Haiti Travel Guide
Date Visited: May 2015
With a GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of US$1,846 in 2015, Haiti has the unfortunate distinction of being ranked the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It was once regarded as a gem of the Caribbean but today is a dysfunctional, failed state and not a place for tourists seeking a relaxing Caribbean holiday. Haiti is a country with a troubled past and a future which remains uncertain.
Haiti occupies the western 1/3 of the island of Hispaniola. The eastern two-thirds of the island is occupied by the Dominican Republic. The North Atlantic Ocean lies to the north, while the Caribbean Sea lies to the south. Cuba lies 144-km to the west across the Windward passage.
The original inhabitants of Hispaniola were the native Taino Indians, an Arawak Indian race from present day Venezuela. The Taino called the island ‘Ayiti‘ (land of high mountains). These were the people Christopher Columbus first made contact with in 1492 when he landed on the island. At the time of European contact, the Taino’s inhabited all of the Greater Antilles islands and were battling against the more aggressive Carib Indians who had managed to conquer all of the Lesser Antilles islands. When Columbus arrived, the island was inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Taino people but the population declined rapidly, due to diseases brought by the Europeans.
Columbus originally called the island ‘La Española’, meaning The Spanish Island. Later translations altered the name to Hispaniola. Columbus claimed Hispaniola for Spain and returned a year later (1493) on his second voyage to establish the first Spanish colony – La Isabela – on the northeast shore of the island. La Isabela nearly failed because of hunger and disease, which prompted the Spanish authorities to develop a new colony at present day Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic).
Originally the Spanish claimed ownership of the whole of Hispaniola but they settled mainly in the east, in what is now the Dominican Republic. The west of the island (present day Haiti) was left largely empty until the French arrived in the 17th century and started a settlement on Tortuga island. Once this toehold had been established, the French founded larger settlements on Hispaniola. The Spanish resisted these moves and battled against the French. A resolution was agreed upon in 1697 with the Spanish and French signing the Treaty of Ryswick – this gave France the western 1/3 of the island and Spain the eastern 2/3’s.
Through the development of sugar and coffee plantations, the French colony of Saint-Domingue flourished, becoming one of the wealthiest in the Caribbean. African slaves were brought in large numbers to work the vast plantations. Work conditions for slaves in Haiti were harsh as the work was intensive. The French imported an enormous slave labour force, which ultimately outnumbered the French planters 10 to 1.
By 1791, there were 500,000 slaves in Haiti, vastly outnumbering the white population. Inspired by the French Revolution, the slaves staged a revolt, burning many plantations to the ground and killing many whites. The revolution lasted 13 years and only ended once most of the whites had been evicted from the island (many fled to neighbouring Cuba).
Haiti became the first black republic in 1804, one with a constitutional prohibition against white people owning land. After independence any remaining whites were killed and whites were banished from the island for many decades after the revolution.
Following the revolution, France imposed a huge indemnity on Haiti, forcing the small nation to pay the equivalent of US$12.7 billion (2014 dollars) to France for lost property due to the revolution.
The first president of Haiti was Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Despite evicting the French, Dessalines modeled himself after the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. He proclaimed himself Emperor Jacques I. Two years after coming to power, two of his own advisers, Henri Christophe and Alexandre Pétion helped provoke his assassination.
Christophe and Pétion divided the country into two rival regimes. In the north, Christophe created the Kingdom of Haiti (an authoritarian state where slavery was replaced by an oppressive serfdom). In the south, Pétion established the Republic of Haiti, breaking up former colonial estates and parceled out the land into small holdings.
In 1811, Christophe proclaimed himself King Henri I and commissioned several extraordinary buildings, including Sans-Souci Palace and Citadelle Laferrière (see ‘Milot‘ section below). The new King Henri I, created a nobility class in the fashion of European monarchies and lived largely a European lifestyle, complete with impressive European-style palaces. In 1820, weakened by illness and with decreasing support for his authoritarian regime, he killed himself with a silver bullet. The two Haitis were then reunited with the government from the south ruling the country until 1843.
In the following years, Haiti was marred by instability, chaos, political power struggles, bloodshed and coups d’état. Since its revolution, Haiti has had at least 32 coups.
The constant lack of government and civil unrest led to a U.S. occupation, which lasted from 1915 to 1934. During their occupation the U.S. managed to restore order and developed extensive infrastructure. However the Haitians resented the occupation of their country. The withdrawal of the Americans in 1934 left a power vacuum that was filled by Haitian military elites.
The following 20 years saw further instability, turmoil and ruthless power struggles. This ended with the ascension of François (Papa Doc) Duvalier. Duvalier’s brutal dictatorship lasted nearly thirty years. Upon his death in 1971 his son, Jean-Claude (Bébé Doc) Duvalier, assumed power. The dictatorship of Bébé Doc ended when he was ousted in 1986.
A period of bloodshed, military rule and instability ensued. Peace finally returned with the election in 1990 of former priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Peace was short-lived and following a coup, Aristide went into exile. Most of his term was usurped by a military takeover, but – with help from the U.S. government – a deal was negotiated with the military elite and he returned to office in 1994. 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 2004, Haiti has been occupied by UN peacekeeping troops (MINUSTAH). The current population of Haiti is roughly 7,500,000, with another 1,000,000 Haitians living abroad.
On the 12th of January 2010, a devastating earthquake struck Haiti. The earthquake, measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale and with an epicentre 25-km west of the capital, affected three million people. The death toll from the quake (figures range from 100,000 to 316,000) was exacerbated due to pre-existing poverty and poor housing conditions.
The downtown area of the capital was devastated and has yet (2016) to be rebuilt. Whole city blocks in the downtown area are currently barricaded, the Presidential Palace is in ruin and there are few functioning services. The government of Haiti estimated that 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial buildings had collapsed or were severely damaged. But life goes on and while most downtown shops were destroyed, those same shops have set up business outside on the footpath and street.
Encircling the capital are huge slums, home to most of the inhabitants of this city. Port-au-Prince is about the size of Chicago, but most parts of the capital do not have a functioning sewer system.
Port-au-Prince (PAP) was founded in 1742 during the boom years of French rule, when it was decided that the colony of Saint-Domingue needed a new central port. The capital was relocated from CAP to PAP.
The city is located on the broad Golfe de la Gonâve and gets it’s name from the French ship Prince that had first moored there in 1706.
The exact population of the city is unknown due to the fact that most inhabitants live in large sprawling slums, which are constantly growing. It is believed up to half the population of the country (3,500,000) could be living in PAP.
The wealthiest neighbourhood in town is the hillside Pétion-ville. Here you will find the largest range of hotels, bars and restaurants in the city. Compared to the rest of the city, Pétion-ville is reasonably safe but you should exercise caution in the evenings. This is the poshest neighbourhood in the country but anywhere else it would be described as ‘edgy’ and ‘gritty’.
The city is built in a basin around the bay with the commercial district located around the harbour and the residential neighbourhoods built on the slopes of the surrounding hillsides. The city was devastated by the earthquake in 2010 and has yet to be rebuilt. Most of the downtown area lacks any kind of services (sewage, electricity, running water) and many important buildings (Presidential Palace, National Assembly and Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption) are still in ruin.
Downtown PAP looks like a post-apocalyptic scene from a Mad Max film but some semblance of normalcy is slowly returning. The city is at once chaotic, exhilarating and compelling. Recovery from the earthquake is slow but the city is open to visitors and the staff at the city tourist information office are keen to see more tourists in town.
The following sites are located downtown and can be covered in one day on foot:
- Marche de Fer (English: Iron Market) – This is the main market in town and features an iconic red metal edifice built in Paris in 1890 for a railway station in Cairo, Egypt. When the Egyptians cancelled their order the Haitian president (Florvil Hyppolite) purchased the structure and shipped it to Haiti. The market was devastated in the 2010 earthquake, but – being a building designated as historically important – it was renovated and re-opened 12-months later. It is one of the few functioning places downtown.
- Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien (MUPANAH) – This museum provides an overview of Haitian history and culture and pays homage to the heroes of the independence movement. The onsite restaurant is the best in town (see the ‘Eating Out‘ section below).
- Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption – Formerly the main cathedral, it was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake and is currently closed.
With a population of 200,000, Cap-Haïtien (CAP) is the 2nd largest city in Haiti. The city is located on the north coast and was once known as the Paris of the Antilles. During the colonial period the city served as the capital of the French colony of Saint Dominque.
CAP has long had a reputation for being an incubator of independent thought and anti-establishment movements. In 2004, the city was taken over by militants who opposed the rule of the Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. They eventually created enough political pressure to force him out of office and the country.
There is one main site to see in CAP and that is the old town itself. The historic centre has a wealth of French colonial architecture, which has been well preserved. The original craftsmen who built the houses in the old town of CAP fled to French-controlled New Orleans during and after the Haitian revolution, hence the two cities share many similarities in styles of architecture.
At the centre of the old town is the main square which is dominated by the Cathedral Notre-Dame of Cap‑Haïtien.
Nineteen kilometres from CAP is the town of Milot. Milot served as Haiti’s first capital under the self-proclaimed King Henri Christophe, who ascended to power following the revolution in 1807. He constructed the impressive Sans-Souci Palace in Milot and the massive Citadelle Laferrière atop a nearby mountain.
Located in the town of Milot, Sans-Souci Palace was the royal residence of King Henri I of Haiti (aka Henri Christophe). It was the most important of nine palaces built by the king. Construction of the palace started in 1810 and was completed in 1813. King Henri was known for his ruthlessness and an unknown number of labourers died building the palace.
The impressiveness of Sans-Souci was part of Henri Christophe’s program to demonstrate to foreigners, particularly Europeans and Americans, the power and capability of the black race. One American visitor described the palace as “having one of the most magnificent edifices of the West Indies.”
During King Henri’s reign the palace was the site of opulent feasts. The palace featured extensive gardens, fountains and statues but was destroyed in 1842 by an earthquake.
The easiest way to reach the palace is by taxi or ‘tap-tap’ from CAP.
Another of King Henri’s grand projects, Citadelle Laferrière is a large mountaintop fortress located 27-km south of CAP and 8-km from Milot. It is the largest fortress in the Americas, and is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The fortress was built by 20,000 workers between 1805 and 1820 as part of a system of fortifications designed to keep the newly independent country safe from French incursions.
The fortress was outfitted with an impressive arsenal of 365 cannons of varying size. Enormous stockpiles of cannonballs still sit in stacks at the base of the fortress walls. Since its construction, the fortress has withstood numerous earthquakes, though a French attack never came and it was eventually abandoned.
The easiest way to access the fort is to take a motorbike taxi from Milot to the car park at the base of the mountain. The ride along the steep cobbled road, which winds its way up the mountain is a teeth-jarring one. From the ticket office a steep access path winds its way up to the fort (elevation 910-m). You can either walk from the car park or pay to take a horse.
In Cap-Haïtien I stayed on the outskirts of town at Auberge Villa Cana. I would not recommend staying here. Service is terrible, staff are unfriendly and disinterested and the hotel is located in a remote location on the outskirts of the city. There are better options downtown.
The cuisine of Haiti is a blend of several culinary styles including French, African, Taino and Spanish. The cuisine is comparable to that of creole cooking, unpretentious and simple but with bold and spicy flavours.
Dining options are limited. Downtown PAP was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake and most buildings are still in ruin.
One of the best dining options downtown is Les Jardins du MUPANAH, located on the grounds of the recently re-developed MUPANAH (Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien).
There are several popular dining options in Pétion-ville and this is the safest neighbourhood to be out in after dark, although you need to be very vigilant. If you are in the mood for fine Lebanese cuisine, you should head to Magdoos (30 Rue Oge). The tabbouleh, hummus, kebabs and cocktails are the best in town.
Most nationalities do not require visas for Haiti – check your visa requirements prior to arrival.
There are two international airports in Haiti:
- Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport serving Port-au-Prince
- Hugo Chávez International Airport serving Cap-Haïtien
The following airlines provide international connections to Port-au-Prince:
- Air Canada Rouge – services to Montréal (Trudeau)
- Air Caraïbes – services to French Guiana, Martinique, Paris (Orly), Guadeloupe, Dominican Republic (Santo Domingo), St. Maarten
- Air France – services to Miami, Guadeloupe
- Air Transat – service to Montréal (Trudeau)
- American Airlines – services to Fort Lauderdale, Miami, New York (JFK)
- Copa Airlines – service to Panama City
- Delta Air Lines – service to Atlanta
- Insel Air – services to Curaçao, Miami, St. Maarten
- InterCaribbean Airways – services to Jamaica (Kingston), Providenciales, Dominican Republic (Santo Domingo)
- JetBlue Airways – services to Fort Lauderdale, New York–JFK, seasonal service to Boston
- Spirit Airlines – services to Fort Lauderdale
- Sunrise Airways – services to Dominican Republic (Santiago de los Caballeros), Dominican Republic (Santo Domingo), Jamaica (Montego Bay), Bahamas (Nassau), Cuba (Camagüey), Cuba (Santiago de Cuba)
The following airlines provide international connections to Cap-Haïtien:
- American Airlines – service to Miami
- InterCaribbean Airways – service to Providenciales
- IBC Airways – services to Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Nassau
- SALSA d’Haiti – service to Port-au-Prince
- Sunrise Airways – service to Port-au-Prince
There are no scheduled international ferry services from Haiti.
There are daily international bus connections between PAP and Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic). These are run by the following companies:
- Caribe Tours – Dominican company which runs two buses a day from its terminal in Pétion-ville.
- Capital Coach Line – Haitian company which runs buses from three terminals in PAP – 102 Route Frere, Pétion-ville, Tabarre Blvd (next to the U.S. Embassy)
There is one daily international bus connection between Cap-Haïtien and Santiago (Dominincan Republic) then onto Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic). This service is run by:
- Caribe Tours – Dominican company which runs one bus a day from it’s terminal in downtown Cap-Haïtien.
The most common form of public transportation in Haiti are the brightly painted pickup trucks called ‘tap-taps‘. They are named this because when a passenger needs to be let off they use their coin money to tap the side of the vehicle. You will find these in all urban areas. They don’t run to any fixed timetable and pick up and drop off on request.
Buses are the best option for getting around the country. Security is an issue with robberies occasionally occurring on the main highway – RN-1.
The journey time from PAP to CAP is 7-hours, I traveled with Blue Sky Logistics who operate comfortable, safe buses.
Taxis in Haiti are run by private companies and individuals. There are no meters, fares are negotiated before the journey and are expensive. A good, reliable company in Pétion-ville is Nick’s Taxis (Tel: +509 29 48 7777).
There are rental agents located at the airport in PAP and downtown in Pétion-ville. Driving in PAP and CAP is best described as erratic and dangerous – not for the faint-hearted.
Author: Darren McLean
Author of taste2travel.com and an avid traveler, photographer, travel writer, diver and adventurer.