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Haiti has a striking landscape of hills, mountains and deep valleys, and is culturally distinct from the Dominican Republic, even though the two countries share the island of Hispaniola. The overwhelming majority of Haitians are of Afro-Caribbean ancestry, while the Dominican Republic is far more diverse demographically. Haitians have also developed a number of unique cultural and linguistic trends that have been highly influenced by the nation's African heritage. Indeed, some say Haiti is really a West African country located in the Caribbean.
Known as 'the pearl of the Caribbean', Haiti was once among France's richest colonies. Today, it endures widespread crime, poverty and civil disturbance. What's more, a catastrophic earthquake struck the country in January 2010, killing nearly 300,000 people and devastating local infrastructure. It destroyed many major landmarks in Port-au-Prince, including the Presidential Palace, Port-au-Prince Cathedral, and the National Assembly building. Hospitals, transport facilities and communication systems remain inadequate.
The fact that dozens of sleek cruise liners still visit a corner of Haiti is a beacon of hope for future tourism. The glittering white liners head out from Miami and deliver passengers to the cordoned off port of Labadee. The destination lies adjacent to Haiti's colourful city of Cap-Haitien. Visitors are safe to shop for souvenirs, sample local cuisine and generally enjoy themselves on Haiti's lovely northern coastline. Cap-Haitien is arguably preferable to Port-au-Prince as a tourist destination, as it suffered little damage in 2010.
Though most governments discourage travel to Haiti, intrepid visitors will find surviving natural beauty and many exciting volunteer opportunities. Foreign aid and local ingenuity are steadily improving conditions, but travellers will struggle to explore the country if they aren't on a cruise or part of a volunteer programme.
Although Haiti is bogged down by a history of violence and natural disaster, it is still a beautiful country with a tropical climate, white-sand beaches, and lush jungle vegetation. It also has an interesting history. Thousands of cruise passengers enjoy the safe tourist haven of Labadee, and visitors who are able to venture beyond this affluent enclave can expect to encounter a few wonderful attractions.
Labadee definitely tops the list of what to see and do in Haiti, though the picturesque resort has come under some fire recently for exploiting the country's natural assets and tourism potential with little benefit to the local community beyond its high fences. For many, however, this little piece of Haitian heaven is a safe and lovely stop-off point and a chance to enjoy the colourful craft markets in the village of Labadee.
Many governments still advise against tourist travel to Port-au-Prince (especially the slum areas of the city), as the capital is unfortunately the epicentre of crime and violence in the country. Fairly close to the sprawling Port-au-Prince is the far smaller port city of Jacmel, a historic and charming place to visit. In Jacmel tourists will find a community struggling to recover from the 2010 earthquake, but also captivating 19th-century architecture, white-sand beaches, and a proud cultural scene that celebrates local music and art. The glorious turquoise pools and waterfalls at Bassin Bleu, close to Jacmel, delight visitors, and the imposing, UNESCO-certified Citadelle Laferriere is an amazing excursion. Haiti is not an easy country to get around as the infrastructure is poor, but there are rewards awaiting those who do.
The Citadelle Laferriere was built in the first part of the 19th century after the country won its independence from France. Located near Cap-Haitien, it is perched atop a mountain that lies five miles (8km) from the closest town. Though never fully used and long abandoned, the eerie fortress is fascinating. It has over 300 cannons and many cannonballs, as well as cisterns, dungeons, storehouses and bakery ovens. Visitors will find some signs and information, but the material is not comprehensive. It's best to hire one of the local guides to explain the place's history. The attraction also offers astounding views, including Cuba if viewing conditions are clear.
Cap-Haitien is situated on the north coast of Haiti between the Atlantic Ocean and the Morne du Cap. Its surroundings have a lot to offer, including art galleries, museums, and beautiful, pristine beaches. About 20 minutes west of this metropolitan area lies the area called Labadee, a paradise of lush mountains and turquoise-blue Atlantic Ocean. Labadee is bursting with history, bright crafts and colourful people, as well as some of the best beaches in the Caribbean. The internationally known beach of Labadee is being operated by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, but the town of Labadee is a small fishing village. It is an eclectic mix of affluent hill-perched villas and traditional Haitian dwellings. Labadee is a cordoned off peninsula that provides a safe and secure base for cruise passengers to disembark.
The southern port city of Jacmel is both historic and picturesque. Tentatively accepted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site despite sustaining extensive damage in the 2010 earthquake, it is known for its elegant 19th century homes and buildings, a vibrant art and music scene, and stunning white-sand beaches. The destination is also considered one of the safest and most interesting cities for tourists exploring Haiti. Travellers should make a point of visiting the waterfalls and deep natural pools of Bassin Bleu. Hiking to the pools is an option, though most choose to drive rather than tackle the long trek. Visitors can expect splendid views along the way.
Haiti enjoys a tropical climate and the weather is generally hot and humid, with sultry, warm nights. Rainfall is variable between regions and the rainy season is from April to November. There are often severe storms during the hurricane season, between June and October, when there is the risk of flooding, landslides and hurricanes.
The seasons are not particularly distinct but the best time to travel to Haiti is between November and March to avoid the rainy periods. Between November and March, which is technically winter in Haiti, daytime temperatures range from 70F to 80F (23C to 32C) and nights are cooler at 60F to 70F (15C to 27C). In the summer months, it is significantly hotter. Partly due to its problem with deforestation, Haiti can experience extremes of weather, particularly in the form of flooding but occasionally through severe droughts as well.
Haiti is mountainous and weather varies according to altitude, with the hilly regions always a bit cooler than the coast. As the mountains can get cold at night, travellers should have warm clothes no matter what time of year they explore these areas.
The official currency is the Haitian gourde (HTG), but US dollars are widely accepted. Travellers can use credit cards at major hotels and some shops, though there is a risk of credit card cloning and theft. ATMs are scarce outside of Port-au-Prince.
The two official languages of Haiti are Haitian Creole and French. English is largely spoken in the capital and at Labadee cruise port.
110 volts, 60HZ. The plugs in use are the eastern type with two flat, parallel prongs or with two flat, parallel prongs and a third round pin below (Type A and B).
US nationals: US citizens must have a passport that is valid for duration of intended stay in Haiti. A visa is not required for stays of up to three months.
UK nationals: British citizens must have a passport that is valid for six months beyond the duration of intended stay in Haiti. A visa is not required for stays of up to three months.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid for duration of intended stay in Haiti. A visa is not required for stays of up to three months.
AU nationals: Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid for six months beyond period of intended stay in Haiti. A visa is not required for stays of up to three months.
ZA nationals: South African citizens must have a passport that is valid for six months beyond period of intended stay in Haiti. A visa is not required for stays of up to three months.
IR nationals: Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid for six months beyond period of intended stay in Haiti. A visa is not required for stays of up to three months.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid for six months beyond period of intended stay in Haiti. A visa is not required for stays of up to three months.
All foreign passengers to Haiti require a valid passport, onward or return tickets, and all necessary travel documentation for their next destination. People of Haitian origin do not require a visa. A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required if arriving from or transiting through an infected area. It is highly recommended that travellers' passports have at least six months' validity remaining after the intended date of departure from their travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Visitors should take malaria medication, and protect themselves as far as possible from mosquito bites with insect repellent and mosquito nets. Chikungunya and dengue fever also occur in the region.
A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required for those arriving from a country where there is a risk of infection, and hepatitis A and B, typhoid, polio, and MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccinations are recommended. Travellers who could expose themselves to animal bites should consider a rabies vaccination.
Visitors should only drink boiled or bottled water and avoid ice in drinks, as cholera is present across the country. Medical facilities in Port-au-Prince are of poor quality, and are virtually non-existent elsewhere in Haiti, so travel health insurance with evacuation cover is essential. It is advisable to bring all required medications from home. If visitors are travelling with prescribed medications, they should be sure to carry a prescription and doctor's note detailing what the medications are for and why they are needed.
Restaurant staff in Haiti should be tipped around 10 percent of the bill. Taxi drivers can be given a discretionary tip if they are helpful and efficient. Most Haitians don't tip, but it is customary to tip in tourist locations and all gratuities are graciously accepted.
Most tourists choose not to venture beyond the safe resort area of Labadee, where the port has been enclosed to protect visitors. The security situation is unpredictable throughout the rest of the destination, and violent crime is common. Tourists and expats will need to consider the threat of armed robbery, carjacking, assault and kidnapping, and the risk increases after dark and in isolated areas. Visitors should be alert to their surroundings and think carefully about security at their hotel. They should also travel with someone who speaks the local creole, avoid showing signs of wealth and have someone meet them at the airport when they land. Haiti suffers sporadic, unpredictable and sometimes violent protests, roadblocks and demonstrations.
A smile goes a long way in Haiti and, while people might think Haitians are solemn at first glance, most quickly warm up to visitors. Haitians are proud people despite their poor circumstances and appreciate being treated with respect. It is advisable to show willingness to learn a few basic Creole phrases, and to ask permission before taking pictures of locals. In rural areas it is considered indecent for women to have bare legs or shoulders, and modesty is encouraged when it comes to clothing in general.
As Haiti is economically depressed and one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere, few business visitors will have cause to travel there. Those who do should consider hiring a translator to ensure smooth communication. Business hours are generally from 8am to 4pm.
The international dialling code for Haiti is +509. Communications infrastructure is poor, but a mobile network is available.
The duty free allowance for goods brought into Haiti is 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars or 1kg of tobacco, 1 litre of spirits, a small quantity of perfume and new goods for personal use up to a value of HTG 2,500.
Embassy of Haiti, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 332 4090
Embassy of Haiti, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 3771 1427
Embassy of Haiti, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 238 1628/1629
Embassy of Trinidad and Tobago, Sydney, Australia (responsible for Haiti): +61 2 9327 6639
Embassy of Haiti in South Africa: +27 12 342 0192; +27 12 432 0980
United States Embassy, Port-au-Prince: +509 2229 8000.
British Embassy, Port-au-Prince: + 509 2812 9191
Canadian Embassy, Port-au-Prince: +509 2812 9000
Australian High Commission, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago (also responsible for Haiti): +1 868 822 5450
South African High Commission, Kingston, Jamaica (also responsible for Haiti): +1 876 620 4840.
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