My friends, coworkers, & family are always asking, ‘well where are ya off to next?’ The reactions when I told them I was going to Haiti were pretty amusing. Confusion then concern came from the majority, especially when I answered that it was for a quick beach vacation. They’d shake their head like the misunderstood and ponder that I’m not going for mission work, or with a group of sorts. I guess most people don’t know anyone who vacations in the poorest country in the western hemisphere. I didn’t even tell my parents to avoid making my mother worry, and successfully avoided them finding out until I arrived back home.
To tell the truth, the level 4 ‘do not travel’ government advisory and news of the protests, kidnappings, and murders concerned me enough that I started digging and asking around to people that I know that have traveled to Cap Haitien specifically. Even after some reaffirming responses, when we landed and our arranged driver Eugene wasn’t there to pick us up, we gave poor Donald the driver a fit and made him call Eugene, and we talked to our host who arranged it all. All of that to point out that we are both well traveled enough to take news stories and advisories with a grain of salt, but we did take precautions and really watched our step for this trip. There is no way we would not have gone through Port-Au-Prince for a quick little vacation as we did in Cap Haitien. So I want to give details of my trip to hopefully bring a new mindset to a lot of those who reacted as I mentioned above.
I am soo glad my roommate approached me about our airline stopping flights into CAP and wanting to go before that happened. We came to the conclusion that the gorgeous beaches and warm and kind people outweighed the inconveniences and 3rd world issues by far. We were lucky enough to meet Gregory and Keno and their crew of family and friends at Belly Beach our 2nd evening. Actually we met them the first night but they joined us in drinking a Prestige and chatting the second evening. They brought us into the local scene and made us feel like friends immediately. We quickly recognized that majority of the people on day 2 were there the day before. That’s because Belly Beach is the only large bar/restaurant/hotel/beach area in Labadee village so yes everyone knows everyone and it was a great weekend party spot! Gregory joined us for our boat day the next day and brought the cooler, speaker, and good conversation. That evening they invited us into their home for dinner, an opportunity I wouldn’t pass up in any country.
We went to Lutes and Sarahs house after our beach day and were met with beers and easy conversations before a delicious lobster dinner. Whatever the green herb paste they put on all of the seafood is so good! Sarah was volunteering when she met Lutes, the then 23 yr old mayor of Labadee village. They live in Portland now and raise their 2 boys, but come back as often as they can and were able to do a 5 month visit this time. The tour of the Labadee village took maybe 10 minutes by foot, and included everyone we passed smiling and shaking our new friends hands. Safety is almost a guarantee they explained, as everyone knows everyone else’s business, so you couldn’t get away with a crime if you wanted to.
Everything there just felt very simple, & I liked it. Haiti is a poor country by anyone’s standard, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, but I was actually expecting worse. What I saw in Cap Haitien town and Labadee village was comparable to small towns in most Central America countries, and the townships of South Africa we’re easily worse living conditions. I’m sure I would be telling a different story traveling throughout other parts of Haiti as this side of the island wasn’t affected much by the catastrophic earthquake of 2010.
There were the typical concrete block homes with tin roofs outside of town (some worse), and in town kids getting a bath from their mother dumping buckets of water over their heads in the street, bashfully covering their private’s when cars drove by. I was confused by the many gas containers that children were carrying up & down the hilly streets and finally realized they were collecting water from a spring or station to take back home for bathing, laundry, etc. And there were lots of gas containers. Electricity stayed on for the most part, and while there was no AC the breeze from the ocean was sufficient. I am very much looking forward to a hot shower at home, but the cold showers weren’t so bad after a day in the heat. The mosquitoes were easily the biggest pain in my butt. Our little guesthouse had full length shuttered doors that we left open all the time, and it was pretty much a treehouse on the hillside. We slept in bug spray and reapplied the second we stepped out of our mosquito net in the morning. One night a sneaky fellow made it inside the net, & my left leg that was out of the covers didn’t stand a chance.
In terms of logistics and what you should do if you want to visit (and if you’re up for a bit of an adventure, you should). Labadee is also Royal Caribbean’s cruise port. In fact, our new friends all landed the much sought after jobs to work there as lifeguards, snorkel guide, zip line person, etc. But Labadee is much larger than just the area and beach set aside for cruise guests. I was told you can try and get on the list ahead of time if you want to spend a day inside their facilities. We didn’t bother. We hired our favorite water taxi driver to drive us around all day for $50 total.
In terms of beaches, Amiga Island was fan-freakin-tastic. There were no cruise ship in on our visit so we seriously had it 100% to ourselves, and took full advantage. A man did come out of the woodworks to say we had to pay $5 to use the beach, which of course Gregory didn’t have to pay, and local fisherman came up on kayaks with their massive crab, lobster, and other types of fish that you can buy from them and have the guy I paid $5 grill it up for us (for another fee). But we just relaxed on our floats, drank a lot of Prestige, and learned how to dance to kompa music.
Next was paradise beach, which was nothing special after spending all day at Amigas. While the $5 fee seemed pretty silly since we didn’t need anything, it was so worth it. The infrastructure is set up to make money off of the cruise guests. Lounge chairs and other amenities are available for a fee, but we were set with our cooler full of beer and pool tubes.
You also need to do the Citadel and San Souci palace when you visit. It was about 45 minutes away but well worth it. We were charged $100 for transportation for the entire day, and in hindsight that was steep. Also, note that the entrance fee includes a guide that you can decline, and it is negotiable. They initially wanted to charge us $30 each, we agreed on $25 lol. Our guide was very informative and spoke excellent English, very much worth the it for our 3 hours with him. You can choose to walk the 1.5km (something like that) from the parking lot, or have horses take you. We told them we would walk, but the men and horses still followed us at least halfway up before they realized that we meant it and would walk the entire thing. Not gonna lie tho, it was a workout! The Citadel is a fortress that was actually never used or attacked. It could hold 5,000 people that were prepared for the French to return & attack. Built in 1805 by Henri Christophe, the fortress symbolizes the Haitian slave revolution, liberty, and independence. It is a beauty sitting up on top of the mountain top. I actually spotted it when we were flying in!
The irony is that Henri, a former slave who helped lead the revolution, then enslaved 20,000 newly freed men to built this protective fortress. It’s estimated that 10% died. Henri I was the first and only monarch of Haiti. He commited suicide before the fortress was complete after an uprising, yet he is still considered a Haitian hero. It’s said that he greatly admired the British and implemented music schools, programs for education, built multiple palaces, and held a very sophisticated court at San Souci. Not bad considering he could only write his name. No doubt northern Haiti flourished under his reign, the proof is still there today (the palace was damaged from massive earthquake).
We were told to eat at Lakay and Boukanye on our way back through town but while we were visiting there was protesting going on in Cap Haitien and a lot of places were closed. We chose our vacation time at a bad time. When we landed a Spirit employee saw our flight attendant lanyards and pulled us aside to tell us this, and that he doesn’t wear his uniform during this unsafe time because it draws attention to him, and that we should be careful. Like I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb without my little lanyard. We never actually saw protesters as we think of in the US tho. We drove through intersections with burning tires and men collecting money by banging on your windshield. That sounds worse when I type it out than it felt. But bringing up the protests leads to my biggest ‘this isn’t ok’ moment of the trip. No, not armed men banging on our windshield, it was the garbage situation that blew my mind. There is trash everywhere in Cap Haitien . Mountains of it lining the ocean shore, in the streams, piled up on the sides of the road.
I was just floored by the amount. It was explained that this is also a form of protesting against the unpopular government, but I can’t imagine the effects of that much trash long term and getting the situation under control. I was realllly disgusted. Just before we arrived proof against the president embezzling money from Venezuela came to light. This is from a 6/11/19 NPR article,
‘This scandal is centered around accusations that Haitian officials stole millions of dollars from a development fund subsidized by Venezuela that was intended to help low-income Haitians in what is believed to be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
“Under the PetroCaribe program, Venezuela provided countries with oil, with payments deferred over 25 years at an interest rate as low as 1 percent,” as the Miami Herald reported. “In Haiti, the savings from not having to immediately pay for the oil were designated for investments in roads, hospitals and social programs to help the poor.”’
Unhappiness and protesting against this president is nothing new, but with the 600 page report from this investigation came even more anger at the fact that the rich were getting richer from the money meant to aid the poor. The protests finally made it from being primarily in the capital of Port-Au-Prince, to the other side of the island in Cap Haitien mid June.
But back to vacationing in Haiti… We didn’t do much on our 3 night trip, as there really isn’t much to do, but I won’t forget how easily I felt comfortable there. Which is fairly surprising considering we didn’t see another tourist until we met Sarah’s friends that were visiting her and Lutes. Meeting locals that took us under their wing really made our trip and we were very secluded in our little village. We could walk to belly beach but that was it, we had to get a water taxi to even take us to the village. The girls of the housekeeper at our guesthouse loved us, and we quickly became attached to them despite language barriers. We did nails one day and they wanted to braid my hair. They picked flowers for our breakfast table for us, and meet us each morning and evening with hugs and kisses. We were quite sad they were in school and we couldn’t say goodbye when we left.
The boys told us to cancel our transfer to the airport that they would take us, & tried to refuse money but we insisted. They had bought us beer, provided a lobster dinner, the drive, and really so much more of a local experience than we ever could have hoped before we came. For the entire trip, stay, and steep tourist prices, we spent $370 while we were there for 3 full days. Dollars were accepted everywhere, but there is no change. Everytime we were told that, we were offered more beers instead of them assuming it was a tip, so depending on how much you enjoy being forced to drink another cold beer, be prepared with lots of small bills! Having cell service was key to set up our rides and tours, we were surprised that our T-Mobile service was excellent.
Before I went I assumed I would leave Haiti feeling upset by what I would see from daily life and living conditions, but once again I’m reminded by traveling that it’s not what you have that makes you happy. Everyone was smiling, kind, and now that I think about it, we were never approached by anyone begging. I know that we were in one of the touristy and nicer areas. I understand starvation, disease, and issues that I can’t even imagine are prevalent in this country, but I want you to know about my trip and my experience. I wish more people could and would travel to the simplicity of Labadee. Tourism money would sure be welcomed.