Travel Guide: Seven Days in Haiti
This has been my fourth time visiting Haiti. My family on my mother's side is Haitian, and while most of my aunts and uncles have moved to the United States, I still have family members that live in the country. When I visit, it is mainly to reunite with family, but we always make sure to plan excursions and see/do something new each trip.
There is a notion of Haiti as a trauma-plagued helpless nation, and while extreme poverty does exist, this single image of a country is often exploited. There are truths to many of these images, however I am of the philosophy that nothing (in any sphere of life) should be viewed through a single (or narrow) lens. With this blog post, I would like to provide a different narrative. Not one that ignores reality, but one that presents a different perspective and creates a more complex and thoughtful vision of a country full of resilient and hard-working people.
There are of course things that need to be improved within Haiti, but I hope that this blog post can help readers better know the country and understand at a deeper level the global narrative surrounding Haiti. I'd also love to encourage tourism to the country, as the tourism industry can help countless local businesses and encourage more sustainable infrastructure.
Travel day. After a midday flight, we arrived in Port-au-Prince at the Toussaint Louverture National Airport (named after the revolutionary who led a successful slave revolution against France, which won Haiti its independence in 1804). There is a pride of nation visible even at the airport, with musicians greeting those who landed with music made by traditional instruments. This pride for nation is further highlighted by the public historical monuments placed throughout the city.
Some helpful tips:
- If possible, take only a carry-on. There is a single baggage claim carousel and it gets crazy. Also, attendants at the airport are pushy and will immediately try to help you with any large bags. They will expect to be tipped the second they lift a bag, so either have small bills prepared, or forgo large bags completely.
- American dollars can be used throughout the country, so currency exchange is not critical. However, if you buy food off of the street, even a $1 bill is often too much (and many street vendors don't take American coins), so I would recommend a small amount of Haitian gourds to purchase treats at the street markets.
- Be aware of the water you drink. Avoid tap water, always choose filtered or bottled water. Make sure your ice cubes are made from filtered water. Culligan water is always a safe bet.
For the first few days, we stayed at a relative's home in Port-au-Prince.
The day of course started with breakfast. Notes on breakfast in Haiti:
- Typical breakfast consists of fruit (mangoes, bananas, and papaya are common), bread with peanut butter, or fried scrambled eggs.
- Spaghetti is actually a breakfast staple in Haiti. Cooked in oil with peppers, onions, and spices, sometimes eaten with ketchup.
- Breakfast foods to try include avoine (basically oatmeal), and maiz moulin (cornmeal, similar to grits, often served with avocados).
- The coffee is smooth and delicious. But quite low in caffeine. It takes 4-5 cups to feel a kick. Also, Haitians will almost always make coffee with milk and sugar (a lot of it) as default. No matter where you go, you must specify if you want no milk or sugar.
In the afternoon we ventured to the Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien (referred to as MUPANAH), a museum dedicated to the heroes of Haitian independence. It features a permanent exhibition of the history of Haiti, from Pre-Columbian to modern day. The anchor from the Santa Maria is located here, as well as the bones from the founding leaders of Haiti. There is also an art gallery section featuring work from contemporary artists. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside of the museum, only of the exterior and the monumental sculpture and shallow pool structures outside.
We took a road trip to the village of Ennery, a car ride about 3 hours north of the capital. My late great-grandmother is originally from Ennery, so it has become the meeting point for our family reunions. During our drive we stopped along the way for a few treats:
Tablet- a nut brittle. Can be made from peanuts, cashews, or pistachios
Banane Peze- twice fried green plantain slices
We stayed at Hotel Le Village D'Ennery, a lovely and calm hotel/resort. The food here is great and made fresh. The hotel has two pools and the rooms are comfortable. Good service all around. There are peacocks that are often seen strutting around the grounds. However, the fitness facility is unused and was completely unmaintained so we were unable to use it. It can be difficult to find gyms in most Haitian towns and it isn't customary to jog around outside, so I'd recommend planning workouts that you can do in a hotel room with minimal equipment.
Ennery is a small town, designed during colonial times, so it features a tiny town center plaza/square, a church, and a marketplace that leads all the way to the roads leaving the village. It is a rather quiet town, the street markets are mainly where any action happens. It is in a mountainous region (I've hiked here before on a past trip) surrounded by small rivers. It is not at all what I would consider a touristy destination, but a good representation of a humble, inland village.
After spending time with family, we planned to return towards Port-au-Prince the following day. On the way back, we stopped at Moulin Sur Mer Beach Resort, a private beach along the Côte des Arcadins, for the afternoon. The beach was lovely, and the resort provided a buffet lunch of freshly prepared Haitian cuisine which was delicious. The resort is beautifully maintained and offers activities including kayaking and jet-skiing. The water was crystal blue and the sand was white, so I had more than an enjoyable and picturesque afternoon.
Back in Port-au-Price, we spent time at the newly built Marriott Hotel, the premier conference hotel in the country. Besides the typical international standards regarding amenities and service one would expect from any Marriott, this specific hotel took great care in the art displayed around the hotel. All of the exhibited artworks are created by Haitian artists, many who were pioneers of important Haitian art movements. I had the opportunity to meet one of the artists, Jean-Louis Maxan, whose work was among those displayed at the hotel. He gave us a tour of the art in the lobby of the hotel, created by himself as well as other prominent artists who also happened to be his friends. Many of these artists have gallerists in the United States and France, and have been featured at Art Basel Miami.
Maxan graciously invited us to his home, where we drove by a private tap-tap (pick up trucks converted to mini bus/taxi hybrids that are brightly painted and seen all over the streets of the capital. Most are public and people literally hop on and off to reach their destinations). Maxan's home is adorned with his distinct work as well as canvases from his artist friends. I was gifted the choice of a canvas and I picked a gorgeous small work featuring his signature style of saturated, dynamic, anthropomorphic figures that are abstracted into an almost musical form.
More sightseeing in Port-au-Prince to be done, we took a tap-tap to the Observatoire, a hilltop viewing area of the city. The view is spectacular. You can see all of Port-au-Prince, as well as the shipping ports below, and even all the way out to the beaches on the distant coastline. The olympic training soccer stadium is visible as well for all the soccer fans. The Observatoire hosts gift shops and a restaurant that sits en plein air, a must-go in my opinion.
Next we stopped by Le Centre d'Art, an educational center, gallery, and reference institution for the promotion of Haitian art. There are rotating exhibitions as well as workshops for emerging artists that are hosted here. We went on a tour of the space and were given an oral history of the center and its importance in developing many of Haiti's modern and contemporary artists.
The day ended with a family party celebrating a relative's birthday. So, there was plenty to eat and drink. Here is a good place to highlight my all-time favorite Haitian foods/drinks:
Riz djon djon- black mushroom rice
Lalo- jute leaves made into a spicy stew, often made with crab meat
Lambi- spicy stewed conch
Accra- grated yautia, a root vegetable, that is seasoned and fried with nothing else added.
Creole Red Snapper- whole fished marinated and sautéed with tomato paste and veggies
Grenadia- sweet juice from passionfruit, no added sugar necessary
Travel day. Our flight was mid afternoon, so we had one last breakfast with family and headed to the airport. Before heading on our flight we headed for the duty-free shop. Here are the things you should bring home with you from Haiti:
Rhum Barbancourt- Haiti's best rum, grab a case of three or five-star dark rum to enjoy, share, or give as a nice gift to family and friends back home.
Pure cacao- My mom always returns from haiti with blocks of cacao, which she finely grates and boils into amazing Haitian hot chocolate.
Coffee- As mentioned, the coffee made in the country is smooth and tasty so we always grab a bag or two of beans to grind and brew back home.
As I've been to Haiti many times, and have seen many of the major cities and beaches, I have an understanding of the diverse landscapes within the country (both geographical and economical). I hope that this travel diary has presented new knowledge of the country's culture, cuisine, and touristic landmarks. The support of sustainable business, ethical tourism, and the empowerment of local voices are crucial towards helping Haiti reach a more stable future.
See more travel posts here.