Haiti’s bouts of political upheaval and devastating natural disasters have made global news over the last few decades. The last major earthquake was a huge setback, but now, five years later, the country’s been cleaning up, and looking forward to welcoming travelers back. With more than 400,000 visitors to the main island in 2014, tourism in the country is slowly growing.
Since we last checked in on the situation in 2013, crime rates have continued to decrease, and road conditions and clean water access have been improving. There are also some exciting travel-related developments that have come to fruition or are in the works: Marriott opened a 175-room property in Port-au-Prince in March that has partnerships with 26 local businesses, while a $145 million project that will encompass a “business park,” country club, and boutique hotel broke ground in June. JetBlue, which launched direct flights to the capital from NYC and Fort Lauderdale two years ago, is bringing in bigger planes and adding a brand-new route from Boston next summer to meet growing demand.
We recently saw how much this less-traveled island had to offer on a recent trip. For those who are in search of a different kind of Caribbean experience, here's why you might just want to consider Haiti.
Arts & Crafts
It’s been said that out of struggle comes great beauty. The abundance of vibrant, original art on display in galleries and on the occasional street corner in Haiti -- with themes ranging from everyday life, to religion, to history -- speaks to the island’s often-turbulent past as well as its present creativity. In downtown Port-au-Prince, the national MUPANAH Museum (Musee du Pantheon National, $5 admission) highlights Haiti’s path to independence. You’ll find original works by local artists as well as a surprise artifact: a weathered anchor said to be from Christopher Columbus’s doomed ship, the Santa Maria. The legendary Iron Market, which stood for more than a century that was felled by the 2010 earthquake, has been rebuilt and features hundreds of stalls featuring produce and crafts. In a far aisle, you'll even find voodoo dolls. Armed security often patrols the aisles, with an eye out for foreign visitors.
In Croix des Bouquets, about eight miles north of Port-au-Prince, Noailles is a creative commune, and you’ll hear it before you see it, thanks to the artisans hammering away at metals inside. Their unique sculptures can be ordered or purchased from the nearby workshops.
If you’re in Port-au-Prince on a Thursday night, chances are that you’ll join entranced crowds at the Hotel Oloffson, a 19th-century traditional gingerbread house that hosts mystical “voodoo rock” band RAM ($15 admission). Walking or driving around town, you might hear the strains of the region’s beloved reggae and dancehall music wafting from stores and bars as you stroll the streets -- and no one’s immune to the appeal of Bob Marley -- but the true heart of Haitian music lies in the meringue-based kompa, a fast tempo music that found its niche more than six decades ago and draws new listeners internationally thanks to groups like Kassav.
Resorts & Getaways
Among Haiti’s not-so-hidden surprises are the many resorts and scenic getaways -- it’s a Caribbean island, after all, and it's bordered by both the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. In Port-au-Prince, you’ll see locals staffing hotels from familiar and reliable brands. There’s the new, deluxe Marriott hotel, and the Best Western Premier shows off local art and hosts patio dance parties in the evenings. For an escape from the capital, head to Côtes des Arcadins, where DJs spin uptempo music, vendors offer fresh seafood, and guests sip on potent cocktails at Wahoo Bay Beach. At nearby Moulin Sur Mer, you can take a chartered snorkeling, fishing, or diving excursion (from $100 per person), trace the island’s sugar legacy at onsite Museum Ogier-Fombrun, or spend the day at one of their three beach areas.
Kreyol dishes are the heart of Haiti’s culinary experience. If you’ve ever dined at a Haitian restaurant, you’ll be familiar with djon-djon, seasoned black mushroom rice eaten as a side with both seafood and meat. Twice fried, well-salted plantain slices (banan peze) will make a regular appearance -- as an appetizer with a tangy dip, or as a side for larger meals -- and griot, the popular marinated and fried pork dish, is a staple on most menus.
Some Safety Tips
For first-time visitors, it’s worth hiring a guide from a local tour company, such as Agence Citadelle or Tour Haiti. Beyond providing the typical cultural knowledge and insider tips that residents generally can, these guides can help you safely navigate both Port-au-Prince's neighborhoods and other areas around the island. Read up on the specific areas where crimes and protests tend to take place -- like outside the airport, bank, nightclubs, or politically important locations -- and have locals accompany you if you need to go there. And certainly exercise caution the way you would in any unfamiliar, developing destination: Don’t wander the streets at night, especially alone; stick to well-populated and well-lit areas; and avoid the picturesque but vulnerable “tap tap” buses around town. Know who to contact in case of emergencies (the U.S. Embassy or American Citizens Services would be most efficient) and purchase travel insurance.