Backpacking in the Dominican Republic and Haiti

Backpacking in the Dominican Republic and Haiti

40 days itinerary from Santo Domingo to Port au Prince and back

In 2014 I traveled with my boyfriend to the Dominican Republic and Haiti. As usual we left Italy without a defined itinerary in mind, we were ready to let our feelings guide us along the way.

We arrived in Santo Domingo after a long flight with a stop over in New York to save money, but that left us super tired.

Santo Domingo is a nice town with some beautiful colonial architecture. It can also be frightening in some areas, like around Parque Enriquillo, where most of the buses leave and arrive. It was scary at first for Luca, who had never been out of Europe and was not used to the chaos and crazy traffic.

Santo Domingo
Santo Domingo

From Santo Domingo we decided to go South-West, by the coast. Los Patos was recommended by the Lonely Planet as one of the best beaches of the South. So we went there, because the intention was to see as many different parts of the country as possible. We had a great time there. There were very few foreign tourists, many local tourists, so if this is what you are looking for, I recommend this part of the Republic instead of the North and East.

After Los Patos we went to Pedernales, right at the border with Haiti. From there we went to Bahia de Las Aguilas, a natural park with one of the most amazing beaches I’ve ever seen. We were near Haiti, but still couldn’t decide if we wanted to go or not. Everyone we talked to recommended not to go, because it was dangerous and expensive. Probably because we were advised not to, we went. And the true adventure started.

baia delle aquile
Bahia de las Aguilas

Adventurous backpacking in Haiti

Just after the border we had to take a boat in the night to take us to the nearest town, because going by land would have taken days.

Fist stop in Haiti was Jacmel, a lovely artists town in the Southern Coast, that still showed the many damages of the earthquake in 2010. We had the first glimpse of how Haiti would have been: dirty, chaotic, almost impossible to get money, but with sweet people (mostly).

This is how we were going to travel in Haiti

From Jacmel we took a tap-tap to Port au Prince and from there to Port Salut. It was the first of the many long journeys we had in Haiti. Traveling by local transportation is not easy at all in Haiti. Every time it took us many long hours to do just a few hundreds of kilometers. That was probably the worst part of backpacking in Haiti, because it was a huge waste of time and very tiring.

Port Salut is a pretty holiday resort, very quiet and relaxed. From there we went to Les Cayes one day, trying to go to the Ile de Vache, but the hours lost waiting for the tap-tap to fill up and finding a working ATM prevented us to go to the little island.

After Port Salut we went to Port au Prince, the capital. The first introduction wasn’t of the best, as we were approached by a guy who tried to steal from us. The town centre of Port au Prince is not bad, if you don’t mind the heat and dust, but out of the main roads and square it’s messy and not reassuring. We managed to see some voodoo art, which was one of the reasons why I wanted to visit Haiti.

After Port au Prince another loooong and scary journey to go to Cap Haitien. Cap Haitien is actually pretty and clean, very different from the capital, even though it’s also a large city. But this in the town centre. Just out of the centre there’s a canal full of rubbish, a very bad sight.

cap haitien
Coming out of school in Cap Haitien

From Cap Haitien we crossed the border to the Dominican Republic (so basically we entered Haiti in the South and exited in the North; there’s another border crossing in the centre, between the two capitals).

A much easier backpacking in the Dominican Republic

It was very nice to be back in the Dominican Republic. We realized how difficult it was to travel in Haiti. The Dominican Republic was much cheaper, so much easier to travel, food and coffee available everywhere, easy to get money from the bank, hotels cleaner. Now, many years later, I’m glad I had that experience in Haiti, but I don’t know if I would be able to do it again, it was really tiring. It’s probably different if you have money and can rent your own car or driver. Cap Haitien was the best place, of all.

Once in the Dominican Republic we spent a few days in Monte Cristi, to recover and to eat some good food. From there we went to Santiago and then Constanza, in the mountains.

After that it was all beaches. And every place was pleasant and welcoming.

First one was Cabarete, a surfists spot. This was the first place where we met may foreign tourists, and all the Northern coast has many foreigners, mainly from the US (and many Italians and French living their their retirement years). In Cabarete I had the best breakfast ever.

rio san juan
Beach in Rio San Juan

We went East to Rio San Juan, where there’s not much to do nor to see, but that I loved, probably because of its relaxed atmosphere. After that it was the Semanà Peninsula, with Las Terrenas and Las Galeras. Pretty, touristy.

From there we crossed the country to go to the Southern coast; we also thought of going to the Eastern coast, maybe pay 80 dollars for an all-included resort and spend a day or two just sunbathing and eating (there’s a lot of chicken involved when you travel in the Dominican Republic, and at one point you crave for something different), but we hadn’t a lot of time left so we decided to go directly South.

Boca de Yuma was pretty but Luca wasn’t feeling well so we didn’t really enjoy it. From there to Juan Dolio, the last stop. We stayed in this little town by the sea until our flight back to Italy, and went on a day trip to Santo Domingo where people were celebrating Easter. When we had landed in the Dominican Republic we didn’t spend much time in Santo Domingo because we thought we would be there again before departing. But once in Juan Dolio we were suggested not to go to Santo Domingo before flying back, because it was easier to get to the airport from Juan Dolio and it was nicer to stay in Juan Dolio. It was a good idea.

Would I go back to the Dominican Republic and Haiti? Yes, and I would probably do a similar itinerary. I know that Haiti was a nightmare, but I would like to see if things have improved now.

Cap Haitien

Cap Haitien

March 25 or 26, I lost count.

Midday in Cap Haitien. We are on a tap-tap (the back of a pickup) waiting that it fills up to go to Labadie. It’s a bit late because we got up slowly, we went to Caribe tours to book the trip to the Dominican Republic (they told us there is no need to book, we can just go there tomorrow morning) and breakfast. Here comes an elder lady with an elder man carrying a push-cart with a bag of sugar and one of rice. Everything goes on the pick-up, under our feet. So far Luca is the only man. I think we might be waiting for a couple of people more, before we leave (but here you never know, when they think the tap-tap is full enough).

The large bus (comfortable and direct) to Santiago costs 25 USD. Going by tap-tap is 20 USD cheaper, but it’s a much longer and tiring trip, because you should get on a tap-tap to the border, cross the border on foot, and once in the Dominican Republic get on a gua-gua to the next destination.

In Haiti I saw many pregnant women. All young. The elder like myself (37) are forgotten.

3h15 Drink break at Cornier Bar, a hotel-restaurant-bar for foreigners. These two juices are going to cost us more than tonight’s dinner, but we really needed them and it’s so nice to drink something cool on these chairs by the sea. If I want wifi it’s 3 USD more. In the parking there are UNHCR trucks. Poor NGO workers?

Our luxurious juices

We went to see a beach nearby where the cruise ships dock. It was surrounded by a metal fence to keep intruders out. And we were out of the fence with other Haitians looking at the tourists bathing in the sea and in the sun like you would look at monkeys at the zoo.

We went to bath, but while we were drying there were so many mosquitoes we had to leave. And a lot of sea urchins, I was scared.

We came back to Cap Haitien on a motorbike (the two of us and the driver on one bike) because there were no more pickups. It wasn’t very comfortable, on that rough road. We had time to do a short tour of the town: the main square with the Town Hall (Delegation du Nord), the Gingerbread houses, the seafront, the Croissant d’Or, a bakery-patisserie (quite rare here). Dinner with half a chicken each and yuca. We are hungry tonight.

Square and town hall in Cap Haitien

9 or 10 in the evening, I don’t know. Luca is tired and is unhappy of everything. I’m afraid he’s in the phase “Damn that time I met you!” and that he’s not happy he’s accepted to follow me here. I hope this will pass soon!

Tipica casa gingerbread haitiana
Tipica casa gingerbread haitiana
The long journey to Cap Haitien

The long journey to Cap Haitien

March 24, 2014

6.30 am. This morning they told us that breakfast is included in the room price. So breakfast, and we go. Stuffed. A nice cheese omelette.

7.35am Will we arrive when it’s dark today too? We are stuck in the traffic, it looks like Arzignano at 8am, blocked by mothers cars taking the kids to school. At 6am it was hard to wake up, but I could hear the noise from the city already wide awake. They definitely wake up early in this country, there’s no time to waste!

Stuck in the traffic while we go to the centre of Port au Prince

American school buses and other buses with a French plate: probably the Western Countries instead of throwing their old broken buses to the bin, they send them here, as a nice donation.

Two things are definitely bigger than in Italy: cars and music speakers. The few cars I’ve seen are mainly big pick-ups, Cherokee or Jeep, and even the most broken stall has huge speakers, old and broken where the sound is terrible, but the music must be really loud.


9 They are so honest I am impressed. On the tap-tap to the town centre we asked other passengers how we could get to Estacion O’Cap, where the buses leave to Cap Haitien. The lady in front of us asked the driver, and he said he could take us there. Good. Luckily the same lady asked how much that was going to cost. 500 HTG. What? 8 euro?? The other passengers got outraged. Another man told us we could get off at Grand Rue (the road of the Marché de Fer, from the regal name but actually the dirtiest and most chaotic of PAP) and take another tap-tap that would take us to the station for 10HTG. Ok. So this is what we do, we take the other tap-tap, and when it’s time to pay, I give the driver 30HTG (we’ve always paid 15 each on public buses so far), but he gave me back 20HTG, because it was only 5 each. Well, with 20 HTG he wasn’t going to become rich, but he was honest.

At the station we soon find a very old bus super full of people; they let us in from the back, because the front is so full you can’t pass, and it’s time to pay. The ticket reads 200. 200 what? Gourde, I think. It can’t be 20 USD I hope! No. We show 500 HTG and it’s not enough. It’s 1000 HTG. Ok, so it was 200 Haitian dollars. Ufff… It’s so confusing! They have a double currency (plus the American dollar that is used at hotels and at the border). At one point in the history of Haiti the American dollar was worth 5 HTG. It became so common to speak and count in dollars that they keep the same name and exchange rate even though the dollar now is 44 HTG. It became an Haitian dollar. It’s not a different bancknote, you use the same old bancknotes as usual, but instead of saying 1000 HTG they say 200 dolars. For example in Port Salut we had to pay 700. The waitress didn’t have the change (300 HTG), so she asked the owner if he had 60 dolars.

The guy that got us on the bus, one of the many that survive helping the buses to get passengers at the stations, came back to ask for more money, but the people around us helped send him away.

Corriera super piena

From the speakers of the bus comes a music so loud it’s breaking my eardrums. I hope we will leave soon because we have a long journey ahead of us.

Around the bus there are stalls selling cosmetics, drinks and some fried food. A lady seeing that from the bus I was looking for drinks, called the seller for me. One 7up and one water 6 dolars. I give him 100 HTG. He doesn’t have the change (here they never have the change, can’t understand why). “Wait”, he says. He leaves. He could never come back and keep the change, the bus is leaving soon and nevermind the change, plus in some restaurants we paid 100 HTG for one drink only. But he comes back, with my money.

Sellers at the Estacion O’Cap

It’s been 30 minutes and we are still here, hotter and clumped as ever. When we got in I thought the bus was full, but they actually sat a third person every two seats. The seats are movable (= detached), so when needed they can move towards the aisle and let a third person sit. Half butt on the aisle at the right, half butt on the left near the window, and a full one at the centre.

From time to time someone gets on the bus and gives a long speech to describe what he is selling. Everyone listens with attention. A girl managed to earn 20 HTG and thanked us with a song (today is the day against? I don’t know, I didn’t understand). Another one sold an inhaler. The tiger balm is not that popular.

Here comes the sacred music. From Les Cayes to PAP we spent 12 hours listening to religious music (I could hear Dieu every other word), with the boy collecting the money that stopped to sing along and mimic the words, so much he was captured by the moment.

10am. We left 15 minutes ago and the police stopped us. Why? Do you think we are over-crowded with too much weight on the top, on a bus that is falling apart and that runs too fast???

Breathing some air during a stop to inflate the wheel

12.35pm Ok, I officially have diarrhea. We stopped again for an unknown problem. Since we left PAP a guy spent about 2 hours explaining the properties of his products and he did manage to sell something. Than we stopped to pee (and in the meantime they inflated one wheel), I had the first diarrhea attacks while everyone looked at me squatting (there wasn’t one single tree to hide behind) and we left with the music. Now we are stopped again. First they need to understand what the problem is. It’s impossible to sleep on this bus. I don’t understand why they have to run so fast. And the horn is always on to advise “we are arriving, so better you give us way or we are going so fast that we will come straight into you and we will both die”. They only slow down if from the other side there’s a truck or tank coming. I’m worried my diarrhea might be coming down right now, it was very liquid. We stopped two more times to inflate the central wheel. From the fear of overturning, the effort to keep myself tight with all the jumps and the strain of keeping my muscles tight so that I won’t shit myself, this journey is a nightmare.

The only solace is the view from the window: nice dry landscape, palm trees and cactus 6 meters tall.

8.35pm Cap Haitien. I thought I was going to die today. They almost got me swear. Crazy chauffeur. On wrecked roads, on a wrecked bus with a hold less than zero and a deflated wheel, he was driving like crazy, with precipice on one side of the road. Even without a precipice, it would have been easy to overturn. Some passengers trusted the driver and were quiet, others complained from time to time, to no avail.

From the road I saw that in the river they wash themselves, wash the car, wash the clothes that they later dry on the stones on the dry part of the riverbed, on the grass in front of their house, on the house roof or on the cactus hedge.

I’m glad to be in Cap Haitien and to have easily found the hotel. Cap Haitien seems nice, clean and tidy compared to PAP. The hotel is cheap, but it’s horrible, it’s used per hour by lovers, the room is tiny, noisy and smelly, but after such a journey I feel like I am in paradise.

The happy side of Haiti

The happy side of Haiti

Thursday March 20, 2014

8.15am. We are having breakfast: a great coffee (the island produces it), two eggs and two slices of bread where we can spread the soft cheese. We are having breakfast in the garden with three roosters, two hens and a cockerel, three goats, two dogs of which one female super cuddly and super hungry, one hummingbird and many beautiful fuchsia flowers. All roaming freely around us. Under the canopy where we are eating they are drying some tobacco leaves. The owner speaks great French, not so his wife that speaks Creole and smiles. I don’t know if she thinks I can speak Creole or if she thinks she is speaking French. Today we are trying to go to the Ile-a-Vache.

2pm The girl sitting next to me on the tap-tap put on some lip gloss and now is combing her hair with a brush you use to clean the floor. She has a small bag with a plastic flower that she seems to care about a lot. What I like about spending time on the road is that you notice interesting things. For example we passed by many walls with a name of a hotel painted on them, and behind the walls nothing, just some bricks, as if they were advertising a hotel that they will build in a year or two. You can tell people here work; there’s the one that fixes cars, the one carving a piece of wood, working the iron, mending a dress; inside the houses it’s too hot, so they stay by the road doing any work, from cooking to preparing charcoal. Sometimes near the houses there are some tombs in nice pastel colors. Almost all the houses, even the poorest, have the wall painted. Singular, because it is only the wall facing the street that is painted, the others are grey. The most unfortunate are the buildings at crossroads, they have to paint two walls.

A goat is complaining and another one is throwing stones to our heads, while we wait for the driver and his helpers to fix the tap-tap, on the road back to Port Salut from Les Cayes. We are in the shade of some coconut trees, I hope they won’t fall! The UNICEF, UN, UN Police trucks that drive by are starting to annoy me.

Our Les Cayes expedition wasn’t successful. As soon as we arrived we tried to get some money. The first bank didn’t have an ATM nor a cash advance. We took a moto-taxi to go to another bank. Second bank had an ATM, not working, and no cash advance. Third bank didn’t have an ATM, but we got the money advance if few minutes. The mess of the market scared me a bit and it got too late to go to Ile-a-Vache, so we went back to Port Salut.

16.30 We are in a luxurious auberge, drinking something and taking advantage of the wifi to say hello at home and let them know we are alive. The owner, a French citizen that lived in France only the first 17 years of his life and the rest between islands (he must be about 65 now), has been living here for 18 years, 14 without moving. He was about to move to Chile, and told his wife “Let’s do the last trip”. They came here and never left. Port Salut, he likes to specify, not anywhere in Haiti. He likes to live here, it’s quiet, peaceful, safe, he doesn’t have guards at the hotel nor at the warehouse where he stores the building materials he trades.He owns 8.000 sqm around the hotel and 20,000 more a bit up the hill, where he built two houses, the storehouse and two apartments. He has 46 employees and they are all like his children. Auberge du Rayon Vert, it’s called. Apparently rich Haitians like to enjoy life and spend their money. And he makes a lot of money with them. He also has many Canadian, American and Swiss clients. Plus he works with embassies, etc. He invested quite some money here, while in the Dominican Republic he wouldn’t invest one cent. Yes, it’s not easy (the continuous power cuts, the difficulty to pitch clean water, for example), but it’s easier than in Europe. Now he enjoys his life. He spends the morning reading the newspapers at the restaurant of his hotel, with marble foor, but he must have worked hard for this. There are sunbeds at the beach of the hotel, never seen before in Rep Dom/Haiti. He locks the gate that goes directly to the entrance of the bar, but the gate of the parking is open. He asked me to moderate. I translated to Luca (that doesn’t speak French) that here you can do anything you want. You can drink, in moderation, and drive; if the police check on you, and see the bottle of rum in the front seat, they check that you are ok, and tell you to pay attention, nothing more. Luca told me that while I was looking somewhere else and a beautiful black woman arrived with a white man, he did a gesture of appreciation. Maybe he wasn’t thinking only about alcohol when he said you can do anything.

Port Salut beach bar

9pm. With the PRESTIGE at the beach. In Dominican Republic the national beer was the Presidente, here it’s the Prestige. Good. Nice to meet you Prestige. It’s us and another couple. I like it. Dim light, because there is no power. And it’s starting to rain. There’s this tiny restaurant at the beach that sells chicken, fried fish and lambi, with three rickety tables and four plastic chairs. The beer is not chilly (the freezer, that was probably bought second-hand and not working, is not used to refrigerate things, but to keep them away from the outside heat), but the relaxed and chilled atmosphere makes up for everything.

First inconveniences in Haiti

First inconveniences in Haiti

March 19, 2014

7.02am. We’ve been waiting for breakfast for half an hour, but the first “employee” arrived only 10 minutes ago. During the night we were the only guests I think. Last night we told the girl we needed to leave early. The same girl yesterday was here at 6am and today she overslept? We are not very lucky. She arrived and said she was sorry. I forgive her, Luca I don’t know.

They brought us two omelette with salad (Luca convinced me not to eat it) and a juice that I don’t understand what it is, but it’s too icy and not really good. A lot of bread, butter, two bananas, water, a jug full of coffee.

8.08am We are on the tap-tap. Quite comfortable for now. At least the seats are stuffed. We are 4 people on 3 seats, but we can’t really complain. 150 HTG (less than 3 euro) to Port-au-Prince, then we’ll have to take another tap-tap to Les Cayes. At the tap-tap stop there was a guy who spoke good French who suggested to go to Port-au-Prince, because in Carrefour, a town mentioned in the Lonely Planet, it’s difficult to find a tap-tap to Les Cayes, you’ve got to change many tap-tap on the way. Luca put a scarf on his nose because they are burning plastic somewhere. 8.30am I think the bus is full enough, what are we waiting for? Luca says that the fact that we have to go to Port-au-Prince is a sign, we should stop there, without going back south. He really doesn’t want to go to Ile-a-vache. There are UN trucks all around Jacmel.

9.52 We are in PAP (Port-au-Prince). It’s so chaotic! At the entrance of the town there’s a road with a market, stalls and huts, and on the street there’s a lot of water filled with rubbish, ruins, stones and dust. It doesn’t surprise there’s the colera here. An old man was shoveling shit from one of these water drainages, wearing boots luckily. From a tap-tap we got onto another one immediately (I heard so much talking about violence in PAP that I’m happy I don’t have to walk around here with my backpack). But it’s only 3 of us so far. If we have to wait for the bus to be full, it will take at least two hours and we will be too late in Cayes for the boat to the Cow Island.

After we left Jacmel with the tap-tap we went up a hill. There was a village with a market and donkeys parked on the side; they are very popular here, they are used by farmers to take around their produces. Girls have white, blue or pink ribbons on their hair, according to the color of their school uniform.

I don’t know if Luca will go back home with his shoes. Sooner or later someone will steal them from his feet. He went off the tap-tap to smoke and everyone was watching his feet. A cosmetics seller has been on the tap-tap for 10 minutes trying to sell a perfume sample to a Haitian sitting behind us, and condoms in front of us. At the end he left without selling anything. I wonder how much he wanted for that sample that we normally get for free.

port au prince
The view from the tap-tap while we were waiting to leave from PAP to Port Salut

Maybe we should have changed tap-tap in Carrefour like the guide said. Because we wasted one hour to come into town and we’ve been waiting for one hour already. It’s 11am and we have 4 hours to Les Cayes, which means we will miss the ferry.

6.10pm LES CAYES We are on a shared taxi waiting to go to Port Salut. At the end the tap-tap from PAP left at 2pm (4 hours after we got onto it) and we arrived in Les Cayes not long ago, too late for the Ile-a-Vache. I hope there’s a place to sleep at the Coconut Breeze in Port Salut, where we are going as a second choice. It’s my only thought at the moment. We need to get some cash. I hate to have no money. Les Cayes is big enough, there should be a bank, but you never know.

11pm What a day! Port Salut is not at 30 minutes from Les Cayes, like the LP says, but one hour. The voiture filled up at about 6.45pm, they had to fix the money situation (I think that the guy charged with collecting the money put too much into his pocket) and we left at about 7pm, when it was getting dark. At 8.30 we were in Port Salut, but nobody knew where the Coconut Breeze was. Our travel companions on the pick-up (taxi) truck tried to call family and friends to find out where it was, with no avail. They tried to call the hotel, but nothing. The chauffer started to get upset and he left us on the street as soon as a motorbike passed by. The guy on the bike took us to the Coconut; on the way we did wheelie because of the weight at the back and Luca fell off the bike (I was in the middle and was safe). The hotel was closed. I was starting to panic and I fell while getting off the bike (but didn’t get hurt). We were a bit discouraged and tired. This area luckily is full of hotels and guest-houses, so we found another place. Point Sable is the guest house where we are staying. The room is a bit expensive. We managed to lower the price to 65 dollars, because we are staying for 3 nights. But I was ready to pay the 100 dollars of the Dan’s Creek (a nice hotel by the ocean with a swimming pool), as long as I had a place to sleep.

At the Point Sable there was a party when we arrived. They were celebrating the owner’s father birthday. They offered us something to drink and to eat. It was nice after this long and tiring day. I’m starting to miss the comfort of the Dominican Republic.