Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the western hemisphere and is a country that is plagued by violence and political instability, making it a poor choice of destination for the faint of heart. However, beneath all the troubles lies a fascinating culture, rich with local myths and magic, as well as some breathtaking scenery.
Be aware that the Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel to Haiti due to the unstable political situation and the threat to personal safety.
- Capital City – Port-au-Prince
- Currency – Gourde (HTG), some companies accept US dollars but it is rare. Note: exchanging currency for anything other than US dollars can be difficult.
- Time Zone – GMT -5
- Language – French, Creole, English is spoken in some of the major cities
- Telephone services – Country code: 509. International access code: 00.
Haiti has a tropical climate and has high levels of humidity in coastal areas. Haiti lies close to the Caribbean plate, which runs to the north of the country, meaning that tremors can be felt from time to time. More of a problem is Haiti’s presence in the middle of the hurricane belt meaning that the country is often subject to severe tropical storms during hurricane season, which runs from June through to November. If you do travel in Haiti during these months be sure to keep up to date with local and international weather updates. More information on hurricanes can be found at nhc.noaa.gov at the National Hurricane Center.
Things to See and Do
Haiti is not a typical tourist destination and as such, you will get the most out of your visit to the country by completely immersing yourself in local culture. Some of the best experiences are relatively ordinary activities such as exploring the bustling markets, travelling on a ‘tap-tap’ or trying the local food. Making contact with a native Haitian will make your trip go much more smoothly as a local guide will be able not only to help you navigate the country but also to understand its rich and complex heritage.
If you are in Haiti during the days preceding Ash Wednesday you will get to experience the country’s carnival season with all-night street parties complete with local food and music.
Travel in Haiti is often difficult due to frequent roadblocks set up by both police and local armed gangs. Add this to poor road conditions and vehicle maintenance and you have a recipe for some rather dangerous journeys. The most common method of transport in Haiti is the bus; known locally as a ‘tap-tap’ these are often made from trucks fitted with benches, which act as rudimentary seats. Tap-taps will stop on request and are by far the cheapest method of transport. However unless you have a conversational knowledge of Creole or are with an experienced guide they aren’t recommended.
Taxis are a much safer method of transportation, provided that they are licensed. Taxis are often four-wheel drive vehicles and are much more comfortable and also much safer for journeys on the unpredictable roads of Haiti. Of course with this security comes a higher price tag and taxis are an expensive way of getting around. However, if you are travelling without an experienced guide it is certainly worth the extra cost.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against taking public transport and recommends that you travel with a reliable guide. Although this may not always be possible you should at all times be particularly aware of your personal safety and do not take any unnecessary risks to get a cheaper fare.
Organising accommodation in Haiti while not actually in the country can be tricky at best. There are many guest houses available in Haiti and finding one can be made easier by employing a local guide or by making enquiries of the religious institutions which are associated with several of the safer places to stay.
Camping while in Haiti is really taking your life in your hands. Parties of looters are a fairly frequent occurrence and so threat to personal safety is high. Haiti is not a place to enjoy the “great outdoors”.
If you are travelling in Haiti and you fall ill, the best possible option is to be transported out of the country for treatment. For this reason it is especially important that you obtain fully comprehensive travel insurance and make sure that it covers the cost of an air ambulance. Haiti’s health service leaves a lot to be desired and if possible you should avoid having to use it at all costs.
If you are on medication it is vital that you take enough with you to last your trip. Be aware though that if the situation in the country changes and you are unable to leave, it is unlikely that you will be able to obtain additional medication. For this reason travel to Haiti by people suffering from a serious medical condition is not recommended.
Malaria is often a problem in Haiti so make sure you have enough medication with you for your entire journey and that you take all precautions to avoid insect bites. This is especially important given the prevalence of the particularly nasty dengue fever which cannot be vaccinated against and can, in some cases, be fatal.
Haiti has the highest level of HIV/AIDS affliction outside of sub-Saharan Africa so it is important to be especially careful while you travel in the country. Don’t take any unnecessary risks.
As backpacking destinations go Haiti is not one of the safest. The capital city, Port-au-Prince is probably the most dangerous place to be in the country. There have been many incidents of kidnapping for ransom as well as random shooting of civilians and armed robbery in the streets. While in the capital city it is not recommended that you travel alone even during the day. Walking the streets of the city is not recommended and whilst driving you should have all doors locked and windows rolled up.
There are some “safer” areas of Haiti, which are inhabited by foreigners, for example the areas of Petionville and Bourdon. These are seen as relatively safe during daylight hours, but again, travel at night is not recommended.
Haiti is a desperately poor country and as such pick-pocketing and theft of valuables is rife. This means that becoming a victim of crime a fairly likely scenario. The Foreign and Commonwealth office has produced a leaflet for victims of crime abroad.
fco.gov.uk, Travel advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth office concerning Haiti.
A wikipedia article with a good introduction to Haitian culture; a useful background reading to help understand the country’s heritage.
HaitiWebs.com has some more information on the country, including its literature and art.
VolunteerAbroad.com has a few listings for volunteer opportunities in Haiti.