difficult to convert Canadian, Euro, and pretty much any other foreign currency. Banks are sparse in Haïti and the exchange in the airport in Port-au-Prince closes at 3:00 p.m. Tip: bring crisp new US dollars in small denominations for exchange, and for using when negotiating.
When shopping, most items in stores will be priced in Haitian dollars, which is a currency that does not actually exist. You can pay for items either in Haitian Goudes or US Dollars. Here is the calculation.
Price x 5 = price in Haitian Goudes, then divide by 45 to get price in US dollars
If you pay in US dollars, you will be given change in Haitian Goudes.
*Visa and Mastercard are accepted in Haïti. It is difficult to find vendors who accept AMEX.
FREE Wi-fi is available throughout hotels and many businesses in Port-au-Prince and in Côte de Arcadins, but it can sometimes be unreliable. If you want to be connected, either to social media or to make phone calls buy a SIM card and data plan when you arrive. The best company is DIGICell and they have a booth in the arrivals area at the airport. It is usually very busy, but this is the best place to buy your SIM Card and data plan. The cost is $8 USD for 1.5 GB of data. [Nano SIM cards are no problem as they are able to cut micoSIM cards here]
Bring mosquito spray with you. It is possible to buy some at a supermarket, if you can get to one. I don’t advise buying it from your hotel as it can be very expensive. For the most part the mosquitos do not come out until after dark, which is a godsend. Another essential item is sunscreen. The sun is very hot in Haïti and just because you do not burn at home, does not mean you will not burn in Haïti. Bring it, apply in the morning before going out, then bring it with you an apply more during the day. Trust me on this one. There were times when I could feel my skin cooking and I had already applied sunscreen.
HELPFUL FRENCH PHRASES
Je peux prendre une photo? – I can take a photo?
Tu êtes très belle (or beau) – You are very beautiful (handsome)
Bon matin – Good morning
Bon jour – Good day
Bon soirée – Good evening (Haïtians start saying this as early as noon)
Un coup de rhum, se il vous plait – One shot of rum, please