“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.
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.
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.
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:
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.