After completing my first solo trip to Haiti in the spring of 2015 I came back with some tips and insights that I wish I had known before I went. Here are a few of my best tips you should know before traveling to Haiti.
Understand the currency before traveling to Haiti
There are 3 currencies in Haiti, the United States dollar (USD), the Haitian Gourde (HTG), and the Haitian dollar. The Haitian dollar exists as an idea and is used for purchasing or negotiating, but it isn’t an actual physical thing. The Haitian Gourde used to be tied to the U.S. dollar at a rate of 1 to 5. So it was easy to refer to 5 Gourdes as “one dollar” meaning one U.S. dollar. More recently the Gourde has become a free currency, but the idea of the Haitian dollar and the 1 to 5 ratio has remained.
It’s important to be clear which currency you are talking about when negotiating as the currencies in question often isn’t specified. Shop owners will often quote you a price in dollars (meaning Haitian dollars). Clarify the currency they are quoting you before you begin negotiation or you will both become confused very quickly. For a more in depth explanation check out this page.
It’s simple: 1 Haitian dollar = 5 Haitian Gourde
Don’t drink the water
You can’t drink the water here. This includes washed fresh vegetables and ice. As a general rule you can eat anything that is cooked. Locals don’t drink bottled water and there aren’t exactly a lot of tourist locations. If you are outside of the tourist circuit make sure to stock up on bottled water, you can ask for “glo”. It’s crazy hot and I drank plenty of water. I found that instead of wandering around for 10 minutes looking for a store that sold water it was far easier to just stock up on 4-5 bottles at a time.
Carry a notebook everywhere you go
Tourists sometimes become complacent and assume everybody in the world at least understands a little English. This is probably true in most popular tourist circuits. Not so true for most of Haiti. I often found it easier to have conversations in broken Spanish than to try and communicate in English. A notebook for communication works miracles here.
It’s a good idea to learn a few words of Haitian Creole. A phrasebook will be your best friend. Learn the numbers (vital for negotiation). Or when all else fails (and it often does) just write it down. This works especially well for locating destinations, addresses, and dealing with money.
Learn to negotiate
You will get mobbed by taxis when you leave the airport or bus station. Try not to be intimidated. Do not let them take your luggage; they will use this as a bargaining chip to get you to come with them. The best way to tackle this situation is to be prepared in advance. Know exactly where you are going and how far it is, and have an idea of how much you should pay for this trip.
You don’t need to be an advanced negotiator here but you will need to haggle. For example do not get in the taxi before you have negotiated a price. Taxi drivers will often ignore your attempts at negotiation to usher you into their car. Again, negotiate a price first. If you are good at bargaining you should be able to go anywhere in the city for under $5. Closer destinations should be between $2-3.
Plan extra time into your schedule
You are on Haitian time. The 3 hour bus ride from Port Au Prince to Jacmal will probably take more like 5-6 hours. Plan for the unexpected, you will soon find things like a bus stuck in the road, donkeys or goats blocking the path, or the bus breaking down are regular occurrences. The key to not getting frustrated or angry is to include time in your schedule for these delays and just go with the flow.
Moto’s are the best way to get around
Moto’s are scooters or small motorcycles and they are ubiquitous. Be prepared to ride on the back of a scooter if you are traveling to Haiti. It seems like every man under the age of 50 is riding on a motorcycle and is perfectly happy to give you a ride (for a price of course). Although I’m pretty sure I could have gotten it cheaper, a half day trip to Bassin Bleu in Jacmal cost me about $20. No trip in the city should cost you more than a few bucks. Make sure to haggle the price before you get on.
Street aren’t marked
It took me several hours of wandering around like an idiot with my paper map of Port Au Prince to figure out I didn’t know where I was. Lost isn’t the right word. I just had no clue as to what street or intersection I was on, the general location of where I wanted to go, or how to get there (ok maybe I was lost). What you think of as a map won’t work very well in Haiti and is really only good for getting a general idea of where you are and where you want to go. Write down the name or address of where you want to go and just take a taxi or moto.
The bus stations are crazy
I’m talking about the local bus stations here. They are simply an intersection in a busy part of the town that the locals decided will be the location of a bus stop. Think literally hundreds of busses, vans, cars, street vendors, it’s really quite the sight!
Each bus station heads to a different destination, so it is important to go to the right station. Asking a taxi or moto driver to take you to the correct station is usually the best way to find it.
The busses won’t have their destinations clearly marked. Look for an acronym on the door such as “JAC-PAP” meaning “Jacmal to Port Au Prince.” Every bus at the bus station should be heading to your destination but make sure to ask before you get on, a simple “Jacmal?” is sufficient.
They will try and hustle you
This was a regular occurrence for me. It’s not a reason to get angry or confrontational, but it is important to know it will happen. Sure they are trying to cheat you, but it only works if you aren’t prepared for it. Here are some common hustles.
In one scenario you negotiate a price with the moto driver and they pull into a gas station to top off the tank before departing. Then they look at you and ask you to pay. Do not pay, this is clearly a hustle. The price of your trip includes the gas to get there.
Taxi drivers never have change (or they pretend not to). Be clear when getting into a taxi on the price, make sure you have the exact change to pay for it, or ensure the driver has change.
In another hustle at Bassin Bleu the locals will demand payment for parking your driver’s moto. It’s clearly a hustle but it’s best not to get angry or confrontational in these situations. Haitians are poor and you are (comparatively) rich. Smile and laugh and offer them a dollar or two for the convenience of “parking your moto.”
ATM’s might not work
My ATM didn’t work in Haiti and I was unable to take out cash. Their banks weren’t on the same network as my bank. I was lucky that I brought plenty of cash when I came to Haiti. Make sure you check with your bank as to whether your ATM card will work in the country you are heading too.
If you can’t use your ATM card you should be able to pay for your hotel rooms with a credit card. Also be sure you know the PIN numbers to your credit cards as that is also a way to take out cash while travelling (albeit at a high interest rate).