Observatoire, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Where to Eat and Stay in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“Anpil men chay pa lou” – Haitan proverb meaning “Many hands make a load lighter”.

To say that the bustling, congested and vibrant capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, is a bit chaotic and overstimulating would be an understatement. Monstrous traffic combined with endless honking horns, pedestrians, street vendors, motorbikes and every thing imaginable being sold on the street leaves you with such an immense sensory overload that your head is spinning by the end of the day.

As a newcomer, it is hard to conceive that peaceful, beautiful places coexist with the utter chaos of this hectic city of neglected potholes, broken down cars and uncollected garbage. However if you dig deep within the local culture and outskirts of town, you will be surprised at what true treasures Port-au-Prince has to offer.

Above the urban sprawl rising up the northern hills of the Massif de la Selle lies the affluent suburb of Pétionville which was founded in 1831 and named after Alexandre Sabes Pétion (1770-1818), a Haitian general and president who is recognized as one of the founding fathers of Haiti. Today Pétionville hosts some of the most desired restaurants, shops, hotels and residences in the capital. The views from Pétionville are beautiful and the air is much clearer and calmer than in Port-au-Prince.

However, the growth of Pétionville has not come without a price. A lack of governance in development has led to some serious problems with squatters. On the outskirts of Pétionville, a massive slum of rural migrants have dangerously built homes moving up the slopes of the mountainside, offering little protection against mudslides, heavy rains and earthquakes. The slums are always in view and are a big contradiction to the large mansions and wealth of Pétionville.

Oftentimes it was hard for me to wrap my head around the luxury I was experiencing and the horrible conditions just across the way. Yet, as a conscious traveler to many developing countries, it is something I just have had to accept and hope that at least my voice as a blogger and my tourist dollars will somehow help.

Hotel Montan Pétionville, Haiti

Off in the distance, moving up the hills at the edge of Pétionville lies the slums. These were built illegally by rural migrants who came to the city.

Pétionville, Haiti

Sadly these slums are poorly constructed and prone to washing away during mudslides. A lot of destruction and devastation happened here too from the 2010 earthquake.

From Port-au-Prince, there is one main road that winds up the mountainside to Pétionville. The road is narrow and depending on the time of day, traffic can be horrific especially if there is a stalled car. It is best to plan at least an hour from downtown to Pétionville unless you leave very early in the morning or very late at night.

As you drive up the mountain, the road is filled with art stands selling all kinds of local Haitian art. The views of the city are spectacular but it is hard to stop since there are no shoulders on the road.

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One thing I love to do when I travel is stay and eat local. Being conscious about where my tourist money is spent and how can have a big impact on the local community. Sadly, the majority of revenue earned from tourism often goes into only a few hands (large international corporations or wealthy elite) and very little money goes to support the local community. This is a huge missed opportunity because supporting local businesses creates a ripple effect that benefits entire communities of people. More local jobs means more income enabling more people to send their children to school, buy food and afford homes. In a country of vast unemployment, sustainable local tourism has an enormous potential to help eradicate Haiti’s crippling poverty.

I was pleased that our guide Haitian-American Natalie Tancrede of Explore with Nat selected all locally run and owned venues for our stay in Port-au-Prince. We could have chosen to stay at the beautiful new Marriott Hotel downtown but instead opted to stay at the tranquil, family owned Hotel Montana in Pétionville. It was my second stay at this beautiful hotel and I would go back there in a heartbeat.

Here is my list of the best places to stay and eat in Port-au-Prince.

Where to Stay:

Hotel Montana

The Hotel Montana is a true gem. Located up in the hills of Pétionville high above Port-au-Prince Hotel Montana has been run by a Haitian family since 1947 and is designed in Haitian Art Deco flair. The grounds and 45 rooms are stunning and the staff is delightful. There is a large open-air terrace that has a restaurant, bar and pool affording breathtaking views of the city below. The personalized service is lovely and it feels like a home away from home for many of the guests.

Hotel Montana Pétionville, HaitiHotel Montana Pétionville, Haiti

Pétionville, Haiti

Art in Port-au-Prince Haiti

Art on Wheels: The Tap Taps of Port-au-Prince

“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder” – Plato

When I first told friends that I was going to Haiti I got a lot of negative responses. “I would never go there” scolded a doctor friend of mine. “It is way too dangerous” warned another. Sadly the media has not painted a pretty picture of Haiti. Over and over again we have seen images and read articles about the devastation, poverty, political instability and disease, that makes Haiti sound like some kind of backwater, scary place. People thought I was crazy to go there.

As a seasoned traveler who has been to some rough places, I made sure I did my research. I talked to friends who had been there before and all of them said I had to go. That it would change me. And it did.

Now I want to share with the world the good things about Haiti. The stuff the media doesn’t cover because they want to sell a story. I’m not going to talk about the tent communities, the lack of infrastructure and health services. That will come later. Instead, I’m going to tell you about the spectacular art I saw on my trip visiting the artisans who work with Heart of Haiti.

One thing I learned is that Haiti is a nation of artisans. With a population of a little over ten million people, some estimates report that almost half a million Haitians rely on the handicraft sector as their primary or secondary source of income. No other sector employs such a high percentage of people in Haiti. Furthermore, art is an enormous part of Haitian life and culture and can be found nearly everywhere even in surprising, unexpected places.

The devastating 2010 earthquake that tore apart Port-au-Prince significantly hurt the artisan trade. Per Nat Tancrede, Executive Director at ABN (Artisan Business Network), the once thriving handicraft sector was almost destroyed. Before the earthquake it was reported that around 40-50 containers of artisan produced goods left Haiti weekly to the United States during the peak years of 1980-1985. Yet, in 2010 after the earthquake only six containers were being shipped a week. For a nation that depends on the handicraft sector, it had strong implications for the economy and the lives of the artisans. Today, the handicraft sector is continuing to grow and provide more sustainable incomes to both women and men, and Nat foresees even more opportunity down the road.

For a culture that is so strongly connected to art, Haiti is an art lover’s dream yet it remains relatively undiscovered. Art truly is everywhere in Haiti. Along the walls and sides of buildings and even on the side of the street lies handmade metal art, statues, papier-mâché and paintings. It was something that really surprised and amazed me.

Art in Port-au-Prince Haiti

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

A Night at Carnival in Port-au-Prince

We arrived near the Champs de Mars in central Port-au-Prince a little after six for our night of music and light-soaked adventure at Carnival. Given the fact that there are very few tourists in Haiti, we had hired an additional security person for the night to help us arrive safely at our stand where we would watch the festivities from above. I admit that I was a little nervous about getting to the stand safely as the streets were already packed with people and getting across the street proved daunting.

We lined up in single file, placing our cameras and anything of value inside our shirts and wormed our way into the mayhem of a crowd-filled street. It wasn’t as bad as I anticipated but knew as time went by, the streets would only get more crowded and getting out of Carnival would be a challenge. But I decided to not think of it at the time and simply embrace the experience.

Carnaval 2015 Port-au-Prince

Getting across the street in this crowd proved challenging.

We made it across the street to the entrance of the Minister of Tourism stand, where we passed through a group of armed guards who insured we had our Minister of Tourism Carnival t-shirts on and a wristband. If you didn’t have one on, you were not let in.

The stand was already crowded with people and we found a crammed spot in the front overlooking the street below. By standing on a chair, I got a bird’s-eye view of the festivities and realized that it would never have been possible to attend Carnival if we weren’t in a stand. The streets were so crowded that it resulted in a lot of pushing and shoving and I’m shocked that more fights didn’t break out. The atmosphere was festive but intense. There were smiles across the faces but unfortunately my amateur photographic skills especially capturing movement and night scenes do not depict it.

Carnaval 2015 Port-au-Prince

The Art and Color of Carnival

“Piti piti, zwazo fè nich” – “Little by little birds build their nests” – Haitian proverb

Similar to the rest of Latin America, Haiti was colonized by Europeans who imposed their Roman Catholic religion on the people. While half of the island was colonized by the Spanish and became the Dominican Republic, the western, smaller portion of the island was colonized by the French and is officially known as the Republic of Haiti.

Haiti is the only predominantly Francophone nation in the Americas and also one of the only nations to practice Voodoo, a syncretic religion that blends African, European and indigenous Taíno beliefs. Haitian Voodoo originated in the Caribbean during the 18th century French Empire as a way for West African slaves to continue using their own religion and beliefs while they were being forced to convert to Christianity. About half of all Haitians practice a combination of Catholicism and Voodoo.

It just so happened that I was in Haiti during Carnival. In all my travels, I had never experienced Carnival before and given Haiti’s unique combination of Catholicism and Voodoo, I could only imagine what Carnival would be like. I had already seen a lot of religious influences within Haiti’s amazing art, music and dance during the first few days of my visit. I knew attending Carnival in Port-au-Prince would be one of those bucket-list life experiences.

As a stoke of luck, our Haitian friend Nat who is the Executive Director of ABN (Artisan Business Network) was able to get our group tickets to be in the Minister of Tourism’s stand. We would leave at six o’clock to beat the masses of crowds that would eventually make the Champs de Mars impassable until the wee hours of the morning.

As we left Pétionville and headed down the mountain into the heart of Port-au-Prince, traffic was intense and preparations for Carnival were well underway. Earlier in the day, we had stopped by one of the stands on Champs de Mars to visit one of the artisans that Nat works with at ABN. The finishing touches were going up all around us.

Carnaval 2015 Port-au-Prince

Going down the heart of Champs de Mars, where the streets are lined with stands for Carnival.

Carnaval 2015 Port-au-Prince

The bright stalls are going up all around.

Carnaval 2015 Port-au-Prince

Last minute preparations are underway.

Carnaval 2015 Port-au-Prince

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015

The Women of Carnival

Last Sunday, I had the thrill of attending my first ever Carnival when I was in Haiti. It was a wild night like nothing I have ever experienced. Wall to wall people danced in the streets, while music blared and super-sized floats crept at a snail’s pace down the Champ de Mars in the heart of Port-au-Prince.

Thankfully we were able to get tickets to be in the Minister of Tourism’s stand or it most likely would not have been safe. Tragically the next night, one of the floats caught on fire spreading mass panic while 16 people got trampled to death and countless more were injured. It was more devastating news for a country still trying to rebuild after the near catastrophic earthquake five years ago.

It is even more tragic given the fact that Carnival is supposed to be a time of celebration and great joy. Even the protests over fuel prices (which almost canceled our trip) stopped the day before in honor of Carnival. Despite the numerous hardships most Haitians face, Carnival is a time to let go and have fun. To let the music mesmerize you and beauty of Carnival sweep you away.

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015