Haiti is not your traditional tropical island travel destination. Sure it’s in the Caribbean and has its share of beaches, but it offers an exciting edge that adds to its growing reputation as an adventure and cultural cool-hunter destination. This combination is what makes Haiti so fascinating, especially for travellers looking to experience a rich culture paired with diverse coastal and mountain landscapes, all in the context of a destination that is off the beaten path.
Boats on the shores of Port Salut, Haiti.
“Off the beaten path” means Haiti is not so well travelled, yet. It can be difficult to find information on going there, so we’re happy to share some useful information that may not be immediately apparent or readily available, including how to approach travelling in Haiti, and some perspective and tips to help you optimize your experience there.
1. Travel safety in Haiti
Unsurprisingly, one of the first things people ask when we mention Haiti is “Is it safe there?”
There is no denying that Haiti has had turbulent and violent times in the past, most recently following the 2010 earthquake. Fortunately however, countries are not suspended in time and they change and evolve. This is the Haiti we found on our recent journey.
In all the time we spent there, from big cities to rural areas, we never felt unsafe or targeted. In fact, we were surprised by how little we felt safety issues when walking the streets and markets.
Walking the busy market streets of Cap-Haïtien.
Basic travel safety measures apply in Haiti as in many places – don’t wander around alone at night; keep valuables safely tucked away; ask a local if places are unsafe. It’s always important to remain aware of your surroundings and make decisions accordingly, but personal safety shouldn’t be what prevents you from planning a trip to Haiti.
2. People and greetings
Haiti is a land of wonderfully telling proverbs. One of our favourites is: “A greeting is your passport.”
Greeting a shy girl returning home from school.
This piece of tried-and-true travel advice applies just about everywhere, but especially here. Learn a few greetings in the local language of Kreyòl (e.g., Bonjou! Salut!) and respectfully greet the people you meet as you make your way through markets or walk the streets. If you find some people who don’t appear welcoming at first glance, apply the proverb above. You’ll find the tough façade is quickly replaced with a smile or laugh.
Haitians are a social people, and learning some local phrases is one way to tap into this part of their culture. The more words you can share, the more pleasantly surprised you’ll be by the reaction you get or the connection you make. And if someone refers to you as “cheri” (my dear), don’t think it untoward. Perfect strangers in Haiti often use this moniker of kindness to address one another.
Goofing off with kids on Haiti’s southern coast.
For photographers interested in taking people photos, you may find that many Haitians don’t especially invite or seem to enjoy having their photographs taken. It’s completely understandable given the seemingly endless string of photojournalists visiting the country in recent years, focusing mainly on its negative aspects. Additionally, many people feel they should be looking their best for a photograph and don’t want to be shot in their work clothes.
Best to store the big camera and lens until you’ve established a bit of a rapport with a person. Then, ask for permission to photograph and have some fun with the process by showing the person his/her image afterwards.
And sometimes, it’s fun for you to be photographed as well.
3. Haitian Food
Haitian cuisine is a blend of Créole influences, taking cues from its West African heritage, blending it with tropical island ingredients, and finishing it with a dash of French complexity. Dishes feature deep spice combinations with a touch of Scotch bonnet chili peppers, making Haitian food zippy and distinct.
A selection of Haitian spices, black mushrooms and other ingredients at the market.
“Is it hot? Too spicy?” you ask. The convenient, exclusive feature of Haitian cuisine is that it can be as spicy as you wish. Most dishes on their own feature little to no hot spice – that is, chili peppers already blended into the dish. Instead – spicy food lovers rejoice – you’ll typically be offered plates or bowls of hot peppers and spiced, pickled vegetables that you can spoon over your food to your heart’s content. Our favourite way to top off almost every dish: with a spoonful of pikliz, a combination of pickled onions, carrots, and cabbage in a spiced vinegar sauce.
Chicken with cashews, a specialty of northern Haiti.
Seafood lovers will rejoice with the availability of fresh seafood like conch, lobster and fish. Meatatarians don’t despair either; Haitians love their griyo (fried pork) and tassot (spiced, dried meat).
Vegetarians are taken care of too, with plenty of staple dishes like rice, cornmeal, beans, fried plantains and all combinations thereof, which can be consumed on their own or as side dishes to the plates mentioned above. Other fruit and vegetables (e.g., amazing avocado salads) are plentiful, too.
If you’re still curious about Haitian cuisine, be sure to check out this overview of Haitian food.
4. On money and bugs: a few practical packing tips for Haiti
Haiti is tropical, so comfortable, cool clothes and shoes are essential as you’ll spend time walking around cities, markets, and up to hillside fortresses. However, Haitians do like to dress up so bring a fun outfit or two – something light for the luggage – for a nice dinner or night out dancing to konpa music.
Ending a day with cocktails on Haiti’s southern coast.
It’s also important to have a good supply of sunscreen and heavy-duty quick spray-on mosquito repellant. Keep the mosquito repellant handy for those cocktail sundowners, as mosquitos the world over are known to come out in force as the sun begins to set. Haiti does have malaria, so be sure to talk with your travel clinic before coming to decide if you want to take anti-malarial medicine during your trip.
We also suggest bringing a refillable water bottle with you so you can keep it topped up with filtered water (often available at hotels) and reduce the number of plastic water bottles you might otherwise consume.
And when it comes to money, the best thing is to carry US dollars in cash and ideally new, fresh bills. There are ATM machines that dispense local Haitian currency (gourdes) in big cities, but they are not always reliable. Note also that Haitian currency is not convertible, so plan to take out or convert Haitian currency only as you need it, so you are not left with a bunch at the end of your trip.
5. Responsible travel in Haiti
Historically, Haiti has experienced its share of tourism upticks and booms, most recently in the 1970s and 1980s. However, modern tourism is relatively young in Haiti. And it’s bound to become a popular holiday destination once again.
Haiti is filled with gorgeous mountain and coastal views like this.
So it’s especially important for the foundations of respectful, responsible and sustainable travel behaviours to be laid down now. How each traveller acts in Haiti and engages with its people makes a difference for local communities and economies, and also for the other travellers that follow in our footsteps.
With the history of the country in mind, be respectful to its people. It will be tempting to point your lens at so many things and people that look interesting, but think about those who live here and their perspective as you do. They are a proud people, and are sensitive to their image in the world that reflects poverty and upheaval.
To enable responsible, deliberate spending decisions and also the opportunity to make more connections, consider spreading your money around to different people and places as you make your purchases. For example, if you are planning to purchase paintings or artwork, look around at different options, vendors and stalls as you do. Ideally, try to buy artwork from the artist directly.
Haitian markets are filled with many opportunities to learn.
While walking in markets, ask questions regarding what you are seeing and when there’s an opportunity to buy something – even small – consider it. One of the best experiences we had at the Marché en Fer (Iron Market) in Port-au-Prince was engaging with and buying from the local vendors all the makings for Haitian hot chocolate. Experiences such as these – genuine curiosity-seeking processes – tend to humanize us all.
Haiti is a place with a rich and complicated back-story. That’s all a part of what makes it so fascinating. Let your curiosity take you on a ride, ask a lot of questions, and get your fill of all that Haiti has to offer!
Join us in Haiti on our Highlights of Haiti tour. Choose from wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.