Traveling in Haiti
Haiti is known throughout the world as being among the poorest and most impoverished countries. There was a time when this wasn’t the case, but after the earthquake, the country was never able to rebuild or recover in the same way. The UN is still actively deployed in Haiti, and many government institutions such as sanitation, law enforcement, postal, and transportation, are left to the citizens to take care of. Despite this, the country is a great place to visit if you have the right attitude. People don’t really know what to make of it when they find out you aren’t there with some kind of organization. We crossed over into Haiti for about 5 days while we were visiting the Dominican Republic. We crossed into the border town of Ouanaminthe, where we spent a few days with some friends of some friends before heading to the town called Okap. We spent another 2 days there. We visited Fort Liberty and a few other attractions along the way before returning to the Dominican side of the island.
The divide between Haiti and the DR is physical, cultural, and political. As soon as we crossed the border, we immediately ceased being able to speak Spanish. People say many Haitians can understand French ok, but English was our best option. Many young Haitains speak English just fine. Haitians that make it over to the DR learn Spanish fast, but in their own country it isn’t all that common. There’s not a whole lot going on in Haiti since the earthquake. The UN is still there and can be seen driving the white armored vehicles down the highway. The economic strain placed on the nation by the disaster gave rise to an almost entirely informal economy anywhere outside of the capital. All of that being said, the people were some of the most friendly and kind people we have encountered. Their resilience has made way for a strong sense of national pride.
The Cost of Travel in Haiti
Money is handled differently in Haiti now. Different towns have their own micro-economies depending on the resources they have available to them. It is hard to definitively state what something will cost because prices are different everywhere.
Just because the country is poor though, doesn’t mean it is cheap. Hotels can be pretty pricey, but most people are fine with a group of 2-4 splitting one room. You probably won’t find a youth hostel anywhere. Almost all of the food we ate was purchased on somebody’s front porch. You can get a moto to drive you around all day for $10 bucks. It feels awkward when you are relaxing having a drink or visiting an attraction and your driver is patiently waiting out in the sun on his bike for you. Gasoline is a real problem. People go fill up milk jugs and coke bottles at the gas station and then bring them back to their small towns to sell. There are way more dirt bikes than cars.
Tips for Traveling in Haiti
- If you are seen photographing anything that Haitians think makes them look bad, you will be ridiculed. Don’t look like you are there to observe poverty or pass judgement. You are there to make friends and enjoy yourself. Haitians have a lot of national pride and pointing and gawking at the bad things you see is insulting.
- Don’t feel like you have to spend money everywhere. Most people don’t have any to spend either, so it’s really not expected. You may be pressured pretty heavily at souvenir places, but you’re not going to bring anyone out of poverty by buying souvenirs or giving someone money.
- Getting there
- We crossed the land border into Haiti from the Dominican Republic. The crossing took us into a small town called Ouanaminthe. The crossing was pretty stressful because there is a huge crowd gathered on both sides of the fences trying to get goods and people across. Like many land border check points, you enter through one side and then have to walk about 400 meters to the other side. The middle section is filled with people trying to impersonate police officers and get you to pay for things. You are best to just keep up your pace and walk like you’ve done it a thousand times unless someone shows you a gun like it’s a badge. Then you will probably end up talking to them. You end up having to pay several times throughout the crossing. There is a departure tax, an entrance fee, and a visa fee. Then, if you re-enter the DR this way, you have to pay all of that again. Once we were stamped and over, everything was fine. Talk about two different worlds though.
Things to do in Haiti
- Fort Liberty
- Just visiting any town in Haiti is interesting really. They have a really unique culture and it is great to just experience it the way the locals do.
Cap Haïtien (Okap)
Okap is a pretty popular town in Haiti. The hustle and bustle of everyone’s daily life gives you a glimpse into the culture before the Earthquake. We stayed in a super gnarly hotel with just me and 3 girls. One of which was Haitian, but she had been living in the DR longer than she ever lived in Haiti. The sounds of the nightlife left me wide awake wondering about all of the things I didn’t know about Haitian culture. The big colorful school busses that drive around are called tap taps. You can take a tap tap all the way to Port au Prince from Okap.
This is the border town we crossed over into from the DR. As I stated before, the difference is night and day. Haitians are more respectful to foreign women than Dominicans. If they do have a machismo culture, it is not as prominent to outsiders. The whole time I was in Haiti, I was in the company of my white blonde sister and my white blonde wife. They didn’t get cat called once. Meanwhile, back in the DR they would be harassed everyday by local men. We had some trouble finding a place to stay in this town. We asked one hotel and it was like the price of a Ramada in the U.S., but then the owner said they are building a brand new hotel down the street and if we wanted to stay there he would only charge us $20 a night. That hotel ended up being the nicest place I had stayed in months. They literally unwrapped a brand new mattress for us.