Forget everything you think you know about Haiti, and disregard any disturbing images you may have seen in the news. This resilient Caribbean nation is ready for curious, open-minded travelers to once again experience its vibrant Creole culture and stunning natural beauty.
Five years after a devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake, Haiti is striving to rebuild by redeveloping its tourism industry. (Though often disregarded as a destination, this country was formerly a Caribbean hot spot with the moniker “The Pearl of the Antilles” during its heyday in the 1950s—the Clintons even honeymooned here in 1975.) As the country works to put itself back on travelers’ radar, now is the perfect time to see the sides of Haiti that are often overlooked: its undeveloped beaches; fascinating, centuries-old forts; and unique, Vodou-infused art.
From joining in the revelry at Carnival in Jacmel to basking in the breathtaking Bassin Bleu waterfalls, Haiti is full of unforgettable experiences for the intrepid traveler. But the most unexpected moments are the ones that involve learning about life in Haiti, in all its complicated ways, straight from the warm and resilient people who call it home.
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For first-timers in Haiti, these are the three destinations you must visit: lively capital Port-au-Prince, artsy beach town Jacmel, and historic port city Cap-Haitien (shown above). But there’s also an endless number of local people you need to meet to really get to the know “the real Haiti,” so don’t be surprised if one week here isn’t enough.
Experience Haiti’s Living History in Port-au-Prince
Make your home base for your Haiti adventure Port-au-Prince; while chaotic and crowded, this is the center of Haiti’s complicated history and the best place for seeing it fuse with everyday life.
Local tour guide Jean Cyril Pressoir of Tour Haiti, a father-son duo that's been in business for eleven years arranging personalized tailor-made tours for the gamut from celebrities to budget travelers, will take you to all the requisite sights, from the remains of the National Palace to the Unknown Maroon statue. Learn about Haiti’s turbulent past by visiting the Musée du Panthéon National, where you’ll get a guided tour through this museum of Haitian history. Don’t miss the gallery wing, where there’s a rotating monthly display showcasing Haiti’s most influential artists.
Pick up some souvenirs at the Iron Market (Marché en Fer), the symbolic heart of commerce in Port-au-Prince that was one of the first buildings rebuilt one year after the devastating earthquake and even redesigned with solar panels. Meander through its overwhelming maze of vendors selling everything from dried starfish to beguiling Vodou art.
For something truly unique to bring back from Haiti, head to Port-au-Prince’s iron-working community of Croix-des-Bouquets, where the traditional Haitian metalwork was born in the early 1950s. In this well-maintained, bougainvillea-lined neighborhood, you’ll be able to see (and hear) the 100 or more talented metalwork artists pounding intricate details out of steel drums in their workshops and stores.
Rethink art and sculpture at the artist community of Atis Rezistans, where contemporary Haitian artists are creating new life out of the rubble: car parts, broken metal, old shoes, computer keyboards, discarded dolls, and, yes, even human skulls. Make sure you go here with Tour Haiti so you’ll get personal introductions to the eccentric “sculptors of Grand Rue,” as they are known in the art worlds around the globe.
After a long day trekking through Port-au-Prince, you might be in the market for more comfortable footwear. Grab a new pair of shoes and a tour of Rebuild Globally, an inspiring non-profit that provides jobs and education for Haitians, primarily women. See how the stylish Deux Mains sandals are designed and hand made out of old tires and local leather and leave with a feel-good and wearable memento from Haiti.
Take a break from sightseeing and enjoy an aperitif (fried plantains and rhum punch are our go-to here) at the storied Hotel Oloffson. This historic gingerbread hotel is owned by Haitian-American Richard A. Morse who also doubles as lead man for R.A.M., a fifteen-member Rara band that is famous for drawing locals, NGOs, aid workers, and tourists alike to sweat it out together on the dance floor to “Vodou Rock” on Thursdays night.
Where to Stay: The recently opened Marriott in Port-au-Prince offers a new level of luxury for travelers in Port-au-Prince while still sourcing everything from produce to bath products directly from local businesses. You’ll feel like you’re spending a night at a stylish art gallery with the 1500 pieces of Haitian art, curated by renowned Haitian artist Philippe Dodard, appearing throughout the hotel.
Take in Jacmel’s Seaside Arts and Adventures
Once you have experienced the intensity of everyday life in Port-au-Prince, you’ll be craving a slower pace and a refreshing dip in the Caribbean Sea. Just a few hours drive from congested Port-au-Prince is Jacmel, a sleepy seaside town known for its distinctive and imaginative art scene. If you’re not lucky enough to visit Jacmel during its annual Carnival celebration, you can still see the papier-mâché masks that are created for the last hurrah before Lent being made year-round at artists’ studios.
After strolling through the colorful colonial streets, rest your feet and get the best rhum sour of your life at Hotel Florita, a turn-of-the-century coffee-plantation home that was converted into a hotel in 1999. Filled with intriguing local art, this historic hotel’s restaurant and bar is a popular meeting spot for tourists and locals alike.
A visit to Jacmel, or Haiti for that matter, wouldn’t be complete without seeing one of the most hidden gems in Haiti, Bassin Bleu, an oasis of turquoise-blue pools and cascades nestled in the town’s lush hills. After a bumpy ride through palm-tree lined dirt roads and a short hike, you’ll be rendered speechless when you finally arrive at Bassin Bleu’s highest waterfall that’s sure to have a few local boys taking jaw-dropping jumps into the shimmering swimming hole below.
If jumping off rocks into Bassin Bleu isn’t enough of an adrenaline rush for you, take a surf lesson with Surf Haiti, the first surf school in Haiti started at Kabik Beach. Founded after the earthquake by an American doctor that wanted to share his passion of surfing with young Haitians and help inspire a new tourism market, Surf Haiti is now run by two French surfers who also manage an accompanying treehouse-inspired guesthouse.
Whether you attempt surfing or not, watch the sun set at Kabik’s Le Reference, a tiny beach hut that serves fresh-caught fish, conch, and lobster. You won’t mind how long it takes your fresh fish to be grilled (hint: order before you’re ravished with hunger) with lantern-lit dining tables just steps from the breaking waves.
Where to Stay: Just outside of downtown Jacmel is Hotel Cyvadier Plage, a seaside hotel with adequate rooms, but an incredible view from its perch above a glittering blue-green cove that calls for sunset dips.
Explore Haiti’s Opulent Past in Cap-Haitien
Once you have toured Port-au-Prince, dive deeper into Haiti’s past with a visit to Cap-Haitien, a colonial port city on the north coast that’s brimming with history.
After you hop off the quick 25-minute flight from Port-au-Prince and check into your hotel, head straight for Cap-Haitien’s most popular attraction, Citadelle Laferrière. This imposing fortress was built in the early 1800s atop a mountain seventeen miles south of Cap-Haitien in the town of Milot. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Citadelle Laferrière is one of the largest fortresses in the Americas, and the biggest in the Caribbean.
Whether you take a donkey ride or climb up the six-mile-long steep road that leads to the fortress, you’ll have earned the breathtaking view at the top. Take a moment to marvel at the magnificence of a fortress that took 20,000 men fifteen years to build and that houses over 365 cannons.
Close to the Citadelle lies another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the remains of Sans Souci Palace, once considered the “Versailles of the Caribbean.” The opulent residence of former slave Henri Christophe, who was a central figure in the Haitian revolution that succeeded in gaining independence from France in the early 1800s. The self-proclaimed king of Haiti’s palace was damaged and abandoned after an earthquake in 1842, but now serves as an important reminder of the nation’s prosperous past.
Where to Stay: Family-run Habitation des Lauriers is a charming, 22-room boutique hotel overlooking the Cap-Haitien Bay that’s in a convenient location for exploring the town. Or if you want to combine your history tour with some beach time, stay at Cormier Plage, a resort that’s just outside Cap-Haitien on a secluded palm-tree lined golden beach.
Want to explore Haiti with a group?
If you want the security of traveling with a group and a knowledgeable local guide, G Adventures is a pioneering sustainable adventure travel company that began offering ten-day trips to Haiti in 2015.
English in Mind, a Haitian-led adult language school in Port-au-Prince, offers ten-day volunteer trips throughout the year that include teaching, light service work, and visits to Haiti’s beautiful beaches and mountains.
Kathleen Rellihan is a travel writer who first got hooked on Haiti while volunteering with English in Mind. Now you’ll find Kathleen in Haiti several times a year hiking to waterfalls, attempting to learn jokes in Kreyol, and getting her fried plantain/rhum sour fix. Follow Kathleen on Twitter and Instagram.